A vote to keep Rosso di Montalcino free of 'other grape varieties’ has been successful – and I am happy .
Photo: PATRICK MORGAN
In few places is the subject of wine – and what goes into it – as intensely political as it is in Tuscany.
The latest hoo-ha has been over a proposal to change the regulations of Rosso di Montalcino, the glorious red that is baby brother to Brunello di Montalcino.
On September 7, producers voted 69 per cent against allowing up to 15 per cent of “other grape varieties” into a wine that must be made purely from brunello (sangiovese).
This might sound like a small-scale technicality but the result of the vote has been much talked about because it goes to the heart of the way many wine lovers like to think about wine, viz that it’s not just an acceptable-tasting form of alcoholic fuel but an expression of land, place and people.
Imagine tacking a big modern extension with PVC double-glazing onto a Grade II listed manor house and you have some idea how small-c conservatives felt about the prospect of adulterating Rosso di Montalcino with (shudder) international varieties (think cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah).
The argument is that this would have reduced a wine with a noble history and identity into A N Other red blend. My instincts are also conservative here, mainly because I love pure sangiovese. It has such a distinctive shape. Sangiovese feels crenellated in the mouth. Add even a small percentage of merlot and you concrete over those crenellations.
Cabernet tends to bolster body and darken the colour. A smoother wine with more boom would probably be more attractive to American and other international markets, but it’s not as if they can’t find such qualities elsewhere.
Rosso di Montalcino is so Italian. Why not leave it be for those of us who love it as it is?
Intellectually, I have a harder time justifying these feelings. The rules for Rosso di Montalcino were not handed out on stone tablets; as with other wines, they evolved.
The day after the vote I met Laura di Collobiano, owner of Tenuta di Valgiano, a wine estate in the hills above Lucca, quite a way north of the Montalcino area. I made the mistake of saying it was not a part of Tuscany I knew well. At this, Laura gave me a very fierce stare.
“When you talk of Lucca you don’t talk of T-uscany,” she said, spitting the T out with such disdain I expected to see it fly across the room. “Lucca is really an independent state. Not T-uscany.”
(Lucca was an independent republic until 1799 when it was invaded by the French, before being taken over by Napoleon in 1805.)
Given this attitude, it was surprising to hear Laura describe her wine as a “traditional blend” of sangiovese, merlot and syrah.
Another firm look accompanied this announcement, so I hardly dared query the “traditional”. Fortunately, Laura continued along with the next intense stare.
“Merlot and syrah have been in Lucca since the 19th century.” So how long before something becomes traditional? And at what point are we to decide that a more recent innovation, because they feel it makes better wine, is a more traditional and true expression of the land than an old one?
Still in Tuscany but a bit over to the east, the style of chianti classico I favour (sangiovese perhaps with some colorino and canaiolo in it) would have been illegal 30 years ago because the blend had by law to contain some white grapes.
In 1984, the Chianti Classico Consorzio were forced to change the rules to permit producers the option of including a percentage of international varieties into the blend because some winemakers had chosen to do it anyway and the wines – the so-called Super Tuscans – sold as mere table wine were tremendously successful.
Back to Montalcino: it’s not so very long since Italians were scandalised by the Operation Mixed Wine investigation, when several producers of Brunello di Montalcino were in the spotlight for illegal blending practices – putting grapes that shouldn’t be there in the wine to beef up its taste. More than 6 million litres were impounded, and 20 per cent of it ended up being declassified to a basic Toscana Rosso IGT.
The affair created momentum for the proposals that have just been voted down. I can’t help thinking that we haven’t heard the last of this.
For now, I’m happy that Rosso di Montalcino will remain a pure-blood sangiovese – but with no better argument than that I like it that way.
Victoria Moore won International Wine Columnist of the Year at the prestigious Louis Roederer Wine Writers Awards on Monday. The judges, who included Jancis Robinson from the Financial Times, were unanimous in their decision, and Victoria beat submissions not only from the UK, but also Ireland, the US, Canada, France, Singapore and South Africa