Sandro Lonardo, Contrade de Taurasi, a great traditional producer of Taurasi
Photo ©Tom Hyland
Whatever your take on Italian wine, I want to inform you of a recent article that is a must read. Authored by Tom Maresca, the dean of Italian wine writers in America, this text reflects Maresca’s thoughts on the influence of the recently departed Giacomo Tachis, the winemaker often credited as being the “father of Sassicaia.” (Read the post here.)
Briefly, Maresca notes that while Tachis did have influence on the commercialization of Italian wines around the world, that may not have been a good thing, as far as the big picture for the identity of Italian wines. It’s a bold statement and it’s one I largely agree with; I thank Tom for taking the time, and frankly for having the tenacity to offer such a strong opinion on this subject.
One note of disclosure at this point. I have known Maresca for more than a dozen years; we have tasted thousands of Italian wines at various events at locales from north to south. Fittingly, we first met at a producer located on the Amalfi Coast. I say fittingly, as we both share a great passion for these wines, which are produced entirely from local indigenous varieties, such as Biancolella, Ginestra, Piedirosso and several others.
Wines made with local varieties, be they from Campania, Piemonte or numerous other Italian regions are distinctive, individual and speak of a sense of place. These are wines that could only be made in the zone where these varieties are planted. That’s what so special about Italian wines and it’s also why Italian wines are such a challenge to so many people; you can’t wrap up Italian wines in an elegant package with a pretty bow. That may frustrate some people, but rewards in life come from making an effort – they’re not handed out on a platter. Take the time to learn Italian wines made from indigenous varieties and you will enjoy some of the finest as well as most singular wines in the world.
The firm of Francesco Rinaldi is one of the most traditional of all Barolo producers
As Maresca points out, the wines created by Tachis and others are not offerings that truly represent the best of Italian wine. They may be highly praised by certain influential wine publications, but also realize that these journals were and are steeped in the tradition of French and California wines. To them, Italian wines were a puzzle, displaying higher acidity in their reds than they were used to, all the while not being as fruit forward as the highest rated Cabernet Sauvignons from California. It was only when a few individuals in Italy started to experiment with Bordeaux varieties that certain wine writers started to take notice of Italian wines. That’s truly a shame and it points to these journalists wanting more and more red wines that can be squeezed into a small circle, one with completely round edges.
Well, life, whether profiled by Italian wines or thousands of other subjects, is not black and white – there are many shades of gray. Do you want all your red wines to taste the same? Or do you want variety? The answer for Maresca and me is simple- give us original wines that show us a portrait of the local varieties and topography. When I travel to Italy, I certainly don’t want American food (whatever that is); nor do I want wines that taste like they came from America. These Italian wines – many of them from Tuscany that fall under the Super Tuscan domain – may bring attention to Italy, but it’s at a price. The cost, ultimately, is losing one’s soul; that is too big a price to pay.
On a related note, I just saw Wine Spectator’s list of the Top 100 Italian Wines. This was assembled for an event at the annual VinItaly wine fair and as you might expect, there are a lot of famous names on this list, such as Gaja, Antinori and Casanova di Neri. It’s also nice to see that producers such as Elena Walch and Cantina Terlano from Alto Adige are on the list, as well as Bertani and Pieropan from the Veneto; marvelous producers.
But this is a strange list for a few reasons, never mind the choice of vintages, such as a few Barolos being from the 2011 vintage (current releases), while the Ceretto “Bricco Rocche” Barolo is from 2005, and the Renato Ratti “Rocche” is from 2004. How can the publication explain this? And how would one even find a bottle of these last two wines, unless they wanted to visit the winery and be prepared to pay a lot of money? Either list all-time great wines or assemble a list of the best wines currently available; it seems to me this last option is preferable. If not, then this becomes a bit of a exercise in snobbery.
I will say that the coverage of Italian wines in Wine Spectator has improved, and indeed there are wines here from Campania, Sicily, Puglia and Sardegna that were rarely, if ever, covered in past years at the magazine. But this list (read here from an Italian website) is still too oriented with famous wines from Tuscany and Piemonte. This is hardly a surprise, as these are the best-known wines from Italy, ones that the editors and writers at Spectator constantly enthuse about.
I won’t waste too much time on this, but there are a couple points I want to write about. While everyone’s list of the Top 100 Italian wines (or French wines, or breakfast cereals, or what have you) will be different, one has to wonder why the Damilano Barolo “Cannubi” 2011 is on this list. A well-made wine of good typicity, to be sure, but among the Top 100 wines in Italy? Please!
Instead of this wine – there are another 12 Barolos on the list – why not substitute a great Alto Piemonte red, such as Le Piane Boca or Travaglini Gattinara Riserva? Here is where the Spectator could have done a wonderful service as far as educating their readers on the wines of Italy. These two Alto Piemonte reds are exceptional and complement famous reds such as Barolo and Barbaresco from the Langhe in the southern reaches of Piemonte. By the way, there isn’t a single Barbaresco on the list – how is that possible with producers such as Produttori del Barbaresco, Albino Rocca, Bruno Giacosa, Cascina delle Rose, Rizzi and Gaja? An amazing oversight!
Then you have Tuscany with its Super Tuscans; like them or not, you have to give Sassicaia and Ornellaia their due. But getting back to my original argument, there are a lot of Tuscan wines – many, but not all made in an international style – that comprise this list. Meanwhile, there is only one wine from Marche, a Verdicchio. It’s an excellent Verdicchio, but only one example of what is one of Italy’s finest white wines?
Worse yet, there are no examples of Vin Santo from Tuscany on the list. You’re telling me that they couldn’t find one offering of one of the world’s most famous and seductive dessert wines? Yet, there are a half-dozen Super Tuscans that made the cut.
The message is clear. Wine Spectator is largely about promoting famous wines that receive high scores. More and more, too many of these wines, as well made as they are, start to become variations on a theme. As I wrote earlier in this post, give me wines that display a sense of indigenous varieties in a distinctive and original manner.
But maybe I’m just old-fashioned, in the sense that I like variety, honesty and heritage in my Italian wines.