VINO 2010: The Brunello Bungle

It’s funny how everyone danced around the Brunello scandal at VINO 2010’s panel on Transparency, Traceability, and Wine.” Allusions, backhanded references, no more. But if you can’t address it at a panel with this title, where can you? So I raised my hand. For those who don’t know: Following an anonymous tip, Siena prosecutor Nino Calabrese launched an investigation in 2008 into some of the most prominent wineries of Montalcino. The charge was fraud--the adulteration of the 2003 Brunello di Montalcino, then newly on the market. By law, Brunello must be 100% sangiovese. And that sangiovese must come from vineyard parcels approved by the DOCG consortium. The brouhaha broke when wineries were accused of blending in prohibited grapes such as cabernet (pandering to Americans’ taste for softer, plusher wines), or else adding sangiovese from non-approved vineyards, perhaps even outside the Brunello zone.

This presented no health hazards, of course, but it undermined trust in the Italian labeling system. We might laugh at the Italians for their habit of dodging taxes and traffic lights, but when it comes to wine, well, we expect them to be law-abiding citizens.

When visiting Montalcino that year, I asked a Brunello winemaker why it was so difficult to prove or refute these accusations. Wouldn’t a simple lab test settle the matter? “We lack the tools for analysis,” she said, explaining there’s still no way to perform a chemical analysis that teases apart the grape varietals in a blend or pinpoints their origins.

Evidently, the most precise laboratory test we have today is gas chromatography, which separates and analyzes chemical compounds that can be vaporized without decomposition. In Portugal, it’s routinely used to spot-check Porto wine taken off retail shelves. It can ascertain whether the juice originated in the Douro valley or, say, the nearby Dão, based on trace elements that make their way into the wine from the soil.

Gas chromatography can’t identify grape varietals, however, let alone break down a blend. What’s more, it’s still too expensive to be widely adopted on the market today.

At the VINO 2010 panel, I asked what changes in testing or compliance have been instituted since the 2008 scandal. It so happened that one of the panelists was R. Ricci Curbastro, president of FederDoc and one of three people appointed to oversee the post-scandal production and issue a report to the government. “There have been no changes” regarding oversight methods, he said. “The system successfully self-policed.” On the scientific front, he noted, there have been improvements. One new mode of analysis measures the wine’s tannins. “We can analyze the tannins in that variety in that year in that soil,” he said. They’ve started building a database of this information, which will serve as an analytic guide down the road.

But until gas chromatography and more sophisticated chemical tests become routine and affordable, we’re left with self-policing, RFID (radio frequency identification) tags, and other anti-fraud labeling devices. These are increasingly necessary as China et al. are putting home-grown wine into Sassicaia bottles and or other super-prestige brands. This is where the real danger lies.

Regarding the 2008 Brunello scandal, no one has been convicted to date, but the jury’s still out. Several verdicts should be reached within the next few months, says Curbastro. Meanwhile, caveat emptor. Product fraud is now a $200-billion business worldwide, and wine isn’t immune.