Sun 16 Nov 2008
Recently, in the Tre Bicchieri awards for 2009, given by Gambero Rosso, the Italian publishing house for food, wine and travel, only one producer of Brunello di Montalcino, the venerable Biondi-Santi, won top honors. This is a marked contrast from 2008, when 15 wines from Brunello di Montalcino received the award, and 2007, when 10 Brunello wines were honored. (Thanks to Terence Hughes of mondosapore for compiling these figures, posted on Nov. 8.)
Perhaps the inclusion of only one producer of Brunello di Montalcino — and the most rigorously classic — for 2009 was a rebuke to the scandal that has enveloped the region in southern Tuscany since early this year, a scandal that indicts a number of producers for blending minuscule amounts of unauthorized grapes into their wines from 2003. Brunello di Montalcino, first by custom and then codified by law, must be made only of sangiovese grapes; no other grapes are allowed. More than a million bottles of suspect Brunello di Montalcino and Rosso di Montalcino from 2003 were seized by authorities under order of the Siena Magistrate. The scandal coincides with calls from a handful of Brunello producers to change the 100 percent sangiovese rule officially to allow a little blending.
Brunello di Montalcino was created by Ferruccio Biondi-Santi and first bottled in 1888. The family was the only producer of Brunello di Montalcino until after World War II and had, in fact, released the wine only in 1888, 1891, 1925 and 1945. As the wine’s prestige grew after the war, the number of producers markedly increased, particularly in the 1980s and ’90s.
The original regimen of barrel-aging for Brunello di Montalcino was a long 42 months, a procedure that resulted — no surprise — in wines of great hauteur and austerity that demanded many years, if not decades, to mellow. That requirement was lowered to three years barrel aging in 1990 and two years in 1998, though Brunello di Montalcino must still age four years before release in a combination of barrel and bottle-aging; it’s the producer’s prerogative as to what that process will be.
The recent scandal has roiled not only the Brunello zone but the entire Italian wine industry as well as the Italian and the international wine press. Though news reports occasionally mention a number of incriminated properties up to 20, the ones consistently named are Argiano, Col d’Orcia, Castello Banfi, Antinori and Frescobaldi. It’s interesting and actually provocative that the last three of these Brunello producers are regarded as “outsiders” in the clannish zone. Banfi is owned by the American Mariani family, and though they have been in Montalcino for 30 years, their wealth, their willingness to shape the landscape and their extensive clonal research stirred discontent among their compatriots. Antinori and Frescobaldi are families and producers centered in the Chianti zone, and though Florence is only 67 miles north of Montalcino, it might as well be Upper Volta to the staid Brunello families.
In the meanwhile, the scandal rocks on, though Antinori was cleared of adulterating their 2003 Brunello di Montalcino wine (Pian delle Vigne) in June and the Castello Banfi wines were released on Oct. 20. So, readers, is this a moment for LOL, OMG or WTF? Big Oops! Results are waiting on the others so accused, though Argiano went on and declassified a great amount of its Brunello 2003 and Frescobaldi is fighting the accusation in court. And, in the meanwhile, in late October, the members of the Brunello producers group decided not to change the 100 percent sangiovese rule by a vote of 662 to 30. (The scandal and controversy and the vote on Oct. 27 were covered extensively by VinoWire.)
All right, let’s face it: Brunello di Montalcino is a rare and expensive wine for collectors, just as Grand Cru wines (and increasingly Premier Cru wines) from Burgundy are, and Bordeaux Classified Growths, and vintage Port, and California cult cabernets and Australian icon shiraz wines are. This is the elite, the rarefied level where money counts, and backing up the money are high-powered auctions and temperature-controlled cellars and the sort of wine dinners to which I never get invited. As a wine for collectors, as a representative of a place and philosophy and genre, Brunello di Montalcino should stay exactly as tradition and law say it should, a wine made from 100 percent sangiovese grapes grown in a restricted area, though it’s important to remember that prior to 1968, when Brunello di Montalcino received DOC status and the requirements, under the influence of the hallowed Biondi-Santi (advocates of the 100 percent rule), were set down, it was common for producers to add a bit of other grape varieties to their wine.
Other than that stipulation, who cares? Even Biondi-Santi has called for relaxing the rules regarding Brunello’s cadet version, Rosso di Montalcino, a DOC recognized in 1995 and intended to be less expensive and more accessible than its mentor. Why shouldn’t the Rosso have a little cabernet or merlot in it?
As far as top quality wines with the flexibility for blending are concerned, the DOC already exists. The Sant’Antimo designation was created in Montalcino in 1996 precisely to address this issue. There are no regulations; producers can make wine from whatever grapes they please. Castello Banfi, for example, has taken advantage of the Sant’Antimo designation to produce a full line of single-grape wines and blended wines. Among the latter are some of its now most famous labels: Summus (sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon and syrah); Excelsus (cabernet sauvignon and merlot); and Cum Laude (sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and syrah). Who could ask for any more leeway in making blended wines or in fine-tuning combinations of grapes from year to year?