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Battle for Brunello
By Robert Whitley
Aug 10, 2010
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It has been centuries since residents of the walled Tuscan city of Montalcino have had to worry about barbarians at the gates. That does not mean life in Italy’s most famous hill town has been without drama.

It was only a couple of months ago that a man from Asti, in Piemonte, was elected president of the consorzio that rules the production of Montalcino’s beloved Brunello, one of Italy’s most important red wines. Ezio Rivella, the acclaimed winemaker, might as well have been from another country, or another planet.

His candidacy was challenged on the eve of the vote by one of the most respected men of Montalcino, Tenuta Il Poggione’s Fabrizio Bindocci, who had backed another candidate, Donatella Cinelli Colombini, to some extent because she was born in Montalcino, or so he said.                    

When Colombini suddenly and unexpectedly withdrew, leaving the path free for the outsider, Bindocci went to the proverbial wall and offered himself as an 11th-hour candidate for president. While I greatly admire Bindocci and the wines of Il Poggione, I firmly believe his loss may be Brunello’s gain.

In reality, resistance to Rivella had nothing to do with his place of birth. Opponents such as Bindocci and the legendary Franco Biondi Santi, of Biondi-Santi, are passionate defenders of the status quo. They are convinced the very soul of Brunello is at stake, and the 77-year-old Rivella is the modern face of Brunello they view as a threat to everything they know.

They are right about that, though Rivella, whose own wines appear under the Pian di Rota label, is hardly the devil who would destroy Brunello. I would argue he was the catalyst for much of the prosperity and wealth that exists in Montalcino today.

As chief enologist at Castello Banfi, Rivella initiated research at the University of Pisa and University of Milan that identified the most suitable clones of Sangiovese for the Brunello vineyards of Montalcino. Rivella spent several decades at Banfi running vineyard trials that benefit every producer in the region today.

When he started at Banfi, Montalcino had a dozen or so producers and the Brunellos were rare and often quite rustic.

Today there are more than 250 producers of Brunello di Montalcino, and it is among the world’s most collectible wines.
Rivella was the Godfather who introduced temperature-controlled fermentation, barrique and, yes, those pesky international grape varieties (re: French) to the region. Indeed, Banfi produced a Syrah, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and various other experiments that had been foreign to Montalcino viticulture.

Other producers took the Banfi/Rivella cue and planted grapes that were not traditional (or legal) for the production of Brunello. This is where the rubber meets the road. Brunello di Montalcino, by law and by tradition, is required to be 100 percent Sangiovese.

There was a major kerfluffle a couple of years back when a magistrate from Siena impounded the Brunello production of several estates as he investigated the purity of the blend. The United States temporarily halted Brunello imports under the cloud of suspicion. A couple of the big players who were targeted, but later absolved of any wrongdoing, were Antinori and Banfi.

In the end, it came to nothing. But it raised the issue. Before the controversy, most wine enthusiasts wouldn’t have guessed Sangiovese was responsible for the great Brunellos they drank, let alone the only permissible grape. Now they wonder if their Brunello is “authentic.”

The opposition to Rivella was rooted in the fear he might lead a revolution to change the rules of Brunello production that would allow other grape varieties. He might, and it would certainly make sense. Merlot, for example, has done well in other parts of Tuscany and has the benefit of ripening earlier than Sangiovese, making it a viable insurance policy in years when the late-ripening Sangiovese is pounded by autumn storms.

Traditionalists bristle at the notion, but no less an august presence than Angelo Gaja (a Brunello producer, although his most renowned wines are from Piemonte) insists Montalcino winemakers need the flexibility of choice to make great wines under variable vintage conditions. Of course, Gaja broke all the rules of Barolo and Barbaresco during his rise to prominence as one of Italy’s most fabled winemakers.

Just what Montalcino needed: another barbarian from Piemonte!

Anyway, rules are just words on a piece of paper. It appears that only a handful of traditional winemakers respect the restrictions and follow them. In a recent interview Rivella opined that 80 percent of all Brunellos made today are not pure Sangiovese.

To be Brunello, or not to be, seems the question. Should there be designations of Brunello pure and Brunello blended? This is one thing the election of Rivella ensured: The debate is on.

And you thought Romeo & Juliet was complicated.

Email Robert with comments at whitleyonwine@yahoo.com.