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Brunello Under Fire

Italian authorities impound wines as part of an investigation

Jo Cooke
Posted: April 3, 2008

The normally peaceful Tuscan hilltop town of Montalcino, home of one of Italy's prized red wines, is currently in a state of turmoil, as Italy's financial police, the Guardia di Finanza, have seized several top producers' remaining stocks of Brunello di Montalcino 2003, on suspicion that the wines may contain grapes other than Sangiovese.

Police, under the direction of Siena's public prosecutor, Nino Calabrese, have so far blocked shipment of Brunellos from Castelgiocondo (owned by Marchesi de' Frescobaldi), Pian delle Vigne (owned by Antinori) and Castello Banfi. According to local press reports, wines from Argiano have been impounded as well. Furthermore, the police block applies to all subsequent vintages still aging in barrel or bottle in the cellars. According to a spokesman for Castello Banfi, the winery has 10 days to appeal the decision, after which the magistrate has 10 days to respond.

The police, under the direction of Calabrese, started their investigation last November, according to local reports, primarily to confirm that the local growers' consortium, the Consorzio di Brunello di Montalcino, was correctly monitoring Brunello production according to DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) regulations. These stipulate that Brunello must contain only Sangiovese grapes from vineyards officially registered with the consortium.

In a recent press release, the consortium said that a three-year-long investigation of the vineyards, from 2004 to 2007, uncovered 42 acres that did not conform to DOCG rules—around 1 percent out of the 4,118 total acres of Brunello vineyards. That spurred the Guardia di Finanza to launch an exhaustive examination of all documents relating to Brunello production at the estates involved, sequestering the wines if they discovered any apparent irregularities.

According to Renzo Cotarella, in-house enologist for all of Antinori's estates, including Pian delle Vigne in Montalcino, the anomalies that are attracting the attention of the police could be explained in various ways.

"In a Sangiovese vineyard designated for the production of Brunello," he said, "there may be a few vines that may or may not be Sangiovese, which have been there since the vineyard was planted." He suggested that estates that produce a Toscana IGT, using varieties other than Sangiovese, might also find themselves in the investigator's sights. "We have a 2-hectare plot of Merlot, which we use in our Rosso Toscana IGT."

Castelgiocondo, another of Montalcino's larger estates involved in the investigation, produces Brunello, Rosso di Montalcino, a Sangiovese-Merlot Toscana IGT called Luce and a Merlot Toscana IGT called Lamaione. "Whenever we have discovered dubious vines in our Brunello vineyards," said Lamberto Frescobaldi, the estate's director of viticulture and winemaker, "we have informed the consortium and used the grapes in our IGT Luce."

A spokesman for Banfi denied that their 2003 Brunellos—about 35,000 cases worth—had been impounded because of vines other than Sangiovese in their vineyards. Instead, he said the problem was supposed irregularities in vineyard yields. He also questioned the timing of the investigation appearing in the press, just as wineries are meeting with potential customers from around the world in Verona at Vinitaly, Italy's most important wine fair. "For some producers, this is their best chance to sell their wines," said spokesman Lars Leicht. "Tell me this isn't political."

So far the public prosecutor's office has refused to comment except for a brief press release, issued on March 28, stating categorically that the police were not investigating the possibility that Brunello wines from 2003 onwards included grapes from Puglia. This was to quell a specific rumor, one of many, that was gaining ground in local press coverage. Papers in Florence and Siena have been filled with speculation, dubbing the scandal "Brunellopoli" (Brunellosville).

Stefano Campatelli, director of the Brunello consortium, currently promoting the wines of Montalcino at Vinitaly, said, "I can't comment on the current state of the investigation, as I have not received any communication from the public prosecutor's office. I can only hope that this is all cleared up quickly."

Cotarella said that if the problem were not concluded within the next two to three months, Pian delle Vigne may decide to declassify the Brunello 2003 to Toscana IGT, in order to be able to sell it.

"There's a bit of an air of a witch hunt at the moment," said Cotarella. "The problem is that, however this finishes, it will be bad for Brunello, for Montalcino and for Italian wine in general."

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