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Italian police uncover Brunello di Montalcino scam

Italian police have seized enough fake Brunello and Rosso di Montalcino wines to fill more than 200,000 bottles as part of a probe into an elaborate fraud operation, according to officials.

A video-still image of Italian police investigating the source of thousands of litres of fake Brunello di Montalcino. (Image: Guardia di Finanza)

Italy‘s financial police agency said it was investigating an unnamed wine consultant, whom it suspects of orchestrating a mass wine fraud operation that included hacking into government records.

So far, 165,467 litres of wine have been seized, or enough for just over 220,000 75cl bottles, police said yesterday (9 September), after initially being alerted to the scam via a tip-off from the Brunello di Montalcino producers’ council, or Consorzio.

Of the wine seized, 75,620 litres was cheap wine ‘dressed up’ as one of Italy’s most famous names, Brunello di Montalcino, and 89,847 litres was falsely labelled Rosso di Montalcino.

None of the affected wine was believed to have gone on sale to consumers yet. Luca Albertario, head of the financial police in Siena, told Bloomberg that the seized wine was still with distributors.

Officials said they believed the suspect tried to sell poor quality grapes and wine to wineries and trade customers between 2011 and 2013, after falsely claiming the products had been certified under the Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) quality control system.

Police alleged that he abused professional relationships and produced false documents. Officials also accused him of ‘corrupting data’ in regional government computer systems in order to hide his activity. This included hacking into Tuscany’s Regional Agency for Agricultural Payments.

Tuscany’s governor, Enrico Rossi – who is currently under fire from winemakers over a government commissioned report questioning the environmental credentials of vineyards – said the case was a ‘very serious fraud against one of the brands that best characterises Tuscany and Italy’.

He said, ‘We want to give a clear signal. We are on the side of good business, legality and transparency.’

It was not immediately clear what the ramifications of that allegation could be for the region’s wine trade.

Controversy has enveloped Brunello di Montalcino before, when some producers were suspected of topping up their 2004 vintage with unofficial wine stocks in a scandal dubbed ‘Brunellopoli‘ by the Italian press. The US briefly blocked imports of the wines until it was satisfied that proper quality controls were in place.

Of the recent police raids, Fabrizio Bindocci, president of the Brunello di Montalcino Council, said consumers and winemakers were both victims. ‘It is a serious issue that could cause significant damage to Brunello di Montalcino, to its producers and its territory.’

The police investigation is ongoing. 

This article was updated on 11/09/2014 to include comments from Fabrizio Bindocci.

Written by Chris Mercer

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