ENOSIS Meraviglia

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Devinis - May - june 2008

Storms over Montalcino

Devinis - May - june 2008
Devinis - May - june 2008

» Devinis - May - june 2008

Storms over Montalcino

After the magistrates opened legal investigations into the production of Brunello at several wineries, we interviewed the world-renowned enologist Donato Lanati


The wine scandals that detonated like time bombs during the inauguration of Vinitaly at Verona are all part of that melodramatic passion for self-destruction that is a quintessential Italian perversion. Certainly, continually kicking yourself where it hurts the most is pure masochism. Apart from selling a few more newspapers, what has been served by the recent bout of journalistic indignation, has dealt a severe blow to the image of various food and agricultural products produced under the banner of “Made in Italy”.  Perhaps it is best to draw some salutary lessons from this rather unsavoury affair and that is what Donato Lanati, Professor of Enology at the University of Turin and Head of the research center “Enosis”, located in Fubine, Monferrato, tries to do when he talks to us:

The first thing to bear in mind is that in this country, where wine has been drunk for over 2,000 years, there is no culture of wine – by that I mean that people’s knowledge and appreciation of wine is terribly limited. Were this not the case, journalists would never have written the things they did and, if they had, their readers would have been up in arms. Now, if we who work in this sector haven’t succeeded in spreading an awareness and knowledge of wine, then some serious soul-searching is required.

What has irritated you the most about these developments?

The fact that two profoundly different threads in this ongoing debate have not been kept distinct and separate. If the public prosecutors at Verona and Taranto courts can prove their findings that adulteration of the wine (even down to the grape variety) took place during the winemaking process resulting in the production of inferior quality wines, then this would be serious fraud. That would, however, have nothing to do with the failure to comply with the product specification for the production of Brunello di Montalcino, which, although they have seized hundreds of thousands of bottles, is a completely separate issue.

Five wine-producing companies, Col d'Orcia, Frescobaldi, Castello Banfi, Argiano and Antinori are suspected of having used Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot grapes together with those of Sangiovese in the wine winemaking process, rather than using Sangiovese grapes in a mono-varietal vinification. Is that not punishable by law?

Of course it is, but seriously, has anyone died? Many famous wines are made from these grape varieties. Even the Catholic Church, in no way, can be accused of being lacking in moral stricture, yet it distinguishes between mortal and venial sins. Why shouldn’t journalists also make this distinction?

There does, however, remain the problem of ethics. If it turns out that these wine producers had knowingly produced a wine different from that laid out in the product specification, wouldn’t that be a breach of trust between producer and consumer?

Of course it would, but there is a paradoxical aspect to this case. If it were confirmed that in the production of the Brunello wine other non-indigenous varieties of grapes were used together with Sangiovese, we would also have to recognize that these additions were made not to lower the costs of production, nor to deceive the customer into buying a lower quality product at the original price. No, rather it was a desire on the part of the producer to give the customers a product more to their liking and, therefore, of superior quality. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Could you be more specific concerning this claim?

It is very simple. International tastes have been formed around the great reds from France and among these, the wines from Bordeaux have prevailed even at the expense of those from Burgundy and the Rhone Valley. That means that consumers from countries lacking a wine tradition, principally the United States, have been educated, in terms of taste, to especially appreciate wines made with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, even preferring them to Pinot Noir and Syrah. Moreover, around 30 years ago, in order to satisfy this International taste, the so-called Super Tuscans were created; that is, wines in which the indigenous grape variety Sangiovese were blended with international varietals and its ensuing success insured an appetite for such wines. And that explains why the wine producers of the great Italian DOCG reds, not just Brunello di Montalcino, have been tempted to indulge in the practice of adding Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot.

But, if that is how things stand, why not modify the product specifications and legalize it?

This has already been tried in the case of Chianti Classico. However it has, in no way, improved the situation. In fact, thanks to modifications to the product specifications, producers of the Super Tuscans could go back to making Chianti Classico with DOCG status, but they are careful not to do so, because the price of such wine is inferior. And that is something that should make us stop and think – how is it possible that a denomination invented by the Anglo-Saxon market could be worth more, in commercial terms, than a wine that boasts the most prestigious denomination that the Italian State can bestow.

But maybe, in the case of Brunello di Montalcino, a similar approach might yield different results?

Several winemakers would like to follow this path, but it is dangerous. Brunello di Montalcino is an high-quality Italian wine, which has seen spectacular growth in sales in the last 50 years. The number of wine makers has quadrupled, the land planted has increased thirty-three times over, and global production has multiplied 30 fold. Stunning success has been achieved because the wine has been presented as a “thoroughbred” wine; the only single variety wine in Tuscany, a region in which all the other reds are a mix of various grape varieties. Authorizing the addition of Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot would be like sawing the branch of the tree on which you are sitting: because it risks robbing the Brunello wine of its particular charisma. And, as a matter of fact, the majority of wine makers are against the idea.

But beyond the question of image, do you believe that adding Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot would have positive effects on the organoleptic quality of the Brunello wine.

I am rather of the opinion that it would pure folly to do such a thing, because the originality of the wine would be lost it, pushing it towards standardization. And if they were to do it now, they would be choosing the absolute worst moment in time. The global demand for wine is, in fact, beginning to change; particularly in the United States, which is the most important market for Italian exports. Consumers are tiring of wines obtained from the ubiquitous Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay grape, each one similar to the other. They are looking for much newer sensations and beginning to appreciate wines not only for the variety of grape, but also to value the various regions or territories in which the wine took form and shape. In addition to the usual safety standards, they demand transparency and certainty regarding the provenance of what they have purchased.

Italian wines already satisfy these demands, do they not? Doesn't the denomination DOCG guarantee that the origin and quality of the wine is controlled?

One would think so, but I sometimes wonder if this is actually the case. Is the origin really controlled and guaranteed? Certification and recognition of DOCG status comes from a national committee, however, evidently this is not infallible; otherwise the PublicProsecutor of Siena would not have been able to accuse five winemakers of not having respected the product specification in the case of Brunello di Montalcino. But the worst part is that controls from above are on paper only. In Italy traceability only allows one to track the production chain back to the winemakers themselves. It is they who are responsible for guaranteeing that the rules are respected, the varietal of grapes used in the winemaking process, what the original vineyard is, what practical methods are adopted in the winery, But can one really call this traceability? Can you imagine a winemaker who would freely admit to having fraudulently adulterated his wine? The consumer has every right to expect objective guarantees based on sound scientific analysis

Do scientific controls, capable of ascertaining the grape varieties that have been used in the winemaking process, really exist?

Of course they exist. The powers-that-be do everything possible to avoid applying scientific analysis in their controls, but the central inspectorate for quality control, which was once called to fight against fraud, are equipped with quite satisfactory tools for varietal control, like the research into the DNA of white wines and the detection and analysis of single-variety reds. There has been for some time now a realization that there is a need to stop the spread of a dangerous attitude of disregard towards production safeguards and best practice methods. And it is to be hoped that the actual shake-up now, which is a result of the investigations by the Public Prosecutors, will have made it perfectly clear that one cannot try to hoodwink or fool the consumers. It would be better to leave the denomination DOC or DOCG rather than violate the rules and standards.

You claim that if Italy wishes to maintain the image of its wines, it must give priority to the certification of the wine’s provenance and origin. What guarantees would that offer to the consumer?

With respect to the high-end wines, which it is true form a modest percentage of the total, a certification of origin is important to convey an image of continuity from the product’s source to the customer, because it is the presence of these high-end wines in the marketplace that drives the entire sector. Certainly, the tools necessary to conduct an in-depth analysis of the wine under consideration are expensive; let’s say we wish to discover if the relationship between the nose and colour of the wine is determined by its place of origin – well, that requires facilities that are costly. But these facilities already exist!

An example?

Well, for example, the technique that is based on research into the mineral elements of the soil such as lantanide (rare-earth elements), the heavy metals and their isotopes: all of this allows us to form a truly digital fingerprint that is transferred from the land to the vine, from the vine to the grape and finally to the wine itself. One thing is certain. The soil stamps a precise matrix on the grape. You just have to search for it. And this is, for me, true traceability: that is, by certifying the identity of the wine we defend not only the consumer, but also the product and those who make it.

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