Vintage crime

Brunello di Montalcino has shot to fame in recent years, but not always for the right reasons


Wine regions love publicity. Many hire PR companies to dream up schemes to gain attention. But few have been in the public eye as much as the Montalcino region of Tuscany – and few would have wanted it.

The region and its best wine, Brunello di Montalcino, have shot from obscurity to world renown in a short time. Unknown 30 years ago, Brunello is now recognised by many as one of the greatest wines of Italy. Not surprisingly, this increased fame led to a massive expansion of vineyards, and vines were planted in unproven sites that would probably never be capable of producing decent wine.

The Brunellopoli scandal broke in 2008 when two journalists reported that the Italian authorities were investigating claims that a number of producers had illegally added Merlot to their wines. This may not sound like a major crime, but the sole grape variety permitted in Brunello di Montalcino is Sangiovese.

The problem with Brunello di Montalcino and its kid brother, Rosso di Montalcino, is drinkability. Sangiovese tends to be high in acidity, unyielding and tannic in its youth. The best Brunello can take 20 to 30 years to mature. But the fine-wine market demands wines that are ready to drink on release. Unlike Sangiovese, Merlot is typically deep in colour with ripe, easy fruits and light tannins. So the temptation to blend the two and make a more approachable wine is understandable.

Producers are already permitted to grow Merlot in the same vineyards, but it must be released under the lesserknown Sant’Antimo name, which will not achieve the same price.

For years critics such as Kerin O’Keefe, an American wine journalist who covers Tuscany, had argued that producers must be adding illegal grapes to their wines – the colour was too deep to be Sangiovese. She added that “the wines were so jammy it was hard to believe they were Brunello”.

As with many Italian scandals, rumours and accusations flew. It became known that a number of large companies were under investigation for fraud and sales of their 2003 vintage had been blocked (Brunello must be aged for a minimum of four years before release).

Italian law guarantees complete privacy to those accused of a crime, so it is still not absolutely clear who was under investigation. After a lot of political manoeuvring, and companies declassifying those wines under suspicion, the scandal appeared to have died down.

In 2011, the local consorzio (consortium of producers) held a ballot to see if they should allow other grapes to be used in Rosso di Montalcino. The campaign was fairly acrimonious, with larger companies (who had all the “foreign” grapes) voting in favour, and the smaller growers voting against. The result was a narrow majority against.

Late last year, burglars broke into the cellars of Gianfranco Soldera’s Case Basse estate, and in a few hours poured away some 60,000 litres of wine, worth millions of euro. Soldera is a highly regarded but often controversial producer. He had also been one of the leading opponents of “foreign” grapes. A disgruntled former employee was later found guilty of the crime.

In an act intended as a gesture of solidarity, other producers from the consorzio rallied round and offered to donate some of their wine to Soldera. Having first appeared to have accepted the offer, Soldera then denounced the idea to the Corriere della Sera newspaper as “inadmissible and offensive, a fraud to the consumers”, and resigned from the consorzio. In turn, as of late last month, the consorzio expelled him before he could officially resign and announced that they were suing him for libel in the Italian courts for his comments. The saga continues.

What about the wine? I have to say I have never quite “got” Brunello. I like it, but often baulk at the price; Brunello is never cheap. I am in a minority, however, as sales to wine-lovers the world over can attest. O’Keefe, whose book I can heartily recommend, makes their case eloquently: “With their earthy, wild-cherry sensations and full body yet smooth textures, top Brunellos have the body and finesse of the most prestigious world-class bottlings from Bordeaux, Burgundy and Piedmont.”

The Brunellos tasted below were considerably better the day after they were initially opened, bearing an uncanny resemblance to a fine Nebbiolo or even a Pinot Noir.

Brunello di Montalcino : Understanding and Appreciating one of Italy’s Greatest Wines , by Kerin O’Keefe (University of California Press).

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