Authenticity in Italian Wine: Notes from My Panel at VINO 2010

As I mentioned earlier, I was in New York for much of last week at the Italian wine extravaganza, VINO 2010. While it was great to attend seminars, meet new producers and taste their wines, the reason I was there was to speak as part of a panel (full disclosure: I was paid to participate). Our session was titled Transparency, Traceability, and Wine: the Italian Appellation of Origin System, and it certainly inspired a lively round of discussion.

I don’t have full notes on what was said, but I thought I would post the written text of what I’d prepared for the session. Feel free to chime in with discussion, comments, etc.

Note: Riccardo Ricci Curbastro, a Franciacorta producer and a representative of FederDOC, the body that oversees the Italian appellation system, pointed out that the rules for each appellation are agreed upon from the bottom up; in other words, the producers of a particular region determine the appellation rules amongst themselves. I overlooked this point but it did come rushing back when I recalled that members of the Brunello Consortium voted to not change the rules of the appellation and allow grapes other than sangiovese in the production of Brunello di Montalcino.

Anyway, here’s the text I prepared (after the jump):

Building Trust with both the Wine Trade and Consumers

When I got the call asking me to be part of this panel, I was at first a little taken aback. While I’ve studied and observed the Italian appellation system over the years – and certainly gave it some thought more recently when the news of various scandals broke – I had to admit that I haven’t really thought about what the DOC and DOCG mean in a long time.

The system as it exists is great for guaranteeing a minimal level of quality and that certain practices are followed – like limits on yields, aging, etc. In some ways, as an importer of Italian wine put it to me, it prevents the worst wines from being worse.

But above that level, for most people, trade and consumer alike, it tends to come down to the relationship with a particular producer and their wines. In other words, it’s the intention and name of the producer that matter more for engaged wine lovers in this country than the appellation.

This position is, I feel, rather common among most people working in the American wine trade. These days, with Italian wine being ascendant in the marketplace, members of the trade, and by extension the consumers we come in contact with, are less concerned with memorizing the specific rules and regulations behind each appellation, and perhaps more concerned with taste, place and cost (that last one is ever more important).

People tend to gravitate towards producers whose wines have come to mean something to them, whether that something is a fruit-forward blend of traditional grapes and international varieties aged in small oak barrels, or a wine fermented in a clay amphora that claims an ancient heritage. Two cases, by the way, that possibly fall outside of DOC rules, depending on where they’re from.

But as I thought about this some more, and talked about it with friends and colleagues, I realized that I’m all for the rules, specifically strengthening the DOCG and its meaning. In other words, a DOCG designation – especially under the forthcoming European regulations – needs to have real weight and significance. Specifically, it needs to be firmly and truly rooted to a geographic designation and the traditions behind that designation.

The new DOCG of Valdobbiadene and Conegliano is a good example. This region is where the prosecco grape and the sparkling wine made from it seem to achieve its best expression. Likewise, it’s important to preserve the grand appellations like Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello di Montalcino, etc. But it’s time to make the qualifications for DOCG status even stricter, and to limit

So in theory, with rules in place, there’s a protection of origin. But along with better enforcement and enhanced traceability efforts, I believe that producers (and their importers, especially their importers) need to be more sharing and open. The market – at least in this country – now demands it.

This market craves ‘authenticity’, or at least the perception of ‘authenticity’.  And this desire is something that Italy and its wines are more than capable of meeting at every price point. And as the American wine market matures, I believe that we’re seeing a real embrace of traditional, honest wines.

Just last night at dinner at Convivio (great place, Levi Dalton has a killer list), I was talking with the bartender about wine. At one point, I asked him how Brunello sells. He answered well, it almost sells itself, but that he doesn’t think it’s a good value. He pointed to some wines that he likes – and these are great producers – but then said that he likes to take people to other places, like Taurasi or Aglianico del Vulture where, in his words, “they can get an honest wine at a good price.”

So what is an honest wine? Seriously, how would you define an honest wine? Or let me put that another way: What does authenticity taste like?

The answer to that question, partly at least, goes back to building trust. Fortunately, these days it’s really easy for a winery to communicate directly with the outside world. To be more open.

Alessandro Bindocci, who along with his father Fabrizio, is the winemaker at Il Poggione in Montalcino. In response to the scandal of 2008 there, Alessandro started a great blog called the Montalcino Report, which he not only uses as a lens into Il Poggione, but life in Montalinco, its wines and what it’s like to grow grapes there. He also posts general news and regular updates and photos during the harvest.

All of that creates an aura of openness that would seem to set the estate above a lot of the recent problems. It’s much easier, therefore, for a consumer or even someone in the trade here to put their trust in a producer who is open and willing to share the inner-workings of their estate. In other words, it’s possible to establish a connection that goes a long way towards strengthening – even transcending – the guarantee of appellation.

For wineries everywhere today, it’s essential do that with your existing supporters. The tools are there, readily available in the form of blogs, social networks and other communication tools, to make that possible.

I suppose my point here is that an official designation is an important thing – it’s a protection of very specific, unique wines. But in today’s world, a producer really needs to do their part. And I believe by being open and accessible, an Italian winery will not only reinforce the strength of their appellation, but build their reputation, and with it, a solid base of dedicated fans.

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5 thoughts on “Authenticity in Italian Wine: Notes from My Panel at VINO 2010

  1. Great post thanks.
    I like reading this because I have recently met a unique winemaker precisely in that area you mentioned talking about DOCG: the Valdobbiadene.
    This guys are the most innovative, modern, challenging, intelligent, forward looking niche Prosecco producer of this area. Most players in the food chain would like to prove their commitment to food/drinks quality and safety, and these guys have decided to send a strong message to their customers. The Food Chain Traceability Standard applied by them to the entire process, from cultivation to labelling, maps and documents their product’s history, creating trust and confidence towards consumers. From the early days, the owners have sought to improve and reinforce the characteristics of their Prosecco grapes, to differentiate themselves, to offer a special product that stands above the sea of competitors. The Food Chain Traceability Certification is one of the ways this “Azienda”has chosen to communicate transparency and devotion to their customers and I very much like this approach. Their Prosecco are remarkable.
    I hope you could find a bottle or two because I’d like to read your expert review about it.
    The winemaker is called Azienda Riccardo (www.prosecco.com)
    Their products are targeting a high end niche market because they do not want to compromise quality over quantity. They do a Riccardo Prosecco DOC Brut (fabulous!), a Riccardo Prosecco DOCG Superior Extra Dry (excellent!) and the top of the class a stunning Riccardo Cartizze DOCG Superior Extra (the Gran Cru of Prosecco from that special hill in the area where an hectar of land is worth in excess of a million dollars).
    Using your words the owners of Azienda Riccardo are ” willing to share the inner-workings of their estate” in the most genuine and transparent way.

    Happy drinking!

    Ricci

    • Hi Ricci,

      Thanks for the comment. Sorry, it took a while to get posted — truthfully it seemed a little self-promotional for this blog’s comments section, but the wines do look interesting so I’ll keep my eye out for them. Appreciate the tip.

      Cheers,
      wolfgang

  2. Hi Wolfgang,
    I was mainly interested in the way this firm is dealing with traceability in wine products and thought your article was discuss this topic too. Sorry if it seemed promotional. It’s just that this Prosecco blew me away and I am so enthusiastic about it that…keep an eye on them and let me have your thoughts.

    Cheerio

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