Rosso di Anywhere

Why Rosso di Montalcino matters


Unless you've been living under a rock, you have heard the news that Montalcino producers, in a landslide vote, rejected a proposal to allow international grape varieties in Rosso di Montalcino. By law, Brunello di Montalcino and Rosso di Montalcino must be made by 100% Sangiovese grapes. The vote was held last week at an assembly called by the Brunello Producers Association.

By all accounts, the campaign to change appellation regulations pitted a few large commercial wineries against a sea of smaller producers. The proposal was championed by consortium president Ezio Rivella.

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While his immediate commercial interests are not entirely transparent, he has lobbied aggressively for the last three years to change appellation regulations. Last year, in a widely circulated video interview, he told an Italian journalist that up to 80% of Brunello di Montalcino included grapes other than Sangiovese. In 2008, Italian authorities began confiscating wine and seizing documents as part of their "Operation Mixed Wine" anti-adulteration investigation; today the Brunello controversy is known as Brunellopoli or  Brunellogate.

In the days leading up to the assembly, some of the world's most famous wine writers — including Master of Wine Nicolas Belfrage in Britain and  Franco Ziliani in Italy — posted impassioned pleas in the form of open letters and blog posts.

"Many of us fear," wrote Belfrage, "that a compromise in regard to Rosso di Montalcino would constitute an opening of the door to a compromise, farther down the line, of the purity of the great Brunello — one of the world’s great wines." Click here for the entire text of the letter.

The day after the vote, Spanish wine writer Juancho Asenjo — a respected voice in the European wine writing scene — published an op-ed in El Mundo entitled "Será la única casta di Rosso di Montalcino?" ("Will This Be the Only Breed of Rosso di Montalcino?"). 

In his essay, he points out that Rosso di Montalcino is not one of Italy's historic appellations. In fact, he notes, it was created in 1984 as Montalcino began to gain traction as a viable brand in the global market. It's a pity, he writes, "that many of the new traditionalists do not know or want to more closely examine the real story." What they embrace as "tradition" is actually "innovation" in his view. 

"Was [the vote] really a great victory for tradition and history?" he asks, "or will this be a bitter victory?" The real issue, Asenjo says, is that Sangiovese has been over-planted in Tuscany, in places where it cannot deliver top-quality fine wine. A more reasonable solution, according to Asenjo, would be a new system for classification and the allowance of work-horse international grape varieties in growing zones not suited for Sangiovese (along the lines of Rivella's proposed modifications to the appellation).

In my view, while many of his observations are valid, he needs to dig a little bit deeper into the history of Tuscan and Italian viticulture before dismissing Belfrage and Ziliani as misinformed and misguided traditionalists.

Monovarietal Brunello,  vinified from 100% Sangiovese grapes, was famously created by the Biondi Santi family in 1888. What few remember, however, is the fact that the "Iron Baron" Bettino Ricasoli, one of the architects of Italian unity and the nascent monarchy's second prime minister, had grubbed up the international varieties planted on his Castello di Brolio estate many years before (primarily Gamay and Merlot). 

As early as 1867, he had established that Sangiovese was the ideal grape for producing noble, long-lived wines in Tuscany (he also introduced the classic Bordeaux bottle format). His celebrated 1872 open letter proclaiming the virtues of Tuscan-grown Sangiovese prompted growers throughout the region to follow his example: just one year after Rome became Italy's capital, Sangiovese had been anointed as central Italy's quintessential red grape.

Still the most widely planted red grape in all of Italy, Sangiovese is inexorably linked to Italy's history and its national identity. To see it usurped by easier-to-cultivate and more generous international Francophile varieties would be a tragedy reaching far beyond the commercial interests of a small oligarchy of industrial producers.

Add Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon to Rosso di Montalcino and you will have "Rosso di Anywhere," to borrow a phrase coined last week by my colleague Alfonso Cevola, Italian wine director for one of the leading U.S. distributors of fine wine. That would be like having the Venetian hotel in Las Vegas without having Venice.

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