Sparks flew and tempers flared at today’s Brunello debate, held in the Aula Magna (Great Hall) of the University of Siena. Two of Italy’s leading enologists Ezio Rivella and Vittorio Fiore steadfastly defended their position that Brunello appellation regulations should be changed and that winemakers should be allowed to add up to 15% of grape varieties other than Sangiovese (current legislation requires that the wine be made using 100% Sangiovese grapes). The global palate, the enormous capital invested by corporate winemakers, and the challenges of modern winemaking, they argued, should be the guiding principles of proposed changes.
Rivella leveled harsh accusations at his interlocutor, wine writer Franco Ziliani (co-editor and creator of VinoWire). “You [journalists],” he said, “are to blame for the current Brunello scandal.” (In April 2008, five major Brunello producers were implicated in the Siena prosecutor’s investigation of adulterated wine in the appellation and authorities impounded more than 1 million bottles. Investigators have alleged that an unspecified number of Brunello producers have been blending Merlot and other international grape varieties into their Brunello. Ziliani was the first to the report news of the investigation at his popular blog, vinoalvino.org, in March 2008.)
In more measured but equally severe terms, Ziliani countered that corporate winemakers — and by virtue of association, Rivella himself — were the culprits in the current crisis. It is a well-known fact, said Ziliani pointedly, that large producers have been “breaking the rules” and the law by adding grapes other than Sangiovese to their Brunello.
Seated to the left of Ziliani, panelist Teobaldo Cappellano, Barolo producer and founder of Italy’s “Real Wine” movement, implored his colleagues and the audience to consider the value of artisanal winemaking and local traditions in the context of the global market. A change in the appellation, allowing international grapes, would “cancel out” the artisanal nature of Italian winemaking, he noted. “In my view, provincialism in this case,” he said, “is a positive thing: it is the reason why our wines are different from those made elsewhere and it is the reason why consumers buy our wines.” Ziliani also noted that the international consumers have no reason to buy “Merlot grown in Montalcino, when they can purchase Merlot made in California or Australia” at a lower price point. Such wines, he noted, “are not Brunello. They are Super Tuscans.”
Vittorio Fiore, who argued for changes in appellation regulations together with Rivella, took a more technical approach: the current law is too restrictive, he said, and makes it nearly impossible to produce wines with appeal in the global market. “Israelis make Kosher wines but there are Jews who will pay 200 or 300 Euros for those wines,” he said, comparing current legislation to the practices — overly stringent, in his view — employed in Kosher winemaking.
In a short Q&A that followed the debate, one Brunello producer expressed his feeling that those winemakers who want to make a wine comprised of Sangiovese blended with other grapes in Montalcino should “simply call their wine something other than Brunello.”