By law, Brunello di Montalcino will remain 100 percent Sangiovese, after the members of the local producers consortium voted Monday to leave appellation rules unchanged. In a meeting held in Montalcino, 96 percent of the 250 Montalcino producers who belong to the Consorzio di Brunello di Montalcino voted to not make any changes to the DOCG rules governing the production of Brunello.
The meeting took place six months after a scandal first enveloped the Tuscan appellation, when a Siena magistrate impounded more than 800,000 cases of Brunello and Rosso di Montalcino as part of an investigation into whether some wineries were blending in grapes other than Sangiovese. Public prosecutor Nino Calabrese released a statement last week charging that approximately 122,000 cases of Brunello and 50,000 cases of Rosso di Montalcino tested positive for grapes other than Sangiovese.
The controversy led some members of the Consorzio to propose that production rules be changed to allow other grapes. At the Monday meeting, the producers were exercising their right under Italian law to vote on changes to rules governing their DOCG (Brunello di Montalcino) and DOC (Rosso di Montalcino) appellations. Members were presented with five proposed changes, regarding not only the question of permitted grape varieties, but also maximum yields and the possible grouping of several local appellations under a single "Montalcino" appellation. On all counts, the large majority voted against change.
"I'm of two minds about the result", said Patrizio Cencioni, president of the Consorzio and co-owner of Capanna. "On the one hand, I'm happy that the status of Sangiovese was confirmed by our members. On the other hand, I feel we could have used the opportunity to address certain technical issues, such as reducing permitted yields and regulating cross blending of other vintages (wider European wine laws permit the blending of up to 15 percent of other vintages into any wine produced in Europe). These issues have been under discussion for some time. As it is, we don't move at all."
Monday's vote came against the background of Calabrese's charges, and the likelihood that more test results will be released in coming months. The 2003 Brunellos of major producers, such as Antinori and Banfi, as well as half of Frescobaldi's Castelgiocondo 2003, were released from impoundment during the summer. But, according to Calabrese, approximately 490,000 cases of Brunello and about 24,400 cases of Rosso di Montalcino remain under sequestration, awaiting lab tests.
On the eve of the vote, the American-owned Banfi estate, the largest producer of Brunello, whose Brunello 2003 was released from impoundment just this past week, issued a press release restating their conviction that Sangiovese should remain the basis of Brunello, but urging the institution of a 3 to 5 percent tolerance level of other varieties, "to provide for human error in the winery or vineyards."
The proposal evidently met with deaf ears at the Consorzio meeting. "One percent you might regard as a tolerance level," said Cencioni. "But 3 to 5 percent starts to look like a blend."
One of the leaders in the campaign to maintain 100 percent Sangiovese in Brunello was Franco Biondi Santi, the veteran Brunello producer, whose historic family winery is credited with producing the first Brunello di Montalcino in the late 19th century. "I believe that keeping Brunello 100 percent Sangiovese is the salvation of Montalcino," Biondi Santi told Wine Spectator after the meeting. "But the issue of Rosso di Montalcino still needs to be addressed."
Biondi Santi explained that there are areas of Montalcino that he and other producers believe are not suitable for the production of Brunello and should be dedicated to only Rosso di Montalcino, with the permitted addition of a percentage of grapes, such as Merlot, to soften the wine and make it more consumer-friendly.
"The Montalcino terrain is in the shape of a pyramid," he said, "with an altitude ranging from 20 to 600 meters. The most adept areas for the production of Brunello are on the higher ground, where Brunello was born. In other areas, the Sangiovese is more suitable for Rosso di Montalcino."
According to official Consorzio figures, in 1990 there were 3,460 acres of vineyards designated for the production of both Brunello and Rosso di Montalcino. Today that figure has risen to 4,940 acres for the production of Brunello and Rosso and 1,235 acres of vineyards for the production of only Rosso.
According to Cencioni, now that the vote is over, Brunello's producers should be looking at their priorities for the near future, as the release date of the 2004 vintage, reputedly excellent, approaches in the New Year. "We have to set our sights on promoting Brunello now," said Cencioni, "to repair some of the damage done by this controversy." But with Calabrese's investigation still ongoing, there may be more damage before the controversy is over.