The hottest topic of the last few days: proposed changes in the DOC Rosso di Montalcino rulebook. DOC president Ezio Rivella (former winemaker of Montalcino’s largest producer, Castello Banfi) has summoned an assembly of members for 7th September to discuss the introduction of new varieties into Rosso di Montalcino. So far, Rosso is a 100% Sangiovese by law. Rivella suggests this be changed so that between 5 and 15% of foreign varieties can be introduced: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, as well as traditional Tuscan Canaiolo and a few others. There is also the possibility of introducing a Rosso di Montalcino Superiore that will remain 100% Sangiovese. Rivella attempted to have a similar proposal voted back in February 2011 but dropped the idea after it became clear there was no majority in favour.
This time chances are even slimmer. Comments that are being voiced in the blogosphere are universally negative: see e.g. Franco Ziliani, Nicholas Belfrage, Do Bianchi, Juel Mahoney as well as these numerous comments by the wine world’s elite. Francesco Illy (owner of the Mastrojanni winery) voiced his concern too, and it’s clear other historical producers such as Franco Biondi Santi, Fuligni and Col d’Orcia will strongly oppose the motion.
All this is really a continuation of the rampant Brunellogate scandal going on since spring 2008 when a large amount of 2003 Brunello di Montalcino (which by law must also be 100% Sangiovese) was found to be falsified by adding unauthorised grapes. The result was a major disaster for the image of Brunello, and combined with the economic crisis and a major crunch in exports, notably to the US, has put the Montalcino wine industry to its knees. There is currently no question of changing the 100% Sangiovese rule for Brunello so the efforts of the ‘reformist’ camp including Rivella have switched to Rosso.
I do support the opposition to changes in Rosso rules. I love traditional Sangiovese and I wouldn’t like to see Brunello or Rosso changing into inky cassis-laden Cabernet-driven wines. (See this and that article where I criticised atypical wines). I have two reservations, however, about the current outrage about the proposed DOC plan change. One is that the whole debate is getting unnecessarily heated. Italian wine discussions have a dangerous tendency of degenerating into ruthless politics. I feel unhappy when I read that Rivella and his supporters are a ‘gang’ with no moral right to propose any changes to Brunello because Rivella was born in Piedmont not Montalcino. After all, Rivella is a democratically elected president, whether we like it or not, and anyone’s place of birth shouldn’t matter when discussing the merit (or lack thereof) of their technical suggestions.
Secondly, some crucial facts are rarely mentioned by my journalist and blogger colleagues. Foreign grapes are already present in high proportion in Montalcino vineyards: as much as 700 ha out of 3,500. So far they have been used in IGT Toscana wines, DOC Sant’Antimo (both lacking the sex appeal and price tag of anything with Montalcino on the label) as well as fraudulently in Brunello and likely also Rosso. The Brunellogate-related enquiry focused on wine from the 2003 vintage but it’s clear the practice of illegal blending did go on for a number of years on a large scale. Given that before the scandal’s outbreak, vintages between 2004 and 2007 were also vinified and (in part) blended, one wonders if that practice hasn’t really been going on until very recently. The fact is that those grapes are out there, and they’re certainly not being sold on the Montalcino green market on Friday mornings. So what to make of them? Banfi do make some IGT Merlot and Cabernet, as do Col d’Orcia, Frescobaldi, Nardi, Il Poggione, and others. But e.g. Antinori’s estate of Pian delle Vigne releases no IGT (or Rosso, for that matter) even though having quite some non-Sangiovese in their plantings, from what I know. Rivella and other producers behind the motion simply represent a large chunk of the Brunello wine industry, capital, market shares, export agencies, and jobs. It’s naïve to hope they can be completely side-tracked offering them no sensible compromise. The best solution would be if Mr. Rivella took a private jet to Mars or Venus, taking his Merlot with them. But that is just not going to happen. They are here to stay. Even if the motion to change Rosso rules is rejected, it will boomerang in six or twelve months anyway. We need a durable solution. Calling Rivella the incarnation of evil and refusing to discuss any changes is not a compromise.
More importantly, I don’t think Merlot is Montalcino’s biggest problem. The biggest problem is quality and strategy. I have been tasting 150 different Brunellos from every vintage since 1997 and most of them just aren’t good enough for the price and prestige. Actually Banfi and Pian delle Vigne are in the better half of Brunellos. Hundreds of hectares in Montalcino are planted in places unsuitable for growing top-quality Sangiovese, not just by large estates such as Banfi but also many newcomers that flocked here in the fat decade of the 1990s. When Banfi and Castelgiocondo and others were investing millions of € and planting Merlot and Cab in the 1990s, nobody objected because Brunello was an easy sell and the slogan of modernising Italian wine still seemed to do magic. All those spoofulated Brunellos continuously obtained the DOCG from the appellation’s internal technical commission, as well as high ratings from many (not all) critics. I’m sorry to say that, but it’s a bit everybody’s sin if Montalcino has reached the exasperated situation of today.
Moreover there doesn’t seem to be any long-term strategy on Rosso. So far, it’s worked as a second vin, a declassified Brunello from lesser-quality grapes, young vines and inferior terroirs. As such it has only been selling on price. It sells OK when it costs 50% the price of a Brunello, but in 2009 and 2010 when Brunello prices fell sharply Rosso came to a complete standstill. Defending the ‘uniqueness’ of Rosso is a noble initiative, but does Rosso really have so much distinction for the average consumer? I don’t think so; the average consumer doesn’t really care about 5% Merlot. With a stagnant market, and unsold wine being a major problem for Montalcino, the pressure on Rosso might well increase in the years to come. It might not sound terribly romantic to the Sangiovese crusaders out there but Montalcino just needs to sell, including perhaps at lower price points than it has so far.
Do we really need this war to continue? It’s not going to benefit Brunello. It’s time for a real in-depth debate to reconcile the warring parties. Honestly I don’t agree that allowing 5% foreign grapes into Rosso poses such a threat to the identity of Montalcino. (Overoaking, overextraction and plain bad winemaking are much bigger threats, but nobody looks set to stop them institutionally). Chianti is also a Sangiovese-based wine with up to 20% Cab or Merlot allowed, but despite that fact, Chianti actually tastes more of Sangiovese than Brunello in the last few years – and everybody who believes in a 100% Sangio Chianti can choose to do so.
The Rosso motion will probably be rejected democratically by a majority of Montalcino producers. But it’s time the real issues were also addressed, and I would very much like to see a number of other motions voted as well, in order to cure Montalcino of its current cancers:
- a decision to introduce no further changes into Rosso or Brunello regulations for the next 5 years;
- a ban on any additional plantings within the Brunello DOCG to prevent further inflation of this noble wine (Barolo and Barbaresco had the guts to introduce such a ban in 2010);
- a much more stringent quality & typicity exam at granting the DOCG to Brunello and Rosso wines starting immediately, to declassify all substandard wines into IGT (a good 25% should be declassified, I think);
- the beginning of a serious soil & geography analysis, long overdue to introduce a proper ‘zonazione’ (classification into crus) of the Brunello DOCG, perhaps with the introduction of a sub-appellation for the best historical terroirs, and certainly the declassification of less happily located vineyards from Brunello into Rosso di Montalcino DOCG or downright IGT.
Without such a positive plan for Brunello, protesting against the currently proposed changes will just remain a short-term political brawl.