Monday, June 30, 2008

Can Brunello di Montalcino Weather the Storm of Scandal?

It’s reads like the perfect setting for a modern day spy novel. The Guardia di Finanza, Italy’s Financial Police, in dramatic fashion, seize thousands of cases of Brunello and hand down indictments against a handful of Tuscany’s most respected wine aristocracy. The booming prestigious wine industry of this small northern Italian hamlet is turned on its ears as the wine world watches in anticipation. Who or what could be behind such a diabolical plot? Could it be terrorist organizations, communist splinter groups, a corrupt government, or perhaps even the Illuminati? And what is their purpose? Perhaps to set off a chain reaction that could send Italy’s and Europe’s economy into a tail spin bringing about a world wide depression. But this is no Tom Clancy novel, this is the sad state of reality for Italy’s Brunello di Montalcino producers. Okay, my imagination maybe running away a bit here ,but the truth is this scandal is not good news for anyone who loves Italian wines.

The trouble began in November of 2007 when Italian authorities began investigating claims that some of the producers of Brunello were violating DOCG (Denominazione d’Origine Controllata e Garantita) rules by not using 100% Sangiovese grapes in their wine. The origin of the investigation is not totally clear, but it is reported that complaints had been filed by unnamed individuals who claimed to have witnessed certain producers importing grapes from Southern Italy to blend with their indigenous sangiovese grapes. In any case as soon as an official investigation was launched Siena Magistrate Nino Calabrese ordered the seizure of over 1 million bottles of the 2003 vintage from 4 of the regions biggest producers. These producers were:

1. Castelgiocando (Marchesi di Fescobaldi),
2. Castello Banfi,
3. Pian delle Vigne (Antinori)
4. Argiano

The seizure was followed up by the handing down of 14 indictments in March of 2008, which included six grape suppliers from Puglia (Southern) Italy. So what do the accused say about these charges? The big four are united in issuing complete denials of the allegations. Lars Leicht of Castello Banfi cries “politics” citing to the timing of these indictments which corresponded with the annual “Verona Vinitaly”, the country’ s most famous and noteworthy wine fair. Lamberto Frescobaldi, owner of Catelgiocando has vowed to fight the charges in court to clear his name. An enologist hired by Antinori points the finger at overzealous prosecution and stated that the charges are the result of uniformed people finding 5 acres of Merlot in his company’s vineyard. It is common for producers to grow non-sangiovese grapes for use in creating Rosso Tascano (IGT) a blended wine from Tuscany.

So what happens next? Well, as the matter makes its way slowly through the Italian judicial system, one things is for certain, very little Brunello from the 2003 vintage is getting to the consumer. Both Argiano and Pian delle Vigne have both stated that they cannot afford to wait the scandal out and will have no alternative but to declassify their Brunello to IGT (Indicazione Geograpica Tipica) status. IGT regulations allow up to 15% of the grapes in a wine to be from outside the appellation. Argiano has announced that 6,600 cases of its 2003 Brunello, 2/3 of its production, will be labeled Il Duemilatie de Argiano and sold as IGT.

The first thought that came to my mind was that this declassification could be a good thing for Americans like yours truly who love Brunello; at least from a cost perspective. I’m just speculating, but it's my guess that these declassified wines will sell for much less than the traditional Brunellos. But, just when you thought there might be the slightest bit of silver lining to this cloud, it was just announced that the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau has demanded a list of Brunello producers being investigated from the Italian government. They are threatening to halt all imports from these producers unless the importer submits a full and accurate statement of contents verified by laboratory analysis that wine is 100% sangiovese. A move, which in my opinion, is certainly excessive and over the top considering there has been no final adjudication of guilt. When you consider that the United States currently imports 6.5 million bottles, 25% of the total Brunello production each year, such an action by the US could deal a major blow to this small wine region.

Finally, one can’t help but wonder, what the overall impact this scandal will have to the region and to Italian wines as a whole. Will the revenue losses drive some wineries out of business? Doubtful, but you never can tell. There is one thing that is for certain however. There will be a great need for quick damage control in regard to the reputations of the Brunello and Tuscany appellations. It would be a real shame to see such fine and classic wine lose the ground it has gained in recent years against it’s overpriced French neighbors to the north. No matter what the outcome, I can clearly state that, as a true Italian wine lover, there will always be a place for Brunello on my table.


Jon-Paul said...

Great job on this article, Anthony! It certainly is a terrific follow-up to episode #487 aired on winelibrary TV about Brunellos. It really helps paint the picture on how this situation is a no-win for just about all players involved.

You raise a good point how the declassified wines could make the price points more appealing in U.S. Dollars, but here's an interesting situation--could a move by the U.S. government to halt importation of these wines for the vintages in question actually create an underground market (perhaps even driving up the value), not unlike taboo delicacies such as cuban cigars, japanese puffer fish, or caviar? Perhaps I'm being a bit fantastic in my thinking here, but if history is any indicator of future events, it just seems like it could happen.

As my respect for the wine industry continues to bloom as I learn more and more about the in's and out's of it, I can certainly see how impactful this debacle can be to lovers of these classic favorites.

Again Ant, awesome post!

Anthony F. LaVista said...

Thanks JP. You raise a good point about the blackmarket aspect. My hope is that this will be resolved before it gets out of control. I also take solace in the fact that the scandal only affects 4 producers. There are plenty of others producers 2003 vintages that are already available in the US. Do a search on and you see a bunch come up.

Bruno Schuler said...

Hi there,

In the meantime Antinori has become green lights to sell his 2003 as a brunello.

Argiano has already 2/3 of his production on the market under the label Brunello. Only 1/3 will be labelled as duemilla tre.

Since Italian Government has now control about production rules for Brunello there might be a risk that the law to produce a brunello only with 100 % sangiovese grosso will be changed. Don't forget: From 1967 to 1980 when Brunello was sold as DOC wine, it was allowed to add up to 10 % of other grapes even outside the production area. Only with DOCG status starting from 1980 the 100 % sangiovese rule came in effect. This was the start of the success for brunello. I hope we stuck with 100 % sangiovese grosso.

kind regards

Anthony F. LaVista said...

Greetings Bruno,
Thanks for the information and for posting on my humble blog.
Best Wishes,

BTW, you can read an article on how Antinori has been cleared by going to: