24 May “Fraudulent Brunellos? Shocking!” di E. Asimov
Vinitaly, the giant wine trade show held annually in Verona, begins today. No doubt much of the talk will be of a scandal enveloping one of Italy’s most prestigious wines, Brunello di Montalcino. Brunello is noteworthy for being one of the few wines that by Italian law must be 100 percent sangiovese. Now, Italian newspapers are reporting that a number of leading Tuscan producers have been indicted for adding merlot, cabernet sauvignon or petit verdot to their wines. Among the producers cited are such top Tuscan names as Antinori, Frescobaldi and Argiano. Each has denied the accusations. I have no idea whether these particular producers are guilty of compromising their Brunellos, but anybody who is surprised by the idea of wine fraud in Montalcino might also be shocked to learn about steroids in baseball and gambling in Casablanca. Dark accusations of adulteration were all around Montalcino when I visited two years ago, and they weren’t of particularly recent vintage back then, either. I would be surprised if many more producers are named as well. Why would winemakers want to mess around with Brunello? It depends on what you mean by Brunello. Anybody who’s ever tasted through a large number of Brunellos di Montalcino can’t help but notice the diversity of styles and flavours under this denomination. They range from wines that are clearly identifiable as sangiovese — pale ruby, fresh and acidic, lean and somewhat austere, with flavours of bitter cherry and smoke — to impossibly dark, dense wines that are plush, plummy and taste like chocolate. Some of those wines develop that way because they are aged in small barrels of new French oak, the barriques that have played such an important role in making many distinctive Italian wines taste like they came from somewhere unidentifiable. That’s not illegal although I do find many of those wines hard to drink. But others have clearly been blended with other grapes like the aforesaid Bordeaux varietals or perhaps syrah. Some people may find these wines thoroughly enjoyable, but they are not Brunellos di Montalcino. For some time producers in Montalcino have been quietly floating proposals to relax the rules so that they would permit the blending of grapes. Regional pride is such that it is difficult to find any producer who will openly support such a change, but the rationale is clear. Producers have decided that the public prefers these plush, chocolate-tasting wines because they are more accessible than the older style, which is said to require more aging before it can be enjoyed. Personally, I think it’s a shame. Two of the most beautiful wines I’ve ever had are traditional Brunellos di Montalcino, although they are brutally expensive. Biondi Santi, the family that invented Brunello di Montalcino, still makes one of the greatest Brunellos around, although most Montalcino producers nowadays would characterize Biondi Santi as behind the times. Well, maybe so. These wines surely need 10 if not 20 years of aging, but they are so gorgeous I hope they never change. The other wine is Case Basse di Soldera, an unbelievably pure and delicious wine from Gianfranco Soldera, who is one of the most unusual and gifted winemakers in the world. For far more reasonable prices, the wines of Il Poggione give a good sense of brunello that is all sangiovese, unmediated by oak, or other grapes. By the way, much of the news of the Brunello scandal, or Brunellopoli, as it’s been called in the Italian newspapers, comes from a new venture, , VinoWire begun by Jeremy Parzen, author of the excellent American blog, Do Bianchi, and Franco Ziliani, a leading Italian wine writer. If you are at all interested in what’s going on in the world of Italian wine, it’s worth paying a visit now and then to VinoWire.