June 21, 2024 | Rome, Italy

Restoring faith

By |2018-03-21T18:37:23+01:00June 3rd, 2009|Food & Wine Archive|
President Patrizio Cencioni: No more shortcuts. Photos by David Salvatori.

This is the last in a three-part series tracing the history of Italy’s Brunello di Montalcino wine.

BY THE mid 1980s, the habits of American wine consumers were changing. Those who for years had focused on domestic, plentiful, easy-on-the-wallet bottles began to see wine in a more qualitative light. With more cash to spend on luxuries, North Americans dashed down consumerism’s bright and shining path.

Like their finicky European brethren, American wine drinkers began taking wine purchases more seriously. Whether by default or design, a discerning touch began to matter at home, in restaurants, and in what you gave your friends.

Wine critic Robert Parker appeared on the scene. He rated wine numerically on a 100-point scale. This helped uninformed, stat-minded consumers understand the value of what they were buying.

And what Bob liked, the masses bought — if only just to stay a numerical step ahead of the wine they’d seen at The Jones’. Wines that got 90-to-95 Bob points could become overnight sensations. The Parker scale also helped imports.

The trend also provided a boost to Montalcino in developing the Brunello market. Parker, who liked well-structured and complex wines, saw Tuscany (and its long wine-producing history) as the new land of wine-writing opportunity.

The region was a natural. It had picture-perfect vineyards, cypress-tree capped hillsides and fine wines. Long known as name-droppers, American consumers began snapping-up Brunello bottles. Soon, demand outstripped supply. Export price tags also skyrocketed.

Brunello’s makers finally realized they had a hot commodity, a complex and engaging red with great history and a hard-to-find-a-bottle ingredient. As part of the Tuscany boom, Montalcino itself was transformed from quiet hamlet into a wine-tourism destination.

Local producers began dedicating all or major parts of their vineyards to Sangiovese Grosso, focusing the bulk of their attention on making Brunello.

Brunello’s old-timer producers grew stronger and new ones joined in looking for a lucrative piece of the action. By 2000, the Consorzio del Brunello‘s handful of names had become 200. In 2006, one of them, Casanova di Neri received the coveted Wine Spectator Wine-of-the-Year award for its Tenuta Nuova 2001.

But instant-growth markets can breed hubris. American’s Brunello thirst was not only insatiable but also impatient. Though they were buying a limited-supply wine at high prices, American drinkers were too eager to open their expensive purchases. Some didn’t even wait a year. Complaints arose that Brunello’s Sangiovese, with its harsher tannins and garnet coloring, wasn’t quite as impressive in the glass as its status-symbol price tag suggested.

Those familiar with Brunello’s secrets knew that it revealed its complexity only over time. Producers recommended patience to their new fans. Let it age, they said.

But after hubris comes doubt, and fear. A number of worried producers, bowing to pressure from importers, began lobbying for a change in the wine’s strict recipe. By allowing for the inclusion of other varietals, they would have the option of a “new world” style wine that was still under Brunello’s label, one that they thought would be more palatable to American drinkers earlier on. But the Consortio wouldn’t relent and Brunello’s 100 percent Sangiovese recipe and its time-honored traditions remained intact — or so it seemed.

In March 2008 came the make-or-break Brunello Scandal, dubbed Brunellopoli in Italy. A number of Brunello producers were alleged to be tainting their DOC wine — by adding “Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, [and/or] Petit Verdot” to their appellation, said prosecutors — in an effort to gain an edge in early taste over their competitors. Italian prosecutors in Siena opened a sweeping probe into alleged winemaking irregularities, with Antinori and Frescobali mentioned. They also impounded whole vintages of the wines in question to test their purity.

As embarrassing as it was, the scandal had a silver lining. Patrizio Cencioni, the Brunello Consorzio’s new president, successfully persuaded Montalcino’s wine producers to take a united stance that put the region’s long-term success ahead of cost-cutting gains. Producers whose wines had been suspected in the scandal chose voluntarily to declassify the “accused” wines, while the consortium again reiterated its position that Brunello should always be made “in purezza,” according to Sangiovese’s strict standards.

Since the hubbub died down, prices have stabilized and allowed the region’s winemakers to focus on producing top-notch wine whose quality matches its price tag. While Brunello will always remain prohibitively expensive for everyday drinking, some wines just aren’t for every day. In the wake of the scandal, Brunello’s drinkers are ironically more appreciative than ever of the wine’s nuances. That new awareness, in fact, is what will keep Montalcino in the public limelight long after the missteps of boomtown days fade into the past.

About the Author:

Lynda Albertson's monthly wine column appeared between 2006 and 2010.