Wine notes

Thursday 16 October 2008

Brunellogate - the Sequel


Friday just past saw a bitter confrontation between some of the principal protagonists in the Brunellogate affair in a Face to Face Debate held in Siena. The ones responsible for the scandal are journalists in general and Italian wine writer Franco Ziliani in particular, according to Ezio Rivella, once consultant enologist to dominant Brunello producer Castello Banfi. He claimed it was the media who were "to blame for the Brunello scandal”.

The debate (available as a podcast at was organised by Vinarius, the Italian Association of Wine Retailers, and the panel also included Ziliani himself, consultant oenologist Vittorio Fiore and Teobaldo Cappellano, Barolo producer and founder of the organic Vini Veri movement. 

In what was supposedly a debate about the future of Brunello, the two camps remained diametrically opposed. Ziliani was one of the first to break the news last March about several Brunello di Montalcino producers being under investigation for illegal blending practices. Although in this case Sangiovese was allegedly diluted with wine originating from Puglia, the investigation quickly spread like an oil stain. 

Ziliani responded to Rivella’s accusation by maintaining that it was the “corporate winemakers” (ie consultants like Rivella) who were part of the problem, as it is mostly large producers among their main employers who were found breaking the law.

In the meantime Ziliani, to support the fight for a 100% Sangiovese Brunello, has posted a 100% Sangiovese Brunello List on his website, which can be signed by producers whose philosophy of abiding by the current law results in pure Sangiovese Brunello. The list is still remarkably short. 

One of the first to sign the list was Francesca Padovani, who, together with her sister Margherita, runs Campi di Fonterenza in Montalcino. The estate consists of four ha of which one is denominated for the production of Brunello. She is equally passionate about their Rosso di Montalcino as well as an IGT Sangiovese, which could also be labelled as DOC Sant’Antimo, or Rosso di Montalcino, as the disciplinare stipulates the same rules for all three denominations when the wine consists of a 100% Sangiovese. Their first-ever Brunello, from the 2004 vintage, will be marketed in January 2009.

I asked Francesca why she signed the list and she told me it was her mother who knows Ziliani, and who suggested this. Francesca herself mentions that she is not too fond of journalists, as she is particularly unhappy about the sensationalist nature of reporting about Brunellogate. When I counter that we have to thank journalists in the first place for making public the illegal blending practices that are threatening the industry’s credibility and Brunello’s unique character, she agrees, but she was horrified to see how news on Brunello tried to lay the link to poisoning wine. She points out that investigations are still without any official outcome, whereas the media have already damaged the reputation of each and every one.

When I mention the fact that Frescobaldi is allegedly under investigation for blending wines from Puglia into their Brunello, she says that everyone in Montalcino knows about the tankers that turn up from the south, and that she always suspected that blending was part and parcel of many cellar operations in the region. As she didn’t want to be associated with producers who follow these practices, she signed the petition online (among others, most notably Argiano, one of the wineries under investigation, who consequently declassified their Brunello in order to be able to sell it as the authorities have blocked their wine while the case is still pending). 

According to Francesca, Brunello should only be about Sangiovese, but under market pressure producers try to make it into something else. This inevitably changes the characteristics of Brunello, which loses its uniqueness in a sea of international wines all looking the same. In such a situation it becomes especially hard to explain Brunello’s elevated price tag. She believes that Brunello can stand out from the crowd only if it stubbornly continues to be itself. This, according to Francesca, means that not all vintages may produce the necessary quality and that one must have the will to declassify lesser vintages into the more modest Rosso di Montalcino, especially from a price point of view.

An even more important factor she sees in the fact that Brunello is not “an easy drink”. The wine requires longer cellaring, which has cash flow consequences, and therefore it is no surprise that many producers create something more straightforward, “but this is not the identity of Montalcino, nor Sangiovese.” Except for blending practices, which for some may become an option under (perceived) market pressure, it is also the wine law itself, which is as much to blame for the situation. Although the total surface of Brunello di Montalcino cannot be increased (but this is by no means as static as for example in France’s AOC system), the law allows for the transfer of planting rights from one vineyard to another. Where one producer sells off the right to call a certain amount of hectares Brunello, another can buy this and plant a spot within the region that previously was never used for wine production. Finance, and not terroir, is the driving force here, resulting in an irregular quality profile affecting the entire region.

Francesca repeats Ziliani’s reproach, that the consultants are part of the problem. According to her there are simply too many of them in the region, and with a much more detached way of looking at their task. According to her, they seem less engaged with the terroir and the grape than is the actual producer. Francesca describes her goal as making wines that reflect the terroir of their estate. Therefore she first and foremost considers the wines to be Fonterenza and maintains she has no problem whatsoever in declassifying her wine, as she believes that especially in the current situation the name of the producer is now a better guarantee than any DOCG.

When I ask her about the Cabernet Sauvignon that is also planted in Fonterenza’s vineyards, she tells me that it was partially their naivety. When they started planting, their consultant at that time convinced them to plant this variety. At the same time it proved extremely hard to obtain Sangiovese vines from the nursery in 2002 as the region had just been enlarged, resulting in explosive demand for Sangiovese. At present she is very happy with the Cabernet, which is labelled IGT. But it does show how close Cabernet and Co co-exist with Sangiovese. This is very much the rule and not the exception in Montalcino, as not all vineyards within the region are classified Brunello, and therefore vineyards classed IGT are much cheaper, and a return is easier to achieve with an international wine than a label that states Sangiovese.

Another petition is doing the rounds in the region, this time to collect signatures of producers who are against a change of the law that would provide the easy option of legalising the international intruders, for which a majority of 55% is needed. And when the petition fails? Then one could still leave the Consorzio and set up a parallel organisation, in “which people can say what they think, and stop protecting the ones that are wrong”, according to Francesca. 

I also asked Emila Nardi, the current proprietor and spokeswoman of Tenute Silvio Nardi, for her opinions on the current issues, which she addresses, understandably, with great caution. 
According to her, Rosso di Montalcino should be opened up to include grape varieties other than Sangiovese (the so-called European rule of a minimum of 85% of the specified variety could apply here), but Brunello should definitely remain a pure Sangiovese wine. The issue at hand though seems to be how to restore the confidence of consumers and buyers alike in a wine that has become so tainted. 

Asked for a solution, she states that at this moment there is no guaranteed analytical method available which could supply watertight proof that the contents of a bottle are exactly what the label claims. Sangiovese Grosso, the supposedly superior strain of Sangiovese, is not a single clone. Emilia points out that the variety is prone to mutation and 59 different mutations have been identified so far, making analysis of the various genetic parameters extremely difficult. She expects that DNA analysis will be available in the future, but until then the only guarantee will be the reputation of the producer. 

Emilia doesn’t consider the relatively new, and flexible, Sant’Antimo DOC to be effective as it has shown little success. It is easy to see that this DOC created in the 1990s hasn’t got any historical significance, nor reputation, and has served only as a catch-all designation. The Rosso di Montalcino designation on the other hand has much more credibility, and economic significance, on which it is much easier to capitalise. According to Emilia, the production of a pure Sangiovese Rosso di Montalcino has led to an expensive product, and the market is no longer willing to absorb the production costs of it. Allowing international grape varieties into Rosso di Montalcino would result in lower production costs and, at least as important, a more straightforward wine. 

Emila had not heard of Ziliani’s petition, but she confessed that she has little time for journalists at the moment. When pressed for a more precise answer she mentioned that Ziliani’s position is unclear, and not as objective as it may seem. She feels that his petition list may be irrelevant in the light of a recent general meeting of the Consorzio members, in which the future of a 100 per cent Sangiovese Brunello was discussed, and apparently an overwhelming majority rejected any change in the current legislation. 

The Brunello scandal that was unleashed this April continues to make headlines in the Italian national press. The action taken by the government by putting the Consorzio of Brunello di Montalcino, the association of producers, under close scrutiny, therefore making it in theory powerless, has become the object of attention itself now that the independence of the advisors in the Comitato di Garanzia is openly questioned. The real surprise, for me at least, is that the Consorzio’s double role, advising on and developing legislative proposals on the one hand, and implementing and monitoring those on the other, has never been considered problematic previously.

In the meantime, the heated debate, which first centred on how to implement the ‘Brunello as 100% Sangiovese’ rule, including the herculean task of analysing all wines before their release, seems to have taken a u-turn. This was instigated by Angelo Gaja of Barbaresco fame (but with additional holdings in Montalcino), who proposed to change the law to allow for the inclusion of grape varieties other than Sangiovese. Perhaps this is not a surprise, coming from a man who has never shied away from using international grape varieties, albeit in a much more open and straightforward way. Curious, however, is the fact that Gaja is keen to maintain the Brunello name for these blends, the only difference being the creation of a separate label (a kind of B-category, I imagine) to distinguish between artisanal wines and those of large producers. The how and what remains unclear, and potential confusion especially for guileless consumers seems inevitable.

This was followed by another proposal coming from Franco Biondi-Santi, grandson of Ferrucio Biondi-Santi, who isolated a superior strain of Sangiovese in the family’s vineyards, called it Brunello, and started a tradition of 100% Sangiovese wine, which is now known the world over as Brunello di Montalcino. He suggests opening up the Rosso di Montalcino category for the use of foreign grape varieties. Rosso di Montalcino was created as a DOC to allow more lenient ageing periods. Unlike Brunello’s mandatory four years of ageing, Rosso di Montalcino can be marketed one year after the harvest. This wine must also be100% Sangiovese by current law.

All these proposals seem at odds with the hard fact that the law stipulates 100% Sangiovese, and producers are only now complaining that it is impossible to comply with this. Even more curious is the fact that there is already a separate category for the producers of Brunello to play with grape varieties other than Sangiovese, called Sant’Antimo, This designation has the advantage of being a full blown DOC, in stark contrast with almost all other regions in Italy, where experiments with Cabernet & Co can be marketed only under the much more modest Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT), a kind of glorified Vin de Pays.

With most big Brunello players now under scrutiny and almost daily revelations of illegal blending practices, the burning question remains: why is it impossible to create a 100% Brunello wine? Part of the answer may be that the larger producers consider a pure Sangiovese wine hard to sell to international markets, which seem to be infatuated by deeply coloured, sweet, concentrated red wines with lashings of new oak.

Another factor may be that Sangiovese can be an unreliable vine and the use of different grape varieties can compensate for this, as well as adding an international touch to the final wine. When following this line of reasoning, not only does the word of the law become blurred but it also begs the question as to what is Brunello’s precise USP.

However, a more credible explanation is the fact that the rapid expansion of vineyards has led to the inclusion of unsuitable sites where Sangiovese cannot achieve enough ripeness. And the presence of International grape varieties within the Montalcino region allows only too easy access to the forbidden fruit.

This article has previously been published on