In the nineteenth century, Nietzsche wrote famously that “God is dead.”
In the year of my birth, 1967, Roland Barthes informed us that the author was dead.
Sometime in the 1970s, and I can’t seem to track down where or when exactly, Woody Allen told us that Marx is dead and “I’m not feeling so well myself.” (And he wasn’t talking about Karl.)
I don’t think that Brunello is dead but I do share Italian Wine Guy’s sentiment that the so-called “scandal” is more about the scandal itself rather than the quality of wines produced there.
During the five days I spent last week between Montalcino and Bolgheri, I talked to countless winemakers, growers, restaurateurs, enologists, and agronomists and I tried to get to the bottom of what has happened and what we can expect over the next few months as the Brunello controversy hopefully plays itself out.
The most insightful observation on Brunello and Sangiovese was offered by a winemaker who worked for many years in Montalcino and who now works in Bolgheri.
“Sangiovese is a very easy grape to sell,” he told me, “but it’s very difficult to grow for the production of fine wine.”
No matter who you talk to, there is one thing that everyone agrees on: as the Brunello “trademark” grew in popularity and in profitability, Montalcino wineries began planting Sangiovese in vineyards not suited to its cultivation.
No matter who you talk to (even though none will go on record), everyone who works in Montalcino will tell you that it was common knowledge: Merlot has been widely planted and used in the production of Brunello for years and bulk wine has regularly been carted into the appellation to top off the wines.
“When the tankers come in to Montalcino, you can see their axels are weighted down,” one winemaker told me. “When they leave, you can see that they’re empty.” This was the same song sung by everyone — from winemakers and consultants, to restaurateurs and hoteliers.
No one seems to have hard data, but all agree that far less than 1 million bottles of Brunello were produced annually in the 1970s. Today, roughly 14 million are produced: according to people “on the ground,” there is simply not enough acreage under vine to produce that much wine. And of that surface area, conventional wisdom reveals that the majority is not suited for the cultivation of Sangiovese to be used in fine wine.
Follow the money… Put all of these factors together and one thing becomes clear: the large expansion-team producers (and maybe a few of the original league) over-planted and promised the American market abundantly flowing Brunello. As a result, they needed to cut corners in order to make ends meet. Twice, I learned, the majors have lobbied to change appellation regulations and allow for the use of international grapes. Twice a vote was called but a majority never reached in the Consortium because the votes of even the smallest producers carry the same weight as the biggies (Delawares to their Californias). Certain smaller producers, probably egged on by point-hungry flying winemakers, blindly followed the advice of their consultants.
But there’s something even more important, that nearly everyone agrees on (except those implicated in the controversy): of the more than 250 Brunello producers who belong to the Consortium, only a handful have indulged in such practices.
But I’m probably not telling you anything that you don’t know… Here are some insights I gleaned that might surprise you.
— While the use of Merlot was a well-known fact in Montalcino, the magistrate’s inquiry had more to do with sloppy documentation than reckless blending.
— In the case of at least one of the majors implicated in the controversy, the use of Merlot was never at issue. It was simply a question of mislabeling in the winery and a disallowed assemblage of different vintages.
— The “100% Sangiovese” certificates are being issued by the Italian government. The certificates, however, are not based on testing for the presence of certain flavonoids in the wine but rather on documentation in the wineries. The wines themselves are not being tested.
— The certificates are being issued regularly to those wineries who have kept their houses in order, so to speak. But the government has reserved the right not to issue the certificate in certain instances and the wineries have no reasonable recourse in such cases. In other words, even if your certificate gets held up for bureaucratic reasons, you’re screwed. Not everyone is going to get one.
— At least one winemaker told me that he’s not sending his current release to the U.S. He was concerned that the current controversy could taint the reputation of his wine and has decided to focus on other markets. Could it be that the real loser in the Brunello controversy is the American consumer?
Whenever people ask me “how do you tell if a wine is good?”, I tell them: “if you like it, it’s good,” whether traditional Brunello (my preference) or buttery Chardonnay (clearly not my preference). If you like modern-style Brunello, then go for it. If you like traditional-style, look for clear bright color in the wine and good acidity. I agree with Italian Wine Guy: too much fuss has been made about Brunello. Drink what you like…
Now, more than ever, Brunello and the folks who live in Montalcino — and especially the honest producers of Brunello, traditional and modernist alike — need our support. As summer comes to an end, get out that BBQ one more time, grill up a mean piece of meat, and decant that Sangiovese.
My friend Alessandro Bindocci is posting nearly every day about the harvest at Il Poggione in Montalcino over at his blog Montalcino Report. Check it out… It’s pretty cool.
In other other news…
I DON’T LIKE IKE!