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.

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