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30th October 2010 Italian wine - crisis, what crisis?

30 Oct 2010 by Jancis Robinson/FT


In the last few weeks I have spent time with wine people in both Italy and Italy's prime export market, the US. They have radically different impressions of the current state of Italian wine.

For New York-based Joe Bastianich, wine producer, wine merchant, restaurateur and author, described in his latest book Grandi Vini as 'America's foremost authority on Italian wine', the wines of his mother country are selling brilliantly. The precise details of who imports and distributes what may be in constant flux, with merchants such as himself becoming ever more inventive about circumventing America's notorious three-tier system, which has traditionally inflated prices with so many margins along the way. But demand for Italian wine in New York is stronger than ever, not least thanks to the popularity of Italian food and restaurants there.

According to him, Piemonte is doing much better than Italy's other great wine region Tuscany because its producers are perceived as providing something artisanal and traditional. Tuscany is suffering more according to Bastianich, partly because of 'Brunellogate', the unfolding scandal in which several prominent producers are officially accused of adding flattering but illegal international grapes such as Cabernet to Brunello di Montalcino, which is supposed to be made entirely from the Italian grape Sangiovese. (Ezio Rivella of Banfi, president of the Consorzio of Montalcino, has admitted that 80% of all Brunello contained grapes other than Sangiovese before the affair became public.) Bastianich also reckons that American wine drinkers regard many Tuscan wines as overpriced and the market has been flooded by expensive newcomers, notably from the Tuscan coast, the fashionable Maremma.

New York über-restaurateur Danny Meyer, proprietor of, inter alia, the acclaimed Italian restaurant Maialino, agrees that Italian wine sales continue to be strong in the US. (Italian wine has traditionally been Americans' favourite imported wine - swollen over the years by successive tides of cheap Chianti and Valpolicella, then Lambrusco and now Pinot Grigio.) But he sees Tuscany as more successful than Piemonte. Some time ago, when the price of top bordeaux began to rise inexorably, he bet on the fact that Barolo, Piemonte's and indeed Italy's prime candidate for long-term cellaring, would take off in its place. He says he is yet to see that happen - although Bastianich claims that top Piemontese wines are now bought by his customers in much the same way as French first growths.

Both Bastianich and Meyer agree that the remodelling of Piemonte's most planted grape Barbera into a wine with concentrated fruit, often rather too obvious a layer of oak, and early appeal, has helped Piemonte's image enormously by providing an affordable way to make the acquaintance of the sub-alpine region's army of small-scale producers.

But this robust, upbeat assessment of Italian wine's fortunes is very much at odds with what you are likely to hear in Italy. Grape prices have been falling dramatically and 'the crisis' is now such a familiar foe as to feature in virtually all conversation with Italian wine producers. According to Bettina Bertheau, who exports the wines of the extensive Terriccio estate in the Maremma, 'the US market has really been a breakdown, while German-speaking markets have been crushed down too. And the Italian market has its ups and downs. The Italians order and drink, but the paying morality is not too good.' She sighed. A little further south, Cinzia Merlo, owner of Le Macchiole estate in Bolgheri, confirmed how desperate things are in the Italian wine market, with 180 days a minimum before any producer can expect payment.

Over in Montalcino, Roberto Guerrini of the all-Sangiovese Fuligni estate told me that he has seen the quantities ordered by his US importer Empson shrink by 15 to 20% over the past two years, and in Piemonte, the most high-profile producer, once famed for having to allocate his Barbarescos at up to $500 a bottle, is now so incensed by the sluggishness of the market for Italian wine that he has been publicly railing against the squeeze on better-quality Italian wine at the expense of anodyne Pinot Grigio. According to him, 'those who have benefited the most are firms which offer phony agricultural products, those with a semblance of being Italian but which are not of true Italian origin, gaining market share both abroad and in Italy itself'.

As usual, Tuscany's wine figurehead Marchese Piero Antinori is more measured in his assessment of the current situation, pointing out that just like France, Italy has a superfluous sagging underbelly of poor-quality vineyards and unwanted wine, a hangover from the post-war era when quantity not quality was the watchword, and it is taking more than bribes from Brussels to trim it.

But when I put all this doom and gloom to Josh Greene, publisher and editor of the well informed Wine & Spirits magazine in the US, he commented, 'It's strange that the Italians are feeling gloomy, unless they are suffering from currency blues. Their wines are booming here. It seems to be all that anyone talks about. And it seems like the Italian restaurants are booming as well. [On my trip to New York earlier this month, I dined at Michael White's new place, Osteria Morini, which is all about Lambrusco, of all things.] The cool new lists are all regional Italian - extremely regional in a lot of cases.' The same is true in the great dining capital on the west coast, San Francisco, where new restaurants compete with each other for which obscure section of the boot's vineyards they specialise in.

In the UK, meanwhile, we continue to lag many kilometres behind the Americans in our appreciation and knowledge of Italian wine. There are a handful of specialist importers such as David Gleave of Liberty Wine, some specialist retailers such as Lea & Sandeman and Valvona & Crolla, as well as a few high-profile fashionable Italian restaurants such as the River Café, but the average British wine merchant still finds Italy 'too complicated'. That long love–hate affair with the French is a habit the Brits find hard to break, especially when they have so many easy-to-understand New World varietal alternatives to Italy's host of DOCs and IGTs to choose from.

It is hardly surprising that the current nub of Italian wine politics is the choice between the country's complicated but exciting array of indigenous grape varieties and the international cuckoos in the nest.

UK Italian specialist retailers

AP Vino, London W10
Ballantynes, Cowbridge
Bat & Bottle, Oakham
Falcon Vintners, London SW17
For the Love of Wine
Lea & Sandeman, around London

Luvians, Cupar and St Andrews
Olivino, London SW1
Speck, London W11
Valentina, London SW15
Valvona & Crolla, Edinburgh


25th October 2010 - Planeta Carricante launch

by Tina Gellie

Francesca Planeta, one of three cousins who have run this awarded Sicilian winery for the past two decades, was in London recently to launch the family’s latest addition to its range – the Carricante 2009.

This white grape hails from the mineral-rich black soil of the Sciara Nuova vineyard at an altitude of 890m on the northern slopes of Mt Etna.

This is Planeta’s first venture on Etna (it has four other wineries around Sicily) and while the high-altitude volcanic terroir is better known for producing red wines, the family was excited by the potential for whites.

It’s immediately obvious why Planeta has bottled its Carricante in a Riesling bottle: crisp acidity, racy minerality and aromatic, pure, and lemon, tart apple and floral white peach fruit with a twist of mint.

As a first vintage, with a release of just 6,000 bottles, it’s excellent drinking now; and with greater vine age this could be a wine of real ageing potential.

Others wines at the tasting, held at Hush in London:

Planeta, Chardonnay 2000 (double magnum)
This vintage is one of the best for Planeta’s Chardonnay. Now an icon wine, the grape was first planted by the family in 1985 as an experimental variety and is today a benchmark for quality and ageability of Sicilian Chardonnay. Showing lovely development of autumn leaves and juicy russet apples deftly supported by tight minerals and vanilla oak. Excellent.

Planeta, Cometa 2009
100% Fiano. Like Planeta’s Chardonnay, this key southern Italian grape was first planted in the region of Menfi in 1996 as an experimental variety and created as a point of difference to Fiano from Campania – the home of the grape. An intensely musky, smoky tropical fruit nose is followed by a textural, herbal, honeyed stone fruit plate. A real terroir wine, seeing no oak at all. Great food wine for enjoying now.

Planeta, Merlot 1998 (double magnum)
Francesca Planeta cites this Merlot as the best ever, apart from the 1995 – the first vintage of this wine. Hailing from the Ulmo and Maroccoli vineyards in the Sambuca di Sicilia region, it also contains 5% Petit Verdot for structure and perfume. It boasts voluptuous cherry and plum fruit, leather hints, bright acidity and textural, grippy tannins. While the alcohol is quite warm, there’s fresh fruit to balance and it is ageing well.

Planeta, Syrah 2002
Sicily has a great record when it comes to quality Syrahs and this wine – first made in 1999 from a blend of grapes from Menfi and Sambuca di Sicilia –is no different. An unashamedly modern, international style it has high alcohol backed by spicy, vanilla-edged black fruits, liquorice and tar notes. Very dense, soft and concentrated it is still finding its feet and will be a better wine over the next few years.

Planeta, Santa Cecilia 2006
This is Planeta’s flagship wine, made from Sicily’s most famous red grape, Nero d’Avola. From the region of Noto, in the island’s south, the chalky-clay soil of the Buonivini vineyard is the ideal terroir to bring out the character of this grape. The 2006 marks the 10th vintage of this wine, which shows amazing purity of blue and black berries. It is young and dense with the pastille fruit, dark chocolate, anise and cinnamon notes integrating perfectly with tight tannins, steely minerals and searing acidity. Superb. Enjoy now or keep for a decade.

Planeta, Passito di Noto 2008
100% Moscato Bianco. Also from Noto’s Buonivini vineyard, this is the most traditional of Planeta’s wines, but in a modern guise, harking back to what Sicily was best known for centuries ago. Lovely mouthwatering acidity balanced by rich heady dates, mixed peel, and dried tropical fruit with a hint of Christmas spice and floral notes. Creamy and unctuous with a long, fresh finish.


18th October 2010 - Report: Gaja Barbaresco tasting

Roberson wine merchant's vertical tasting of 10 Gaja Barbarescos was, as expected, a sell out; the wines ranging in age from 2006 back to a rare 1958 made by Angelo Gaja's father Giovanni.

The Gaja family emigrated to Piedmont from Spain in the 1600s and the first Giovanni Gaja started the winery in 1859. Despite having eight children, only one, Angelo, was deemed suitable to take over the family business – the other seven had excessive drinking and gambling problems.

Angelo’s French wife, Clotilde Rey, encouraged him to buy only the best vineyard sites in Barbaresco and the company’s fame grew steadily since, particularly through their son Giovanni.

Giovanni’s son Angelo (whose son is called Giovanni, following the family tradition) took over in 1961 and has forged the biggest changes in the appellation while taking the Gaja name from a local leader to a global star.

He was the first to reduce yields, personally choose wood for his barriques (not the traditional foudres), make single-vineyard cuvées and plant international varietals. But most famously, he removed the Barbaresco DOCG name from his top bottlings so he could add 5% of Barbera to the blend, thereby declassifying his best wines to mere Langhe Nebbiolo.

The favourite wine of the evening was the 1961, narrowly edging out the 1974, followed by the 1978. Votes were also cast for the 1958, 1988 and 2006.

Gaja, Barbaresco 2006
Bright, intense, lifted, ripe berry nose. Bold vanilla spice with a hint of leather. Deep, rich, cherry liqueur palate with balsamic notes, grippy but soft tannins, high alcohol but well balanced by fruit power. Long finish. 14.5% abv.

Gaja, Barbaresco 2004
Reticent nose with complex wild cherry, noticeable balsamic and gamey elements. Needs time to knit – a bit angular now – but powerful structure, lovely fresh acidity and elegant fruit. Shows real promise. 14% abv

Gaja, Barbaresco 1994
Fresh menthol lift, minerals, cigar smoke leather and balsamic notes on nose and palate along with wild strawberry and sweet cherry fruit. Fine frame: grippy tannins, creamy vanilla oak, bright acidity and lovely development of perfumed fruit. 13% abv

Gaja, Barbaresco 1988
Meaty, savoury leather notes mingle with ripe fresh and dried fruits. Complex and developing palate of undergrowth, tapenade, figs, woodsmoke and lifted, juicy, floral berries. Soft, fine tannins and good length. 13.5% abv

Gaja, Barbaresco 1978
Deep, scented, savoury olive and balsamic nose with an intense, powerful, layered, meaty and peach-stone palate. Lovely, soft, grippy tannins, intense liqueur-like finish and mouthwatering acidity. Seamless and suave. 13.3%

Gaja, Barbaresco 1974
Great elegance and purity. Autumnal, earthy, wet leaf, tobacco, olive and balsamic complexity. Chalky tannins, lively fresh acidity and dense, layered, savoury mulberry fruit. Charming yet rich with superb terroir expression. 13%

Gaja, Barbaresco 1970
Leafy and savoury yet sweet plum nose. Rich, dense fig and fruitcake palate. Chocolatey smooth tannins. Earthy but juicy, still showing good acidity but fruit freshness fading just a touch. Still has a good few years ahead. 13.3%

Gaja, Barbaresco 1967
Huge mineral intensity and great, savoury perfume: leather, olive, meat and Marmite notes with a splash of balsamic vinegar. Sweet ‘n’ sour complexity and a bit sweaty too, with exotic, heady Indian spices. 13.2% abv

Gaja, Barbaresco 1961
Toasty vanilla oak, sweet, ripe balsamic-edged cherry fruit, dusty, tannins and fresh acidity. Very complete and amazingly youthful. Bright, sweet, meaty weight, great balance, complexity and integration. Liqueur-like finish. Still going strong. 13% abv

Gaja, Barbaresco 1958
Intense, caramel-coated cherry fruit, Peking duck and Amontillado Sherry. Lifted Chinese five-spice perfume and concentrated figs and prunes – juicy, ethnic and unique. Finish still has primary fruit freshness along with beef jerky notes. 13% abv


3rd October 2010 - Highlights from Piedmont video

Decanter's Highlights from Piedmont trade and consumer tasting, London 20 September 2010

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Thirty of Piedmont's best producers presented their wines at the Institute of Directors, Pall Mall, London on Monday 20 September.

29th September 2010 - Latest copy of Il Mio Vino out now

The September issue of Il Mio Vino is available now for an
online read click on the cover!!

To view the back issues online please click here

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