Brunello producer speaks out (guest blogger Tom Hyland)

Guest blogger Tom Hyland is the author of Guide to Italian Wines (a subscription newsletter) and www.learnitalianwines.com. For contact info, see below.

The Brunello Controversy: a winemaker’s perspective

by Tom Hyland

Earlier this week, I had lunch with Hans Vinding Diers, winemaker at Argiano in Sant’Angelo in Colle, one of the four initial estates named in the scandal that has now accused several dozen wineries of altering their 2003 Brunello with the possible addition of Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon to this famous Sangiovese-only red. Diers was very forthright with answers to my questions about this situation and I thank him for his insight.

Diers at first wondered why Argiano was being investigated with the three other wineries, Antinori, Banfi and Frescobaldi, all of which are quite large in size (Argiano only bottles 55,000 bottles of Brunello in an average year as compared to several hundred thousand bottles from the other estates). His first encounter with the Guardia di Finanza, which is investigating this, happened when they flew helicopters over the Argiano estate this past December, presumably to see for themselves if there were Merlot or Cabernet vines intermingled with the Sangiovese.

I asked Diers how anyone could see this in December when the vines were dormant. “I thought the only way you could tell was by looking at the leaves,” I said. “Exactly,” Diers replied.

Nonetheless, later that month, the authorities impounded the remaining bottles of 2003 Brunello di Montalcino not yet shipped by the winery. As this situation has yet to be settled throughout the district, the authorities have impounded wine at dozens of other estates, all of which are under varying degrees of investigation. Diers argued that they needed to sell this wine, so a compromise was reached. Argiano is now able to ship this wine to market under a new name, Il Duemilatre di Argiano (literally, the Argiano 2003). This is the same wine as the 2003 Brunello with the same black label the winery uses to denote their signature wine.

Interestingly, Vias, the American importer for Argiano is now selling the wine under the two labels, as they received an allocation of the Brunello before it was impounded in December. They are selling the Il Duemilatre bottling to their customers at 20% less than the Brunello bottling, which should sell out very soon. I tasted the two bottlings with Diers and they are indeed the same wine. Having tasted over a thousand examples of Brunello di Montalcino over the past seven years, I can offer the opinion that this is indeed 100% Sangiovese. The color incidentally is a bright garnet, though without the intensity one finds in the finest years. Diers explains, “In a hot year, you get a lighter color such as this, one that bleaches out sooner than in a cool year.”

Diers believes this investigation is at a standstill. “They don’t know what to do now,” he commented, referring to the prosecutors handling this case. One thing that has been settled is the question about the vineyards at Argiano. “Our vineyards have been found to contain no irregularities, as far as other varieties are concerned.”

Diers has seen this all before and questions the power the authorities have in this matter. “It’s a grand Italian opera. The magistrate in this case has autonomous power and the big boys (referring to the large producers) can’t do a thing.” His closing statement, as it were, was a refrain I’ve heard often from the country’s businessmen: “In Italy, you are guilty until proven innocent.”

Tom Hyland is a Chicago-based freelance journalist and photographer specializing in the wines of Italy. He publishes a subscription newsletter, Guide to Italian Wines and the website www.learnitalianwines.com which also features some of his best photos from Italy. He can be reached at thomas2022@comcast.net.

Brunello association president Cinzano resigns: “Mission accomplished.”

In a report published yesterday by Decanter.com, Francesco Marone-Cinzano, president of the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino (Brunello producers association), announced his resignation, telling writer Adam Lechmere, “My mission is accomplished.”

News of Cinzano’s resignation comes on the heels of an Italian government decree that essentially stripped him of his powers as the association’s president. According to the Decanter report, Cinzano denied that he had been forced out of the job, claiming that “any differences between the government department and the Consorzio had been ‘resolved’, and that he and the minister [Luca Zaia, who signed the decree into law] now saw eye to eye.”

Agriculture minister relieves Brunello association of oversight duties

In a decree signed into law today, Italy’s Minister of Agriculture, Luca Zaia, officially relieved the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino (Brunello producers association) of its oversight duties and appointed a three-member committee to monitor the appellation. According to a report published today by Decanter.com, the president of the Consorzio, Francesco Marone-Cinzano (evidently unaware of the government’s decree at the time), intends to move forward with its own plans for monitoring the appellation.

According to the carefully worded document issued today by office of the minister, the decree sets forth a “guarantee committee responsible for the coordination and supervision of monitoring activities for the DOCG wine Brunello di Montalcino and the DOC wines Rosso di Montalcino, Moscadello di Montalcino, and Sant’Antimo.” The new body will oversee the appellation for a period of six months from today.

The board will answer directly to the minister and will be comprised of: Dr. Riccardo Ricci Curbastro, president of Federdoc (National Federation of Voluntary Consortia for the Oversight of Italian Wine Appellations); Professor Vasco Boatto, director of Enology, Department of Agronomy, University of Padua); and Dr. Fulvio Mattivi, director of the analysis laboratory Istituto di San Michele all’Adige (the institute of enology, province of Trento).

Montepulciano wineries suspected of adulteration

Winemakers in yet another Siena appellation have been accused of adulteration: according to a report published today in the in Corriere Fiorentino, the Italian Guardia di Finanza (Treasury Department) has launched an investigation and has seized wines produced by at least one producer in Montepluciano, Cooperativa Vecchia Cantina, whose Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is believed to have been “cut” with wine sourced from “central and northern Italy.”

“I am not surprised,” said Luca Gattavecchi, president of the Consorzio del Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (Vino Nobile di Montepulciano producers association) in a press release also issued today. “We know that the wines of Tuscany are under a magnifying glass.”

Gattavecchi, recently elected president of the Consorzio, was informed that his winery (Gattavecchi) is under investigation. Documents were also seized at the Cantina Vecchia Toscana, according to the report.

News of the investigation comes on the heels of the Siena prosecutor’s ongoing investigation of producers in Montalcino (scroll down for the latest news from Montalcino).

Guest Opinion: Enoidentity, an appeal for the love of Italian wine

The editors of VinoWire have translated the following “appeal for the love of Italian wine.” To sign the appeal, visit Enoidentità and follow the link for “aderisci all’appello.”

In defense of the identity of Italian wine.

Recent events regarding alleged violations of the regulations for Brunello di Montalcino have given rise to yet another attack on Italian wines, their uniqueness, and their history. The offensive has been spearheaded by theoreticians of homogenization, wild liberalism applied to the wine industry, and misguided modernity. In their view, any and all enologic products should conform to the canons determined by market demand. But who, we may ask, are these persons?

In issue 28 of the magazine Porthos, the editors write of a bona fide establishment formed by consultants, industrial wineries, and even medium- and small-sized winemakers, critics, and opinion leaders. Their unifying principle is the conviction that wine is the fruit of a protocol that can be applied anywhere. It’s no coincidence many of them are the best clients of chemical and biotechnological companies.

Taking advantage of a moment of enormous confusion in the press, these persons tell us that the problem is not adulteration — i.e., the illegal deception of the consumer — but rather the entire system of governing rules. They explain that regulations for production have become obsolete. They maintain that the use of so-called “improver” varieties is inevitable in order to make Italian wines more competitive. They insist on exploiting the most prestigious appellations yet refuse to respect the history, traditions, and hard work that have helped to create their legacy. Rarely do you hear a contradictory voice among them and their message resonates in the Italian press. Their declarations thus become binding prescriptions for the health of entire wine industry.

For those of us who consider wine to be nourishment for the spirit and part of our cultural heritage, this is entirely unacceptable.

The Italian appellation system was created with the intent of safeguarding and guaranteeing the identity and integrity of Italian wine. In recent years, with the complicity and inattention of the authorities responsible for monitoring, some of the most important territories have been treated like receptacles to be filled, occupied, or enlarged out of proportion. In numerous places, specialized cultivation of the vine has been replaced by dominant cultivation and consequently variety and breath have been taken away from the land.

We have witnessed an invasion of foreign grape varieties with the objective of “improving” unique Italian varieties and creating products more easily consumed regardless of the banalization of other wines that may arise as a result. The establishment continues to change regulations for the production of wine without any planning whatsoever. Instead, time after time, it merely photocopies changes proposed by marketers. All of this is carried out in the name of immediate financial gain by following the whims of the market. From not only an ethical but also from an economic point of view, this approach represents a grave error: in the mid- and long-terms, the standardization of our wines will directly result in a drop in sales and in tourist trade in zones where wine is produced.

In order to restore credibility to our appellation system and to revive the spirit that inspired it, we must conduct a restrictive campaign to update and improve regulations and monitoring, thus adapting them to the new systems employed by the establishment to bypass them. At present, Italian wineries are allowed to use systemic products that progressively deplete life in the soil and in the vineyards. In the production of wine, no expense is spared for yeasts, bacteria, and enzymes selected by biotechnology. Winemaking even allows for the presence of substances — justified by their presumed enological origin — used to fix the liquid. These actions have made the concept of terroir pointless. Recent legislation has authorized producers associations (comprised of the very same wineries) to verify the correspondence between the wines and the respective appellation regulations. But the situation has not improved because Italian production of wine has not achieved the maturity necessary for serious self-regulation.

Wine is work, social intercourse, and commerce. On one hand, globalization represents an opportunity when it allows us to experience and compare products that express different terroirs and different cultures. On the other, it is a danger when it imposes a leveling of variety, the debasement of terroir, the substitution of the farmhand’s hard work and ability with industrial manipulation and alchemy.

To combat this trend, we produce, we speak out, we sell, we study, and we give life to Italian wine. We reaffirm our opposition to any proposed denaturalization of our appellations, whether through the use of foreign grape varieties or through practices intended to render our wine different from what it is. The strength of Italian wine lies its complexity and its variety. We should make the most of those differences instead of sacrificing them in the name of the supposed demands of globalized tastes.

From this moment onward, we therefore propose greater commitment to the campaign to raise awareness of Italian wine and to defend its identity. We do so thanks to the love expressed by many of the undersigned by organizing conferences, rallies, classes, tastings, and internships. We are certain that this is the only path to safeguard Italian wine and give the world reason to love it.

— Marco Arturi e Sandro Sangiorgi (translated by Jeremy Parzen)

First signatories:

Sandro Sangiorgi and Porthos
Teobaldo Cappellano and Vini Veri
Angiolino Maule and Vin Natur
Luca Gargano, Velier Triple A
Stefano Bellotti, Renaissance Italia
Francesco Paolo Valentini, winemaker
Maria Teresa Mascarello, winemaker
Corrado Dottori, winemaker
Luigi Anania, winemaker
Carlo Noro, biodynamic farmer
Franco Ziliani, journalist
Roberto Giuliani, LaVINIum
Marco Arturi, journalist
Andrea Scanzi, journalist and writer
Paolo Massobrio and Club di Papillon
Sergio Rossi, retailer
Remigio Bordini, agronomist
Michele Lorenzetti, enologist
Maurizio Castelli, enologist

Italian agriculture minister rebukes Brunello association and denies any involvement in “Guarantee Board”

In response to a press release issued Saturday by the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino (Brunello producers association), the Italian Minister of Agriculture, Food, and Forestry Policies Luca Zaia issued the following press release Sunday:

    1. Information circulated by the press does not reflect the will of the minister nor does it represent current work by the offices of the Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Forestry Policies.

    2. In particular, the Ministry categorically denies that it has been involved in or that there is any agreement on the project announced by the Consortium to newspapers.

    3. Through his own project, the minister is personally engaged in developing one of the most delicate case files in the Italian food industry, intended to restore Brunello’s international credibility and to allow one of our products of excellence to return to strategic markets like America.

    During the meetings of the FAO, the minister, through our Ministry of Foreign affairs, will be meeting with the American Agriculture Secretary Dan [sic] Schafer with the goal of avoiding the planned embargo.

[Editor’s note: the U.S. Agriculture Secretary is Ed Schafer; the FAO (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization) summit opened today in Rome.]

Brunello producers association announces creation of a “Guarantee Board”

Following the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino (Brunello producers association) plenary session Friday, May 30, the group of 256 affiliated Brunello producers has announced the creation of a “Board di Garanzia” or Guarantee Board that will submit future vintages of Brunello di Montalcino to rigorous testing and certification. In a press release issued on the Consorzio’s website the day after the meeting, the group hailed the formation of the body as “epic turning point” and “milestone” in the history of Italian viticulture since no such oversight commission exists in the panorama of Italian viticulture.

The proposed “board” is the result of meetings between the Consorzio and undersecretary of the Italian Ministry of Agriculture Antonio Bonfiglio. To be composed of three persons (as of yet undetermined), the board will be responsible for monitoring and “guaranteeing” the following:

  • the purity of Sangiovese in Brunello
  • conformity of viticultural practices, from the vineyard to production
  • traditional aging in wood [cask]
  • characteristic qualities and origin of the wine in territorial terms
  • [Editor's note: the above translation faithfully reflects the wording of the original.]

    Guidelines for the appointment of board members were not specified but the board will include “internationally renowned technical specialists,” according the statement.

    The statement did not directly address the upcoming visit of a delegation from the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade bureau or the bureau’s June 23 deadline for a response to its request for information regarding the Brunello controversy. However, the authors of the statement observed that the formation of the board “heads in the direction of a response to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade bureau’s request” for information.