Don’t Murder the Sangiovese: the Brunello debate, observations and reflections (part I)

Above: the Brunello debate panel included Banfi’s ex-director enologist Ezio Rivella (seated stage right), moderator Dino Cutolo, wine writer Franco Ziliani, and winemaker Teobaldo Cappellano.

In 1930, at the height of the “happy years” of fascism, the founder of the Italian Futurism movement and the father of the historical avant-garde Filippo Tommaso Marinetti published his Manifesto della Cucina Futurista, in which he advocated “The abolition of pastasciutta, an absurd Italian gastronomic religion.” (The term pastasciutta means literally dried pasta.)

Today, it is hard to imagine that one of Europe’s leading intellectuals and one of the 20th century’s most dynamic figures (indeed, he who literally gave new meaning to the word dynamism) would lash out so violently against one of Italy’s greatest contributions to world cuisine and a sine qua non of its identity. Thankfully, neither the Futurists nor the fascists prevailed and today pastasciutta and freedom, however bridled by consumerism, continue to thrive in Western Europe.

As I watched the live streaming of the Brunello debate on Friday, I couldn’t help but think of Marinetti’s calls to abolish pasta and to “murder the moonshine” (uccidiamo il chiaro di luna! or let’s kill the claire de lune, 1909) when I heard one of Italy’s leading enologists, Ezio Rivella, say that “Sangiovese is a ‘lean’ grape with little color” and that the Italian wine industry would be better served by “using international grape varieties” and “making wines more international in style.”

“You don’t win a 100 points from the Wine Spectator,” said Rivella, “using just Sangiovese.”

At a certain point during the debate, moderator Dino Cutolo (professor of anthropology, University of Siena), pointed out that the calls for the abolition of Brunello as 100% Sangiovese were coming “from the right.” He quickly added, “not the political right, but from my right.” But his lapsus linguae wasn’t lost on the crowd and drew a chortle from the gallery, palpable even over the internet.

At the height of the heated exchange, when voices were raised and tempers flared, Rivella leveled his finger at Franco Ziliani: “how can we not change the appellation regulations and allow for the use of Merlot in Brunello, caro Lei, Ziliani?” (borrowing a vocative, dear sir, evocative of another era). In the light of the “enormous capital we have invested, we need to make wines for the international market.”

The bottom line: when Banfi, led by Rivella, came into the picture in the 1970s and launched a new era of industrial winemaking in Montalcino, it tried — politically and viticulturally — to impose a modern imprint and it expanded the appellation’s plantings to international grape varieties. The large, commercial producers of Brunello have lobbied twice unsuccessfully to change appellation regulations (allowing for blending of international grapes) from within the now defunct producers consortium. Their bid failed because within the consortium’s hierarchy, the vote of the smallest producer (think Delaware) carried the same weight as the majors (think California).

I’ll let the reader infer her/his own parallels or analogies from the above.

Tomorrow, Teobaldo and Franco’s response. Stay tuned…

6 thoughts on “Don’t Murder the Sangiovese: the Brunello debate, observations and reflections (part I)

  1. Leaving leaving aside any political commentary about the various personaggi, what I truly believe is that nothing will be any different and that this is merely an interesting exercise among men. As you and everyone else knows, what has been going on in Italy in terms of Brunello has been at work for decades. I feel like it is that scene at the end of Casablanca when Louis is shocked truly shocked to find gambling going on at Rick’s Cafe and then is handed his winnings by the croupier. Will it ever change? Of course not everyone has been circumventing the rules but enough people have that I do wonder if it is in their interest to actually change anything. I don’t actually believe that things are so black and white. Even if they again vote to keep the rules as they are, will things really change?

  2. Susannah If they vote to keep the rules nothing will probably change and in this case it’s a good thing. Without the rules we would not have had this discussion and we would not have had Brunnelopoli. I’m as sure as you are that there will be producers breaking the rules, crossing borders. The point is that now, atleast there is the possibility to take action.

  3. i say change is good, provided the right considerations are given. the sheer amount of attention this is getting is a good sign of just that. frankly, i’m ready to see this one settled (any outcome will do) and put to bed already!

  4. Talking last night to a group of artists, restaurant owners and oil folks, here in West Texas, and I was approached by someone who was considering buying 12 acres of vineyard and winery in Montalcino. “What do you think?” they asked.

    The dollar is higher, the image of Montalcino is currently low. Eventually the battle between the Soldera and the Rivetti clan will end and Montalcino will return to commonsense winemaking.

    Just have to get the giant ego’s to crawl back in their caves.

  5. Esping I guess my real point is that this is molto rumore per nulla. Change would be great but I don’t see the attention that this has been getting in the States as the prime mover. I think some producers will stick to the rules and some will not, just as it has always been. I think that a lot of the hype is very self referential. I do hope, just like Enzo, that this will be put to bed though, at least in the press.

  6. Pingback: Debating Brunello’s Future - The Pour Blog -

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