Will the real Brunello stand up?

11 July, 2008

Forgive me while I suppress a guffaw. I've just read a statement from the Italian government saying that in future it will "guarantee the authenticity and grape composition" of Brunello di Montalcino, one of its country's most famous wines. I'm laughing because the task is all but impossible: like herding bats.

If you've not been following the Brunellopoli scandal over the past few months, the essence of it is as follows: since late March a number of Montalcino producers (including Antinori, Argiano, Castello Banfi and Frescobaldi) have been under investigation for fraud by the prosecutor's office in Siena, suspected of adding "other grapes" (namely, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot) to their Brunello, which should be made entirely from Sangiovese. The producers concerned have denied the charges and at least one claims it has been vindicated.

The theory is that this practice began with the 2003 vintage, but my hunch is that it is much older than that. What is known locally as "sofisticazione" has been going on for at least a decade, and possibly more. Before the DOC rules were introduced in 1968, Sangiovese was often blended. But that was then and this is now. Today, you only have to taste some of the wines, especially those from the warmer, southern end of the region, to realise

they contain other things. As the local consultant, Giulio Gambelli, put it recently: "Brunello should whisper, not shout." If that's the case,

a lot of modern Brunellos come with their own megaphones.

Why do something about it now, rather than in 1997, 2000 or 2003? The answer, according to one well-placed source, is that it's all about local politics. "Some of the big producers were trying to change the regulations of the DOCG to include other grapes in the blend and the smaller, more traditional producers didn't like that. That's why they shopped them to the authorities." It was ever thus in Italy

...

The confusing thing here is that it is perfectly legal to grow "other grapes" within the region, as long as the vineyards are designated for the production of DOC Sant 'Antimo, as opposed to more prestigious DOCG Brunello di Montalcino. It is also legal to vinify the two wines, side by side, in the same cellar. The temptation to indulge in a spot of creative blending must be enormous in a poor year like 2002.

How

will the government prevent this in future? According to the agriculture minister, Luca Zaia, it will "guarantee the 7 million bottles of Brunello di Montalcino that are sold around the world".

Ironically, this is the same Luca Zaia who is on the record as telling

Italian paper

L'Espresso : " If consumers, who barely know what a production code is, want rounder, fruitier wines, then wines should be made to satisfy them. Austere wines have had their day - tastes have changed." It is hard to see how these two things can be reconciled. Wines made entirely from Sangiovese, especially Sangiovese grown in the northern part of the DOCG, are invariably austere.

It is comparatively easy to tell one grape variety from another in the vineyard. Spotting small additions of "other varieties" once they are bottled is much harder. One way

is to analyse a wine's anthocyanins (in essence, its colour), but the test is by no means foolproof, especially when you consider

it is legal to use concentrated grape must, which can come from anywhere, to increase the alcohol levels of Brunello. The other, which might not stand up in

court , is to look at and taste the wines. The ones that have been adulterated aren't hard to spot.

The problem for the local consorzio in Montalcino could turn into a nightmare

if, as some suspect, the government discovers

"adulterated" Brunello is the norm rather than the exception. The region's sales may also suffer if the 100% ≠Sangiovese rule is enforced, especially in the key

US market, which likes "modern style" Brunellos with plenty of oak, fruit and colour and smooth tannins.

The broader implications for the Italian wine trade are even more alarming. If the government really wants to look at the question of authenticity, it will end up handling a

can of worms. The addition of Merlot to Barolo, Primitivo to Valpolicella, Maremma Cabernet Sauvignon to Chianti Classico and just about everything to Pinot Grigio may be rumour rather than hard fact. But if the government starts digging, it is going to find a lot of buried bodies. Attempting to put its house in order, Signore Zaia could end up undermining the foundations of Italian wine.

The solution for Brunello is surely comparatively simple. Producers using a grape variety other than Sangiovese should label their wines

IGT Toscana. They might get less money

than for something called Brunello, but at least they'd be telling the truth.

And consumers could

distinguish between the real stuff and the wines that include other grapes.




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