The editors of VinoWire thank the generous Jancis Robinson for granting us permission to repost the below article by wine writer and winemaker Monty Waldin.
Monty lets off steam about Brunellopoli
By Monty Waldin
Courtesy of JancisRobinson.com
I first arrived in Montalcino in 2004 to write a Tuscan wine guide. Montalcino produces Italy’s most hyped red, Brunello di Montalcino. Brunello’s claim to be made from 100% Sangiovese grapes of a small-berried clone of Sangiovese Grosso called Brunello, ‘the little dark one’, is what helps it attract Premier League prices. Recently however industry figures have openly suggested revising Brunello’s Sangiovese-only rule.This indicates Sangiovese might also be Brunello’s Achilles Heel: tough to grow and even tougher to ferment and age for Brunello di Montalcino to be the smooth, deep red modern consumers seem to like. Sangiovese tannins can be so harsh that young Brunello must now spend at least 24 months softening in oak and bottled wines cannot be released within five years of the harvest. These rules help add to Brunello’s USP.
Less well known however is that Sangiovese’s lack of colour and body means it can dry out well before it is allowed to be bottled as Brunello, so 15% of Brunello wines from other, generally younger vintages not yet bottled can be blended in to refresh the blend, as can 6% of grape concentrate produced from Sangiovese grapes grown in the Brunello zone. Blending in other grapes such as Syrah (softness), Aglianico or Merlot (body) and either Colorino, Cabernet or Petit Verdot (colour) to beef up Brunello is an obvious but forbidden attraction.
In February 2005 I attended Benvenuto Brunello (‘welcome to Brunello’), the annual showpiece event organised by the Consorzio (governing body) to which the vast majority of Montalcino’s wine producers belong — Biondi-Santi, the first winery to identify the ‘Brunello’ clone, being one notable absentee. Over 150 other producers however presented their Brunellos to journalists, the wine trade and the public.
From my own research on Sangiovese’s typical flavour profile, experience of working with Sangiovese in California, and a calculation that most wines on show came from vines under 10 years old yielding the absolute maximum number of grapes allowed, I was astonished that so many Brunellos on show that day showed lush tannins, deep colours and soft acidity.
Only around a dozen Brunellos appeared to taste authentically 100% Sangiovese. The Brunellos I tasted in 2005 were from the difficult 2000 vintage. Rot was prevalent, ripening was variable and as Sangiovese is a tricky ripener anyway you would expect its worst characteristics to be accentuated: lack of body, high acidity, rasping tannins, little colour plus a few dusty aromas from rotten grapes.
Tasters I respect often talk about texture and the 2000 Brunellos I tasted had neither the texture of the 2000 vintage nor Montalcino’s various terroirs. I had the same sensations at Benvenuto Brunello 2006 when tasting the 2001 vintage. I gave up going to Benvenuto Brunello after that. I quite openly told anyone who would listen that I thought the event was sham. Others seemed to doubt Brunello’s authenticity too.
I heard writer Bill Nesto MW ask tongue in cheek ‘what’s the blend of this Brunello’ when tasting. As one of America’s sharpest Master of Wines, he knew perfectly well that Brunello should be a single varietal wine and not a blend. If I had correctly understood them, articles on Brunello by American Nicolas Belfrage MW (a world authority on Italian wine) and Italian Franco Ziliani showed they weren’t convinced either.
Late last year I discovered the Italian authorities were investigating several well-known wineries for apparent irregularities in declared wine yields and vineyard registers recording exactly which types of grapes varieties are planted. Wineries involved included Argiano, Antinori’s Pian delle Vigne, Banfi and Frescobaldi’s Castelgiocondo.
By mid-spring 2008 it was clear over 100, around half of all Brunello wineries, were under some form of investigation. Other (mainly Italian) writers who were sceptical that potential fraud might be so widespread are now incandescent that the winery owners’ attitude appears to be: ‘we’re innocent, but if we’re found guilty you wine writers are responsible. You gave the highest ratings to deep, lush, un-Sangiovese-like wines so that’s what we made.’
Brunello’s style morphs
What is incontrovertible is that the least scrupulous producers and the more gullible wine writers have combined to push the Brunello ‘myth’. For instance, the most critically acclaimed Brunello of recent years (a 2001) was described by an American publication as having picture postcard vineyards, but whenever I drive past mud has leached from the vineyard on to road from heavy use of vineyard tractors.
Compacted, eroding vineyards that are heavily sprayed like this one is don’t normally produce world-beating wines. The wine was said to show intense, full-bodied, velvet-like chocolate and black fruit flavours. None are typical flavour or texture characteristics of Sangiovese, especially one grown on the kind of heavy, alluvial, low lying, compacted clay soils converted from cereal crops this producer has. Chocolate suggests to me that brown, cocoa-like tannin powder was added for mouthfeel.
I know of a company north of Siena that has sold fruit concentrate used in jam-making (and illegal for Brunello) in the Brunello zone. Cash sale, no invoice, no paper trail, no risk of getting caught. If used in a Brunello it would provide the kind of taste profile ascribed to this wine. If this wine hasn’t been illegally blended, why did the winery’s owner make a voluntary declaration to the investigators?
If you have acted fraudulently and look likely to get caught owning up to the authorities before they knock on your door, this, coupled with an appeals process which can be drawn out beyond Italy’s ever shortening, post-Berlusconi statute of limitations, means you’ll escape any punishment.
Why did his consulting winemaker publicly and consistently push for Brunello’s rules to be changed to allow non-Sangiovese grapes into Brunello until of course the scandal erupted and when he converted to being a 100% Sangiovese Brunellista? Now he is keeping his fingers crossed while questioning the probity of the public prosecutor in charge of the Brunellopoli investigation.
Wine critics who praise the ‘courage’ of wineries admitting malpractice or withdrawing suspect wines from the market forget these wineries have fleeced consumers. As soon as the scandal became public in April local rubbish dumps filled with thousands of empty bottles of labelled wines which appear to have been uncorked and decanted back into vats or barrels, or tipped down the drain.
Some had never even been commercially released. Is this courageous? It’s not an easy thing for me to say considering my first child will be born here [on the same day as Monty’s tv series has its debut on Channel 4, according to the doctors – JR], but in nearly 25 years of working with wine I have never experienced the following scenario.
By chance I arrived at a medium-sized winery one afternoon and was asked to join in a impromptu tasting of some “Brunello” blends brought by the owner’s winemaking consultant. The owner genuinely believes Brunello should be 100% Sangiovese. He is not popular in Montalcino and has even suffered vandalism for his views. Unknown to him, his winemaking consultant blends around 10-20% non-Sangiovese grapes each vintage to his Brunello.
The consultant didn’t know I knew he was a trickster. His attempts to get me to praise the wines as authentic Brunellos in front of his boss and to satisfy his quite unshakeable belief that journalists – and by implication ordinary wine drinkers – were too stupid to know what real Brunello should taste like failed. I made some neutral comments about the wines being “interesting” before making an angry exit.
Over-expansion of vineyards
From 1997 the Brunello zone was expanded, essentially onto low-lying, geologically inferior land such as that near the Asso river in Torrenieri. This was previously used for grazing or cereals. My father-in-law says the soil here is ‘no good for even for vegetables let alone wine’. He knows. He owns an allotment here.
At the same time EU grants were arriving to encourage women under 40 into agriculture. One family of cereal farmers transferred their business into the name of their daughter who was studying at university and who has no interest in wine to pocket funds to plant vineyards. Another young woman used EU grants aimed at stimulating tourism by renovating derelict farm buildings she had recently inherited into holiday flats.
She ripped the attached vineyards out when she reached 41. If you call her to make a booking the flats are either ‘busy’ or the prices quoted are extortionately high. This is because the funds really went towards creating a second home for family and friends, not tourist accommodation. [I fear this is not a Brunello-specific phenomenon – JR] The rapid expansion of the Brunello vineyard meant there was a surfeit of Sangiovese grapes from badly planted (over ripped), badly sited (low lying), high yield, over-fertilised vines.
Yet prices for Sangiovese grapes from immature vines even on the worst soils sky-rocketed during this period. Why? The boom in planting coincided with a boom in sales, leaving some established Brunello wineries without enough wine to sell. The problem was solved by buying in these EU-funded Sangiovese grapes. The more Sangiovese grapes you have, the more Brunello you can make.
These purchased Sangiovese grapes would not always go into wines labelled as Brunello.They could be dumped in less profitable IGT Toscana (’Tuscan Country Wine’, like the French vin de pays) brands – but they did allow you to increase the quantity of the much higher-margin “Brunello” you made which could be filled out with non-Sangiovese grapes that weren’t selling well as IGT. Crazy, but true.
The irony if one were needed was that established Brunello producers had initially protested about the Brunello DOCG zone’s expansion onto heavier, lower lying land. They maintained (correctly) that slow ripening vines on high altitude sites produce the best Sangiovese. But booming wine sales meant they were falling over themselves to buy grapes from these same sites.
One EU-funded producer whose own winery was not yet finished received an order for some Brunello wine – which of course he didn’t have – during the late 1990s boom. He simply bought some bulk Brunello from the local cooperative as it was the cheapest available. The wine was corrected with acid, colour, tannin and 40% Sangiovese wine purchased from a three year-old vineyard 20 miles outside the Brunello zone. 40% of the blend was then sold as ‘Tuscan country wine’ to make the numbers add up and the rest – ie exactly the same quantity of “Brunello” as he had started with – was sold in heavy bottles with a sexy label. Result? An 80% profit.
Help from the south
There is an ingrained culture in Tuscany of blending stronger, deeper wines – il mosto meridionale – from southern Italy, a practice that was particularly necessary when poor quality Sangiovese clones dominated the vineyards of Chianti in the 1960s and 1970s, for example.
All of Montalcino’s biggest wineries in terms of volume either own, or have (quite legitimate) trading relationships, with vineyards, wine producers or bulk cooperatives outside the Brunello zone. All are under investigation. One has admitted to fraudulent yields but not falsifying wine (this is sophistry). Two others are waiting for the investigators’ findings. One has withdrawn a Brunello from the market without admitting any wrongdoing. One other seems now to be in the clear.
Brunello’s Consorzio was supposed to police the region’s wines. For less than what the Consorzio is paying a Milanese PR company to conduct a damage-limitation exercise, it could pay to have every one of its members’ wines analysed.
According to Geoff Taylor of Corkwise and the UK’s leading wine analyst, a multi-spectrum analysis of wines using atomic absorption could determine where the grapes in the blend have come from ie if wines from outside the Montalcino zone have been blended in. “All vineyard soils contain around 20 to 30 trace metals, like selenium or molybdenum for example,” says Taylor. “The patterns change according to which region you are in. First you’d establish what the pattern of trace metals was in wines made only from grapes grown in Montalcino.
Then you’d analyse wines from any regions outside Montalcino which you think have been used as blending material. Wines labelled as Brunello falling outside the statistical pattern of the soils from which they are supposed to have been grown on can thus be identified and matched to where they might really have been sourced from.”
I have seen tankers from Southern Italy’s more prolific wine regions in Montalcino. As only the zone’s largest two dozen wineries have the tank space to deal with tankersful of wine – and as all of them protest their innocence – all should welcome being subjected to the trace metal test. It takes less than seven days and costs less than £150 per wine. According to Taylor the trace metal test is more accurate than nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, or NMR, which analyses wines and vineyards for isotopes Carbon 12 and Carbon 13 and costs £600 per wine. NMR is favoured by the EU and the Italian authorities who have invested vast sums on the system but the way the database was constructed may be flawed. “If I was a wine producer I would confidently challenge its accuracy if asked to appear in court,” says Taylor.
Wineries producing Brunello but growing grapes other than Sangiovese should undergo a different analysis. “It’s harder to check if different grapes from exactly the same site have been blended together,” says Taylor. “Tests exist but don’t stack up.” This suggests that the story of the Montalcino winemaker who claims to have sent a 95% Merlot red for analysis and found it certified as a 100% Sangiovese Brunello may be more than an urban myth. As someone who blends other grapes into Brunello, needless to say he was delighted.
Less fortunate – or even more stupid – are those being investigated for passing off vineyards containing French grapes as Sangiovese/Brunello in planting registers. Over a decade ago they had been advised by the same wine consultant – one of Italy’s most famous – to plant Bordeaux grapes instead of Sangiovese to make ‘SuperTuscan’ reds which were then all the rage. When the market for Sangiovese/Brunello picked up, both vineyards lacked Sangiovese, so passing off other grapes as Sangiovese in planting registers made sense.
This scam was supposed to have been closed from 2004 by the Erga Omnes investigation checking vineyards for non-Sangiovese vines. Only 1% of vineyards in the DOCG zone were said to be fraudulent but the checks were risible. I am not an ampelographer but I saw non-Sangiovese vineyards declared as such openly being regrafted to Sangiovese in the zone as late as spring 2007. There are even reports that vineyard managers bribed suppliers of baby vines to pretend they were supplying ‘Sangiovese/Brunello’ when in fact the vines were Merlot, Cabernet or whatever. Ignorance is no defence as vineyard managers must have the technical competence to be able to identify easily Sangiovese vines.
The checks appear to have been so well telegraphed in advance you had to be exceptionally stupid to get caught. One of those who has been indicted for alleged vineyard fraud styled himself as one of the most vociferous defenders of the ‘Brunello is a 100% Sangiovese wine and should remain so’ concept. His exceptional hubris – if you can’t be honest about your vines, are you really going to be honest about your wines? – was the straw that broke the camel’s back for one fellow producer of genuinely 100% Sangiovese Brunello who shopped him to the authorities.
That’s how Brunellopoli started. In late 2007 the winery he administers was sealed off. A school-type notebook with details of how much Merlot, Cabernet and so on was going into the Brunello was discovered during a search, as was a hidden cellar of trucked in wines.
1888 and all that
Part of Brunello’s ‘myth’ is it’s an historic wine region. It isn’t. Burgundy monks were making Clos de Vougeot in the Middle Ages. Claret bottles labelled as Château Haut-Brion were being swigged in London in the mid-17th century. In the late 1970s, what is today Brunello’s largest producer was still trying to grow sweet fizzy Muscat whites. As a red wine region this is a young and far from world-class zone still feeling its way. Can you make great wines here? Yes, but you’ll need three things.
1) Good clones of Sangiovese Grosso. Yes, you read that right. Sangiovese is a clonal nightmare and tends to “piss” in its youth. So old vines help, but under 1% of Montalcino’s Sangiovese was planted pre-1960.
2) Good sites, above 300 metres and on the zone’s oldest (geologically speaking) soils. This probably rules out a third of the DOCG zone. Wines I have tasted from such sites made in the golden decade of the 1950s and definitely from Sangiovese are like top Burgundy: pale in colour but powerfully, divertingly flavoured.
3) Good farming. Brunello vineyards often suffer heavy, cement-like soils. Producers have been tempted to follow the dogma of the 1970s espoused by north Italian wine universities which saw ploughing the rows frequently as the surest way of allowing vine roots to breathe. Add in weedkillers sprayed under the vines and you have the weed-free look Tuscan winemakers think tourists prefer. This should change.
Constant ploughing burns all the organic matter (the carbon which worms love) out of the soil and means vines stress more easily as they can’t hydrate or feed as well as they’d like in hot or wet weather. Some wine writers insist that vines need to be stressed for quality. They don’t, any more than wine writers need having their fingers cut off to produce better articles.
The organic approach of building soil health using compost, sowing cover crops like grasses to prevent erosion and tractor compaction has produced two of the better wines I have tasted in this zone [neither of whose producers do I consult to – see disclaimer]. But organics is no guarantee of good practice, especially in wet years (like 2008) when at least one bio grower appears to have had no problem spraying banned anti-rot products without offering to forfeit their official organic status.
I cannot accept there exists a single person involved in wine in any serious capacity in Brunello di Montalcino who can claim to be totally unaware either that fraud was being committed here by the least scrupulous producers or that the rumours of fraud were not at least credible.
Even smaller growers I have dined with and whose Brunellos I like have admitted that “I have a few rows of Cabernet” or “I blend in a bit of Colorino from my uncle…” Several export managers have admitted to me that they knew the winemakers would alter Brunellos to make them easier to sell – by adding a bit of Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. They would never directly ask for this to be done but they would drop hints about the need to ‘internationalise’ the Brunello.
These same export managers admit to abiding by the “don’t ask, don’t tell” philosophy. “I just don’t want to know what goes on in there [the winery],” said one export manager to me in July. I haven’t named any wineries – good or bad – in this article as to my mind they are all in it together. That’s why all the producers – tricksters and purists – will have to work together to dig the region out of this hole.
Imposing a ban on Brunellos made from vines younger than ten years old and estate wineries growing anything other than Sangiovese might be a start. But imposing more rules on Italy’s unruliest wine region might even prove the biggest mistake of all.
I am paid as a biodynamic consultant to an estate in the Brunello di Montalcino DOCG zone. I am in charge of 10% of the vineyards: a trial biodynamic plot of a field-blended vineyard, one of the oldest in the zone (there are 2% white grapes of an unknown varietal; around 5-10% Colorino; and the rest is Sangiovese. The vines were planted in the 1950s. Around 40% of the vines are missing and are being replaced).
My main job is making biodynamic compost: biodynamic cow manure + winery waste + chipped prunings from the estate’s olive trees + certified organic municipal compost + the six biodynamic compost preparations. This compost is also now being used in other vineyards on the estate, the initial trial having been deemed a success.
Cover cropping, herbal tea sprays and lunar pruning are other useful practices that have been ’stolen’ from biodynamics to be used on the rest of the estate. None of the vines are certified organic/biodynamic at this time. The general manager is insistent on allowing me no access to the winery. He is currently being investigated for Brunellopoli”.