Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Brunello, the Continuing Saga

The Picture is Murky.

At Vinitaly I met with Lars Leicht, Banfi's Director of PR, who told me that yes indeed, Banfi is under investigation for fraud with respect to the 2003 vintage of Brunello, which they have been told to declassify. But not for having used non-Sangiovese grapes to make Brunello. Rather, for overcropping (producing more grapes per hectare than the Disciplinare governing Brunello production allows -- 80 quintals, or 8 metric tonnes), and this is where things become surreal and (to me) disturbing.

Banfi makes the Brunello in question from several vineyards located around the castle, and Lars told me the total yield of all the vineyards in question was less than the legal limit of 80 quintals/hectare. However, it was uneven, with some producing slightly less, and one slightly above. And that's what created the problems; the Prosecutor in Siena looked at the vineyard-by-vineyard yields, and even though the yield for the total vineyard area was within the limits set by the Disciplinare declared the entire production illegal because one vineyard produced more.

From a very narrow legalistic standpoint the man is right; yields should be below 80 quintals per hectare.

However, as Lars points out, vineyards are not precise factory environments. Vines produce grapes, and if left to their own devices produce lots, so the winemaker aims for a given per-hectare yield through vineyard management, which includes green harvesting and whatnot. While it's true that if one stays well under the maximum yield, one has no problems, doing so also costs money -- less wine = less income -- so people try to get close, and if this means averaging production, I see nothing wrong with that, provided total production doesn't exceed what would be allowed for a single vineyard of that area.

You may wonder, don't the vineyards that produce more grapes produce less quality? The answer is not necessarily. What is important is the production per individual vine, and if a producer has some older vineyards planted to a density of 4000 vines per hectare, and newer ones with vines planted to 8000 vines per hectare, the 80 quintals from the newer vineyard will be much better than the 80 quintals from the older vineyard because the older vineyard's vines are producing twice as much. 81 quintals from the new vineyard will probably be better than 65 from the older, and this is why I think the prosecutor is showing an excess of zeal in ordering that Brunello made from a series of vineyards whose average yield is less than 80 quintals/hectare be declassified because one parcel goes over.

"In the future we'll just aim for a maximum of 75 quintals/hectare; the wine will be better and we'll charge more for it," said Lars, and this brings up a second very important point about this investigation. The names that have come out so far are almost all large, but we've heard rumors to the effect that another 20-80 producers are under investigation, as is the Consorzio itself.

If these as-of-yet-unnamed producers are under investigation for using non-Sangiovese grapes in their Brunello, they should be prosecuted, because they're doctoring Brunello to appeal to market tastes (they could just as well label their "appealing" wine Sant'Antimo DOC, Montalcino's catchall appellation, but that doesn't sell as well as Brunello or for as much, which brings greed into the picture as well). Ditto if they're overcropping by a significant margin. But if they're under investigation for what Banfi is, the punishment -- having cellars sealed and being forced to declassify a vintage -- seems totally out of proportion with respect to the crime.

Especially in the case of small wineries; someone Banfi's size will be hurt by a forced declassification, but makes lots of other wines that are unaffected and will weather the storm. Forced declassification and cellar closure could (probably will) be a death knell for many smaller wineries, and if wineries are facing this despite staying within the limits set by the Disciplinare something is very wrong. Especially since Lars tells me the Consorzio has always told people to figure their production over their total vineyard area, and adds that as a result of this policy the Consorzio is now also under investigation too.

Bottom line: There are two things happening at Montalcino. On the one hand, some people cheated and got caught. On the other, people followed established practices and are getting ground up by an extremely narrow reading of the rules. The former should be punished, but the latter? I think not.


Jack at Fork & Bottle said...

I can't help thinking they should not have publicized what happened and just told the producers not to do it or change the laws.

Instead, the grand effect will be less Brunello sales for a long time. How exactly is that positive effect?

Kyle Phillips said...

I think the way it has come out is unfortunate too. It would have been better to handle things in-house as it were, though not by changing the laws or sweeping it all under a rug.

Eventually, with enough sweeping a mound builds up under the rug and people trip over it.

Alberto said...

Unsurprisingly Banfi PR's answer to official charges of cheating with their Brunello is that they only produced 80.1 q/ha from a microvineyard planted at record high density.
The fact that in blind and non-blind tasting over the last decade Banfi's Brunello has always come across as the darkest and ripest despite being made in heroic quantities is, of course, irrelevant.
The real problem is that many large estates and numerous smaller ones are cutting corners both with regard to yields and non-Sangiovese additions, because the DOCG rules are too 'restrictive' but also because any rules will always be too restrictive to big financial operations / unscrupulous growers who are there essentially to make money.
If the DOCG rules allowed 90q/ha I have no doubt's Banfi's yields would be 90.5. (If I remember well producers like Biondi-Santi, Salvioni or Costanti have 40-50q/ha.)
We should have the courage to say that terroirism and economy just don't go together. Authentic Brunello is a difficult and expensive wine to make, it is irregular and it doesn't really fit in the Wine Spectator style to guarantee steady sales in the US and Asian markets.
No matter what the rules are the temptations to 'simplify' Brunello will always be too big.

Kyle Phillips said...

Ciao Alberto,

I wouldn't say Banfi's Brunello is either the darkest nor the ripest, but that's in the eye of the beholder I think.

Also, if you think about it, Banfi doesn't have much reason to adulterate their Brunello with non-Sangiovese varietals, because they make a lot of Sant'Antimo DOC wines (the catchall for Montalcino's non-Brunello) and some of them command hefty prices. If those wines are working, why cheat on the Brunello? The risk of something like what is blowing up now is simply not worth it.

I'm not saying Banfi is perfect, nor the best -- never have -- but they do have the merit of having put enough Brunello out there to make a splash in the international wine scene, giving consumers who are curious an opportunity to discover a Brunello, and if they want to look further, to seek out smaller producers. In other words, Banfi provided other smaller Brunello producers with shoulders upon which to stand, and I have heard a number of high quality smaller producers say this.

And this brings us to the corruption thing. I've heard mutterings for years, and some of them may be (probably are) true. However, until I have solid proof (lab analyses, payment records or similar) I can't say anything because if I do I'll get hauled into court and likely find myself eating very expensive crow -- don't forget that 936 hectoliters (125,000 bottles) of out-of area-wine found in Barone Ricasoli's cellars a few years ago were "destined to be bottled as table wine for the Export market." That's what the judge ruled and Franco Ziliani had to publish profuse apologies for having suggested the wine might have had another destination.

The most I can legally do is say I don't find a particular wine true to type, and I do on occasion, or more commonly say it's very international in style and if that's what you like you'll like it. As you know, if you read my notes, I personally prefer the traditional.

Keep in mind also that wood use, especailly small wood coupled with high concentrations -- you'll find concentrators hidden away in many cellars -- new sangiovese clones, and also terroir (there has been lots of planing in areas that were once dedicated to grain) can result in flavors and aromas that aren't what one would find in a Franco Biondi Santi Brunello.

Because of these considerations -- both covering my backside, to be quite honest, and the effects variability of terroir, clone and technique can have, I'm hestiant to flat out dismiss wines as counterfit the way some of my colleagues do. Rather, I assume the winemaker's good faith and write about the wines.

Another thing, re your "unscrupulous growers and winemakers there to make money." There's an old saying, "the best way to make a small fortune in wine is to start with a large one." Winemaking is not an activity the average farmer can get rich quickly from, and if you look at the balance sheets of many wineries you'll discover that either they're a tax dodge (that's where the big financial operations come in) or that they're something that the owner, who happens to be a (fill in the blank) does because he or she wants to. Soldera did something financial (insurance?) before devoting all his energies to Case Basse. If he hadn't had that personal wealth he'd never have been able to afford to do what he has done.

And lots of the real farmers (as opposed to wealthy investors following a dream), including landed nobility, are in hock up to their eyebrows. I was at a dinner where one of the winemakers said his tie belonged to bank X and his coat to bank Y, and a number of the other winemakers nodded wryly. Another friend who writes about finance as well as wine told me that if the banks called in all the outstanding/marginal loans they'd own a significant percentage (half or more, I don't recall) of the wineries in Tuscany. They don't want to own the wineries directly, but this is the situation we have.

For that matter, Carlo Macchi has suggested that the banks may be indirectly behind the current Brunello scandal, and there is a deviously believable logic to his suggestion: A Brunello vineyard is worth much, much more per hectare than a Sant'Antimo vineyard, and it's quite possible that some producers declared their Cabernet to be Brunello before going to the bank and putting said "Brunello" vineyard up as collateral (sp?) for a loan, hoping nobody would come inspect it.

Stupid, but people who desperately need money to stay afloat do desperate things, and this ties in with one person Carlo talked with's observation that it's much easier to sneak in a tank truck if you're adulterating the wine than to grow Cabernet and try to pass it off as Sangiovese.

The bottom line, I think, is that the situation in Montalcino is still not clear, and while I do believe some house cleaning is in order, I also think that we should wait until the dust settles before reaching conclusions.