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The Brunello Controversy

If you enjoy a good bottle of Brunello, you may want to stock up now. The upcoming stock is in serious peril.

It all began in November of last year. Local reports began surfacing that Montalcino’s grower consortium (Consorzio di Brunello di Montalcino) was not correctly monitoring that the Brunello production was meeting DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) regulations. It was rumored that the Brunello was not being produced with the Sangiovese grapes grown in the officially registered vineyards. These accusations have begun to be investigated by the Italian police under Nino Calabrese, Siena’s public prosecutor. The police impounded at least one million bottles of 2003 Brunello from Argiano, Castelgiocondo, Pian delle Vigne, and Castello Banfi under the suspicion that they contained illegal grapes (those other than the certified Sangiovese).

These producers are crying foul. They allege a political motivation for the investigation and seizure, citing the time of the investigation appearing in the press is just as the wineries are meeting potential customers in Italy’s most important wine fair, Vinitaly at Verona. They argue that the impounded wines were for their IGT (Indicazione Geographica Tipica) bottles. If this is the case, then they were incorrectly labeled. Lamberto Frescobaldi, director of viticulture and winemaker for Castelgiocondo asserts, “Whenever we have discovered dubious vines in our Brunello vineyards we have informed the consortium and used the grapes in our IGT Luce.”

The investigation, impounding, and subsequent bad press has led some wineries to implement their own declassification. Argiano (one of the four wineries being investigated) has announced that it would declassify its 2003 Brunello to IGT so that it can still be sold. They feel that they have no choice but to declassify their wine and take the financial fall. They are a small producer dealing primarily in Brunello. They cannot wait for the final judgement of their wine to sell it. Wine Spectator Online claims that Antinori is also considering declassifying its 2003 Brunello di Montalcino Pian delle Vigne.

Unfortunately, the wine-makers’ dilemmas do not end here. Now the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco and Trade Bureau (TTB) is threatening to block any shipments of Brunello attempting to enter the United States. The TTB has sent several letters to the Italian Embassy in Washington requesting a list of the Brunello producers under investigation and any other relevant information. These letters have remained unanswered. Not to be ignored, the TTB sent an ultimatum on May 7, 2008 that if they are not satisfied that the Brunello entering the United States is DOCG certified Sangiovese by June 9th, then the U.S. Customs bureau will hold all Brunello shipments unless, “the importer submits a full and accurate statement of contents verified by laboratory analysis, or a statement from the government of Italy demonstrating that the product is made from 100 percent Sangiovese grapes.”

Francesco Marone-Cinzano, Montelcino’s consortium president, remains positive despite the threats from the United States, “This is a diplomatic problem and I am confident it will be sorted out at the diplomatic level.” Montalcino produces 6.5 million bottles of Brunello a year, and approximately 25 percent of that is shipped to the United States. Brunello consumers and producers alike need to hope that Marone-Cinzano is right.

*Factual information provided by James Suckling, Jo Cooke, Mitch Frank of Wine Spectator Magazine and Wine Spectator Online

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