Monday, November 30, 2009

Out of Touch - Again

Serralunga d'Alba, one of Barolo's finest communes
Photo ©Tom Hyland

Wine appreciation is, at its most basic, an individual thing. What I think about one particular wine may not be in snyc with what you think. That’s fine – we can agree to disagree.

Yet along the way when wine lovers turn to someone for guidance, they want an accurate account of what certain wines have to offer. Again, you may disagree with one particular review, but for the big picture, you want the reality of the situation.

The December 15th issue of The Wine Spectator offers more evidence that James Suckling, who covers the Italian wine scene for the magazine, cannot be trusted to offer an accurate representation of that country’s wine industry.

This is nothing earth shattering, as Suckling has come up with some very strange accounts of Italian wines (more on that later), so this is just the latest in a string of faulty reports. But given the importance of this publication in many people’s eyes, it is worth reporting on.

This issue has Suckling’s take on the recently released bottlings of Barolo from the 2005 vintage. Basically, he has written that he slightly prefers this vintage to 2004. This may come as a shock to many who have had the experience of tasting a number of examples from each vintage. I am fortunate enough to taste more than 125 Barolos from every new vintage when the wines are presented for the worldwide press at the Alba Wines Exhibition, held in Alba each May, so I believe I am qualified to discuss this issue.

This year the 2005 Barolos were presented and overall, I thought the vintage was quite good, if a little uneven. As with every year, there are outstanding bottlings (Bartolo Mascarello, Francesco Rinaldi “Brunate”, e.g.), but there are not the sheer numbers of memorable wines as there were from 2004. That vintage was a classic, with excellent depth of fruit, beautifully defined structure and stunning aromatics. Many of the top bottlings of Barolo from 2004 can age for 20-25 years, in my opinion, while there are a few great bottlings that will peak at 35-40 years.

Comparing 2005, I think it is a very good vintage, as the wines have good depth of fruit and very good acidity. These are wines for the most part that will peak at 12-15 years after the vintage- a typical assessment on my part. Thus I’d give the 2005 vintage a rating of 3 stars (very good) while I awarded the 2004 vintage a rating of 5 stars or outstanding.

Others agree with me; one fellow journalist attending this event told me that the 2005 Barolos are nice wines to drink while you wait for the 2004s to come around. That’s pretty typical of what most journalists I spoke with thought of these wines – very nice, but hardly great and certainly not the equal of the 2004s.

Yet here comes Mr. Suckling professing his preference for the 2005s over the 2004s. Why? Basically he writes that the 2005s will offer more pleasure over the next decade. This is arguably true, as the wines are not as deeply concentrated, and thus are more approachable.

Yet, Suckling also writes that the 2004s will probably last longer than the 2005s when it comes to cellaring. Think about that! He admits that the 2004s will age longer, yet he prefers the 2005s. So what is he saying here? Basically he is saying that he likes more approachable wines when it comes to Barolo. Is this an accurate portrayal of what Barolo represents? Barolo is one of the world’s greatest reds, in large part, due to its aging potential as well as its ability to offer greater complexities and reveal more flavors as it ages. That’s a rare combination and one that should be prized.

For Suckling, Barolo can be a rich, powerful wine, but it can only be great if it is approachable at an early age. At least, that’s the best I can figure, given his ratings of recent Barolo vintages. His description of the 2000 vintage in Piemonte as a 100-point year (how ridiculous it is to rate a growing season on a 100-point scale?) is his most famous misrepresentation of Barolo. 2000 was a year that produced soft Barolos, ones with moderate acidity to go with the forward fruit. This easy-drinking vintage was in Suckling’s words, the “best ever” for Barolo, an absurd statement. Don’t take my word for it, ask any winemaker in Barolo about the 2000 vintage – you won’t find one who would even say that it was the best vintage in the last decade. So how can Suckling think that 2000 was the best vintage ever? (Further proof comes from tasting the wines – most are now at or nearly at peak and the fruit in many bottlings has dried out. Barolos peaking at 10-12 years of age? Hardly a description of greatness.)

You should realize that Suckling is an American living in Tuscany; it’s clear to me that he brings a California palate to Italian wines. He prefers a riper, more forward style of wine; thus a more traditionally made wine that has naturally high acidity with a subdued fruit profile is not something that he rewards with high scores. Winemakers in Piemonte call wines made in the fruit-forward style that Suckling prefers, “California Barolos”, referring for example to the wines from 1997 and 2000, two vintages Suckling lavished with high praise.

It’s easy to understand then that he is a fan of many Italian reds (especially Super Tuscans) that have little to do with the more classic approach of many Italian winemakers who respect the heritage and terroir of their land. (I could also argue that he favors wines of many of his friends in Tuscany, but I’ll save that for another day.)

Whether Suckling’s preference for forward, fruit-driven Italian wines is merely his preference or part of the requirement for any journalist at the Spectator is open to question, but let’s face it, his bias is all too obvious. Thus a classic vintage such as 2001 doesn’t get as high a rating as 2000, which is ridiculous- I don’t know how else to put it. And for 2005 to be rated as a better vintage than 2004 for Barolo, that’s more proof that long-lived Barolos aren’t what Suckling is looking for. That to me is not an honest portrayal of what Barolo is all about.

Vineyards at Verduno in the heart of the Barolo zone
Photo ©Tom Hyland

If this wasn’t bad enough, he also wrote a short piece on the 1999 Barolos and Barbarescos in this same issue. He writes that the 1999s were "never destined for greatness.” That did it for me! 1999 is an outstanding vintage as these wines offer excellent concentration as well as beautifully defined acidity, a combination winemakers – and wine drinkers – seek.

So why does Suckling believe that the 1999s are not great? According to his thinking, this wines are “lean.” Lean? The 1999s? He writes that they are not as concentrated as those from 1989, 1990, 1996 or 1997. He is arguably correct here, but does the fact that a vintage offers less depth of fruit that another mean it is not as good? What makes a Barolo or any wine great (and let me say here that the word great is overused by too many wine writers) is a combination of fruit, acidity, tannin and above all, balance. Bigger does not necessarily mean better. I have no problem with Suckling prefering the 1989, 1990 or 1996 vintage over 1999 (though I believe 1999 is far superior to 1997, as do many winemakers in Barolo), but to say that the 1999s from Barolo and Barbaresco aren’t great because they are not as intense as other vintages is futher proof of his misunderstanding of balance and structure as key roles in these wines. Callling the 1999s “lean” is like saying a 50-year old man who is 5’10” and weighs 175 pounds is lean. Compared to what, another 50-year old man of the same height who is 250 pounds? Maybe that man is overweight!

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – if you look to James Suckling for advice on Italian wines, you get what you deserve.


  1. Good post. I agree with your assessment of Suckling's writing,his "palate" and Wine Spec in general. If you look at the wines he lavishd praise on, they were by far the "modernistas" of Piemont: Scavino, Altare, Gaja, Voerzio, Sandrone....the land of new oakk and rotary fermentors...where are Bartolo Mascarello, Beppe Rinaldi, Baldo Cappellano, teh staunch defenders of Barolo terroir, whose wines are lean, delicate and pale red, not black! And for crying out loud, what about the Produttori del Barbaresco? The bext vaure in Italy for some of the grandest wines available!

  2. Theo:

    Excellent comment. Yes, it's always the modern producers that get Suckling's blessing. It is interesting that he rarely mentions Produttori del Barbaresco, which is amazing.

    It's fine if someone prefers the modern producers, but to not give the traditionalists their due is simply wrong. That's my biggest problem with Suckling.

  3. maybe he prefers slip-ons to laces - loafers to oxfords, the little blue dress to an evening gown.

    inst this what happened with the '97 - the 2000? this isn't a secret, his taste in wines.

    the dude's got a better expense account and a faster car then you or I - good luck catching up to him.

    more 2004's from great producers for the rest of us + not inflated prices(maybe)

  4. Alfonso:

    I like your take on things. Perhaps his flashy car and lifestyle means he prefers flashy wines as well.

    And yes, more great 2004s for us!

  5. Well said! Glad to see someone have the nerve to call Suckling out. I believe he is professionally compromised.

  6. 100% agree and thanks for wonderful article.
    farewell to JS!