Brunellopoli, episode 67: Rosso's doom?

MONTALCINO: As they say in Hollywood, the Brunello scandal of 2008 has legs. Three years later, Brunellopoli, as it’s known to Italians, is still the source of juicy headlines. (Like Watergate and its derivations, this nickname echoes a Class A political scandal, Tangentopoli of the 1980s.)

The latest chapter in this soap opera (or sitcom, per cynical insiders) is a radical change to Rosso di Montalcino that will be voted on later this month.

But first, a recap of previous episodes.

In 2008, a zealous bureaucrat in Siena (said to have his eyes on political office) accused some large wineries of adulterating their Brunello by adding grapes other than sangiovese, the only permitted grape in Brunello di Montalcino as well as its younger brother, Rosso di Montalcino. That’s a big no-no, not only because it breaks the DOCG rules, but also because it undercuts the very identity of Brunello, a wine that’s stood out in Tuscany since its beginnings in the 1870s for being pure sangiovese in a land of blends—a thoroughbred of wines.

After the scandal died down (without prosecution), the Brunello producers met last year to consider whether to change the laws to allow cabernet, merlot and the like to creep in. The idea was vetoed and producers renewed their vows to keep Brunello pure.

Rosso di Montalcino was another matter. It had neither the venerable history of Brunello, being only 30 years old, nor the pedigree. Pointing to falling sales, some producers argued that consumers consider it a poor stepchild to Brunello and it needed a complete re-do. (Smart buyers know better; try the Rosso di Montalcino of Mastrojanni and Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona, for starters.)

So, a commission was established to study the matter. They recommended opening the DOC gates to other grapes. The full consortium was scheduled to ratify the recommendation in February, but the winemakers decided last-minute to put off the vote for three months.

So, what’s the deal? Who’d want to turn Rosso di Montalcino into a blend? And why, since there’s already a perfectly good DOC—Sant’ Antimo—that allows for blends? (Not to mention the IGT category.)

I asked the three Brunello producers we visited this past week on our TUSCAN WINE TREASURES tour: Donatella Cinelli ColombiniCiacci Piccolomini d’Aragona, and Caparzo. All three adamantly opposed the change and said most producers did.

So for who’s pushing the change? “The big producers who have other grapes,” said our host at Ciacci—in other words, those at the center of the Brunello scandal.

And why not just use the Sant’ Antimo DOC? “They want to ride on the coattails of the Brunello brand,” she responds. It’s true that if you haven’t visited Montalcino and heard the monks chant at this ancient abbey, Sant’ Antimo would probably mean nothing to you.

The big guys are far outnumbered by Montalcino’s boutique wineries, but that’s not how they count the votes. They’re weighted by vineyard size, so behemoths like Banfi (at 2,400 acres) have far more power than the typical Brunello producer, which averages about 100 acres.

“When the Chianti Classico consortium accepted nontraditional grapes,” said our host at Ciacci, “the producers here spoke so badly of them.” Now the shoe’s on the other foot, and small producers fear the worst.

Stay tuned. The next episode should air this month.