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04.08.2008

Dirty Tuscan Laundry

What's a little bit of Cabernet between friends? Depends on who you ask. In California a little dash of Cabernet in your Merlot, or vice versa would hardly be cause for comment. Technically, in order to have the words "Cabernet Sauvignon" on the label, only 75% of the wine has to be Cabernet. In Italy, however, the largest wine scandal in decades has recently erupted over a little bit of Cabernet and Merlot mixed in with Sangiovese.

In an incident that is already being referred to as Brunellogate, several prominent winegrowers in Tuscany are facing prosecution on charges of adulterating their Brunello wines with other grapes. In this small appellation in central Tuscany that spreads out from the hill town of Montalcino, the only grape that can go into a bottle labeled Brunello is Sangiovese Grosso.

I never quite know what to think of such matters. On the one hand, the appellation regulations (in Italy they are known as DOCG - Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) about which grapes can go into your wine serve to preserve the heritage of the region, as well as help consumers know what to expect out of a bottle. This is clearly a good thing, and there are other ways that growers can label their wines (and still get regional affiliation) if they want to make wines that do not conform to the regulations of a particular named region like Brunello di Montalcino.

On the other hand, well, how much could a little Cabernet hurt? One can argue that a little Cabernet in your Sangiovese isn't even affecting the sensory qualities of the wine as much as say, the difference between aging the wine in old Slavonian oak casks (as the traditionalists do) and aging the wine in French oak barrels (as many new producers do).

Of course, the argument always returns to the "slippery slope" principle, which is hard to deny in this case. If there's some benefit to the regulations, which there clearly is, then there's got to be benefit in enforcing them.

The irony of the current scandal, which has been reported extensively at VinoWire, an Italian focused wine blog, is that such adulteration of wines in the region is probably much more widespread than most people think. These particular wineries just happened to get caught. Of course, the 14 producers implicated, which include Antinori, Argiano, and Frescobaldi, are some of the largest and most prominent wine families in the country, let alone the region. The seizing of their wines, wineries, and vineyards by Department of Trade officials this week will make for months worth of rumor mongering, speculation, and outrage in the Italian wine community.

I certainly hope this gets sorted out without significant damage to the region, which holds a special place in my heart. Although, if it resulted in a 20% drop in Brunello prices, I might not consider it such a bad thing.

Read the full story.

Comments (20)

04.09.08 at 12:38 AM

Good post. Until. Your final line: Although, if it resulted in a 20% drop in Brunello prices, I might not consider it such a bad thing.

Let me see if I have this right: 1) Italian Wine Scandal. 2) Bad thing. 3) No, Good thing (to you) if it lowers your cost 20%. 4) Your "savings" of $10-$14/btl makes the scandal A-Okay in your self-centered point-of-view. 5) Your "Special Place in (your) Heart" can be bought quite cheaply.

andrea gori wrote:
04.09.08 at 12:42 AM

wine alwasys has adapted to consumer's taste per in some cases, like our Barolo and Brunello that always were 100% one variety (nebbiolo for Barolo and Brunello) the problem is that they cannot adapt to consumer's taste like Chianti Classico and other DOCG that were born like Bordeaux or RHone.
Adding Cabernet in the Sangiovese in Montalcino is like adding Merlot in Pinot Noir in Burgundy to make it a little bit fruity and good looking.
So please stop saying that we can add a little bit of cabernet merlot syrah whatsoever in our real Brunello!

Javier Marti wrote:
04.09.08 at 7:57 AM

Cabernet Sauvignon is not my favourite grape when used outside the usual production areas. If added to a varietal wine, even in small amounts, it gives a green pepper aroma and strength in the mouth that I do not enjoy in a varietal wine. Adding another grape is a cheap trick to boost the production, but as mentioned above it has a negative impact on the wine and the region. Enjoy the real Brunello!

Rajiv wrote:
04.09.08 at 7:58 AM

Perhaps there could be another labelling scheme invented. The way I understand it, producers use Cab and Merlot to "round out" or, some would say, "Parkerize" wines from an appellationthat is a little out-of-line with the global palate. The problem is that doing this destroys the heritage of the region, and the faith of customers who prefer the old style, which is what the appellation system was meant to preserve.

If customers don't like the region, the region has to change, the way bordeaux has changed over the years. Whether that change is driven by including other grapes is something they have to decide, but it seems the appellation system makes them all sink/swim together.

As a consumer, I'd like to know if there are other varietals added, because if I actually like the old style of sangiovese, added varietals would be a clue to me that the wine is in a different style, though it shares the appellation.

And Jack at Fork and Bottle: I think that last line of Alder's speaks for lots of wine lovers, myself included. It's a little bit of a dilemma, admittedly.

Alder wrote:
04.09.08 at 8:07 AM

Jack,

I guess its not clear in that last line that my tongue is somewhat firmly planted in cheek? So let me state for the record, I'd prefer my Brunello without Cab (even though I'm sure some of the Brunello's I've loved in the past have been adulterated). And yes, even if that means that prices continue to rise.

Alder wrote:
04.09.08 at 8:20 AM

Rajiv,

Thanks for the comments. I dont think we're at a point yet where Brunello, even if made the traditional way isn't appealing to enough consumers. However I do think that this adulteration is probably done less for boosting production as other commenters have suggested, and more to "round out" the wines as you imply.

You're also right to compare such changes to Bordeaux's shifting blends over time (many of which pre-date modern wine critics, so no one can fault Parker). Such historical precedents are easily forgotten by many people who stridently defend "tradition" without realizing the traditions they are defending are merely 100 years old in a region that has been making wine for many centuries.

However with Brunello I think the shift from being a single varietal wine to a blend is a bit more radical than Bordeaux's gradual shift away from Malbec as a big component of the blend to, say, more Merlot.

But this is definitely not a black and white issue, as much as many people would like to make it.

See this previous post about Rioja Blanca as an example of a situation where it seems like shifting appellation rules is justified.

Dean Tudor wrote:
04.09.08 at 9:50 AM

Somehow, it doesn't faze me at all..No matter how cynical I get, I can never keep up...I'd rather have ADULTERATION by added grape varieties than ADULTERATION by other stuff out there (illegal sussreserve, chaptalization (sp?), tanin plus, chocolate syrup, oak flavourings, and a wealth of other products that are on the market.

BUT -- having said that, it would be nice to read on a label that there are other grape varieties. I just tasted a nice wine yesterday, Empson Monte Antico Sangiovese/Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 Tuscany: very good blend for the North American market, food wine. $14.95. It was mainly sangiovese with dollops of cabsauv and merlot, meant for the North American market. Nice and tidy for $14.95 in Canada, overpriced of course because of government monopolies.

Arthur wrote:
04.09.08 at 11:44 AM
weekly wino wrote:
04.09.08 at 1:12 PM

What do you do when it tastes so good? How do you draw the line between better with an classification? Is it time for a new classification, a la the Super Tuscan movement?

Would love to hear your thoughts...

Gotorio wrote:
04.09.08 at 1:29 PM

I don't have a problem if a vinery blends it's products with some other grape. But I as the consumer want to be informed.

04.09.08 at 2:36 PM

Interesting story, but I would tend to think of Antinori and Frescobaldi not as prominent in Brunello, so much as prominent outsiders (who happen to be good at making money). Argiano is not familiar to me. Are there any really good producers named?

04.09.08 at 3:30 PM

Weekly Wino, I am afraid we are getting into semantics here (always a slippery road) for how am I to define your concept of "better", (although I agree on your super Tuscans comment)?

Italian DOCG are all about area, tradition and legal protocols, that's how consumers know what they get. Enough Brunello-as-it-is lovers around, the production area is relatively small, so what are we talking about here?

Most committed Italian wine-producers I interviewed seem to care more about doing things the way they feel it's right, than pleasing international palates. The best ones have already sold their future productions, so do they really care about international marketing?

Or is this just the problem? Pumping up production which is alreay sold on paper because of a bad year?

But let's say a producer wants to experiment with something he thinks is better and makes better wines. You can give it a fantasy name (nobody knows yet) and make something that will become in due time the standard for a new denomination. You really need to do your best to sell it, though, because nobody ever heard about this.

Or you can profit of a well-known brand and call it Brunello, hoping they won't catch you that soon. Problem is, it's illegal and you are fooling consumers.

Steve Edmunds, they are indeed good at making money and pleasing consumers and market trends (blame them), not necessarily at making Brunello.

Not being a Sangiovese fan myself, I will never get into spontaneous orgasms at the idea of a Brunello (wont refuse a good one either), but this is all about consumers expectations and collateral damage to all the honest producers. Good thing it is being investigated, pity for the wine image.

[Alder, I am Amsterdam-based, not very familiar about anglo-saxon foul- language policies, please feel free to keep my view if it is adding anything to the discussion, and amend what you think might sound offensive.]

Alder wrote:
04.09.08 at 5:31 PM

Barbara,

I hope the word "orgasm" is never considered foul language among adults!

Alder wrote:
04.09.08 at 7:34 PM

Steve,

I think Col d'Orcia is also on the list, which is better than some. I haven't seen the full list of all 14 producers. Antinori is definitely big elsewhere, but they do own the Pian Delle Vigne estate in the southern part of Brunello.

Alder wrote:
04.09.08 at 7:49 PM

Weekly Wino,

One of my other readers answered this question pretty well, I think. For those who want to push the boundaries of what is possible in a region, there's a pretty established process for that. In the Brunello area as a result of just this sort of experimentation they've created the Sant’Antimo DOC designation (whose boundaries map very closely to Brunello) for those who pioneered the "Super Tuscan" wines and convinced everyone that there was enough merit in these Cab oriented blends to have a DOC.

Rich wrote:
04.10.08 at 12:43 PM

Good post! Interesting comments, too.
A winemaker can put any grape(s) into a bottle, as long as it is labeled correctly. When the official protocol says 100% Prugnolo Gentile/Sangiovese Grosso, then that is what should go into the bottle. That's what people expect; that's what they deserve for their money (whether they are buying a drop or a brand image). That's my view.

Bruce Webster wrote:
04.15.08 at 10:35 AM

Among the vineyards caught were Banfi, Casanuova dei Neri and Frescobaldi's Castelgiocondo.

Nancy wrote:
04.18.08 at 3:24 PM

According to the Oxford Companion, this has been going on too long to blame Parker:

"Popular myth has it that Brunello di Montalcino is the only important Tuscan red wine whose Sangiovese has never been blended with other varieties but this is not true. Prior to 1968 when DOC regulations, written largely by Biondi-Santi, were introduced, it was common for the few producers to augment their Sangiovese with other varieties in the zone. Biondi-Santi was an exception, so his monovarietal view prevailed. Following the earlier tradition, some producers currently add Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon to their wines in order to give them an appeal they have been unable to achieve in either the vineyard or the cellar."

tony wrote:
07.03.08 at 10:40 PM

This so called adulteration pales beside the wholesale destruction of the American countryside via suburban sprawl. How many of you who fantasize about Italy are destroying your own countryside? Create your own Italy. There is no reason this country cannot be a visual and culinary-agronomic paradise on a par with Italy. The only difference is that Italians care and you suburbanites do not.

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