Italy Pics, Part 1

Coming in two parts, sorry people…

Pics from a recent trip to Milan in northern Italy (also Genoa, coming in the next post). Like many Americans visiting Italy, I’ve often simply passed through Milan — oftentimes missing the city entirely. And I’ll admit that most of the time I didn’t care, what with destinations like Piedmont, Tuscany, Alto Adige or Friuli on the horizon. This time, however, thanks to a long working assignment for a friend, I decided to pay the city a proper visit.

Good times!

Milano has a citywide bicycle rental program where members pick up and park bikes at stations like the one pictured above. And they’re not shy to set up the stations near main points of public interest, in this case, Piazza Duomo.

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Do Consumers Even Like Barolo?

Above: Which way Barolo? A signpost at an overlook in La Morra showing the distance to neighboring communes.

So, do consumers even like Barolo? It’s a sad question to ask if you’re a nebbiolo obsessive, but I think there’s some truth to it. Outside of the wine trade, it seems like most people just don’t respond to nebbiolo the way they do to, say, pinot noir or even sangiovese. Whether that’s a good thing or bad thing for nebbiolo is an open question; but it most certainly has implications for producers in Barolo and Barbaresco.

I recently wrote an article about the current state of Barolo for the San Francisco Chronicle (you can read it here). And while it seems that producers in the region are moving beyond the (frankly tired) debate of traditional vs. modern when it comes to the identity of Barolo, there’s arguably an even bigger step necessary for the nebbiolo heartland: connecting with the people who actually enjoy their wines.

By enjoy, I don’t necessarily mean covet or collect, but rather the appreciation of Barolo (or Barbaresco) for what it is instead of as some sort of trophy. Sadly, the wines won’t ever be cheap but neither should the pricing continue to rise to levels where (most) wines are unattainable.

It’s unlikely that Barolo will ever develop an international high-end market (complete with knock-offs) equivalent to what Bordeaux has going on, and aside from a few rare bottles, Barolo winemakers aren’t anywhere close to the status enjoyed by their counterparts in Burgundy — a frequent comparison.

Happily, two recent trends suggest that there’s bright news for nebbiolo-lovers. First up, the current vintage in the market, 2006, seems to favor producers with a classical bent meaning that what’s in the bottle is an honest representation of the region’s terroir.

And perhaps even better news: after years of lavishing their attention on riserva-level bottlings or numerous single-vineyard ‘cru’ wines, winemakers in the region are turning a serious eye to their blended base wines, those labeled as Barolo, and often sourced from multiple communes. When I joined the Chronicle’s tasting panel for an overview of the 2006 vintage, we found several wines from this category in the $30- $40 range that showed the clarity and depth I love to see in nebbiolo. Good news indeed! You can read the results of that tasting here.

Two Sides to Every Tasting: Nebbiolo Prima 2010

Nebbiolo Prima, the reconstituted annual anteprima event formerly known as the Alba Wines Exhibition, is easily one of the most engaging Italian wine tastings that I’ve attended. It’s also certainly the most gruesome: four days, 75-85 new nebbiolo wines each day, and only three or so hours in a single sitting to taste them all. Still, it’s a fantastic opportunity to taste most of the new releases from the following appellations: Roero, Barbaresco and Barolo. And as an invited (and hosted*) journalist, I got to taste everything blind, broken out by vintage and commune.

I’m still typing up my notes, so it’s a little premature to comment on individual wines. Actually, typed notes or no, I think it’s impossible to offer accurate impressions of the 330 or so wines tasted at Nebbiolo Prima. To be sure, I had some favorites — wines that, to me at least, gave a balanced impression of how nebbiolo performs in a particular zone, whether the Roero, Nieve, or Castiglione Falletto.

Large, comprehensive tastings like Nebbiolo Prima, however, do have their advantages, namely providing an opportunity to play generalist and look for underlying trends or profiles within communes and, most importantly, within the vintage.

So speaking generally, I came away from this tasting uninspired by many of the ’07s from the Roero (a region that I tend to like under normal circumstances) and frustrated by the bulk (literally and figuratively, but not all) of ’07 Barbarescos, especially those from Treiso which, marked as they were by jammy tannins and high alcohols, didn’t seem to handle the warm, dry conditions of 2007.

(Above: Two sides to every tasting, and every rental car. I had rented a new – and adorable – Fiat 500 to make getting around much easier. Unfortunately a tight alleyway and an obscured bench in the medieval town of Serralunga decided to make things a little more difficult. Thankfully, a quick thinking winemaker reattached the bumper with tape.)

Barolo 2006 was a different matter. And at least to judge from my experiences during both Nebbiolo Prima and during visits with several producers both before, during and after the event, 2006 is looking like it will be a very good, possibly classic, vintage for Barolo, especially among producers in Castiglione Falletto, Barolo/Novello, Monforte, Serralunga and Verduno. La Morra was the odd man out here, with too many wines that felt pushed in the cellar, whether through overworked tannins or excessive oak flavors.

Which brings up another point about 2006, and perhaps why I think this vintage shows real promise for Barolo: it’s a tough year to hide behind. In other words, it’s not a year in which warm, ideal ripening conditions can hide bad winemaking, nor is it a year in which the more obviously modern and international styles tended to show their best. If you dig brighter acidity, earthy, firm tannins and purity of expression over technique, then 2006 Barolo is your thing.

A few more posts, including some producer visits in Liguria and Valtellina in addition to Piedmont, to follow…

NB: I had the great pleasure of spending a good amount of time tasting (and eating) with David McDuff, who has also posted informed observations about Nebbiolo Prima. Definitely worth a visit.

*As noted before, but worth pointing out again, I was an invited journalist at Nebbiolo Prima, and have the organizers to thank for logistical support, airfare, some meals, etc. The rental car, in all its taped, bashed-up glory, was my own responsibility.

Tunnel Vision

Greetings from Piemonte! I’m here as a guest for Nebbiolo Prima, a tasting of new releases from Barolo, Barbaresco and the Roero, happening next week. I’ve wanted to attend this tasting for the last several years but because of publishing schedules I couldn’t get away. Now that I’m more of a free agent, well, I just had to make this one a priority.

For these few days before the tasting, however, I’ll be visiting producers and generally getting into trouble. Stay tuned for updates. In the meantime, some crappy iphone photos from yesterday’s jet-lagged haze. I forgot the cable for my digital camera, so you’ll have to content yourself with the phone pics… sorry!

To transfer to the short-jump European flights at the Frankfurt airport, you need to pass through this underground tunnel. Early in the morning after a transatlantic flight.

La Morra overlook. It’s a little rainy here these days.

Castello di Verduno’s delightful 2008 Pelaverga with carne cruda.

Giuseppe Rinaldi’s awesome 2008 Barbera d’Alba and a couple plates of tajarin to take the edge off after a long flight.

Of Course They Grow Caberuct in Italy!

Engaged in research to prepare for a panel that I’m moderating this coming Tuesday in San Francisco on Alto Adige. Naturally this is the perfect opportunity to peruse my collection of 1950s/60s-era tourist guides to Italy.

Edition # 4 Italy: Veneto Trentino Alto Adige

The entire series is quite charming, filled with illustrations and old pictures (with hardly any scooters or cars; try finding that today!), but of course the information is dated (book #4 for instance carries no mention of Friuli in its title yet there are chapters on Gorizia and Udine, although the “Free Territory of Trieste” is omitted).

One of my favorite parts of these books is the section on regional eating and drinking, filled as you might expect with interesting historical tidbits about popular foods, wines and grapes. To whit:

And finally, all the way from the mountains to the sea there is a tasty and varied cuisine which varies according to the climate and the place.

The wine section for northeastern Italy:

Excellent wines are also produced, the red wines from the Garda district, the Lugana, Veronese wines, Bardolino, Valpolicella, wine from Val Pantena, Merlot and Caberuct,* both fine table wines. There are many brands of white wines: Gambellara frm Vicenza, Soave from Verona, Prosecco from the Conegliano hills, Cartizze from Valdobbiadene, the white wine from the Euganean Hills and from Collio, of which the best are the white <Sauvignon>, <Rhenish Riesling>, and <Tokay>, small vines which, transplanted in the first years of the 16th century, gave birth to the famous Hungarian <Tokay>. There are also first class wines from Friuli: the white and grey Pinot, Ramàndolo, Verduzzo and the Terrano from Carso; wines from Trent and Alto Adige, from Val d’Isarco; Téroldego from Mezzolombardo, Riesling, Terlano, Missiano, Traminer, and Kretzer. Then there are the sweet wines such as Piccolit from Friuli, Muscat from the Euganean Hills, Torcolato from Breganze; Vin Santo from Fregona and Casteltoblino, sparkling wines from Farra d’Isonzo, Conegliano, Valdobbiadene. In all they are a series of wines not as well known as they deserve to be.

A few things that caught my eye:

Kretzer is a term for a rosé of Lagrein, although it’s unclear from the context here if that’s what’s meant. It could just be Lagrein.

You don’t hear much about Torcolato these days (but in 1993 it was newsy).

*Huh? Caberuct?!?

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):

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