Log In / Join Now

Thoughts on Brunello's Witch Hunt

Posted: Apr 4, 2008 5:43am ET

Everyone was talking about the growing Brunello di Montalcino scandal yesterday during the first day of Vinitaly, the annual wine fair in Verona, Italy. Italian newspapers and broadcast media were full of reports on Italy’s financial police, Guardia di Finanza, investigation into wine producers planting grape types other than Sangiovese in their vineyards.

I wrote about this on March 21. At the time, I thought it was only the growers association, who was investigating these vineyard anomalies. I had no idea there was a huge political battle between the local magistrates office in Siena and the wine producers association of Montalcino. The magistrate now is blocking shipments of Brunello from key producers until the investigation uncovers more. And he seems bent on destroying the region’s reputation with very little due process. It’s a vinous witch-hunt, for lack of a better phrase. Nobody knows when and where it will all end.

I was in the most popular restaurant in Verona last night, Bottega del Vino, and the handful of Brunello producers I saw looked exhausted. They looked like someone going through a very bad divorce, or worse. I felt very sorry for them. And a number of them spoke to me about the situation.

People in Italy often say if the Guardia di Finanza knock on your door, then they are bound to find something. I know a case when the financial police made a thorough investigation into one of Tuscany’s best small wine producers because they couldn’t believe how small his wine production was for the size of his vineyards. It didn’t cross their minds that he intentionally had tiny grape yields to produce some of the best reds in the region. They finally dropped their investigation.

I think the real scandal, however, is how the Italians have handled the whole thing, both officials and the media. I can’t understand how a magistrate can have such unbridled power to make broad-reaching orders with no checks or balances. The Italian media is just as bad with its feeding frenzy on the whole thing, following a number of other national scandals such as tainted mozzarella and mountains of uncollected garbage in Naples. Stories on the situation in Montalcino are full of inaccuracies and stupidities.

After ten years of living in Tuscany, I've found that Italians so many times seem to be their own worst enemies, but that would be a book, not a column. I still love the country and the wines.

But back to the point. If Brunello producers have been adulterating their wines with Merlot, Cabernet or anything else, they should be punished in some way. The minimum is that they should immediately correct their vineyards and declassify their Brunello.

The essence of Brunello is Sangiovese. It was created as a pure wine, just like great Burgundy. And that’s what we love about it. It’s what we pay a premium for as well.

As I wrote before, it's possible that wine producers could have intentionally planted other grape types to boost the color, structure and fruitiness of Brunello. Sangiovese can make thin wines at times, and Brunello is aged for a long time in barrel or vat before bottling. That diminishes the fruitiness of the wine, especially in lighter vintages.

But I still think that many of these illegal plantings are simply honest mistakes whereby the wrong bench grafts of vines were used when the vineyards were originally planted. Maybe I am wrong.

Some say that the darker colors in many of today’s Brunellos has been because of the use of Cabernet Sauvignon or other varieties in the wines. Many critics are alleging that some Brunello producers have illegally added Cabernet or other wines sourced from outside the region to their Brunellos. This would be a real scandal (though an old story in the world of wine). But so far as I know, this is not true, nor a focus of the current investigation.

In any case, when the Italian media and government finally decide to move on to the next scandal, someone needs to take a serious look at the DOCG laws and consider updating, or even abolishing them. They obviously are not worth even the paper they are written on and they are too antiquated for today’s viticulture, winemaking, marketing and distribution.

Sandy Fitzgerald
Centennial, CO —  April 4, 2008 11:08am ET
Great blog. The DOCG laws do not need to be abolished! Wine makers can now freely make blends with Cab, merlot, etc. These super Tuscan wines have found a market. But the winemakers can't call the wines BdM, Chianti Classico, etc.The buyer knows what they are paying for. I think this system is beter than CA's where the blend only has to be 75% of a variety (cab for example) to be called a cab, while the other 25% can be anything. This produces cabs that have no resemblance to cabs in taste and flavors in many cases. I like buying a Brunello and knowing I'm getting a Brunello, even if it is from a weaker vintage. I can always knowingly buy a blend if I choose.
Eric Smith
Miami, FL —  April 4, 2008 11:58am ET
James,You surprised me with, "someone needs to take a serious look at the DOCG laws and consider updating, or even abolishing them." Your beef seems to be with how the investigation has been handled, not the laws themselves. Are you really suggesting that producers should be allowed to add non-sangiovese grapes into Brunellos? Afterall, you did say, "The essence of Brunello is Sangiovese." I think it would have been better to comment on the policing of the laws, not the laws themselves, or am I missing the point of your blog?
James Suckling
 —  April 4, 2008 12:15pm ET
No. I am not suggesting that Brunello be anything but 100 percent Sangiovese. But I think that the DOCG laws need to be reviewed, or new and better laws put in place.
Matt Scott
Honolulu HI —  April 4, 2008 1:11pm ET
Aloha James!I would not be surprised if Cabernet or Merlot were lightly added. In this day and age I keep hearing the "myths" being spread around about the volume of Cabernet in the "Napa Cab's" as well. In this day and age I do feel that the blend is happening more and more, and that the consumers need to worry more about the appellation and the producer. The main concern should be; how did the wine taste, how did it make you feel and the over all essence and not just was it purely Sangiovese.
Tony Wood
Brighton U.K. —  April 4, 2008 1:26pm ET
James, I can feel the frustration in your blog,not only do you live and breathe Italian wine -especially Tuscan,but the producersinvolved are admired friends and i am sure totally inocent of any wrongdoing. May i suggest a step back-deep intake of air-and then report,as always, on the facts of the matter.
Steven Balavender
Tampa, Fl —  April 4, 2008 2:29pm ET
James.... just before finding your thread here I ran across this post on another forum "Castello Banfi has been sealed off by the Finance Police"

Can you tell me if this is true?
Bert Pinheiro
Baltimore Maryland —  April 4, 2008 3:19pm ET
James I hope that the brunello stays 100% sangiovese and not a blend like the california wines. I do not want them heavier like the super tuscans.
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  April 4, 2008 5:51pm ET
I love my BdM's as much as the next guy, but sometimes you just want someone like Angelo Gaja to step up and say "Screw your designations" and put out the best wine he can make, regardless of what arbitrary IGT, DOGC, SMF (pardon my French) of which it's no longer worthy.
Marc Schoeneberg
Augsburg, Germany —  April 4, 2008 6:42pm ET
James, you should also mention the bigger scandal: 70 million litres of faked wine (cheap italian wine) with poisonous ingredients. That is way bigger than some Merlot in the Brunello, so that the wines taste better in young wine tastings...
Luigi Maresca
Palm City, FL —  April 4, 2008 7:17pm ET
Mr. Suckling,these gentlemen that got the bad news have been cheating the consumers and making big bucks, beside dominating the market, for many years.....these are old news, since most qualified professionals can isolate cab and merlot in their wines as we have seen recently at a Brunello 2003 tasting in Miami....but not the average palate, and today their wines sits on the shelves of the large distribution where most people cannot detect the difference....I hope this scandal does not affect the honest producers, where their results in terms of quality should not be jeopardized by these wise guys.......
James Suckling
 —  April 5, 2008 2:59am ET
Steven. I saw the owners of Banfi at VinItaly and they said nothing of the sort. Apparently, the shipment of their Brunellos has been blocked but that is it, as far as I know.
James Suckling
 —  April 5, 2008 3:01am ET
Luigi. Amen to the honest producers. I am not sure it's as easy to "isolate" cab or merlot in a blend as you think. But may be the professionals you taste with have super palates...
Lisa Dornbach
Walnut Creek, CA —  April 5, 2008 3:32am ET
James...I was curious whether or not during your tastings that you have wondered if a Brunello may have had grapes other than Sangiovese mixed in. I assume that if the wineries were doing this, you would have picked it up.
Albert Jochems
The Netherlands —  April 5, 2008 3:38am ET
I agree innocent until prove guilty. But if guilty, there must be a clear punishment.

I can't see why the DOCG needs to be changed. Producers in the area have enough choice already. They can make a Brunello di Montalcino as its supposed to be. They can choose to make a Rosso di Montalcino with the same grapes (as some producers succesfully rescued their fruit by using the flexibility of the Rosso designation in 2002). Or make an IGT and openly blend Sangiovese with Merlot for example (as the Luce wine from the Montalcino area succesfully demonstrates).

I equally enjoy a Birbone Toscane from Fattoria dei Barbi (a blend from Montalcino and Maremma grapes), as I do their Brunello di Montalcino. And they are clear about ther origin of the wine. But If I buy a Brunello di Montalcino, I want to be certain that the producer has respected the DOCG and the tradition that has created it.
James Suckling
 —  April 5, 2008 3:48am ET
Yes. I have had my doubts on a number of wines over the years. But I have normally written things in the tasting notes such as "surprizingly dark" or "very tannic"...etc.
Luigi Maresca
Palm City, FL —  April 5, 2008 8:11am ET
Mr.Suckling,i am italian and i am sincerely ashamed of some of the obscure practices in the wine business.......i know personally producers that get great results by working hard in the vineyards and i know of some that make wines to send to the press to have it reviewed, but than put on the market something very different......It is not about super palates, but just about knowing what the caracteristics should be on a giving varietal...such as sangiovese...which should have never more than ruby red color in whatever shade, as confirmed by many producers....Than, it is hard to believe, that a producer such as Fanti, in the 1999 vintage of his brunello (98 WS), which we tasted blind among other brunellos of the same vintage, had caracteristics of Merlot and Petit Verdot, also confirmed by a dear friend of mine, which is only a Master Sommelier....good for her....My question is: did they cheat your palate, when you reviewed it or the american consumers when they released into this market??? Because, in the end, Banfi, Antinori, Frescobaldi and Argiano, were only creating wines more palatable for this market....geniuses.....
James Suckling
 —  April 5, 2008 8:21am ET
I wouldn't jump to conclusions...
Thomas Matthews
April 5, 2008 9:25am ET
Luigi, I don't doubt your sincerity, or your tasting abilities, but I think you overstate the case when you argue that "sangiovese should never have more than a ruby red color" and you make unfounded accusations when you claim the Fanti 1999 had "characteristics of Merlot and Petit Verdot." In my experience, wine is complex, taste is fallible and such categorical assertions are often mistaken. Let's allow wine to surprise us from time to time; that's part of its beauty.Thomas Matthews,Executive editor
Luigi Maresca
Palm City, FL —  April 5, 2008 12:58pm ET
Mr. Matthews, i love to be surprised by wines made by producers that put passion, hard work, integrity and more in search of excellense.....People that have integrity......as stated few days ago on the italian press, which i am sure you have difficulty to read, since is in italian, by many producers with honest reputations....who are stating that are open to have their wines tested any day, any time, any vintage....in any place...These words led to believe all wine passionates that this is not a witch hunt, but finally the italian government is doing only a favor to the consumers in bringing out the truth...which eventually might be covered up, considering the financial strenght of these individuals.....In regarding Fanti, i suggest you read a professional review that was on Wine Advocate, which came up far after we had already bought and tasted that wine based on your magazine review that states:92 Points ???? This wine seems to have very little to do with Montalcino or Sangiovese......I don't have super tasting abilities, only graduated as a first level sommelier in Italy back in 1997, and i hate what taste this is going to leave on a lot of consumers mouth.....but believe me, i am not surprised of what is happening.......only ashamed......
Tom J Wilson
Canada —  April 5, 2008 5:30pm ET
Luigi;Your comments and questions are making a lot of sense, for people who wants to understand the situation, regarding Brunello's producer and Brunello's wine writer.Thank you !
Evandro Pereira
Sao Paulo —  April 5, 2008 6:56pm ET
Though I would never disagree that the DOCG rules for Brunello need a revamp, I believe that this episode shows a problem that Tuscany will have to face at one point: having arrived a bit late to the wine boom of the past couple of decades, Tuscany tried to catch up by rapidly moving to french varieties and an "international" style in an almost desperate attempt to please the taste of the average (American?) consumer. While we will never deny the quality of wines such as Sassicaia and Ornellaia, for instance, I would hope that Tuscany can learn how to live with those wines at the same time that they remain faithful in their efforts to work better with their indigenous grapes and to a wine that reflects its terrior. As the good Burgundy producers will testify, this is what really pays off over the long run.
Scott Chaffee
Sacramento, CA —  April 5, 2008 7:46pm ET
James,I have read many of your columns on Brunello but had never taseted until this afternoon. We had the 2003 Camigliano Brunello Di Montalcino at $70 a bottle (tasted alongside a 2004 Sonoma Syrah). I had expected the color of the Brunello to be a little more like the Syrah (which on a side note was gorgeous), but instead was much a much deeper red, great body, a little boring with the flavors on the mid-palate, but a nice wine none the less. Any thoughts on this bottle? I would really like to know if my first Brunello tasting was a true Brunello.Thank you for your thoughts.
Alex Bernardo
Millbrae, CA —  April 5, 2008 10:39pm ET
Thank you, James, for this blog report. In your opinion what are examples of changes that need to be made in the DOCG lawas?
Ralph Michels
The Netherlands —  April 6, 2008 6:11am ET
I just spoke to a friend who was a the airport in Verona now. He just left Vinitaly and the rumours are getting bigger and bigger. In the Italian newspapers they are even speaking of more than 40 producers, and shocking names came up. I will not post them as this is hearsay. Reputations are ruined easily.

They are now even talking about Piemonte too. But again, this is hearsay.

Anyway, I am holding my breath...
Enrico Allievi
italy —  April 6, 2008 8:14am ET
For me as Italian ,loving desperately good wine and serious winemakers this is another stab in the back to all those like me spending time and money fo the wines.What Mr. Suckling is not exaustively reporting is that the wines that are supposed to be mixed are not grown locally but commonly purchased from cheaper areas as Puglia and Sicilia, nightly delivered to these wineries and then mixed with the Sangiovese and then sold to "their" precious customer as Brunello di Montalcino. At the time being all the bottles from 2003 from Banfi, Argiano, Frescobaldi and Antinori (strangely the four biggest BDM producers in terms of quantity) have been blocked but the problem is said to be also for all other vintages not yet released. What Mr. Suckling also forgot to mention ,it is that in most of these wineries they found "recipes" how to mix sangiovese with other grapes to make Brunello and that most of this process was done to make Sangiovese rounder and more internationally minded. The only thing we should do is to be ashamed , these persons are cheating us and nothing else.It is true Mr Suckling that Italian are the worst enemies of ourselves but it is also sad to see an American that after ten years in Italy did learn the Italian way how not to say the truth about things and being you a journalist this is even more depressing, not to mention that a wine taster of average capcity is able to detect in those wines ,which are made of sangiovese nad which not.PeccatoEnrico Allievi
James Suckling
 —  April 6, 2008 8:48am ET
Enrico you believe everything you read in the Italian press, which is full of disinformation. You are mixing up your facts. We have already written about all this over the last three weeks, both in the magazine and the web site. Did you bother to look? And you have no right to personally attack my integrity as a journalist or a critic.
Zurich, Switzerland —  April 6, 2008 8:53am ET
Ok, there are two sides to this arguments: One, many experts, wine writers, buyers, lovers etc. feel foolish, because we never noticed what happend. This leads to number two: We may have liked "modified"wines very much. So what now? Those of us who maybe will be proven to having been fooled, will just have to live with that. No use defending those producers who will be proven guilty just to defend ourselves, and no sense finding excuses for orselves that we had suspected this all along. Moreover, those of us who liked the wines will just continue drinking them (as long as they're not hazardous to our health), and hopefully, the prices will come down once the myth of the nobel and pure stuff has been torn down.
James Suckling
 —  April 6, 2008 9:07am ET
Merlin. This may be the case. But nothing has been proven yet other than a number of producers have illegal plantings. Let's wait and see. I still believe in American justice whereby one is "innocent until proven guilty."
Jo Cooke
Tuscany —  April 6, 2008 9:34am ET
Enrico,I see no reason to bring Puglia and Sicily into this.

According to the information I have, the only time the public prosecutor heading the investigation has broken silence was when he stated categorically in a press release that they were not looking into any Puglia connection.

I suggest that, with all the rumors and speculation already flying around in the Italian press and elsewhere, we all try to stick to the facts here. To do otherwise would be a real "peccato".

Jo Cooke

Tasting Coordinator

Wine Spectator - European Bureau
Sam Elliott
Salem, MA. USA —  April 6, 2008 10:21am ET
I am reading these post with some regret. First that a wine and an area of Italy I love are under suspicion, and secondly that I have a lot of Brunello in my cellar. But it did answer a question for me. Every once in a while we will try a new producer (to us), and my wife and I will draw the same conclusion - "I like the wine, but it's not very Brunelloey (if there is such a word)." The main point being that this is such a distinctive wine, that any variance from the norm is readily identifiable. And I'm not REALLY sad I have a lot of Brunello downstairs!
Mr Damian Zaninovich
Bakersfield,Ca —  April 6, 2008 12:40pm ET
This story reminded me of something talked about in Wine Spectator before about wine concentrate from lesser grapes being added to some of the Ca. Cult Cabs to "improve" them. What ever happend with that? Maybe we need our own Guardia di Finanza to look into that one.
Sandy Fitzgerald
Centennial, CO —  April 6, 2008 6:50pm ET
Damian, The American producers intentionally set their varietal %'s low enough (75%)to not have a problem. I recently did a tasting of cabs. One of the wines tasted, none of the participates believed it was even a cab, some sort of joke. It was 75% cab,20% zin, 4% syrah, and 1% p.verdot. We had earlier tasted a zin from the producer. It was 15.5% alcohol and so jammy, you needed a knife to scrape it from your palate! It was the underlying fruit for the "Cab". All the tasters agreed it was a confused wine all around. BUT, by American standards, it was a Cab. The DOCG laws are written to prevent this. America is still very cowboyie about this sort of thing, and doubt things will change.
Magie Di Bacco
Switzerland —  April 6, 2008 7:29pm ET
At the end, as always happens in Italy, nobody makes anything to make controls as they are supposed (and payed) to do (DOCG) to check if Brunello is made with Sangiovese or if there is some other extra grape inside the bottles but now everybody clamours the scandal. The fact that a small number of unhonest producers has done something against the DOCG laws, it doesn't mean that all the wines of the region have been done the same way. Also the Swiss law says "innocent until proven guilty" but it's true that in Italy this is not always what it happens. Newspapers journalists should not been allowed to exagerate writing about these news, as they write too much and say more than what they should or (probably) know. I know in person some wine producers of Brunello di Montalcino (some top names not involved in this situation), I trust them and will not stop to buy and drink their wines. I beleive that this is more a dirty game of the politicians.
Thierry Behanzin
Shanghai, China —  April 6, 2008 9:44pm ET
It is interesting to see that an american critic leaving in Italy meant to know and understand italian "practices" better than the italian press... James, may i suggest, you make a step back, take a deep breath and then report as always, on the facts of the matter?
Robert Fukushima
California —  April 6, 2008 11:00pm ET
I am not a huge Brunello fan, but, I do drink em when the opportunity arises. One thing I wonder, is it possible to make a Brunello that shows the characteristics being pointed out as Cabernet or Merlot like? Seems to me like some are saying it is not possible, others are saying it is.
Jordan Harris
Niagara, Ontario —  April 7, 2008 9:51am ET
James,I appreciate your integrity as a wine writer and not making any accusations until there is solid proof. My worry for some unfortunate producers in Montalcino is that they have probably already lost thousands of customers already. I do love Brunello, and will love Brunello until I have some reason not to. So far I have no reason. Also has everyone forgotten how hot 2003 was? Yes some producers lowered their yields, both the anthocyanins and fruit could be far more concentrated, and should be. The beauty of vintages. If we always want wine to be the same, why do we vintage date? Good Job James for not getting caught up in rumours. I hope we can have a positive blog soon.
Jordan Harris
Niagara, Ontario —  April 7, 2008 9:54am ET
Sorry, I forgot. To those who mentioned being ashamed. You probably should be for slandering what could be proven as completey honest people making great wine and writing great stories.
Anacleto Ludovic
paris france  —  April 7, 2008 1:41pm ET
at the end of the day, stop being nancy grace!!!!!this is an INVESTIGATION, not a judgment!!!!!always blah blah blah about the cheating!!!!let see the result of the investigation and then we blame.i believe antinori , banfi and frescobaldi winemakers and personel are not sleeping right now! if they tricked any wine, they should pay! if not the guarda di finanza should pay a full page in WS saying that THEY screwed up!
Luigi Maresca
Palm City, FL —  April 7, 2008 3:06pm ET
Jordan, i can tell that your wine knowledge is limited to the wines made by those guys under investigation.......If you don't know better, how could you tell the difference????Also, these are not judgmental calls, but long time practices known to the professionals in the business.....ask one when you find it....Ciao
Roberto Scarpati
April 7, 2008 4:35pm ET
Montalcino is the Spirit of a Unique terroir...and should stay that way ! the one's who did not respect the tradition are now paying the consequences...the truth Behind the bottle is finally arrived...stand for tradition as a Great Tuscan Warrior ! Viva il Sangiovese !
Jordan Harris
Niagara, Ontario —  April 7, 2008 4:56pm ET
Luigi,Just for your knowledge I too am a sommelier who has also done quite well in international competitions. I also have a degree in Oenology and Viticulture. I have also travelled Tuscany and in fact will be back there in June. I am also very familiar with many producers not involved on this list. You should be careful of your accusations before writing them down. I am not sure if this counts as being professional or not in your books. I do still believe that it is a sad world when people (and winemakers are people) are judged and labelled guilty before the results are in. They have not completed the investigation yet have they?
Adam Krieger
April 7, 2008 4:57pm ET
Perhaps the more pressing question should be what percentage of other grapes is allowed in Brunello di Sonoma?
Jordan Harris
Niagara, Ontario —  April 7, 2008 4:58pm ET
You said it bang on Anacleto
Luigi Maresca
Palm City, FL —  April 7, 2008 6:15pm ET
Jordan,we are discussing wines and producers, with integrity........We are not judges, but let me tell you....i have spent most of my life in Italy around wine since the age of 5...yes, we start tasting early...Books and degrees don't make you better at tasting...i has a MS asking me if Flaccianello was 100% cabernet Sauvignon in a blind tasting...go figure.....People that live 10 years in Tuscany cannot tell the difference.....Peace brother and hopefully this will not affect the producers who have integrity......Ciao
Anacleto Ludovic
paris france  —  April 7, 2008 6:17pm ET
as mark from germany says the biggest problem is the wine that have poisonous part in it. the houdini technique: look at my left hand.....so you dont see what my right one is doing.......
Anacleto Ludovic
paris france  —  April 7, 2008 6:22pm ET
james, what is a "cerebral"wine like the barolo scavino?thanks ludovic
Ziad Keirouz
portland/oregon —  April 8, 2008 12:55am ET
Well, I believe Mr Suckling IS the one that got the job with the winespectator not the handfull of experts in this blog who think just because they are italians and they've been drinking wine since they were five, that they know what the rest of the ignorant wine drinkers seem to miss!Until then, I will tend to trust the reporting of this publication who has yet to steer me wrong in 13 years. By the way, I have no degrees or certificates in any wine field..go figure!
Guus Hateboer
April 8, 2008 7:24am ET
All I can say about all this is that the accused 'mixing' producers, with perhaps some Merlot and Cabernet in their vineyards, did a pretty lousy job pimping their 2003 BdM's. I was in Vinitaly last week and tasted only sad, very sad quality Brunello's from 2003.
Luigi Maresca
Palm City, FL —  April 8, 2008 9:43am ET
I guess people that don't understand wine beyond a publication, or one wine critic, should read Matt Kramer article on the april 30th issue...he seems to know far more on italian wines than his peers and average consumers.......i always loved his column.....Italians are passionate about few things: wine, women, food, friends and Ferrari......The essence of life and centuries old traditions, i guess.......In today's world, producers that take advantage of consumers (and their wallets, considering Brunello prices), just because they don't know better, or they are not told better, shouldn't be excused, as know some believe they are victims......Enjoy
Steinbrunner Oliver
Germany —  April 8, 2008 12:23pm ET
The grape, origin of the grape and the character of a brunello is clearly defined (Lexika of italian wines from the Enoteca Italiana in Siena): Only the brunello grape, grown in the commune di montalcino may be used for production. So every producer, who will use other grapes, looses the right to declare his wine as a BdM and will be punished by the regulations of the italian law, it' so easy to understand. The next future will tell us the truth and the names, so there is no reason to shoot without knowing the target, just relax. There should also be more sense for reality when it comes to "how a real BdM should look like and taste". Also in this point, the Lexika of italian Wines gives a clear definition for the character of the wine: Intense ruby red, which after maturing is tending to become a lighter ruby red, intense and characteristical bouqet in the nose, dry on the palate, warm with present tannins, a "robusto" and balanced body with a great length. So if a wine declared as BdM looks like, smells like and tastes like the mentioned definition, it is a REAL BdM. All differences in between these regulation is everyones personal decision what he/she likes or not, if you want the human right of the own palate. So there is no need to slash the knowledge and experience in the other ones face, just relax. I can understand, that James is angry about the bad management of the guarda di finanza and local magistrates, because (and this is a target you can use your gun for) it will damage the good and honest producers and their work as well as the name BdM, and that is not fair. But i am convinced, that the truth of quality will win at the end.
James Suckling
 —  April 8, 2008 1:10pm ET
Thierry that's what I am doing. I am talking as a journalist and not a wine critic. I have found some of the reporting in the Italian press to be very poor and full of errors on the situation in Brunello.
Dan Liguori
West Palm Beach, Fl —  April 8, 2008 5:45pm ET
Let me just say this has to be one of the most entertaining blogs I have ever seen on this site.End game, it is obvious there are many spirited opinions regarding this subject coming from many different points of view. I think we all have a vested interest in the outcome weather we are suppliers, buyers, restaurateurs or consumers of wine from this region.I appreciate James' update on the situation and look forward to some concrete results. I echo Ludovic's sentiment that we should wait until there is some sort of credible proof to condemn these producers. I do, however, appreciate you guys keeping the entertainment factor at such a high level. Grazie e ciao!
Ziad Keirouz
portland/oregon —  April 8, 2008 6:36pm ET
Luigi, Italians do not have a monopoly on living with passion and passion does not make you an expert either. You make some very strong accusations to all that might not share your conspiracy theory bordering on calling us naive and do not know better beyond the publication. Maybe you should join the Guardia di Finanza and continue to impress us all with your wine knowledge! By the way, just because one chooses to wait til all the facts have been revealed does not mean that they trust blindly. I have had chiantis that are darker and fuller body than cabernet. What you do in the vineyard will affect the fruit characteristics beyond recognition at times. If you do not believe that, you should ask some people that are doing it in Oregon with Pinot Noir! By the way, I make award winning wines for a living just in case you still think that my knowledge is limited to a publication or a critic. It certainly is not limited to your professed expertese and knowledge!Ciao
Evandro Pereira
Sao Paulo —  April 8, 2008 11:27pm ET
James, as I understand Casanova di Neri is one of the producers under investigation. if it is found out that its 2001 wine contained grapes other than sangiovese, would it affect its status as "2001 wine of the year"??
Evandro Pereira
Sao Paulo —  April 8, 2008 11:35pm ET
Of course I meant "2006 wine of the year"
Brian Mantz
miami —  April 9, 2008 12:43am ET
Conspiracy or not, it would be crying shame to see Brunello go through what Bordeaux endured through the 1960s. There are PHENOMENAL producers in Tuscany with a mind for small production and impeccable quality. Others opt for shameful production, mind on profit and lack of passion for synergistic flavor profile. (let alone ferraris and women!)
James Suckling
 —  April 9, 2008 2:25am ET
Evandro, Could you please name your source? I spoke to Giacomo Neri of Casanova di Neri last week and he said no one had visited his winery from the Guarda di Finanza. But I will check with him again. As for his WOTY status, I would have to review that with the editors if some wrongdoing with the wine was found to be true.
Thierry Behanzin
Shanghai, China —  April 9, 2008 3:11am ET
James, i am glad to hear that... of course, there can be a lot of nonsense in the press, specially in the italian one, but i don't expect the whole press to be wrong... moreover, i just had an unconfortable feeling that you were trying to support your buddies of Antinori, Banfi, Frescolbaldi and co, specially as you mentioned the DOCG laws...there is nothing wrong with the laws... it would be noble to stand to your buddies, but that would not be fair to us, the consumers. I like your blog and i want to continue loving it. Cheers
James Suckling
 —  April 9, 2008 3:40am ET
Thanks Thierry. There's nothing wrong with the DOCG laws on a whole but perhaps they could be improved or at least updated to better reflect what is happening in the wine world in Italy today. And don't worry. My readers come first...
Thierry Behanzin
Shanghai, China —  April 9, 2008 4:55am ET
Thank you, James.
Adam Krieger
April 9, 2008 10:51am ET
James, any chance you could explain how you think the DOCG laws need to be changed?
Evandro Pereira
Sao Paulo —  April 9, 2008 11:24am ET
James, according to an article from a journalist who was at Vinitaly, Biondi-Santi, Val di Cava and Casanova di Neri were the first ones inspected by the Guarda di Finanza, and while the first two were "cleared", Casanova was still under scrutiny
Evandro Pereira
Sao Paulo —  April 9, 2008 11:27am ET
Another question for you, James: in my opinion, the most obvious point of the DOCG rules that would need to be revised for Brunellos is the need to stay 3 years in large vats of Slovenian (?) oak - something that tends to give a very dry and sometimes unpleasant tanins. Is my perception right?
James Suckling
 —  April 9, 2008 1:36pm ET
Evandro. That's possible but that's not what I have heard. I called both Valdicava and Casanova during the beginning of these investigations and they both said they had not been visited. On your second point, I agree wholeheartedly. I would leave maturation in wood up to the choice of the winemaker...
Luigi Maresca
Palm City, FL —  April 9, 2008 5:26pm ET
Going back to the beginning of the blog, 6 of us tasted about 30 brunellos in Miami of the 2003 vintage and results were very questionable as far as our tasting notes, but we seemed all to agree on the wines that were questionable.....some names you have seen, some might be coming up soon....but, just to make all of you understand, what is being investigated is how, with vineyards able to produce such quantity of sangiovese, some were able to make way more wine...abracadabra.......I agree, this blog is fun and exciting with all different opinions, but i hope i does not turn into a cat fight...in the end, since wine is personal, so are the opinions about it......Salute
Mikael Spante
Gothenburg/Sweden —  April 9, 2008 5:30pm ET
Evandro, actually the Minimum time for Brunello to spend in oak is 2 years. It used to be 3 years but it was changed from the -95 or -96 vintage, I think. That change has made them more approachable as young but I fear that they will not have the same aging potential as the wines from the 70's and 80's. We have to wait and see....
Johnson Ho
Northbrook, IL —  April 9, 2008 6:13pm ET
James,Your comments about the hysteria fanned by Siena¿s public prosecutor, Nino Calabrese, hit bull's eye.Spreading innuendos and grabbing press attention by blocking new vintage releases at the start of Vinitaly is incredibly self-destructive and counterproductive to the whole Tuscan fine wine trade. After 700 years of wine legacy and multimillion dollar investments in Castelgiocondo and Luce, the Frescobaldis have no motive to adulterate their Brunello. They could easily create another proprietary wine like Ornellaia or Masseto if they wanted to deviate from the DOCG laws. The same goes for Piero Antinori or Banfi. As for the relevance and legitimacy of the Brunello DOCG law, let's not lose sight of the fact that only a few years ago, all Chiantis were required to have at least 10% white wine and Solaia/Sassicaia/Tignanello et al were mere vini da tavola. The fact that the Super Tuscans succeeded commercially worldwide presaged the introduction the IGT category two decades later. Dogmatic rigor may have intimidated Galileo in nearby Pisa centuries ago, but fear lost out to reality eventually. Let the consumers determine market realities, not arbitrary bureaucrats.It has taken fortunes and decades of seminal pioneering work to elevate Tuscan wines to world class stature. Mr. Calabrese is playing McCarthyism with the livelihood of a lot of people around the world, especially with the best and brightest spirits of Tuscany. He should not be allowed to block the new vintage releases out of capricious whim. His lack of respect for due process of law and financial culpability of his actions should scare everyone. In contrast to the Frescobaldis and Antinoris et al, I doubt that he can create a financial renaissance for Tuscan wine trade with his tactics.Johnson Ho, PresidentPantheon Wine, Northbrook, IL
Julie Mushett
Miami, Fl —  April 9, 2008 6:31pm ET
I know for a fact that Valdicava was inspected and found no irregularities...Valdicava¿s press release stated:We at Valdicava only use, and will use, sangiovese sourced from our vineyards and we are open to have our wines tested in any place, time, vintage........Dated: BRUNELLOPOLI, MARCH 29TH 2008Why is there a need to "update" the DOCG laws when there are exclusive producers that focus on quality versus quantity that have no problem following the rules???
Bill Houston
Montvale, Nj —  April 9, 2008 7:26pm ET
It's very interesting to read about this little "dustup" regarding Brunello di Montalcino. I haven't consumed a large number of bottles of it over the years, and the only thing I currently have in inventory is a 1999 Banfi. However, I certainly do love a good Brunello, and try to keep at least a bottle or two on hand for those times when it is the most appropriate match for the food.At this point, I think it would be prudent to wait until the fog clears, and the legal results are incontrovertible and final. It does make me wonder when, if at all, this whole process started, and I sure hope my 1999 isn't in question. While the intention of the various DOCG-type laws is laudable, as with all laws, the devil is in the details. Not being familiar with Italian jurisprudence, I would not be so foolish as to attempt to equate it to American, and it is certainly their undeniable right to pursue this matter as they see fit.Hopefully, this matter will not drag on and on, and suck other types of producers in by insinuation and rumor, such that all wines from Italy become suspect. Given the rapacious appetite of the press for matters of this sort, it would not surprise me, but would certainly dismay me, if that should come to pass. Patience will eventually pay off, although not necessarily soon enough for everyone's taste. In the interim, I will not feel any reluctance to purchase Brunello from reputable and highly-regarded producers, but if I were an importer, a wholesaler or restaurateur, I would probably have considerably more trepidation about purchasing large lots.
Anacleto Ludovic
paris france  —  April 9, 2008 7:32pm ET
dear Luigi, with a aprox. temperature in the vineyard of 40-45 degrees celsius in summer i believe the wine are a bit diferent than what you may expect. In this crazy year, 2003, all wines are riper , stronger and fuller. Try any marsannay or fixin or any burgundy of this year or any bordeaux and you will see the diference, its astonishing. So yes the flavor profile of the BDM you tried is "funky" and no its not a "pimped" wine or a fraud. Just mother nature. At the end of the day the beauty of wine is that, every year, thanks God there¿s a diferent one!Dont be judge, jury and executioner. wait for the result of the INVESTIGATION!!!!Salute, salud, cheers, sante, prozit!!!!Ludovic
Pedro Iglesias
April 9, 2008 7:45pm ET
James,Thanks for your kind reception. The salsicce, the fagiole, the greens, the wines, the cigars, everything was great. Many thanks indeed. My very best to you, to Jack the virtuoso and to your lovely daughter. My best also to Rosanna. She was very kind. Hope to see you soon. Madelaine and Pedro Iglesias PD: By the way, I agree with your article a 100%.
Adam Krieger
April 9, 2008 11:12pm ET
Brunello will never be anything but Sangiovese Grosso. That is the reason the Sant' Antimo DOC was created so that the large companies (I believe Banfi was the main proponent of this) could make wines with a Montalcino pedigree and not have to stick to the strict guidelines of the Brunello DOCG. Sant' Antimo DOC allows for varietals othere than Sangiovese Grosso to be used. Of course the creation of this DOC was opposed by many of the smaller purist producers who did not want other varietals being grown in the Montalcino area for the very reason we are seeing now. Because the Sant'Antimo DOC created a reason for having plantings other than Sangiovese Grosso within the Montalcino growing zone the likelihood that some of these other varietals would find their way into Brunello increased greatly. Until the Sant'Antimo DOC was created there would be no reason to plant anything but Sangiovese Grosso in the area because the grapes would stick out like a sore thumb and could not be used legally for any wine other than a Tuscan IGT. The vines would have no Montalcino pedigree like they do today because of the Sant'Antimo DOC. The idea that at some point other varietals will ever be allowed in Brunello I believe is absurd especially because the Sant'Antimo DOC allows these producers to make wines legally with these other varietals already.
Luigi Maresca
Palm City, FL —  April 10, 2008 12:32am ET
Dear Anacleto,when it comes to wines outside of the borders of Italy, my knowledge is limited to the big names and production areas...On the other hand, about the 3300 varietals of Italy, i know a lot more and there i have focused most of my efforts......since my background is what it is....But, just to be specific, there were 5 more people with me and just about 30/40 others we knew and than later we exchanged opinions....Best wishes,
Siena Italy —  April 10, 2008 7:14am ET
My name is Federico Pieri and I'm the owner since 1995 of a wine-shop in Siena called "Cantina del Brunello". In my selection I have more than 120different labels of Brunello di Montalcino and this is what I think about what's happening in Montalcino: Words in freedom:I taste brunello since I was young and I have to say that fortunately it has changed during the years, 20 years ago was a hard wine, with very sharp tannins, not ready to drink, a wine that needed to be tamed like a wild horse.Today we have to say thank you to the big producers that during the years ( with the help of new methods like fermentation in wood, selection of best grapes,density of plants etc etc.) made the Brunello easyer to drink to the most .Small wineryes decided to follow this style of production and today they are able to sell all theyr production all around the world.Someone made a mistake? we don't know it yet.It's time to change the law to produce Brunello like someone says?No, the important is to mantain a high quality, and to do this the producers have to work hard specially in the vineyards during the year and less in the cellars after the harvest.If there is a bad vintage we will have wines sons of a bad year ( 2002 ) this is not a problem.The problem is when you taste a 2002 Brunello and is dark in color with strong velvety tannins and bold.( there is something wrong !!!! )Here is the same problem, money,money,money,the mankind's ruin.I want a Brunello credible and true also with a light color, I appreciate it more and more, I don't want a false one.To make a extraordinary wine we need a poet and when I drink a great wine I need an emotion....Sorry for my englishFederico
James Suckling
 —  April 10, 2008 12:33pm ET
Frederico. I agree with what you write. As you note, dark colored Brunellos are produced from low yields, thermo vinification methods, microoxidation and other techniques that are all natural and legal. Producers don't need to make Brunello with anything else than Sangiovese. And they shouldn't.
Peter Dengenis
los angeles CA —  April 14, 2008 3:15pm ET
James, I know this is off subject but when will you be puting up rest of the 205 bordeaux ratings?
Tara Tan Kitaoka.
TOKYO, JAPAN. —  April 22, 2008 2:54am ET

Would you like to comment? Want to join or start a discussion?

Become a WineSpectator.com member and you can!
To protect the quality of our conversations, only members may submit comments. Member benefits include access to more than 315,000 reviews in our Wine Ratings Search; a first look at ratings in our Insider, Advance and Tasting Highlights; Value Wines; the Personal Wine List/My Cellar tool, hundreds of wine-friendly recipes and more.

WineRatings+ app: Download now for 340,000+ ratings.