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No Merlot di Montalcino

Brunello winemakers reject a plan to allow grapes other than Sangiovese in Rosso di Montalcino

Mitch Frank
Posted: September 9, 2011

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.

Kenneth A Galloway
Paris, France —  September 10, 2011 9:17am ET
i love history and terroir and maintaining a special niche for certain wines ... but COME ON! a debate over allowing just a 15% non-sangio blend ? ... grow up consorzio ! ... at the end of the day growers and vintners don't JUST do it for passion and family ... it's also a business and they need to maintain their livelihood ... giving them more flexibility in production (and again, just a BIT more, not A LOT) would provide them more maneuverability in the market and more options to stand out and separate their wines from the pack ...

a lot of growing regions allow wines to be labelled Merlot even with a 20% blend of other grapes for example ... (granted I'd air on transparency in this case and require the "other" varietals be listed on the back label, which i believe is the case, although i could stand corrected) ...

winemakers MAKE wine for it to be consumed right ? if there's a drop in sales and a disinterested market, then be progressive and creative and stir the pot a little (or vat and barrel rather) and try out some new recipes !

ps : okay so this is just a very brief and rather generic counter to the consorzio's vote ... what do the supporters of the vote have to say ?

pps : and just to admit that I'm a total hypocrite, I worked in business development (just a quick 6-month contract) for Domaine du Closel, Savennières producer of the Clos du Papillon Grand Cru... and a representation of Chenin Blanc at its pure state of hedonistic perfection ! how's that for objectivity?! ;-) and I can't say that I'd support even an ounce of blending in these wines ... it'd be sacrilegious ... do I have any argument against my hypocrisy? not really although wait I think i do ! I guess the key difference is that Clos du Papillon (and coulée de serrant and roches-aux-moines) are designated grand crus and savennières is essentially legislated and syndicated as the birthplace and essence of the beauty and expression and typicity of chenin blanc ... whereas rosso di montalcino is the litter sister (or brother) to brunello ... and so I'm sorry, but little brothers and sisters get beat up on ... so i say preserve the integrity 100% of brunello di montalcino and loosen up the little sibling a bit ...
Adam Krieger
United States —  September 10, 2011 4:36pm ET
Montalcino wines are already separated from the pack.
Lucia Chan
China —  September 12, 2011 10:00am ET
I wish I can detect the 15 or 20% of non sangio from the rest
Tanel Eigi
Estonia —  September 13, 2011 1:28am ET
Actually, to be precise, Sant'Antimo is DOC, not IGT.
Mitch Frank
New Orleans —  September 13, 2011 4:24pm ET

Good catch and my error. Sant'Antimo is a DOC. The story has been corrected.

Mitch Frank
Lyubomir Stoyanov
Bulgaria —  November 14, 2011 8:49pm ET
Even the children in Montalchino know that many producers put Merlot and Cabernet "unofficially", because it softens the wine and makes it richer, smoother and therefore a lot better for many of the non -Tuscan consumers. The dilema is, that those producers would like to use the brand "Brunello" and to make better(arguably) wine.

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