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The Brunello Mess and the Gaja Solution
By Robert Whitley
Jul 15, 2008
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Rules is rules. Just ask an Italian winemaker.

Most wine producing regions of Italy have their own peculiar grape varieties, and guidelines that control how the grapes must be used to obtain the coveted DOC stickers that are applied to the neck of the bottle and immediately flag a wine as Italian, even to novices.

The rules are administered by the usual suspects: the authorities. The authorities monitor the vineyards and taste the wines and issue the stickers that theoretically guarantee the authenticity and, it is presumed, the quality of the wine in the bottle.

The rules don't have to make sense. In the Chianti region, for example, vintners at one time were required to blend Trebbiano, a white grape, with Sangiovese and the handful of other permitted red grape varieties to produce Chianti. I believe this was to make Trebbiano farmers fat and happy, but the real reasons are vague. Thankfully, that rule has been tossed.

In Italy it's all controlled. The grapes must be from an approved list, in most cases. The vineyards are classified. The size of the barrel is sometimes under the watchful eyes of the regulators. Even the amount of time a wine must spend in barrel and bottle before release sometimes comes under scrutiny, particularly for wines that are designated 'riserva.'

Them's the rules. Until, of course, they're not. Which brings us to the current drama playing out in Montalcino, where the famous -- now perhaps infamous -- Brunello di Montalcino is made. Four producers -- Antinori, Argiano, Frescobaldi and Banfi -- were under suspicion of breaking the Cardinal rule of Brunello, the 100 percent Sangiovese rule.

Brunello must be made from Sangiovese grapes. That's 100 percent Sangiovese, thank you. This is sort of like the rule of red Burgundy, which must be made from Pinot Noir grapes grown within the boundaries of the Burgundy region. Unless, of course, the weather has been bad. In that case, tanker trucks from Algiers have been known to deliver more deeply colored, flavorful wines from sunnier, warmer climes to save the Burgundians from utter disaster.

We don't know this officially. It's anecdotal and the stories are told with a wink and a nod. The Montalcino saga is a different story altogether. Of the four producers under suspicion, Antinori's Pian delle Vigne has been cleared to some extent through chemical analysis; Argiano has declassified its 2003 vintage, which I take as a guilty plea; and Frescobaldi and Banfi are still in the dock awaiting the outcome of tests on their '03 Brunellos.

An embargo that was threatened by the U.S. government on the future importation of vintage 2003 Brunello has been averted by an agreement that puts the onus on Italian authorities to certify the incoming wines as authentic.

So we wait as the foul whiff of scandal hangs heavy over the charming hill town of Montalcino in southern Tuscany. And it clearly weighed on the mind of Angelo Gaja as I sat down to lunch with Italy's most influential winemaker recently, though Gaja refused to characterize the controversy as a scandal.

Gaja is universally renowned for his red wines from Piedmont. He is less well known for the small winery, Pieve Santa Restituta, which he purchased in Montalcino in recent years. Gaja took the bold decision to declassify Pieve Santa Restituta's Brunello in consecutive vintages -- 2002 and 2003.

'Quality is our obligation,' he told me. 'It is not possible to year after year produce a good Brunello.'

Gaja's sympathies clearly lie with the accused. He has chafed at many a rule himself, from his earliest years as a vintner in Piedmont. Gaja is perhaps the one man most responsible for modernizing the Italian wine industry, bringing it into the 20th century with fresh ideas that challenged the premise that all regulations were good and necessary simply because that's the way things had always been done.

He offers a simple solution to the Brunello mess.

'To solve the problem, the producers in the area have to decide together to create a law that will be respectful of purists and innovators -- a new law that would respect both categories,' he said.

He went on to explain it was his understanding the investigation was launched by the discovery of other grape varieties planted in vineyards classified for the cultivation of Brunello.

'The producers admit the 'other' grapes are there, but say they weren't used for the Brunello,' he said. 'I don't know. What I believe, however, is that it must be very difficult for the larger producers to make enough Brunello to meet their needs. A small winery like mine, no problem. But the larger producers have built a worldwide demand for Brunello.

'These wines have been approved by the (Consorzio di Brunello di Montalcino), they have been tasted by the critics, they have been purchased by the consumer. No one thought anything was wrong. They must be very good wines.'

Of course, this line of thinking will not sit well with the purists, no matter that it comes from such a wise and serious man. I have no idea whether or not the current controversy will lead to a relaxation of the 100 percent Sangiovese rule. I do know the addition of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or even Syrah could fundamentally change the character of Brunello, though I can't say that I've detected anything out of character in the wines of the accused.

What is important for the long term is the integrity and quality of Brunello as a category. It has been one of the world's most collectible red wines in recent years, and significantly more affordable than Bordeaux or Burgundy.

Some sort of compromise to advance the interests of tradition while embracing innovation would get my vote. First and foremost, however, steps must be taken to remove the taint. That should be rule numero uno!

Email comments to whitleyonwine@yahoo.com.