Wednesday, October 29, 2008

My Two Cents on Brunellogate

I don’t love Brunello.

I’ve never been able to drink it often enough to form that kind of bond with it.

But I do respect Brunello – Brunello di Montalcino, to be more exacting. I respect its tradition, even if it is a relatively new one.

So I’m very glad to report, no matter how late, that the producers who make up the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino have voted overwhelmingly in favor of maintaining the apellation rules requiring Brunello to be produced from 100% Sangiovese. That’s what Brunello is after all, the local name for the clone of Sangiovese unique to the hills surrounding the town of Montalcino.

Making only a passing reference to what my fellow wine writers have alternately called Brunellogate and Brunellopoli, I’ve remained all but totally quiet on the recent scandals in Montalcino up to now. I’ve left it to those fellows who do love Brunello – guys like Jeremy Parzen at Do Bianchi and Alessandro Bindocci, scribe of Montalcino Report and member of the wine family at Tenuta Il Poggione – to give much more connected and impassioned day-to-day coverage than I possibly could have.

The scandal basically boils down to the disclosure that a number of producers have knowingly been adulterating their Brunelli with grapes other than Sangiovese, a practice strictly forbidden by the DOCG discipline for Brunello di Montalcino. This is hardly a revelation, as there’s a long history of adulterating wine in some of the most famous viticultural regions of Europe. Whether tankerloads of Southern Italian juice were added under cover of night to fermentation vats in Tuscany and Northern Italy or whether Rhône and Languedoc wines were used to darken and enrich the more exalted wines of Burgundy and Bordeaux, winemakers have been playing loose with tradition for centuries, even longer.

Estates such as as Il Poggione (pictured at left) and Castello Banfi found themselves on very different sides of the debate.

In this case, though, the issue was less surreptitious. Brunellogate received global attention on a scope that few wine scandals had drawn before. In answer to the scrutiny drawn by the scandal, some major wine figures – among them Barbaresco ultra-star Angelo Gaja, winemaker and consultant Ezio Rivello, and American Cristina Mariani, owner of Montalcino-based Banfi Vintners – came forward to argue that the rules governing the production of Brunello should be changed to allow for the inclusion of so-called international varieties such as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.

In Rivello’s own words, “You don’t win 100 points from the Wine Spectator using just sangiovese.” And you know what? He’s right. But the point of creating the discipline for Brunello di Montalcino was not to create a vehicle for winemakers to produce inky, rich blockbusters. Rather, the discipline was meant to give voice to the hills of the area as expressed through wines made from Sangiovese, Montalcino’s own, unique vine. That’s what Brunello is. Allowing for blending in other varieties may have made economic sense to some producers, but it wouldn’t be progress. It would simply be another step toward global wine homogenization.

Though I expect there were many forms of motivation driving the 662 votes against (versus the 30 for) changes being made to Brunello’s existing guidelines, I applaud – even love – the final decision. Upholding tradition does not always equate to halting progress.


Terence said...

A very good response to the whole brouhaha. I of course remain skeptical. Cynical, in fact.

God knows Italy's fed my innate cynicism a hearty dish or two of ragu'.

Joe said...

Alternatively, you could argue that adulterating wine is a time-honoured tradition, so why mess with it? What's wrong with a bit of Cahors Malbec in a Bordeaux? I say let them do whatever they want, as long as they tell the consumer clearly what they are doing...with full disclosure consumers can make up their own mind. And that's my two cents (two Canadian cents, worth 20% less than yours)

David McDuff said...

Thanks, Terence. I'd hardly say I'm without my own doubts but the vote at least appears to be a step in the right direction.


Here's the rub. Adding Malbec to Bordeaux rouge is not adulteration; it's simply blending, which is part of the tradition of Bordeaux. In the case of Montalcino, producers are already more than free to blend away as long as they declare it and bottle their wines as IGT Toscana Rosso or as Vino da Tavola. Add other grapes to Brunello and it's no longer Brunello.

Consumers have plenty to choose from already. It would be a shame for a wine as meaningful as Brunello to lose its voice just for the sake of points and market share.

In any event, thanks for the Canadian pennies. We can always agree to disagree.

Joe said...

I was more "tongue-in-cheek" - I find that too many things we call "tradition" today are not really traditions at all, just what we want them to be - it was philosophical musing...I am glad that Brunello has stayed with their rules - the owners of the brand have the right to enforce it in their own way and if someone doesn't like it then IGT, VDP, etc are always available to rule breakers.

David McDuff said...

Well said, Joe. I wasn't trying to give you a hard time but I did take your first comment seriously.

Joe said...

I was ok with "ripping me a new one" :)

David McDuff said...

Thanks, buddy. So was I. But my wife, who reads this thing cover to cover, convinced me it was inappropriate....

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