The cloud surrounding the Tuscan hilltop town of Montalcino has spread eastward to its neighbor and historic rival—Montepulciano. Italy's financial police agency, the Guardia di Finanza, has closed the Vecchia Cantina di Montepulciano, a large producer, impounding many of its wines, while investigating whether it illegally blended wines from outside Tuscany into its own. Vecchia Cantina is one of the largest producers of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. And other local producers are also under investigation.
Meanwhile, back in Montalcino, where some producers are accused of using grapes other than Sangiovese in their Brunellos di Montalcino, the president of the local producers consortium has resigned just a day after the Italian minister of agricultural policy announced a plan to temporarily strip the Consorzio di Brunello of its authority to oversee production quality. Luca Zaia, the agricultural minister, appointed a three-person "Committee of Guarantee," made up of outside experts, to "safeguard Brunello's image and guarantee the integrity of the product to consumers worldwide," according to a statement from his office. Zaia is attempting to stave off a U.S. embargo on Brunello, and has been meeting with officials from the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco and Trade Bureau (TTB).
Tuesday in Montepulciano, Vino Nobile producers had little idea what was going on, except that agents from the Guardia di Finanza were going from winery to winery to review records, looking for evidence that grapes from other Italian provinces were being used in their wines, including Vino Nobile, which by law must be made from at least 70 percent Sangiovese and varying percentages of other grapes, all grown within the Montepulciano appellation.
The investigation only became public last week, when the local media reported that wines from Vecchia Cantina—as much as 13 million cases worth of wine according to some reports—had been sequestered. Making matters more complicated, another winery under investigation is Gattavecchi, which is owned by the president of the Consorzio del Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, Luca Gattavecchi. On Monday, Gattavecchi told Wine Spectator he has voluntarily stepped aside temporarily while the investigation continues. "I don't know yet how many producers are under investigation," said Gattavecchi. "We suspected it might be the turn of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano next, but where there is suspicion, it's good to clarify."
Federico Carletti, owner of Poliziano, has taken over as consorzio president for now. Carletti, who said Poliziano was investigated and cleared by the authorities, said it was important to cooperate with the investigation and clear the appellation's name. "If you are ill, you take a pill," he said. "If something is not working correctly with Vino Nobile, we are going to have to take the pill and swallow it whole."
For Francesco Marone Cinzano, the Consorzio di Brunello president, the pill from the Italian government was too bitter to swallow. Cinzano, who is also owner of Col d'Orcia, proposed his own committee last week to oversee Brunello production quality, but Zaia rejected the proposal and installed his own panel, which will look for any anomalies in Brunello production and report directly to Rome for a six-month period. Cinzano told the local media that he was stepping down because he felt his work was done, but he was only one year into a three-year term.
It's unknown whether the TTB will accept Zaia's plan and continue to allow Brunello to be imported into the U.S. past the agency's deadline of June 23. And both investigations are ongoing, meaning more producers could be in trouble. Also in jeopardy is the quality control of Italian wine production. The local wine consorzios campaigned hard for years for the right to oversee their members, gaining that power in 2004. If Italian wine's image is damaged, the government may decide that producers cannot police themselves.
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