Chiantigate? News of a new controversy breaks in Italy

When the first dispatch arrived in my inbox this morning with my nearly daily dose of WineNews.it, I just didn’t want to believe it was true. But then, after lunch, when Franco’s post appeared in my feed, I knew there was no ignoring it: Italian authorities believe that roughly 10 million liters of current-release Chianti and Toscana IGT and purportedly smaller amounts of Brunello and Rosso di Montalcino have been “cut” with inferior wines not in accordance with appellation regulations. News of the authorities’s investigation and their subsequent request for a preemptive seizure of wine was widely reported today in the Italian news media. Seventeen persons and forty-two wineries, including some of the big players (according to the reports), are under investigation.

What can I say? It literally makes me feel sick: I love Italy, I love Italian wine, I have more good friends in Italy than I can count, and the majority of Italian winemakers I know personally (and I know a lot) are honest, earnest, hard-working folks. And I will continue to buy, drink, enjoy, love, and write about Italian wines. But the news of yet another controversy makes me feel sick. Franco has stated openly that he no longer wants to write about the Brunello controversy or any other Italian wine controversy for that matter. But as a chronicler of the world Italian wine, he felt obliged today to repost the story for the sake of “the completeness of information.” And, so, as his colleague, friend, and partner, I, too, feel obliged to report it here.

When I was a child my family went through a crisis that was reported by the media. And whenever there was a story in the papers, my mother taught me to be the one to tell my friends — so that they would hear it from me and not from a stranger. It was one of the best lessons she ever taught me.

Well, here I am again, and my “family” is in trouble. And I want you to hear it from me. So be it. Surely, it is the saddest form of wine writing.

Ne nuntium necare.

LONG LIVE BRUNELLO! LONG LIVE SANGIOVESE! PRODUCERS VOTE NOT TO CHANGE APPELLATION

Alessandro just posted the results of the voting here. Brunello will continue to be made with 100% Sangiovese grapes. Long live Brunello! Long live Sangiovese! (And nicely done, Alessandro!).

Montalcino on my mind

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.)

The other day, Italian Wine Guy shared his feeling that “Brunello is dead.”

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?

Epilogue

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!

Montalcino: the next step? Angelo Gaja weighs in.

Above: that’s my good friend Robin Stark (center right) tasting with legendary Piedmontese winemaker Angelo Gaja on one of her wine-themed bike trips in Piedmont. Our mutual friend Terry Hughes over at Mondosapore likes to call me Zelig but Robin makes me look like Forrest Gump!

Legendary winemaker Angelo Gaja made news today when he published an open letter calling for changes in Brunello appellation regulations that would allow for the use of grapes other than Sangiovese. I have translated an excerpt at VinoWire.

As I get ready for my trip to Germany and Montalcino, I wish I had time to translate the entire letter, which is already creating waves in the blogosphere. But I’ve been busy working on the production of our record, getting ready for my trip (see below), and taking some time out to stop and smell the roses (yellow roses, in this case).

Angelo Gaja is one of the most charismatic and interesting figures in the world of Italian wine — and the world of wine period. I’ve met and tasted with him on a few occasions, including once at the winery. The Gaja winery is a unique experience, an objet d’art in and unto itself, where modern sculpture and architecture live side-by-side with the wine. Years ago, Gaja caused a controversy when he proposed that the Barolo and Barbaresco appellations be changed to allow for the use of international grape varieties. And after he was unsuccessful in his bid to revise the appellations, he declassified his site-designated wines. No one knows exactly what he puts in them but they are among Italy’s most collected — if not the most collected. A long-time proponent of barriqued Nebbiolo, Gaja makes wines that even the most fervent detractors of new oak aging will gladly drink. I’ve tasted Gaja back to 1971 and have to say that his wines are simply exquisite. He also produces high-end wines in Montalcino and Bolgheri.

Here’s a interesting passage that I translated but didn’t include in the post at VinoWire.

    In the 1960s, there were less than 60 hectares of vineyards planted to Sangiovese earmarked for the production of Brunello di Montalcino. There were roughly twenty producers, and no more than 150,000 bottles were produced [every year]. In the same period, there were 500 hecatres planted to Nebbiolo in Barolo, 115 producers/bottlers, and 3,000,000 bottles of Barolo produced annually. While Barolo did not have a leading figure, Brunello di Montalcino already had Biondi Santi: its founding father, an artisan who over time had raised the flag of quality high and he had also raised the price of his aristocratic, rare, and precious Brunello, available only to the few who could afford it.

    And then came Banfi…

He doesn’t take issue with Banfi but he reveals how the expansion of Sangiovese vineyards, spearheaded by Banfi, led to many “large” producers (as he puts it) planting Sangiovese in growing site that don’t have the right soil and climate conditions to grow superior Sangiovese. This phenomenon, he says, is what led to the current controversy there. It’s important to note that Banfi’s expansion and extremely successful marketing of Brunello made the appellation a house-hold name in the U.S. I remember the first time I saw a bottle of Brunello at the supermarket in La Jolla in the early 1990s: it was Banfi.

I wish I had time to translate the entire letter but you can read it in Italian here.

Brunello Scandal

Ne nuntium necare, don’t kill the messenger: I’m sorry to report that the the long-hinted-at Brunello scandal is now official. Today, the Italian daily La Repubblica published the first account based on interviews with local investigators. You can read my translation on VinoWire. Rumors regarding the scandal have been circulating for some time now and VinoWire has also covered the Brunello Consortium’s confirmation and subsequent denial of irregularities.

People have been talking about the impending scandal in hushed tones since January. But it was my friend and collaborator Franco Ziliani’s post last Friday that prompted investigators to go public.

Another Brunello controversy has also recently made news in English- and Italian-language blogs and websites: the Brunello Consortium recently asked a Californian winemaker to stop labeling his wine as Brunello.

The U.S. government does not regulate the usage of European appellation names in the labeling of U.S. wine produced in the U.S. When my band Nous Non Plus played in Seattle back in 2006, I snapped the below pic of an old wine list (I can’t remember of the name of the wonderful Greek restaurant harbor where we ate that day; the list below wasn’t the restaurant’s current list but the owners never took it down — I would imagine for nostalgia’s sake).

Gauging from the script and the wine names, I imagine this list dates back to the 1970s. I love “Gold, Pink, and Red Chablis” and “Pinot Gregio.” Who knows what was in those wines?