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Stop the Fraud and Greed in Tuscany

James Suckling
Posted: February 3, 2000

Stop the Fraud and Greed in Tuscany

By James Suckling, senior editor

For more than a year, I have heard stories about Tuscan wine producers illegally blending wines from other regions of Italy -- Sangiovese from Abruzzo, Primitivo from Apulia -- but I have never been able to substantiate them. Now examples of such misconduct are beginning to surface. It's time for Italians to do something about it before it goes any further.

According to late-September press reports, the Italian Agriculture Ministry's fraud squad seized more than a quarter of a million gallons of southern Italian wine -- more than 110,000 cases -- that were bottled and falsely labeled as Tuscan wine with the Indicazione Geographica Tipica designation. The ministry also said that the fraud unit defeated a scheme to pass off another 1.3 million gallons (more than half a million cases) of southern Italian wine as Toscana IGT. Paolo Capretti, director of the fraud squad in Florence, would not reveal the names of the companies charged with these crimes.

Wines with the IGT designation -- including many well-known and highly respected "super Tuscan" reds such as Solaia and Solengo -- may legally use up to 15 percent of wine from other parts of Italy in their blends. They may also use up to 15 percent of wine from a different vintage than the one indicated on the label. Wines with the DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) and DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) designations, such as Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino or Bolgheri, are more tightly controlled, but this doesn't mean that some winemakers in these areas don't bend the rules.

Tuscan vintner Piero Antinori recently told this magazine, "Eighty percent of the vineyards in Tuscany have been planted in the 1960s. Now they are getting old. They have disease. The time is now to replant. But, of course, when you replant, it takes time for the vineyard to produce. . . . Production is down, but prices are up. So there could be temptations to cut corners. Maybe it is getting the maximum yield of wine per hectare even if they have very few vines."

Let me spell it out for you: Some wine producers may not produce enough wine from their own vineyards, so they simply buy wine from outside Tuscany to make up the difference. As long as this wine is used legally, there's no problem. But the temptations are too great for some. I have even heard rumors of wine producers beefing up their Chianti Classicos or other DOCG wines with such rich and round reds as Primitivo (the Italian name of Zinfandel), Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon from the south. Some euphemistically talk about "la zona sotto" (the zone below) among themselves.

It's all bad news for the region. Unscrupulous Tuscan wine producers are not only deceiving us but deceiving themselves. They could potentially ruin the reputation of one of the most exciting wine regions in the world, an area that is only beginning to show its true potential for world-class wines. The good standing of hundreds of serious and sincere winemakers in Tuscany could be seriously tarnished. And all for some short-term gains for a few shortsighted individuals.

Look at the example of Paolo de Marchi, the producer of Isole e Olena wines, a man of unquestioned integrity. He was shaken by the deceit of some of his peers. "I have worked for years improving my vineyards and the quality of my wines while others simply use shortcuts to make theirs," he said. "This penalizes me and others who work seriously. It must stop."

I only hope that the fraud squad's investigation will help sort things out. Also, I urge the Italian government to rethink its rules on blending and bottling. They are obviously too lax. And let's not forget Tuscan wine producers themselves. Honesty in winemaking means everything. They have to maintain their integrity.

This all reminds me of a joke I heard years ago, in Germany, comparing how the Germans, French and Italians follow wine laws. Here it is: What do winemakers do with new wine laws they receive in the mail? In Germany, winemakers open the envelope, post the laws prominently and follow them to the letter. In France, they open the envelope, read the laws and then crumple them up in a ball and throw them in the trash. In Italy, they either don't receive the mail or they never open it when it arrives.

It's a pretty funny joke. But the current situation in Tuscany is no laughing matter.

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