Saturday, August 7, 2010

Understanding Italian Wine

Vineyards in Campania
(Photo ©Tom Hyland)

An open letter to Matt Kramer at The Wine Spectator:

Dear Matt:

I just read your online post "Are You Afraid of Italian Wines?" at and frankly, I'm disappointed you would write such a column. You are one of the most engaging and intelligent wine writers in the country, so I don't quite understand why you wrote what you did. Was it a slow news week for you?

You mention that at a a restaurant you ordered a Pecorino Colline Pescaresi from Tiberio, while admitting that you hadn't heard of the Pecorino grape, the Colline Pescaresi zone or the producer Tiberio. Let's look at your claims. I can appreciate the fact that you weren't familiar with the Pecorino grape, as it's planted in small numbers primarily in Abruzzo and Marche. Ok, Chardonnay it's not. But you admit to enjoying the wine, calling it "dazzling stuff." Pretty nice compliment, so I'm thinking you're glad you tried this bottling. It's a nice thing when you discover something new, isn't it?

As for not being familiar with the Colline Pescaresi district, alright, join the club. It's a small district in Abruzzo, named for the Pescara province. You apparently have a problem with this designation simply because it's not a household name. Yet how many wine drinkers know where the Ben Lomond or High Valley AVAs are located in California? Should wineries in these areas not use these terms simply because they're not as famous as Napa or Sonoma?

As for not knowing Tiberio, so what? You must realize that there are thousands of artisan producers from Italy whose wines are imported into the United States. You said that you loved the wine, so now you know Tiberio and now you know about the Pecorino grape. And the next time you see a Pecorino from Colline Pescaresi, I'll bet you'll think about ordering it.

Two major things here. Yes, there are hundreds of varieties used in Italy that are seen nowhere else in the world. Thank goodness for that! Do you really want a world where we drink wines made from the same 10 or 12 varieties? I would hope not! If you don't know the variety, you can always ask your server, sommelier or manager at the restaurant. If they have decided to carry particular wines - obscure or not - you would hope they would have learned about these offerings and would have trained their staff. If that's a problem, write about that, but don't write about the fact that you never heard of the Pecorino or Biancolella grape (as you did with another wine).

Are Italian wines confusing? To some degree, yes. For some people, the names are too long and as they don't want to stumble over the pronunciation or order something they're not familiar with, they stick to the tried and true such as Pinot Grigio and Chianti. How unexciting is that? Vanilla, chocolate and strawberry will always be the best-selling flavors of ice cream, but isn't it great that you can also order pistachio almond or nutty coconut at Baskin-Robbins? Thank goodness that A-16 in San Francisco as well as hundreds of Italian restaurants in New York City, Chicago, Houston, Miami and other cities offer such a wide variety of Italian wines.

Back to my question about Italian wines being confusing. There are hundreds of tiny DOC areas that few people know about; frankly people want to know how a wine will taste and what grapes are used. Education of Italian wines in this country has not been given the same emphasis that wines from France and California have enjoyed. But does that mean the Italians have to dumb things down? How did you want Tiberio to label its Pecorino Colline Pescaresi? As Bianco d'Abruzzo? That might have been easier for you and others to understand, but what would that have told you, except for the fact that it's a white wine from Abruzzo? The best wines the world over come from specific varieties and places. I think we all learn a great deal more when we are given more information to process. You may label it as confusing, but I prefer to think of it as valuable data.

So Matt, please help your readers understand more about Italian wines. I realize that in an off-handed way, you did just that with this column, as you sang the praises of an excellent Pecorino and Biancolella. But as a respected wine writer, you should do more than complain. Write about the glories of these singular wines from the Italian peninsula. Your readers will thank you for it, believe me! If you'd like, please also pay a visit to my blog Learn Italian Wines. I think you'll enjoy it - and you might even learn a few things!

By the way, I think I'll enjoy a La Sibilla Falanghina Campi Flegrei tonight. It's a gorgeous white wine made from the Falanghina variety in the Campi Flegrei district, located a little ways out of Napoli; La Sibilla is one of the area's finest producers. But I'm guessing you already knew that!

Tom Hyland


  1. Thank you for calling attention to Matt Kramer's column on, and for championing Italian wine. I think, though, that your "disappointment" is misplaced. Matt is observing a problem pertaining to some consumers, not to the glorious diversity of Italian wines. Here is his response in the thread:

    "Personally, I'm with all the folks here who are exhilarated by the fabulous variety--and sense of discovery--available with Italy's wines. But I can understand, and sympathize with, more "normal" sorts who want at least a vague sense of knowing the terrain when looking at a restaurant wine list."

    Thanks for doing your part to educate people about these exciting, but sometimes confusing, wines.

    Thomas Matthews
    Executive editor
    Wine Spectatr

  2. Thomas:

    Thanks for your comment. I wonder why Matt didn't reply himself, but you did include a partial statement from him.

    As for that statement, he's trying to have it both ways. He loves the wines, but finds them confusing. Again when a consumer looks at a wine list, what is he or she supposed to find? The same wines made from the same varieties over and over again?

    He said he hadn't heard of Pecorino. So I guess in Matt's opinion, a restaurant shouldn't carry this wine. Otherwise, I don't get his point.

    As I wrote, if you don't know about a certain wine, ask someone at the restaurant. Let's hope they are familiar with the wines they carry.

    Education is a great thing. Perhaps Matt should try more of these unusual Italian wines and write about them and not complain about the fact that these wines - or their districts - are unknown.

    I don't expect your coverage of Italian wines at The Wine Spectator to suddenly change so that white wines from Abruzzo, Marche or Piemonte, among others, become a dominant feature. But there is an awful lot more to Italian wines that Barolo, Barbera, Amarone and Brunello. I'd like to see that change in your magazine. I've stated that before and if Matt won't write about them, then I'm sure you can find others who can.

    I might even be available myself - you never know!

  3. One other point:

    I don't understand Matt's comment about " knowing the terrain when looking at a restaurant wine list."

    What exactly does that mean? That a wine list should only be represented by famous territories such as Napa, Bordeaux and Tuscany? What about a Pinot Noir from Santa Rita Hills? Do that many consumers know where this district is in California? Does it make a difference? Shouldn't consumers be constantly educated?

    I would believe that the wine list at A16, which Matt listed in his post, was put together to represent a mix of grape types, styles and wine districts. The fact that someone goes there and sees some wines that he or she is not familiar shouldn't be construed as a negative. We should praise restaurant wine buyers for selling wines that aren't everyday household names, just as we should praise vintners from Abruzzo, Campania, Lazio and other regions in Italy for continuing to produce wines that represent their land and their heritage.

    Again, if Matt has a problem with Italian wine labeling, then write about that topic in a constructive way. Don't take the easy way out and say you've never heard of a grape type, wine district or producer. That helps no one.

  4. Thanks for giving your perspective. I've always found French wine labels more confusing that Italian wine labels. However, with Italian regions and grape varieties (rather than labels), the confusion comes from duplicate names, such as Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and the Montepulciano grape, or the fact, which you stated, that there are so many different native varieties and unknown regions. Further, Italy mislabels its wine often, such as with Trebbiano D'Abruzzo, which is often made with Bombino rather than Trebbiano grapes. This, as you are arguing, could be a case of poor education, in which we (the public) should know that Trebbiano D'Abruzzo wines are made using both Trebbiano grapes from Abruzzo as well as Bombino grapes, but that's seriously specialized information. The question is, who wants to learn this kind of specialized information? Well, me. And I bet most readers of Wine Spectator do too. Italian wines have tons of interesting secrets. The Pecornino grape and wines made with it are worth learning (as I myself learned only a couple months ago), and man are they great with seafood!

    So, I'm with you on this: Italian wines deserve more coverage by journalists and they should not be penalized for being unique. I think your point is important, and I think it's important to add that French wines are just as confusing, but who is man enough to admit that? Especially when there are so many articles written about them.

  5. Thanks for your comment - I'm glad you agree with me.

    You do bring up a good point - that there are many French wines that are confusing as well. But apparently that's fine, as they are French, which I guess makes them mysterious. But it's a problem if it's an Italian wine!

    The leading magazines need to enlarge their coverage of Italian wines.

  6. Tom,
    your blog and newsletter are great, but you can do more to update America's view on Italian wines - why don't you write a book?! Com'on!!!
    -Daniele Nardi

  7. Daniele:

    I'm actually working on one, but I need to find a publisher. It's difficult now in the United States to do this.

    Thanks for the encouragement!

  8. I would like to say first of all congratulations to you Tom for a wonderfully insightful review, I found the original article by Matt Kramer fascinating but the subsequent comments, including your lengthy response eye opening. I would love to see this discussion continued. I am currently on an internship with Gruppo Italiano Vini in Calmasino di Bardolino, Verona, Italy. As part of my work here I am conducting a research project in which I am trying to understand how consumers perceive Italian wine. To anyone who would like to discuss this further, please visit my facebook page or!/profile.php?id=100001567541388&v=wall&story_fbid=103395186389702 ... Here I am hoping to provide a forum for topics such as this to be discussed at length.

    Thank you and good luck with your writing career.

    Joseph Squire