Sunday, January 31, 2010

VINO 2010

I'll be in New York much of this week attending VINO 2010, a three-day event with seminars, tastings and dinners featuring Italian wines. Billed as the largest Italian wine event outside of Italy, this should be an illuminating time for me, as I'll get to try new releases of wines from several regions, including Toscana, Calabria, Lombardia and Friuli and also meet produces from those areas. I'm especially excited about a seminar on Bolgheri and Morellino di Scansano to be conducted by Piero Selvaggio, proprietor of the famed Valentino Resturant in Santa Monica. I'm also looking forward to what should be a fascinating seminar on the red wines of Calabria that will be moderated by Alfonso Cevola, a wine writer and wholesaler in Houston as well as a look at the underrated reds of Puglia in a seminar conducted by wine writer/educator Charles Scicolone.

I'll see many long-time friends and make many new friendships, I'm sure and can't wait for the special dinner at Del Posto, with a menu created by Lidia Bastianich!

I'll return with several posts very soon about my time in New York City.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Traditional Love

Over at Do Bianchi, Jeremy Parzen recently posted his translation of a newsletter article from Francarlo Negro. The article was about two of the greatest Barolo producers, Bartolo Mascarello and Bruno Giacosa and how they first met back in the 1960s (the article was initially highlighted by Jeremy’s colleague (and my friend) Franco Ziliani, who is co-author of the blog VinoWire along with Jeremy (I also contribute from time to time on vinowire).

Beyond being a wonderful recollection of two great vintners, the article (especially the second part) is an impassioned plea by the author for the preservation of traditional Barolo, as practiced by Giacosa and Mascarello (note: Bartolo Mascarello passed away a few years ago, but his Barolo is as traditional as ever, thank to the efforts of his daughter, Maria Teresa).

Botti Grandi in the cellar of Sergio Barale in the town of Barolo These are the traditional casks for aging Barolo
(Photo ©Tom Hyland)

I’d like to add a few thoughts on this article and on this subject in general. Loyal readers know of my love of traditional Barolo, so I was pleased to read such an emotional defense of this style of wine. Italians love to speak of the anima or soul of the wine. This has to be achieved by minimalist winemaking; you cannot recognize much in the way of terroir in Barolo (or any great red wine) when the fruit is covered up by the spice of new barriques.

Negro is correct that international demand has altered the style of Barolo and he is also on target when he states that too many winemakers in Barolo have altered their practices to assure more modern wines that will often result in better scores.

He goes on to write that certain publications have been unfair to Giacosa and Mascarello at awards time each year, as these magazines generally prefer the more international style of Barolo. While it is true that Gambero Rosso in Italy does hand out its Tre Bicchieri ranking (its highest) to dozens of Barolos made in a more modern style, they have not forgotten the traditional producers. Giacosa is a regular Tre Bicchieri recipient, while Mascarello has also achieved this honor several times (though not as often as Giacosa). (At least two comments, those from Gary Chevsky and Alfonso Cevola at the site, pointed this out as well).

While of course, the article was about a meeting between Giacosa and Mascarello, let’s not forget other great producers that continue to produce Barolo in a traditional style. I will certainly forget a few names unintentionally, so forgive me, but here a few of my favorite Barolo vintners that stay with tradition:

Cavallotto (Bricco Boschis, Bricco Boschis “Vigna San Giuseppe” Riserva)
Elio Grasso (Vigna Casa Maté, Gavarini Chiniera)
Maracarini (La Serra, Brunate)
Brezza (Sarmassa, Bricco Sarmassa)
Vietti (Rocche)
Giuseppe Rinaldi (Brunate Le Coste, Cannubi San Lorenzo Ravera)
Ettore Germano (Prapo)
Giuseppe Mascarello (Monprivato, Villero)
Massolino (Vigna Rionda Riserva, Margheria)
Giacomo Conterno (Monfortino Riserva, Cascina Francia)
Rocche Costamagna (Bricco Francesco, Rocche dell’Annunziata)
Sergio Barale (Cannubi, Castellero, Bussia)
Giovanni Rosso (Cerretta, La Serra)
Giacomo Fennochio (Bussia, Villero)

GianLuca Grasso, winemaker, Elio Grasso, with botti grandi for aging his Barolo
(Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Again, there are other examples, but what evidence these bottlings are for crafting Barolo in a traditional style! All of these wines are routinely excellent, with a few (Cavallotto “San Giuseppe”, Rinaldi “Brunate Le Coste" and Conterno “Monfortino”) rising to world class ranking.

Now having said that, I want to address another issue – the use of barrique. Negro states that these small French barrels are the tool of the winemaker who wants to produce a more modern style of Barolo; he also indirectly reasons that traditional producers will have nothing to do with them.

I agree that barriques have been the preferred choice of the international style Barolo producers; the flashy notes of spice and vanilla are often pointed out by certain journalists as highlights of these wines, as though the beautiful Nebbiolo fruit wasn’t enough of a treat. There are some producers today who use either all new French oak or a large percentage of it for their Barolos; there are many of these wines I do not like, as they taste more like a young, ripe Syrah than a Barolo. I am not going to mention these producers, as that’s not my point in this essay.

But are barriques necessarily a bad thing for Barolo (or Barbaresco for that matter)? I think not. Technology is always changing and that means that wine styles will change. Much as I would love to see every producer use only grandi botti for Barolo, it’s not going to happen. I compare this to technology that is available to movie makers these days. Computer-generated images (CGIs) are popular these days and we’ve probably all seen a few films that have used them. Is a computer image necessarily a bad thing in a movie? Of course not. If a film has to depend on CGIs for its appeal, then it’s probably not a good piece of work. The strength of any particular movie usually depends on a well-written script along with excellent direction. If a film doesn’t have that, then all the CGIs in the world aren’t going to save it. But a well-crafted film that also uses CGIs can be a good piece of work – one that is honest and is not trying to win an audience merely on visuals. It’s the same with Barolo; if the appeal of the wine is the character of new oak, then it’s probably not that great a wine.

My point here is that there are dozens of Barolo producers that use barriques in conjunction with botti and make gorgeous Barolos. Try the “Rocche Marcenasco” from Renato Ratti and see if this doesn’t taste like a classiclaly styled Barolo. The same holds true for several bottlings of Barolo from Oddero, such as their “Rocche” or “Villero”. At Fontanafredda, winemaker Danilo Drocco starts aging for his cru Barolo (“La Rosa”, “La Villa” and “Lazzarito La Delizia”) in barriques and then transfers the wine to botti. His reasoning is that the barriques will preserve the color of the wine as well as decrease oxidation. Yet he believes that too much time in barriques will mean that the wine will be dominated by wood, so he switches over to botti. Drocco has been making beautifully-styled Barolos for more than twenty years (he enjoyed a successful tenure at Prunotto before moving to Fontanafredda in the late 1990s) and today produces wines that strike a lovely balance between tradition and modernity.

Danilo Drocco, winemaker at Fontanafredda. Drocco ages his Barolos in barrique and botte grande
(Photo ©Tom Hyland)

At Ceretto, winemaker Alessandro Ceretto has recently decided on tonneaux - mid-size barrels of 500 liters - as opposed to the 225-liter barriques. Ceretto is another winemaker who belives that barriques are often too strong for Barolo; given his wines from 2004 and 2005, I’d have to say that his decision has been an excellent one.

Perhaps the philosophy of Luca Currado at Vietti is the best way of deciding on the proper use of oak for aging Barolo. Currado makes cru Barolos from several sites; the most famous being Brunate and Rocche. As Brunate is in La Morra, where the wines are more floral and contain less assertive tannins, he ages this wine in barriques, as he believes this will add some tannic backbone to the wine. For Rocche, which is from Castiglione Falletto, this is a site that produces a Barolo with strong, almost aggressive tannins; thus he uses only botte grande for this wine, as he wants to downplay the youthful bitterness in this wine. Currado once told me that his winemaking choices are like that of a tailor. Just as every man needs a suit that will fit his measurements, so his wines must be tailored to the individual site. For Currado, it’s a decision of what’s best for the wine and not the market.

There are many ways to make Barolo or many other full-bodied red wines. For myself, I think the most important factors with Barolo are making a wine that is varietally pure and one that displays its terroir. Much as some people would argue that there is only one way, I respectfully disagree. Let the debate continue!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Tre Bicchieri tastings - USA

I've just learned the deails about the Gambero Rosso Tre Bicchieri tastings to be held in New York, San Francisco and Chicago the last week of February. Anyone in the trade who is interested can go this this link for details on how to register

As I live in Chicago, I am particularly excited about this event, as this is the first time it is being held in my hometown. I attended this event a few years ago in New York City and loved it, not only given the opportunity to taste a great cross-section of Italy's best wines, but also the chance to meet many of the country's most famous winery owners and winemakers.

Soon, I will have a list of producers whose wines will be poured at the Chicago event - check back for that.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Italian Wine in America - A Few Thoughts

The author (second from right) with a few friends at a ristorante in Napoli

A few weeks ago, renowned Italian wine journalist Franco Ziliani asked me if I would like to be interviewed for my thoughts on Italian wine in America. I was thrilled to be asked and gave Franco my answers on any number of subjects from how consumers view Italian wines in restaurants to the perception of the quality of Italian wines in general to the ease in understanding these wines.

The interview appears in Italian on the A.I.S. site (Association of Italian Sommeliers) and can be found here. Below is a condensed version of the interview in English.

Franco Ziliani: How has the economic crisis affected the wine scene in America? Is it true that many consumers choose wines because of price?

Tom Hyland: The biggest change is that people are looking to value wines. Often these wines are from Argentina, Chile or Australia (though people are moving away a little bit from the lowest priced Australian wines). American consumers are not loyal – this is important to know. Five or ten years ago, they could buy a Chianti Classico for $12 or $14 per bottle at a store, but now that same wine is $18-$22, so consumers will opt for a Malbec from Argentina or a Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile in the lower or mid-teen price range ($14-16). These are nice wines of course, but they are not Chianti Classico! This however does not seem to matter to most consumers.

There are some consumers however who do want to buy an Italian wine in a lower price range, so they have found value wines from Sicily (Nero d’Avola) as well as Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, so this is good for Italy!

Very expensive wines from anywhere in the world are not selling. This is true both at retail and at luxury restaurants. Just ask some of the sommeliers in New York City or Las Vegas!

FZ: Do you agree that the economic crisis encourages consumers to look for lesser-known wines that were in the past less familiar than the most famous wines?

TH: I do think that as the most famous wines are becoming so expensive today and because people must be careful in how they spend their money, more and more moderately priced wines are becoming popular. This not only refers to value-priced Cabernet Sauvignons from Chile and Australia, for example, but it also means that there are new discoveries out there for consumers. An excellent example is Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, which has become much more successful in America over the past few years, thanks to its ripe black fruit flavors, easy drinking style and affordable pricing. Nero d’Avola from Sicily is another good example and there are also several inexpensive Spanish reds that are achieving success in the marketplace.

FZ: Do you think that offering wines by the glass can help consumers discover new wines rather than reading about them in the press?

TH: Yes, definitely. People tell me all the time that they don’t know much about wine, but they know what they like. It is difficult for the average consumer to explain the sensations of wine, so it is important for them to taste new wines. That is more important than a review in a magazine.

FZ: Has the economic crisis altered pricing of wines in America? Are wines priced as expensively today in restaurants?

TH: If there is a good thing with the economic crisis, it is that restaurants have lowered the pricing on many expensive wines. Wines that might have sold for $100 a bottle at a restaurant now sell for $75 or $80. The pricing is still too expensive in restaurants, but the situation is better. I have also seen restaurants that offer special pricing (20% discount) on wines on a particular night during the week that would be not that busy, such as a Tuesday night.

I think restaurants have to do this, especially as more BYOB resturants are having great success. People are starting to become better educated on wines and their pricing, so they do not want to pay expensive prices in restaurants.

FZ: Do you think there is room for other Italian wines in America besides Pinot Grigio? Do you think that examples of Pinot Grigio from California, Oregon, New Zealand and other places can compare in sales to Italian Pinot Grigios?

TH: While Pinot Grigio from Italy is still popular – and I think will always be popular – I do think other Italian wines will gain great success. I see a comeback for Soave, especially with the wines made by Pieropan and Ca’Rugate. Other whites such as Oriveto, Gavi and Pinot Bianco (Alto Adige or Friuli) offer good value and are now selling well. They are also popular, as they are un-oaked wines that can enjoyed with or without food, which makes these wines attractive to consumers.

Pinot Grigio and Pinot Gris from other countries do sell, but not as well as those from Italy. I think this has to do with its popularity as well as the American consumer’s love of anything from Italy.

FZ: What do you think of Italian wines today? Are they of better quality than in the past?

TH: Yes, the winemaking and quality of today’s Italian wines are much better than twenty or thrity years ago. Just as long as technology does not overtake terroir, things will be fine!

FZ: What is the conscience level and expertise level of the American wine consumer today? Have they been guided by wine "gurus" such as The Wine Spectator and Robert Parker?

TH: I think that American consumers are more comfortable ordering wine today and arguably, they are more knowledgable today than 10 or 15 years ago. But I do not think that most American consumers are that knowledgable about most wines in general. They know that Italy is home to many great wines, but few know what a Barbaresco is or even which region is home to Brunello. The consmers that are guided by Parker and Wine Spectator know a few famous producers, but they are not that well versed in the world’s wines. They blindly follow these publications, but I don’t believe the average American consumer worries about the ratings in these magazines. The only exception is when someone might need to purchase a special bottle of wine that would sell for $50 and up- then they would look at a wine recommended by those publications.

FZ: Which wines are best known in America today: French, Italian or New World?

TH: Of course, California wines are the best known, especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay and to a lesser degree, Pinot Noir. Americans are very name conscious, so Napa Valley plays an important role as people know of the quality of the wines from there. Image is very important, so the fact that Napa has earned a notion of quality means a lot to consumers. An excellent wine region such as Monterey, however, is not that famous, so you do not see these wines as often as those from Napa, even though these wines are excellent.

French wines are losing popularity in America, for two main reasons. First is the complicated appellation syatem – few consumers understand that a Meursault, for example, is made from Chardonnay. Of course, the second reason is price. If you want a famous French wine such as Bordeaux or Burgundy, you have to pay a lot of money for it.

Italian wines are very popular, especially as Italy has such an positive image to Americans! The Italians have also been very smart as they have updated their wine laws to ensure that the wines are easier to understand. It is still very difficult for most American consumers to know about many Italian wines, but they are learning and they understand the quality of Italian wines.

FZ: What aspects of Italian wine excites you the most? Which wines do you like the most?

TH: For me, it is tasting wines that reflect both the area where they were made as well as the heritage of that land. That is why I love the wines of Campania so much, as Greco, Fiano and Taurasi are such beautiful representations of the viticultural history of this land.

The best Italian wines, of course, are the ones made from indigenous varieties. These are wines that have a sense of place and a soul and are not made to please the market or measure up to a new trend. Instead these wines are unique and individualistic. A wine is so much more that a set of statistics on alcohol or acidity. The best wines offer special flavors while telling the story of the land and its people. That to me is what Italian wines are all about.

Specificially, my favorite wines are the reds of the Langhe as well as the whites of Friuli and Alto Adige and almost anything from Campania.

FZ: Which are the Italian wine zones that you love the most?

TH: If I had to choose one Italian wine that I love the most, it is Barolo. This has such great complexity and aging potential and it is a wine that changes so much over the course of time. It is also the wine that for me best reflects the local terroir. The Barolos from La Morra are so fragrant and round, while those from Serralunga and Monforte are so much more powerful with more rugged tannins. It is fascinating to taste wines from so many different cru in this zone and when you can enjoy a first-rate Barolo from a producer such as Cavallotto, Bartolo Mascarello or Beppe Rinaldi, you are tasting a great wine from people that respect what their land gives them.

I am also a fan of traditional Brunellos such as Il Poggione, Col d’Orcia, Talenti, Sesta di Sopra, Le Chiuse and Pian dell’Orino, to name a few of the best. These are so elegant and so rich with such finesse. I also love Taurasi, but only in the traditonal style.

I am also a big fan of Italian whites, especially from Alto Adige – I love Gewurztraminer from Tramin – and Friuli. The best examples of Soave are beautiful whites as are Greco di Tufo and Fiano do Avellino from Campania. Finally, I am also a fan of well made Vermentino from the Tuscan coast as well as from Sardegna.

FZ: How do you see the future of wine consumption in America? Will it be relegated to a minority of consumers?

TH: I think that wine consumption will continue to increase in America, though in small numbers. Much of this has to do with the fact that there are so many value wines available from around the world. There will always be people who do not drink wine due to health reasons or because of religious beliefs, but the number of these people are small.

Also, as wine gives many people a sense of culture and education, it will always be important in America.

FZ: What do you think of the phenomenon of free information on wine via the internet and wine blogs? Does this alternative information benefit the public?

TH: I think it this is a positive development, as more information and more opinions are a good thing for the industry. I do think that some blogs are poorly written and offer very little, if any, good information. But there are some excellent blogs written by people that have important things to say. The fact that blogs can be more timely with certain developments in the industry is another good thing.

I also think it’s a good thing that consumers can read these blogs and understand there is more to wine appreciation than reading The Wine Spectator or The Wine Advocate! The world of wine is bigger (much bigger) than what is presented in those two publications.