Winemaker Renzo Cotarella (Antinori) speaks to VinoWire about the Brunello controversy and calls for an “ethical approach” to winemaking.

VinoWire editor Franco Ziliani spoke recently to Marchesi Antinori’s winemaker Renzo Cotarella about the Brunello controversy. Antinori was one of the first wineries to be named in the investigation: in March 2008, the Italian national daily La Repubblica reported that Antinori’s 2003 Brunello di Montalcino Pian delle Vigne had been impounded by the Siena prosecutor. On June 26, Antinori announced that investigators had released the wine, reporting that it had been analyzed and was found not to contain grapes other than Sangiovese. The wine was made available for sale on July 1.

Of the wineries officially implicated in the investigation, Antinori is among the first to be cleared by Italian authorities.

This is the first in a two-part interview. Look for part 2 tomorrow at VinoWire.com.

What was your first reaction to the investigation?

None of us at Marchesi Antinori expected that such a situation could come about. It literally took us by surprise. We weren’t prepared for the search warrants, the inspections, and the involvement of our company and brand in an episode that was blown way out of proportion. Our first concern, beyond protecting the good name of our company, was that of protecting the land value of our vineyards. Even before the Siena prosecutor decided to impount our 2003 Brunello di Montalcino (of which we had planned to release 200,000 bottles), we ourselves decided not to release the wine for sale as a precaution. It was a tough decision for us but we wanted to undestand what was happening.

The prosecutor has now released your wine and approved it for sale, clearing Antinoris name. Why then did you declassify 80,000 bottles?

These were difficult months during which the company had to act with style, on the one hand respecting the job the magistrate was doing and on the other not making counter-productive statements. We had to wait for the chance to show that we were innocent, that we had nothing to do with the allegations, and our respect for the existing appellation regulations, and the law. [We didn’t want to lose an order from a valued customer], “Emirates Airline, and we realized that this was taking a long time and didn’t know if we would be able to meet our deadlines, so we decided to declassify 80,000 bottles of Brunello Pian delle Vigne 2003 to IGT Toscana. The airline’s choice was essentially based on the quality of our product. The appellation change did not bring about any change to our agreement and we sold the IGT at the same price we had agreed upon for the Brunello.

We promptly followed the Siena prosecutor’s office instructions — using a method agreed upon in the name of common sense — and we were able to submit our 2003 Brunello for analysis. We were thus able to show that we were working correctly and that our wines were in perfect conformity with appellation regulations requiring that the wine is pure Sangiovese from Montalcino. For future vintages, which Brunello has yet to be “cleared”), if required, we will request testing and the wines will be made available for sale on schedule.

How will the 2004 Brunello di Montalcino be released?

Because of the nature of the vintage, the 2003 was bottled a year early. For 2004, we plan on bottling the wine between the end of July and the beginning of August 2008 and we will then let it age 6-8 months in bottle.

We have not yet decided whether or not we will bottle before or after we have performed the required analysis. Shortly, we will contact the Siena prosecutor’s office to coordinate every step of the process.

We have roughly 1,200 hectares under vine in Tuscany and Marchesi Antinori is entirely in favor and open to any type of analysis. We believe that this practice is the most appropriate response in our efforts to bolster the value of our land and to maintain consumer confidence and perception of our company.

What are your thoughts on the recent controversy and the future of Brunello di Montalcino?

What happened is still the source of great bitterness. We didn’t realize that it could have such a devastating effect.

It has caused considerable damage, even though Brunello is still incredibly strong. Many brands, including our own, have maintained their credibility. In just a few days, we will have the green light to ship the wine [and] most of the bottles of 2003 Pian delle Vigne have already been sold.

At any rate, I believe that the “Brunello scandal” has brought attention to the necessity for an “ethical approach” to wine, its production, its sale, and marketing. When a product can be monitored and the source of the fruit and the grape varieties can be analyzed, it invariably acts as a deterrent for those who might resort to shortcuts.

Sangiovese is a fantastic grape variety but it is also difficult and it creates a lot of problems. Montalcino is one of the few places — together with certain, well-defined areas in Chianti Classico — where you can work with 100% Sangiovese.

We have to accept the fact that over the last few years, when ripening conditions are not the best, you either have to decide not to produce Brunello or you need to make less of it.

[The press] needs to learn how to understand Montalcino and Sangiovese and to realize that great wines can be made from vineyards in Montalcino but those wines shouldn’t be considered too tannic, acidity, or as having excessive volatile acidity.

Do you think that appellation regulations should be changed to allow other grapes besides Sangiovese?

We need to accept the appellation rules and consider them as a plus and not as a limitation. These wines have a personality all their own and we shouldn’t expect them to be something other than what they are.

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