Nicolas Belfrage says NO to Merlot in Montalcino

The following appeal to Montalcino producers by Master of Wine Nicolas Belfrage (above) was posted today, August 29, 2011, on Franco’s blog Vino al Vino. Franco has asked me to repost it here and I was happy to oblige (photo via the Adelaide Review).

I understand that, on Wednesday Sept 7, 2011, a vote will be held in the Assemblea of Montalcino wine producers on whether to allow a small but significant percentage of other grapes, which everyone understands to mean Merlot and/or Cabernet and/or Syrah, into the blend of Rosso di Montalcino DOC, which is of course at present a 100% Sangiovese wine.

I would urge you in the strongest terms not to support this change. Rosso di Montalcino, like Brunello di Montalcino, has created for itself a strong personality on international wine markets based largely on the fact that it is a pure varietal wine.

In these days when more and more countries are climbing on the wine production bandwagon it is more important than ever to have a distinctive identity, to make wine in a way which no one else on earth can emulate. It is my belief that the strongest factor in the identity of Rosso di Montalcino (and of course Brunello di Montalcino) is the fact that it is 100% Sangiovese.

I am not disputing the fact that Merlot, Cabernet and Syrah are excellent grape varieties, but it is their very excellence, their very strength of personality, which threatens to compromise the unique character of Rosso di Montalcino.

Who could ever imagine the producers of Bordeaux voting to allow 15% of Sangiovese into the Bordeaux blend? The idea is absurd — or would be treated as such by the Bordeaux producers. There are many who think that a reverse situation, in Tuscany’s finest vine-growing area, would be equally absurd.

Yes, in many cases it may improve the wine — especially in weak vintages or where Sangiovese does not succeed every year. But it will fatally undermine the personality of the wine.

I am aware that a lot of Merlot and Cabernet are planted in the Montalcino growing zone, and that there may be a need in the short term to find a commercial use for these grapes. But there are the options of St. Antimo or IGT Toscana.

Perhaps, instead of compromising the purity of one of Montalcino’s unique wines, there should be more effort in the irection of promoting these other wine-types.

You will be aware that many of us fear that a compromise in regard to Rosso di Montalcino would constitute an opening of the door to a compromise, farther down the line, of the purity of the great Brunello — one of the world’s great wines.

Whether or not that might be the case, I am convinced that it is against the long-term interests of Montalcino to allow any other grape variety, including any Italian or Tuscan variety, into the Rosso, just as it would be fatal to great Burgundy, for example, to allow Syrah to be blended with Pinot Noir, as was once widely practised — with, one might add, some notable successes, but with the inevitable distortion of the style.

You, the Montalcino producers, hold the fate not only of your own future market in your hands. You are the representatives of all of us who will not have a vote on September 7th. We urge you, please, to vote NO.

—Nicolas Belfrage

14 thoughts on “Nicolas Belfrage says NO to Merlot in Montalcino

  1. Thanks for posting this! Thank goodness people like Mr. Belfrage are willing to speak up- hopefully he will be heard! I think it’s also amazing to see such great coverage of the issue on your site. It’s critical that consumers like your readers understand- there’s nothing wrong with Merlot. However it does not belong in Rosso di Montalcino.

    This is bigger than all of us- there is an entire wine making community’s tradition at risk! And what about the rest of Italy’s traditions? Could this potentially open the flood gates to other important areas of wine production in Italy? Example: who wants to drink Zinfandel in their Etna Rosso? Not I!

    Hold fast, producers of Montalcino! Vote no!

  2. If all wine, everywhere, is going to taste the same year, after year, after year, after year…….Hmmm, kinda like a soft drink tradition? Now that’s a disgusting freaking thought.

  3. As on the Vinoalvino.org (Franco Ziliani’s blog), I repeat that I would like to know what Nicolas think about a new possible Rosso di Montalcino DOCG Superiore (with Sangiovese 100% and other requirements in the vineyard and winery) to incrise the unique character of Rosso di Montalcino, as other Consortium did for Aglianico del Vulture Superiore, Asolo Prosecco Superiore, Barbera d’Asti Superiore, Barbera del Monferrato Superiore, Bardolino Superiore, Cesanese del Piglio Superiore, Conegliano valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore, Dolcetto di Dogliani Superiore, Dolcetto di Ovada Superiore, Soave Superiore, Valdobbiadene Superiore di Cartizze, Valtellina Superiore, Vermentino di Gallura Superiore and so on in Italy. Practically to emptied the DOC Rosso di Montalcino always under discussion, that can after accommodate changes of grapes composition. In all italian DOC the generic name ”rosso” specify a blend of two or many grapes. Only in Montalcino generic name want be accurately: this is not clarity…

  4. The reason why we don’t want Merlot (or other international varietals) in Montalcino is like the reason we don’t want BBQ chicken on pizza. In a world of increasing wine sameness, the future will go to those wines which have remained singular. Once that has been allowed to be compromised there is no going back. Reputation will be lost and the consumer will look at Montalcino the same way they look at a Merlot from any other place in the world. I can’t belive the short sightedness potentially at play here. Why not preserve the character of Montalcino and make your international expression wines under IGT or other status?

  5. Pingback: God Save Montalcino! | Italian Wine Geek

  6. I wrote on the Franco’s blog that I will not express still my opinion on two posts dedicated to the letter of Nicolas. I appreciate the letter of Nicolas, but at the same time condemn his call to vote “NO” and the Ziliani’s appeal to send You an email to adhesion. To me it’s completely right to express their evaluations, also welcomed the foreign guests (I encouraged some of they to write their comment), but this atmosphere of NO or YES, to divide us into good children and bad children as in asylum, it’s nonsense. I had a long correspondence with a well-known producer of Brunello, very pleasant and fruitful (as I hope); we have not concealed anything as true friends, but I do not allow its publication until voting took place and validated in order not to put now my finger in an open wound.

    As well written Nelle Nuvole on Ziliani’s blog, “In pending further information, developments, messages and anything else excited I would reiterate that the greatest risk, even more dangerous to change the specification pr Rosso di Montalcino is to create a rift among the various producers . So to make them more vulnerable, insecure, fearful of the future. And have them continue to fight among themselves, instead of finding a system of union that would strengthen the importance of Montalcino wines, made with Sangiovese grapes from the hills of Montalcino “. This is the problem.

    On must come to an agreement and I have proposed the following position, which is mine and I hope tey are considering.

    Rosso di Montalcino must be DOCG Superiore and not stay two or three variants of the DOC as Rivella’s proposal.
    My proposal is this: extract a Rosso di Montalcino DOCG Superiore from DOC Rosso di Montalcino, and this DOC will be emptied. It does not seem quite complicated, since it was adopted by Superior Aglianico del Vulture, Asolo Prosecco Superiore, Barbera d’Asti Superiore Barbera del Monferrato Superiore, Bardolino Superiore, Superiore Cesanese Piglio, Conegliano Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore, Dolcetto di Dogliani Higher Dolcetto di Ovada Superior, Soave Superiore, Superiore di Valdobbiadene Cartizze, Valtellina Superiore, Vermentino di Gallura Superiore and in all Italy, not only in Tuscany. It was “complicated” for they? No. Why must be complicated to Montalcino?

    With this new DOCG would be more out specific areas of production, minimum number of plants per hectare, the form of new plant breeding, training system still permitted to existing plants, type of pruning of buds per hectare, maximum yield of grapes per hectare in specialized cultivation, consent to any emergency irrigation, winemaking and bottling site, maximum yield of grapes into wine, prohibition of practice of forcing, threshold increased alcohol content, standards for labeling. Exactly what was done in all other DOCG extracted from a previous DOC on the whole Italian territory.

    As in those cases, moreover, even the DOC “Rosso di Montalcino” current may remain in force and therefore be deprived of the single variety (of which just only 100% Sangiovese would be included into the “Rosso di Montalcino DOCG Superiore”) and therefore would be suitable to all other types of reds that are currently included in Sant’Antimo DOC (and just extract all with the same writing, without changing a comma, only the name). The DOC Sant’Antimo then remain only for white wines and vin santo. Rivella could be content, calm down, the Banfi could sign an arbitration award in which undertakes to stop pestering (because it is quite isolated), or another election of new President and I hope that he will be a negotiator capable, out of all the parties perennial contention.

    However, I do not like the proposal Rivella absolutely diction: why should it be found an inscription, a symbol, to be affixed on the label for the wine of those intending to make pure? Is not they who have to change a damn thing, if anything are those that add other varieties that should declare, such as writing, how, in what percentages, and undergo the same rules of control which is subject Brunello di Montalcino, including analysis of DNA, to verify that the addition is only one authorized, permitted, and the exact percentage is not exceeded. Furthermore, it should finally fix the downstream controls, those that allow self-control, directly between producers. This fact should have the right to buy bottles of wine on the market which they consider suspicious, analyze them, and transmit information to the Consortium. So even most of the allegations, winks, gossip about the wines of his colleagues are uniformly scaled. “

  7. Jeremy, thanks for posting this and also making your position clear.
    I would prefer Rosso to remain 100% Sangio, but is Merlot the real issue of Montalcino? I don’t think so. We need a durable solution that will also take into account that there are 700 hectares of Merlot and Cab planted out there. The current war, and alienating important players such as Banfi and Frescobaldi, is not improving the situation. I’ve voiced my concerns in this post: http://blog.polishwineguide.com/2011/08/31/montalcino-still-at-war/.

  8. ULTIME NOTIZIE. Sembra che non ci sia da votare o SI o NO come ha detto Nick Belfrage, ma semplicemente ci sia da scegliere invece o questa NUMERO 1 o quest’altra NUMERO 2, cioe’ la modifica ci sarebbe comunque!!! Scusate l’italiano, ma scrivete a Franco Ziliani e fatevi spiegare il problema in inglese, che lui lo sa bene…

  9. would bordeaux producers ever vote to allow sangiovese into the blend of their wines? no need, they ALREADY command top dollar for their wines. this is a disgusting effort to cater to an already homogenizing market for the sake of money, adding fuel to the fire that will burn any sense of place out montalcino. shame on them.

  10. In an article posted this week at jancisrobinson.com, Francesco Marone Cinzano of Col d’Orcia, Montalcino, alludes to the political machinations that appear determined to push through a vote today.

    The articles I have read to date; Decanter.com, jancisrobinson.com and some blogs have argued around the relative merits of the two positions, and, of course, the basic question of identity.

    There has, however, been little in the way of an open examination of the political side, which one imagines, rather than sound argumentation, is the arena where decisions are likely to be won or lost.

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