One of Italy's top wine regions, already grappling with allegations of fraud, is now in danger of losing its biggest export market. The U.S. government has asked Italian wine authorities to certify that any bottle of Brunello di Montalcino imported into the United States is made from 100 percent Sangiovese, beginning next month. Without certification by laboratory analysis or a statement from the Italian government, the wines cannot be sold in the U.S.
Since last November, Italian police, under the direction of Siena's public prosecutor, Nino Calabrese, have been investigating whether Montalcino producers are using grapes other than Sangiovese in their Brunellos, in violation of DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) rules. In March, the police impounded at least 1 million bottles of 2003 Brunello from Argiano, Castelgiocondo (owned by Marchesi de' Frescobaldi), Pian delle Vigne (owned by Antinori) and Castello Banfi, telling the wineries that their Brunello vineyards contained illegal grapes. The producers are appealing, arguing that those vines are for their IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) wines, but the 2003 wines (and any subsequent vintages) remain trapped in the cellars while investigators finish their work. Calabrese will not say if other producers remain under suspicion.
When news of the investigation was reported, the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco and Trade Bureau (TTB) sent several letters to the Italian Embassy in Washington asking for a list of producers under investigation and any other relevant information, according to a spokesman for the TTB. After not receiving the information, the TTB sent a followup letter on May 7 informing the Italians that if the matter is not resolved by June 9, the U.S. Customs bureau will hold any Brunello shipments unless "the importer submits a full and accurate statement of contents verified by laboratory analysis, or a statement from the government of Italy demonstrating that the product is made from 100 percent Sangiovese grapes."
"These wines are not properly labeled," said Art Resnick, a spokesman for the TTB. Even though the investigation is still ongoing, "in the meantime, we don't know what the consumer is being sold." The bureau is responsible for collecting excise taxes and ensuring that wines are labeled, advertised and marketed according to the law. The U.S. and the European Union have trade agreements that wine labels shall not contain false or misleading information. "It is all about truth in labeling," said a source at the American Embassy in Rome. "It doesn't matter if it is Parmigiano cheese or wine, the Italian product has to be what it says it is on the label. It's about protecting the consumer."
In Montalcino, members of the community were trying to figure out how to deal with this latest development. "We are taking the situation very seriously and we are working hard to find an adequate response," said Stefano Campatelli, director of the Brunello Consorzio. He said it would be discussed at the consortium's annual meeting on May 14. According to Campatelli, the Italian authorities refused to provide the list of producers under suspicion because the investigation is not yet complete. As part of the ongoing judicial process, the magistrate has appointed a group of scientists to analyze the wines involved in the court case, but the results will be published no earlier than September.
"This is a diplomatic problem and I am confident it will be sorted out at the diplomatic level," said Francesco Marone-Cinzano, the Consorzio's president. But a block on U.S. imports would be a severe blow to Montalcino. The appellation produces 6.5 million bottles of Brunello a year, roughly 25 percent of which goes to America.
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