Blending. We usually see it referred to as an art, though lately it’s been described as a crime. The U.S. government has threatened to halt shipments of Brunello di Montalcino if its American importers cannot confirm that the wine is really 100 percent Sangiovese, rather than a blend. That’s ironic, given the fact that American wines must contain only 75 percent or more of the grape varietal they’re named for. That Cabernet you’re enjoying? It might contain up to 25 percent Merlot, and the label doesn’t have to tell you that.
Italian wine law governing the Brunello appellation, on the other hand, stipulates that Sangiovese wine must be 100 percent Sangiovese (or, as they like to call the grape, Sangioveto Grosso, a clone unique to the area) and come completely from the hills surrounding the ancient, walled, hilltop city of Montalcino. So the idea that Brunello might be blending grapes like Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah to soften, darken, and round out its Sangiovese is considered by many to be scandalous.
I assumed everyone was aware that there must have been some blending going on with Brunello. Why? Well, the Italians have long demonstrated a fascination with French varieties, implicitly and explicitly expressing insecurities about their native Sangiovese. This started with the famous “Super Tuscans,” in which producers deliberately skirted Italian wine law by producing very fine Bordeaux-varietal wine in Tuscan places zoned for Sangiovese. It was not illegal to plant the French grapes, it just meant that the producers couldn’t call their wines by the names of the proud regions they were from—like, say, Chianti Classico. In effect, the producers were turning their backs on time-honored Italian grapes, appellations, and traditions. Again, this was legal, but the producers were forced to label their wines with the pedestrian IGT designation (indicazione geografica tipica or “typical geographical indication,” the equivalent of cheap French “country wine”). It became almost a joke, as the famous labels behind the Super Tuscans—Tignanello, Sassicaia—were hardly country wine, but rather expensive and collectible.
Super Tuscan wines were very successful, so more French varieties began going into Italian wines. As recently as a couple of years ago, I had a Vino Nobile di Montepulciano producer talk my ear off about how much Merlot improved his Sangiovese. In the past decade, laws have changed in the Chianti and Vino Nobile appellations, allowing for percentages of non-Italian grapes to be blended in. Brunello, though, has sacredly remained 100 percent Sangiovese, though over time its complexion has changed.
The differences between “traditional” and “modern” Brunellos are striking. The former, made exclusively with Sangiovese grapes, is lighter in color, more acidic, and often tannic in its youth. The latter—which may contain amounts of Cabernet, Syrah, or Merlot—is the opposite in every way. The modern-styled wines also tend to lack the haunting tart-cherry perfume often found in traditional Brunello.
Everybody’s entitled to an opinion. I asserted my love of 100 percent Sangiovese wines a while back (before the scandal erupted). Despite its sometimes prickly character, Sangiovese is the grape of Tuscany, perfectly evolved to its terroir with the uncanny ability to express it. When farmed and vinified carefully, it makes some of the most wonderful wines in the world.
For me, it’s fine to blend Sangiovese, as long as we’re told about it. But if a wine like Brunello di Montalcino masquerades as 100 percent Sangiovese and isn’t, that’s a problem (just as I believe that to be varietally labeled in the United States should mean the wine is 100 percent of the stated grape). I’ve had many good, modern-style, dark, round Brunellos. But my true loves are always the traditional ones, like Soldera, Biondi-Santi, Lisini, Talenti, Fuglini, Ucceliera, and, a perennial favorite, Altesino.