Rosso di Montalcino, the so-called baby Brunello, will continue to be made from 100 percent Sangiovese. Montalcino's wine producers have rejected two proposals that would have allowed blending other grape varieties—up to 15 percent—into the Tuscan wine. Members of the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino met Sept. 7 to debate the idea after several months of study by Consorzio staffers, and 69 percent of the votes were against the proposals.
"Only with the 100 percent Sangiovese can we have a very strong identity of our terroir and be different from other wines," said Andrea Costanti of Conti Costanti, who voted against the plan.
Though historically a few producers blended other grapes into Brunello, the wine and its younger sibling Rosso have been pure Sangiovese since the appellation rules were written for Brunello in 1968 and for Rosso in 1984. But some producers have been pushing for several years to allow a small but significant percentage of grapes like Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
The debate has become louder since 2007, when a Siena prosecutor accused several wineries of illegally blending other grapes into Brunellos and Rossos and impounded about 800,000 cases of wine. Media reports named Banfi, Argiano, Castelgiocondo and Pian delle Vigne as accused producers, though sources say there were other wineries. None of the wineries admitted any wrongdoing, but several declassified some of the wines—20 percent in total—releasing them as IGT Toscana. One producer remarked that it could not wait on a lengthy investigation to sell inventory. The court prosecuted four staff members and two officers of the consorzio for fraud.
Since the scandal, members of the consorzio have debated changing the rules. Supporters of allowing blending, much the way Chianti producers can use as much as 15 percent other grapes, argue that it would make the wines appealing for a larger audience and improve sales of Rosso, which have lagged Brunello sales. Opponents point out that producers can blend other grapes in their wines and sell them as either DOC Sant'Antimo or IGT Toscana. Those categories tend to be lower priced, however, and have not sold as well.
Going into the vote, few were sure how it would go. "I expected a 50-50 split," said Guido Orzalesi, managing director of Altesino, which opposed the proposals. "But it's hard to tell. On such a contentious subject, people hesitate to express opinions." Consorzio president Ezio Rivella supported the idea, but said he was pleased by the high turnout and that the Consorzio would work to better market Rosso.
The debate over grapes may be a distraction from bigger problems with more painful solutions. Montalcino is a young appellation and Brunello has only been a major international seller for two decades. In 1980, there were 53 wineries. Today there are more 200. In 1960, there were just 150 acres of vines. Today it's close to 5,000 acres. Most producers agree that Sangiovese has been planted in less than ideal spots. "There are some vines that shouldn't be planted where they are," said Orzalesi. "But you can't go tell wineries they should remove them."
With those issues and the global recession, Montalcino is going through some growing pains. "Ten years ago, wine sold because it said Brunello on the label," said Orzalesi. "Now the winery brand is more important." So while no one should be crying for Brunello producers, more proposals to change appellation rules could be in the works.