Vine Talk: Battle of Brunello exposes row over purity vs blends

(Robert Whitley is the publisher and managing partner of wine website Wine Review Online and the host of an online radio show "Whitley on Wine." He also oversees several international wine competition. The opinions expressed are his own).

Glasses of white wine are lined up for students to drink at the end of their evening butchery class at the Ginger Pig butchery shop in central London August 25, 2009. REUTERS/Simon Newman/Files

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - It has been centuries since residents of the walled Tuscan city of Montalcino have had to worry about barbarians at the gates but that does not mean life in Italy’s most famous hill town has been without drama.

A couple of months ago acclaimed winemaker Ezio Rivella from Asti, in Piemonte, was controversially elected president of the consorzio that rules the production of Montalcino’s beloved Brunello, one of Italy’s most important red wines.

His candidacy was challenged on the eve of the vote by one of the most respected men of Montalcino, Fabrizio Bindocci from the vineyards of Tenuta Il Poggione, who backed another candidate, Donatella Cinelli Colombini, as he said she was born locally.

When Colombini unexpectedly withdrew, leaving the path free for the outsider, Bindocci offered himself as an 11th-hour candidate for president but he did not have the numbers.

The controversy over the election has put the spotlight on growing divisions in the wine world as some producers take a more global approach to their craft while others stick to tradition.

Opponents such as Bindocci are passionate defenders of the status quo and are convinced that the 77-year-old Rivella as the modern face of Brunello could put the soul of Brunello at stake.

As chief enologist at wine producer Castello Banfi, Rivella initiated research at the University of Pisa and University of Milan that identified the most suitable clones of the red wine grape Sangiovese for the Brunello vineyards of Montalcino.

During several decades at Banfi, Rivella also introduced temperature-controlled fermentation, barrique and international grape varieties to the region that have benefited every producer in the region today.

When Rivella started at Banfi, Montalcino had a dozen or so producers and the Brunellos were rare and often quite rustic. Now there are more than 250 producers of Brunello di Montalcino, and it is among the world’s most collectible wines.

However, Rivella ruffled some traditionalists’ feathers when he also produced a Syrah, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and various other experiments foreign to Montalcino viticulture.

Some producers took the cue from Rivella and planted grapes that were not traditional for producing Brunello. Brunello di Montalcino, by law and by tradition, is required to be 100 percent Sangiovese.

A couple of years back a magistrate from Siena impounded the Brunello production of several estates as he investigated the purity of the blend. The United States temporarily halted Brunello imports under the cloud of suspicion. A couple of big players including Banfi were targeted but cleared of wrongdoing.

In the end, it came to nothing but it got wine enthusiasts wondering if their Brunello was authentic and sparked fears among traditionalists that Rivella might lead a revolution to change Brunello production rules to allow other grape varieties.

Some might argue that it would make sense. Merlot, for example, has done well in other parts of Tuscany and ripens earlier than Sangiovese, making it a viable insurance policy in years when the late-ripening Sangiovese is hit by autumn storms.

Traditionalists bristle at the notion while Rivella was reported recently to have said that 80 percent of all Brunellos made today are not pure Sangiovese.

Should there be designations of Brunello pure and Brunello blended? With the election of Rivella, the debate is on.

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