Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Rosso di Montalcino Affair: A Crime against Culture?

In a recent post on the Brunello di Montalcino DOCG, I identified the genesis of Rosso di Montalcino as a foil to the lengthy aging requirements of the Brunello.  The early drinking character of the wine would allow a stream of revenue to flow to producers while they awaited the realization of the promise of "big brother" Brunello.  Note that Rosso was not established to be a wine on its own; it was to provide revenue flow from the same infrastructure, resources, and harvesting to meet the day-to-day requirements of the winery while waiting for the "coming."   Yet the Consorzio -- the Brunello di Montalcino producers association -- seems hell bent on changing the character and intent of Rosso, an initiative which I see both as ill-founded and ill-fated and, potentially, a first step along the path of changing the composition of the hallowed Brunello di Montalcino.  In this post I will lay out some of my issues with the proposal.  I would also like to acknowledge quality efforts on this topic by @winewomansong, @doBianchi, and Decanter (which also points to an open letter written by Nicolas Belfrage MW).

The current Rosso di Montalcino battle is a microcosm of a larger overshadowing; the fear of which is driving the revulsion with which the Rosso di Montalcino proposal has been received.  As in many other old-world wine growing regions, Montalcino has been the scene of an ongoing battle between traditionalists and "new agers."  Banfi has been a leader in modernizing Brunello production so when its former oenologist Ezio Rivella was elected president of the Consorzio, it seemed a vote for modernity.  Rivella and Angelo Gaia, the famed Piedmontese producer (and now a Brunello producer of some stature), are identified as being in favor of blending international varietals with Sangiovese to increase the appeal of Brunello on international markets.  Gianfranco Soldera of Casse Basse is at the other end of the spectrum saying, in effect, that real winemakers do not make Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and that these varietals are "vulgar" in comparison with Sangiovese.  Lamberto Frescobaldi is quoted in the above Decanter article as saying that whatever needs to be done should be done while Franco Biondi-Santi has taken the position that many of the areas now planted to Sangiovese are not suitable for growing the varietal.

So here we have this fundamental discussion about the future of the region and, after advancing a proposal and then rescinding it, the Consorzio has advanced another proposal which calls for remaking Rosso di Montalcino into a blend with up to 15% of international varietals and adding a Rosso di Montalcino Sangiovese Superiore and a Rosso di Montalcino Sangiovese to the mix with the key differences between the latter two being yield, alcohol content, and acidity levels.  This proposal has been greeted with loud hoots of disapproval around the world (Free Willy and Save the Rosso signs are going up all over.).  The Consorzio is being accused of aiding the large producers in getting rid of their unsold Merlot crop by drowning it in Rosso; of fixing a problem that does not exist; of disadvantaging smaller producers vis a vis larger producers; of seeking to segment a market that has exhibited no need for segmentation; and of not demonstrating an understanding of the market.

While the battle is about Rosso, methinks this is really only one skirmish in the war regarding the future of Brunello di Montalcino.  Sure, if a large producer has offerings across the Rosso board, and a smaller producer has only one offering,a  consumer could conceivably discriminate against the small producer based on a perception of inability to compete and, following, a lack of staying power.  Sure this adds cost and complexity to the production of Rosso, and confusion in the customer environment, with potentially deleterious consequences.  But what I think opponents fear most is that a loss on the Rosso front opens up Brunello to similar attacks from the arch-enemies of tradition.

I would like to look at this battle through two different lenses: European Union (EU) Wine Laws and Italian cultural patrimony.  Earlier this year I attended an EU Wine Law conference hosted by UC Davis School of Law and held at the UC Davis campus in Davis, CA.  In one of the sessions, Alessandro Baudino, Attorney and Partner in the firm Franco Baudino e Associati, indicated that the 2009 EU reform targeted: improved wine producer competitiveness; perception of Community wine quality; and preservation of Community wine making traditions.  It is the EUs view that implementation of the laws will, amomg other things, guarantee fair competition in the wine industry.  Firstly, it appears to me that the move to dismantle Rosso di Montalcino is not exactly an action focused on preservation of Montalcino wine-making tradition.  The tradition, and the "sense of place" espoused in the laws, has been to make Brunello di Montalcino from 100% Sangiovese Grosso planted in demarcated areas of Montalcino.  Further, approximately 68% of the yield can be classified as Brunello with the remainder sold in bulk or allocated to an easy-drinking wine called Rosso di Montalcino.  So while the EU diplomats are out arguing for protection of these special places in world trade forums, the Consorzio is undercutting them by saying that these places and traditions are not so special after all.  See, we can add some names and change some blends and voila.  But you had still better protect us.

As a corollary to the above, the Consorzio is tasked by the Farming Policy Ministry with protecting and enhancing the value of Montalcino DOC wines.  Rather than protecting, this proposal expands the number of wines in a dilutionary manner (maybe delusionary would be better) with further unintended consequences sure to accrue. Rather than protecting the wines of Montalcino, the Consorzio proposal sets the stage for similar depradation of the Brunello franchise.

I have just finished reading a book by Felch and Frammolino titled Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities at the World's Richest Museum (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011).  The book revolves around the Getty Museum's purchasing of looted antiquities but a major underlying theme is the fight by Italian authorities for repatriation of instances of the country's cultural patrimony that had illegally ended up in these large institutions.  General Roberto Conforti and Salvatore Morando of the Caribinieri Art Squad, Paolo Ferri of the state's prosecutors office, Judge Muntoni, Maurizio Fiorelli and Francesco Rutelli of the Italian Culture Ministry all played key roles in breaking the back of the looted-art conspiracy and gaining repatriation of the stolen objects to Italy.  Where are like-minded cultural fighters in the Rosso di Montalcino affair?  Not at the Consorzio.  They are more akin to the tambarolo, the men who robbed the ancient sites of the artifacts before selling them to dealers. Except this time the cultural heritage will be plundered in plain view.  And to add insult to injury, the pieces that are being removed from the shelves will be replaced with foreign wares.  And further, deeper encroachment into the patrimony may be in the offing.  With a victory in the "Rosso Affair" under its belt, the "internationalists" could ask to deepen the international component(s) of the blend as we move forward in time and (heresy) seek to impose the same type of construct on Brunello.

If there is a problem with Sangiovese, the Consorzio should facilitate its fixing.  So if, for example, there are areas of Montalcino planted to Sangiovese that should not be (as per Franco Biondi Santi), then maybe tightening the demarcation boundaries should be considered.  If major growers are sloshing around in Merlot, then maybe they should consider making an IGT wine and naming it in a fashion that does not confuse the market.  Robbing Rosso of its name and intent, and diluting its impact by confusing the buying public, is nothing less than a crime against culture.


  1. Let's call it what it is, an attempt to cash-in on the Montalcino reputation in a way that will damage or destroy it at the same time. What is Rosso di Montalcino? We all know the answer to that question, but if this travesty is allowed to proceed, the answer will not be so clear.

  2. Brunello Bob, you are spot on.

    Thanks for the shout out wineORL.

    Evviva il Sangiovese!