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)
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.