Wine notes

Tuesday 24 February 2009


Angelo Gaja, whose estate hasn’t even got a website, recently seized the opportunity to reflect online with the help of an army of bloggers.

While it may seem that the Brunello di Montalcino scandal has lost most of its newsworthiness, especially after the majority of its producers voted with a clear ‘no’ against any adulteration of what by law is supposed to be a 100% Sangiovese wine last year, a very belated aftermath was staged this January way up in northern Italy, miles away from Montalcino, by Angelo Gaja.

Gaja, who also produces a Brunello di Montalcino at his wine-making operation Pieve Santa Restituta, offered last September to stage a ‘blogger summit’ on the Brunello scandal in his winery in Barbaresco. The offer was made public in a thread on the Gambero Rosso website (Italy’s most influential food and wine organisation, and responsible for the annual publication of Vini Italia guide) promising total openness in expression of thought. The date for this summit was set for 18 Jan 2009, so far in the future that it was thought that by then the event could well be past its sell-by-date.

Last year Gaja had already meddled in the Brunello scandal by openly discrediting last October’s acrimonious debate involving Italian wine writer Franco Ziliani and Ezio Rivella of Castello Banfi, calling it ‘boorish’ and comparing it to ‘pub banter’.

The January summit assembled 20 bloggers at the Gaja headquarters in Barbaresco, all of them reporting live on a discussion fed by questions from a virtual public while a Rinaldi 1999 Barolo was served. This seemed a somewhat inconvenient way of discussing such a complex topic, interrupted as it was by five-minute toilet breaks and a general slowing down of the debate due to the multi-tasking challenge of arguing and typing at the same time. Italians seem to have taken a liking to this medium that allows them speak out in favour of or against controversial issues in a country staunchly clinging to conservative values. However, it did furnish a stage for Gaja to repeat much of what he had said in the past. He openly questions the law that stipulates the sole use of Sangiovese for Brunello, which came into force in 1982, and which he considers a political decision made in Rome, far away from the reality of the vineyards in Montalcino.

Gaja had already aired his thoughts in a thread on the Il Numeri di Vino website last August, in which he explains that the original Brunello area back in the 1960s comprised no more than 60 hectares, with around 20 or so producers, and with Biondi Santi as the leading estate. In the 19th century, Biondi Santi had isolated a superior clone of Sangiovese, capable of producing wines of great longevity, and called it ‘Brunello’. This wine reached near mythical status in Italy and abroad for sheer rarity due to the fact that the single vineyard version Il Greppo was only very rarely made during the last 100 years or so.

The region enjoyed enormous prosperity after Banfi, an Italo-American operation, settled in the area in 1977, buying large swathes of land to plant with Moscadello, an aromatic but mediocre white grape variety designed to produce the Tuscan equivalent of Moscato d’Asti. Banfi’s ambitious Moscadello planting scheme became a financial fiasco, until the estate started focusing on Brunello as well as the production of a range of international grape varieties, most notably Merlot and Syrah, planted alongside Sangiovese.

According to Gaja, the huge success of Banfi’s Brunello, especially in the United States, triggered a frenzy of plantings in the region, increasing total vineyard area to 2,000 hectares divided among 250 producers. This enormous increase was undiscriminating to say the least, not taking into account that Sangiovese, a variety with ‘weak points’, according to Gaja, demands certain specific sites to ripen properly. A high return seemed to be secured by the name Brunello on the label alone. However, to mitigate the tartness of Sangiovese planted in too cool spots, the international grape varieties introduced by Banfi appeared to be ideal blending partners.

Over time the wines have met with huge international success and, again according to Gaja (and Rivella), it is unacceptable that anyone would want to defend a 100% Sangiovese wine, which would mean that large parts of the Brunello vineyards would not be suitable for its production. Although during the blogger summit Gaja literally said that he didn’t want to tell the producers in Montalcino what to do, and would rather keep his thoughts to himself in order to avoid controversy, in reality there was no doubt that he clearly favours a legalised inclusion of international grape varieties in Brunello either to make the wines more marketable or to compensate for sites where Sangiovese struggles to ripen, or a combination of both.

The law that stipulates a 100% Brunello doesn’t take this into account, and Gaja argues that if producers are constantly in conflict with that law, the law should be changed. The suggestion made by one of the bloggers to use the more flexible St Antimo DOC that allows grape varieties other than Sangiovese, was declined by Gaja. He said that, having made a considerable investment in Montalcino, he expects a proper return on that.

Gaja’s critics point out that this idea of a ‘blended’ wine which is supposed to be monovarietal comes from the same man who tried to have the Barbaresco DOCG changed to allow for inclusion of a certain percentage of anything other than the revered Nebbiolo. He failed in this and as a consequence declassified some of his most prestigious wines to the fairly nondescript Langhe Nebbiolo DOC, which allows up to 15% of other grape varieties in a Nebbiolo-based wine.

Gaja also criticised the outcome of the ‘100% Brunello’ vote, calling it an act of hypocrisy, saying that in spite of almost all producers having voted in favour of this varietal purity, it doesn’t reflect the reality. He pleads for a regulation in which producers themselves can decide how to make a marketable Brunello, especially as, according to Gaja, more than half of all vineyards registered for the production of this wine are not suitable for Sangiovese, but no one can (or wants to) declassify them.

It is easy to see that statements like these infuriate the purists who defend the special characteristics that only a 100% Brunello, plus bottle age, will possess. They also insinuate that Gaja was a relatively late comer to Montalcino and therefore may have been unable to buy up the best vineyards for the production of a truly great Sangiovese Brunello. But Gaja thinks it is irresponsible to endanger the position of Brunello, and its international sales, by laws making the production of a rounder, easier wine impossible. During the bloggers’ summit, he exclaimed that drinkability goes before typicity (‘la bontà del vino fa premio sulla tipicità’), especially if a producer ends up with a Sangiovese which is a bit thin, and decides to ‘ameliorate’ it even if this possibility lies outside the law.

The question why Gaja always seems to want to change some DOCG or the other, first for Barbaresco and now for Brunello, is answered by one of the bloggers with a succinct ‘because the wines that are obtained by following the law are inadequate according to Gaja’. Even the president of the Enoteca Regionale del Barbaresco, Giancarlo Montando, came to Gaja’s defence, making the bold statement that it is hypocritical to even think that a pure single varietal wine is possible in Italy, as there will always be something in its vineyards that doesn’t comply with regulations. And it is Gaja’s strong belief that any law should work around that fact.

The summit ended punctually at 12.56 when its chairman Antonio Tombolini exclaimed ‘and now it is time to have lunch at Ristorante Antica Torre di Barbaresco!’ The summit didn’t seem to have ruined anyone’s appetite greatly, although one cannot escape the impression that Gaja seems to be more interested in marketability than terroir characteristics. It was very odd too that during the summit no one wanted to even accept the fact that a ‘consumer friendly’ Brunello can be perfectly legally produced in Montalcino, but without the use of the prestigious name. And it is here where one suspects the true problem lies.