Tuesday, November 30, 2010

One Step Forward, Two Steps Backwards

Regarding my constant look at the coverage of Italian wine by The Wine Spectator, it seems there is some good news and some not-so-good news. Let's start with the good.

Bruce Sanderson took over the job of writing about Italian wines for the magazine recently and from what I've seen so far (admittedly a small sample), I have to congratulate him on his views. In the November 30 edition, Sanderson rewarded the small estate of Cascina Roccalini in the town of Barbaresco with some very high scores, with the highest rating being a 93 for the winery's 2008 Barbera d'Alba.

I tasted this offering at the winery this past May, thanks to the US importer Terence Hughes, who set up my appointment after I expressed interest in trying these wines, which I had read about on his blog. I loved all the wines from Cascina Roccalini, especially this Barbera, which is an amazing wine (see the post from my other blog). The wines have great varietal purity, impeccable balance and beautiful structure. This is certainly a combination of several factors, including the viticulture of owner Paolo Veglio as well as the superb winemaking of Dante Scaglione, best known to Italian wine lovers as the former winemaker for Bruno Giacosa.

Dante Scaglione, Winemaker, Cascina Roccalini (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

As you might imagine from his previous work, Scaglione makes wines in a traditional style; that is to say, wines aged in grandi botti, large casks as opposed to the small French oak barriques. Many wine writers have joined me in my preference for traditionally aged wines from Piemonte, as they best express a sense of place instead of emphasizing a dark color or a the obvious sweet and spicy notes of small oak.

Readers of this blog know of my disdain for the previous individual who covered Italian wines at the Spectator. Suffice it to say that he clearly preferred modern wines made in an international style. Like what you want, but do your job and give credit to those vintners that continue to make wines that represent their heritage. There are just too many internationally-styled wines out there today. We all expect a different style of cuisine when we go to Italy - we don't go there to have a hamburger (or foie gras, for that matter), so is it too much to ask that producers in Italy continue to be honored for their traditional views? That they should be rewarded for making wines that are singular and not aimed at following a trend?

So thanks to Sanderson for his glowing reviews of the Cascina Roccalini wines. Maybe we will see a shift in the publication's Italian wine coverage, but I'll wait a while before I'm fully satisfied. (By the way, here is a link to Terence Hughes' blog with a mention of Sanderson's reviews. Thanks again to Terence for letting me know about these wines. Production is rather small, so the wines are only in a few markets.)

That's the good news. Now for the bad and I'll keep it brief. The Spectator has recently announced its Top 100 wines for the year, what the publication labels as the "year's most exciting wines." There are exactly nine wines from Italy that made the list.

Now while I think there should me more than nine, I won't criticize them for this; let's face it, there are impressive wines being produced in many countries these days, so they need to let their readers know about them. But it's the choice of wines that irks me. Of the nine wines, seven are from Tuscany. Seven of nine! You'd think this was the only region in Italy that produced notable wines (the other wines - one each - are from the Friuli and Veneto regions). Nothing from Piedmont? Nothing, especially given the new releases of 2006 Barolo and 2007 Barbaresco? Nothing from Sicily, Campania, Alto Adige, Lombardia or Umbria? This proves to me the lack of balanced coverage of Italian wines by the magazine.

Of the nine wines, eight are red. While I expected a significantly larger proportion of Italian reds to whites on this list, this balance is highly questionable. But even if you only have one white wine to represent Italy on your Top 100 list, you select a Pinot Grigio? This is one of the year's most "exciting" wines? Have the writer (or writers) not tried any white wines from Alto Adige or Campania recently? Or other producers from Friuli? There are dozens of impressive wines from these regions, especially from the outstanding 2009 vintage. Just to name a few producers who have made gorgeous Italian whites over the past year, I'd go with Cantina Tramin, Cantina Terlano, Elena Walch, J. Hofstatter (Alto Adige); Edi Keber, Zuani, Livio Felluga, Marco Felluga, Livon (Friuli) and finally Feudi di San Gregorio, Mastroberardino, Vadiaperti and Luigi Maffini from Campania. (One final note on this: the Pinot Grigio is from Attems, a nicely made wine, but one that is hardly exciting, especially when compared to the whites listed above. To make matters worse, the 2008 bottling is the one that made the list, even though the 2009 has been on American retail shelves for several months now, which means that the 2008 is probably gone.)

It seems as though the old administration at the magazine may have had a lot to do with this list, as a few of the wines that made the Top 100 from Italy have been represented before. Yes, there are some new entries here, but again, the list is just a dull one. Let's hope this year is the last time the publication selects such a poor representation of Italian wines. I hope that's the case, but I'm not betting on it.


  1. Totally in agreement with you here, Tom. Italy certainly represents and merits more than a 9% share of the world's most exciting wines.
    Another disturbing stat on the Top 100 was that 22 of the top 50 were from California: ALL of Italy gets 9% out of Top 100 and CA gets almost 50% of the top FIFTY!?
    I call BS.

  2. Wayne:

    Thanks for weighing in on this topic. Yes, not only does Italy get too few mentions, but California gets too many. There just isn't much balance here.

    Seems like the editors know where their bread is buttered. Maybe advertising plays a role here and maybe it doesn't, but it's clear they choose wines they think their readers want. So why not a Friulano, Soave or Verdicchio from Italy? Why not a Taurasi or even one Barolo or Barbaresco? Staggering omissions, if you think about it.

  3. I don't particularly trust top 100 lists, but any list of the top 100 wines in the world that doesn't mention, among its whites, a Marsala, is sadly lacking. De Bartoli comes to mind, but he's not alone.


  4. WS Top 100 is a wank (very Aussie term). So far so good and I like Sandersons broad view, specifically on winemaking, but I'm reserving judgement for now. WS havent done anything of interest on Italy for ages. Prefer my news from people like yourself, Do Bianchi, Galloni etc

  5. Among WS, like much of the US press, there is and has been a bias against Italian wines (and more in favor of French wines). Even when JS was working for WS, the coverage of Italian wines was extremely lacking. I hope good wine writers like yourself will slowly raise public awareness on Italian wines, beyond the Gajas and Antinoris.

  6. Matt:

    I like the way you think- thanks!

  7. Atreyu:

    I agree with you that among much US press, coverage of French wines far outweighs that of Italian wines. Of course, a lot of that has to do with the wines produced in California based on French models, as with Bordeaux or Burgundy. Italian varieties are not grown in large numbers in the US, so many magazines don't care about Italian wines.

    But given that lack of understanding of Italian varieties, wouldn't it make sense for a magazine such as WS to increase their coverage? Once again, they deal with what they deem as important instead of dealing with reality.

  8. @Tom I'm dying to taste Dante's new wines! Great photo of him...

  9. Jeremy:

    Thanks- I know you'll love these wines. I visited the estate with Franco Ziliani and another Roberto Giuliani, a friend and another lover of traditional wines. We loved all the wines, but all of us agreed that the 2008 Barbera was the most complete and complex. A great Barbera!

  10. Thanks for the kind words on the photo, J. Caught him just before sunset with ideal light. What a nice man!

  11. I just tossed my Wine Spectator so can not do a full accounting nor do I want to dig up the PDF -- but while there is a shortage of Italian Wine, one could say that really there is simply an over abundance of American wine. Sure we make some great wine, but c'mon.

    Magazine economics are what they are and an interesting percentage to understand would be the percentage of advertisers during the last 12 months who are included on the list.

    Even then, I am somewhat of a realist when reading a product that must generate a profit as opposed to say a blog. And as with any for-profit media the content/commerce line is truly just drawn in sand. Shifting sand.

  12. John:

    I can't improve upon your thoughts. Well said, indeed!

  13. Hi Tom, congratulations for the restyling (excellent) of your blog, and for your commentary: totally in agreement with you!

  14. Living in Barbaresco I am astonished and thank you for steering me even further away from The Spectator. Darryl Baldwin (www.piemontemio.com)

  15. I was also astonished at the lack of Italian wines on the top 100. Thank you for bringing this up. There are so many Piedmonte wines worth being placed on that list...