Friday, March 28, 2008

Rumblings in Montalcino

Those in charge at Montalcino are currently doing their best to keep the lid on an ominously rumbling pressure cooker, and this invites reflection.

Why the rumbling? Rumors of counterfeit wines. Actually, they're more than rumors: Before Benvenuto Brunello a friend and colleague told me that a dinner guest of his had told him that a fairly large -- several hectare -- vineyard not planted to Sangiovese had been found in the course of an inspection of one of the major Brunello producers. This would have been fine had the vineyard been destined to the production of Sant'Antimo DOC, which is Montalcino's catchall appellation for wines that contain things other than Sangiovese. Unfortunately, the vineyard in question was "atto a Brunello," for the production of Brunello -- winemakers must declare what their vineyards are for -- and since Brunello can contain only Sangiovese that vineyard shouldn't have had other varietals. But it did, and the Magistratura (essentially the DA) launched a criminal investigation for fraud, which is ongoing, and -- rumor has it -- has expanded to include several other major producers, who also have non-Sangiovese varietals in their Brunello vineyards.

I hadn't mentioned this because the investigation is ongoing, and I didn't think it was worth saying much before the names were released and the charges were made public -- conjecture can and often does wildly exceed truth, and in the process do much harm. However, Franco Ziliani, who is always in the forefront when it comes to ferreting out problems of this kind, said on March 21:

"Insistent and worrisome rumors reach us from Montalcino, and also from Germany and Holland, to the effect that several wineries (4-5) have been seized after the discovery, by the NAS -- The Carabinieri's food fraud unit -- and the Guardie di Finanza -- the Revenue people -- of Puglian wine that was sold (or rather passed off) as Brunello di Montalcino.

"The charge is said to be the usual "frode in commercio e falso in atto pubblico", commercial fraud and public falsehood…" (translation mine, see Franco's post).

As one might expect, the effect of Franco's post was like kicking a hornet's nest; a great many other bloggers weighed in, many saying it's about time (there are always rumors of fraud, but they rarely come to much), and a few -- Franco quotes Wine Spectator's James Suckling -- saying that what's going on is driven by envy and will turn out to be a tempest in a teapot. Then, yesterday, La Repubblica, one of the major dailies, said in a short piece that fully a quarter of all Brunello might be at risk (what I said about conjecture…).

Faced with a mounting wave the Consorzio took the extraordinary step of sending out a blanket email informing us that since 2004, when they began inspecting member vineyards (in 2002 the Italian government charged the Appellations with making certain their members followed the rules), they have found 17 hectares of non-Sangiovese vines, in a total of 1667 hectares of Brunello vineyards inspected. Less than 1% of the total acreage is not what is should be.

On the one hand, this is reassuring: Most people are playing by the rules. On the other it is not, because we don't know how those acres are distributed. The occasional different vine in a vineyard planted to a density of 6-8000 vines/hectare can occur, because nurseries do make mistakes when they deliver (Marchesi Pancrazi's entire Pinot Nero vineyard, whose wines now win awards, was a mistake -- the nursery was supposed to deliver something else).

But I have the impression that the occasional mistake is not what we're talking about here -- it certainly wasn't in the case of the winery my friend mentioned months ago, because a several-hectare vineyard with the wrong vines is not the isolated Cabernet, Merlot, or even Colorino vine surrounded by legitimate Sangiovese vines. And while it's true that when cuttings (which look like sticks with a root grafted to them) are planted, one plants on faith, assuming the nursery supplied what it said it supplied, when said cuttings grow into vines and begin producing fruit, one can see what they are. And if they're the wrong thing, one rips them out and sues the nursery, or at the very least changes the designation of the vineyard. One doesn't continue declaring the vineyard to be a Brunello vineyard (and making "Brunello" from those grapes) when it no longer qualifies. Nor does one leave the isolated Cabernet or whatever vine there, because it doesn't belong and that's that. But is seems that some people have, and here's the rub.

Does this mean all Brunello is suspect? Certainly not, not any more than the persistent rumors one hears every year of Brunello (and other northern appellations including French) being cut with inky dark, concentrated, alcoholic wines from the south. Some winemakers will do it, and then the question becomes which, and why.

The which is easy: Winemakers, like everyone else, have all sorts of personalities. On one end of the spectrum are the upstanding who follow the rules. Because they're rules and serious people live by them. On the other are those people who are great fun at a party, but you wouldn't trust with your house keys. If the rules are convenient (for them) they follow them, and if they aren't they don't. The former's Brunello will be Sangiovese and nothing but no matter what the vintage was like, while the latter's may not be -- if they think they can work around the regulations to counter nature's adversity or get ahead they will, especially if they think they have to.

And this brings up the more interesting question, why would one cheat? After all, the risks are enormous, because if one is found out one is (ahem) screwed -- a sales rep who handles one of the wineries under indictment posted a comment on Franco's blog saying he's been told not to sell any of that winery's 2003 Brunello indefinitely.

The answer is multifaceted, and in part imponderable. In the case of a small winery, I can think of three reasons: Willingness to gamble, laziness/incompetence, and a desire to make "what the markets want;" with this latter factor becoming much more important for larger wineries.

To begin with the gambling, some people are simply willing to gamble. I don't understand it. Laziness/incompetence? A small winery that works well, and makes good wine, will always be able to find someone willing to buy the volume it produces. If it works less well, the owners may decided to cut corners, turning to outside help to get the concentration, color, or whatever they were unable to achieve on their own.

And this brings up "what the market wants." As I said, a small winery that makes good wine (of any style, from the traditional austerity to the most opulent starlet in a glass) will always find someone interested in purchasing it. A large winery that makes several times the volume of the smaller winery is in a much more difficult position, because it cannot wait for the impassioned wine merchant/importer to say "This is the wine I like and will sell to my customers!" It instead has to find many purchasers, and is therefore much more conscious of what the wine press speaks admiringly of, leading the vast mass of wine consumers to seek: Depth of color, concentration, power, smoothness of tannin, richness of fruit and so on. And if what's in the glass the large winery's enologist draws from the cask doesn't match what the press is favoring, he or she may well decide to make it so, with outside help (the owner or enologist of a small winery that wants high scores may also do this).

In other words, some winemakers of most every appellation -- Brunello producers are certainly not unique -- will bend the rules for a variety of reasons, and though some are more understandable than others, I don't approve of or condone any. I would venture that the winery my friend heard about at dinner was trying to make what it thinks consumers will like, because it has to move a lot of wine. And it's successful, because its wines get good ratings -- I've read them. This doesn't justify what the winery did, though I can understand why it did it, and I will be quite curious to see who else has gotten caught in the net.

And what would I suggest to people thinking about buying a Brunello? Traditionalists are much less likely to be involved in this sort of thing than innovators, for the simple fact that though full bodied, traditional Brunello is neither packed with color nor tremendously concentrated. With this in mind, I'd say the same thing I've been saying all along: 2002 and 2003 were very poor vintages, and there aren't many wines I would consider buying of either. 2001 and 1999 are vastly superior (of the sort there would have been much less pressure to "correct;" the incriminated wines are said to be 2003) with many very good wines to be enjoyed. If you have read my notes, you'll know what I said I would look for at the vintage presentations, and I think I would continue to look for the same wines now. In particular, see here for the 2001 Brunello, and here for the 2001 Brunello Riserva.

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