Valpolicella: Time for Wine Tourism to take Center Stage

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Stunning view from the terraced vineyards at Terre di Leone

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Valpolicella is well known for its great wines — Valpolicella Classico, Valpolicella Superiore, Ripasso della Valpolicella and of course Amarone. (It should also be known for its sweet wine, Recioto della Valpolicella, but that’s another story.)

But what about wine tourism? Sue and I were guests of the Valpolicella Consorzio earlier this month and one of our tasks was get a sense of Valpolicella as a wine tourist destination using a new wine tourism app (available as free download for Android and Apple mobile devices).  Here is a brief report.

There’s an App for That!

Whenever I asked the winemakers we met if wine tourism was an important part of their business the answer was “yes!” but I think it is fair to say that for many of the actual tourists wine is at best a secondary reason for their visit.

The fact is that most tourists come to this part of Italy for non-wine reasons — for the history, culture and opera of Verona to the east, for example, or the resorts of Lake Garda to the west. Lying between these two attractive poles, Valpolicella is the perfect “day out” diversion (especially if it is a rainy day as has too often been the case in 2014) but not always the primary destination.

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Postmodern meets tradition at Zymé

Come for Opera, Stay for Wine

Come for the beach or opera, stay for the wine! That could be Valpolicella’s wine tourism motto, but it would be selling the region short. What do dedicated wine tourists look for? Well, these days they want the complete experience — the wine and wineries, of course, plus beautiful scenery, great food, comfortable lodgings and that something extra to tell their friends back home about. Valpolicella would seem to tick each of these boxes.

The vineyard scenery is certainly spectacular — I really wasn’t prepared for the beautiful vistas.  What a stunning setting! A great opportunity for fit cyclists with a nose for good wine or anyone willing to pull off the road and take in the panorama.

The wineries we visited using the Consorzio’s app showed the great variety of experiences available, which ranged from the super-modern architecture at Monteci to the classic and traditional at Valentina Cubi (one of our favorite stops).  The sense of history was particularly strong at Santa Sofia, which is located in a villa designed by Andrea Palladio in the 16th century.  You cannot dig much deeper into the soul of the Venteo  than that!

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Tradition at Santa Sofia

Zymé, Celestino Gaspari’s  ambitious winery in Pietro in Carlano  deftly balanced the very old and the very new. The winery building features cutting edge architecture — see the photo taken looking out from the structure towards the nearby hillside vineyards. Wow!

The Zymé  cellar and caves are carved into the hillside and touring them gives a sense of both history and nature. One of the best surprises was in the cavern than has become the working part of the winery. A spring that was discovered during construction was incorporated into the design and you can actually look down dozens of feet into the crevasse that the water has carved out over the years. A stunning sensory experience (and great for the humidity needed for barrel storage).

Beyond the Wine

Wine tourists need a place to stay and there seem to be many attractive options (this part of the Consorzio  app is still under development). Although we stayed in a basic business hotel on this trip, we encountered a number of options, including very appealing apartments at Valentina  Cubi.

If you want luxury, well there seem to be a number of five star experiences available. SalvaTerra’s beautiful estate includes vineyards, the winery, a small hotel and what must be a fine restaurant (judging from the number of chefs we saw working the kitchen as we passed by).

We have no doubt about the food at Villa Cordevigo  since we were fortunate to have dinner at this estate that includes the Villabella winery, its vineyards, a fantastic hotel and spa and the sorts of amenities that make you want to linger forever. Or at least that’s how it seemed to us as we looked out over a garden to the pool and the vineyards j8ust beyond with a full moon in the distance.

It’s the Food, Dummy

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Foodie attraction: Cappelletti di coda, fonduta di Parmigiano, ristretto al Cordevigo rosso at Villa Cordevigo, served with Villa Cordevigo Rosso 2007

People talk about coming to Italy for the art and architecture, but let me tell you the truth. It’s the food! And we were fortunate to sample many typical dishes of the regional cuisine and they are worth the effort to seek out. Typical is an interesting word in this context — you see it everywhere in Italy and that’s a good thing. Here in the U.S. “typical” is sometimes a term of derision — Big Macs are “typical” fast food, for example. Ordinary. Unexceptional. Nothing to write home about. That’s typical for us.

In Italy, however, typical means “true to type” or authentic. And that’s why we Americans go gaga over Italian food — the authenticity just blows us away. And the authentic or typical dishes of Valpolicella, many prepared with the wines themselves, are enough to make any foodie go gaga. We enjoyed great meals at the Villa Cordevigo,  Ristorante La Divina  (overlooking Garda from high on a hill), Locanda 800 and the Enoteca Della Valpolicella.

We also appreciated the lunches that several wineries put together for us including a wonderful (typical!) meal of local meats and cheeses with polenta  at Scriani, a satisfying buffet at Santa Sofia and a rather elaborate multi-course feast of typical dishes at the Cantina Valpolicella Negrar.  All the food was wonderful — the meats and cheeses at Cesari  and the completely addictive “crumb cake” we had with Recioto at Secondo Marco. Foodie paradise? You be the judge. And great wines, too.

That Something Extra

Valpolicella seems to have all the elements of a great wine tourism experience and I think the Consorzio’s  app ties things together into a functional package.  It will be even more useful when it has time to fill out with more wineries, restaurants and hotels.

Is the app alone enough to bring Valpolicella to center stage? Of course not. Some of the wineries obviously embrace wine tourism more completely than others, for example. It is important that three or four true “destination” wineries emerge that will make it easy for wine tourists to see that a two-day or longer visit can be fashioned that will sustain their interest and enthusiasm —  with dozens of other wineries providing rich diversity (and reasons to return again and again) as happens in Napa, for example. And finally there must be even closer ties among the elements of the hospitality sector — wine, food, tourism and lodgings — which is not always easy to achieve.

It takes a village to build a wine route. But all the pieces are there and the app is a good way to bring them together.

But what about that “something extra” I mentioned earlier.  What does Valpolicella offer that will push it over the top? Well, the towns and villages have the churches, squares, museums and villas that Italian wine tourists expect — it takes only a little effort to seek them out and I must confess that I actually enjoy the “small moments”  more than the three-star attractions, so this suits me very well.

But maybe I am making this too hard. What’s that something special? Maybe it’s the chance to tack an evening in Verona or a day on Lake Garda on to your Valpolicella wine tour experience?  Perhaps its time for the wine tail to wag the Veneto  tourist dog and not the other way around! (Gosh, I wonder how that will sound in Italian?) Food for thought!

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This is the second in a series of reports on our Veneto wine tour. Come back next week for a discussion of the challenges and opportunities facing the Valpolicella wine industry.


Here’s a musical tribute to the merry band of wine bloggers on our Valpolicella tour.

Valpolicella & Prosecco: The Pendulum Swings to Premiumization in the Veneto

Sue and I recently returned from a week in Northern Italy as guests of the Valpolicella Consorzio. We joined a small group of multinational wine bloggers to test out a nifty new wine tourism app (available as free download for Android and Apple mobile devices) and visit a number of wineries and winemakers. We had a great experience (thanks so much to the Consorzio, our guide Federica Schir and to the winemakers) and learned a lot.

We accepted a generous invitation from my wine economist colleague Prof. Luigi Galletto to visit the Conegliano Valdobbiadene region, meet with officials of their Consorzio, tour the famous Wine School in Conegliano and visit Prosecco makers.

We capped the trip with a visit to Venissa, the vineyard and winery on the island of Mazzorbo in the Venetian Lagoon, to taste both the wines of this special place and the sparkling wines made by the Bisol family who created the Venissa project. I’ll be reporting on our trip over the next few weeks. Here is a brief introduction to the series.

Contrasts: The Red and the White

The visit was full of contrasts, some more obvious than others, starting with red and white. Valpolicella is home to many powerful red wines while Prosecco is known for its crisp sparkling whites. And the Conegliano-Valdobbiadene vineyards are sometimes so steep that they make the more rolling hills of Valpolicella seem like tabletops (which they definitely are not!).P1090025

But the biggest contrast was about shifting market focus, not color or geography. Not so long ago the Veneto (which also includes the major regions of Soave and Bardolino) was all about quantity not quality. Vast lakes of undistinguished wine were produced here, something that challenged the reputations of the quality producers back then and to a certain degree colors market perception today.

But the pendulum has swung from quantity towards quality and, while there are still undistinguished wines produced here, the focus is clearly on what we call today “premiumization” and a race to the top is under way to make better wines and to draw consumers towards more precisely defined premium products. We saw evidence of much new investment in the wine sector here. It’s a brave new world for Valpolicella — not without challenges, of course (since this is wine), but poised to grasp new market opportunities.

The swinging pendulum takes different paths in different regions. Besides rising quality in general in Valpolicella, for example, there is growing emphasis on the premium Amarone and Ripasso wines as well as distinctive wines that do not play by the DOC or DOCG rules, qualifying only for the less prestigious IGT geographical designation.

Some of these IGTs — such as the Dedicatum from Terre di Leone — were among the most interesting wines we tasted here. Dedicatum is made from a blend of 14 grape varieties — some of them rare heritage varieties — grown on the estate’s terraced hillside vineyard. Delicious and distinctive — good enough stand tall with the winery’s other fine wines — it is one of several notable and innovative IGT wines we encountered.P1090240

Prosecco is moving upmarket in its own way, with special emphasis on the premium Conegliano Valdobbiadene zone, then on “grand cru” hillside vineyards (“Rive” in the local dialect) with the luxurous Cartizze at the top of the pyramid. The “IGT” phenomenon is at work here, too, with wineries producing attention-grabbing new wines (different grapes, different winemaking methods) alongside their DOC and DOCG products.

Venissa is a special case in every way, but it can be seen as the ultimate premiumization play — distinctive terroir and innovative winemaking closely tied to Venetian history wrapped in a luxurious combination that includes wine, lodging, gourmet food and lifestyle — the complete package. Can’t wait to tell you all about it!

Discoveries: Three New Grape Varieties

The movement towards quality and innovation is only part of the  story of our Veneto visit. We were also able to add three grape varieties to our lifetime list. At Venissa we tasted the white wine made from the Dorona grape found on the lagoon vineyard. In Valpolicella we discovered Oselata vines at Villabella and tasted the very concentrated wines that the tiny red grapes produce both at Villabella and at Zýmé. A very intense experience!

Finally, we were able to sample wine made from the Manzoni Bianco grape made by the team at the Conegliano Wine School where Prof. Luigi Manzoni taught. Manzoni experimented with several grape crossings (much as Luther Burbank did with different crops in the U.S.) and the Incrocio Manzoni 6.0.13 that we tasted is a cross of Riesling and Pinot Bianco (or maybe Chardonnay based on DNA analysis, according to Ian D’Agata’s excellent book Native Wine Grapes of Italy).

Aromatic, crisp and refreshing — like a lighter style of Riesling — not something I remember tasting before. but perhaps I am wrong since D’Agata says that it is a widely planted variety in the Italian Northeast. Great to taste it at the source (the “6.0.13” designation is an index of the original plant’s location in the test vineyard we visited).

We were also able to try sweet but balanced Recioto wines, both red (in Valpolicella) and white (from the Garganega grape), made from air-dried grapes. Not everyone in our group enjoyed these wines as much as I did — the fashion against residual sugar is very strong — but I found the best of them to be very much worth seeking out.  Recioto della Valpolicella is underappreciated these days, we were told, and the only market is local, which is a shame because without Recioto the world would  not have Amarone and it is good to be able to taste them both.

Airline Wine: Code-Share Conundrum

I’ll end this rambling introductory column with report on the importance, from a wine consumer standpoint, of reading the airline code-share details carefully. Our journey from Seattle to the Veneto and back presented two distinctly different 35,000 foot wine experiences.

The outbound Lufthansa flight provided industry standard international quality in our economy cabin, with decent complementary red and white wines poured from the bottle — we liked the Riesling best.  Almost everyone had wine with dinner — why wouldn’t they? — and there was even a little Cognac (but, alas, no Port) after the meal. Not luxurious — the usual plastic glasses, etc. — but welcome and civilized and what we have come to expect from international air travel.

The flight back was on Lufthansa’s code-share partner United Airlines, home to the “Friendly Skies” but not very friendly when it came to wine in the economy cabin. Little bottles were offered for sale at $7.99 each. No one had wine with dinner — why would they? — and the flight attendant seemed a little bit surprised when I ordered and paid just to see what it was (a decent Sauvignon Blanc from the Pays D’Oc as I recall). Can you guess which code-share partner I will look for on our next trip if faced with the same choice?

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Here is a list of the wineries we visited during our Valpolicella and Prosecco tour

Wineries we visited in Valpolicella:

Valentina Cubi, Fumani

Scriani, Fumani

San Rustico, Valgatara

Terre di Leone, Marano di Valpolicella

Villa Cordevigo and Villabella, Cavaion Veronese

Casa Vinicola Sartori, S. Maria di Negrar

Cantina Valpolicella Negrar, Negrar

Monteci, Pescantina

Cesari, Cavaion Veronese

Zýmé, San Pietro in Cariano

Santa Sofia, Pedemonte

Secondo Marco, Fumane

Salvaterra, San Pietro in Cariano

Wineries we visited in Conegliano Valdobbiadene

Scuola Enologica Conegliano, Conegliano

Mionetto, Valdobbiadene

Sorrelle Bronca, Colbertaldo di Vidor

and in the Venetian lagoon, 

Venissa, Isola Mazzorbo, Venice

 

Mostosa the Debt-Slayer: Exploring the Native Wine Grapes of Italy

Ian D’Agata, Native Wine Grapes of Italy. University of California Press, 2014.

I really didn’t think there was much left to be said about wine grape varieties after Jancis Robinson and her team published Wine Grapes, their magisterial analysis of 1365 different grape varieties. (There’s a nifty Kindle version of this 2012 volume available now for you e-Book fans.)

Been There, Done That?

So I was skeptical when this big book arrived in the mail — it looked like a lot of pages and text given that the subject is just one country, even one as viticulturally complicated as Italy. Was there really enough new and interesting to justify adding a volume like this to my already-groaning wine bookshelf.

Well, I am pleased to say that I was wrong to be such a skeptic and that I find Ian D’Agata’s just released book to be detailed, interesting and original and I recommend to anyone interested in Italian wines or the topic of native wine grapes generally. It is a seriously fascinating read.

The book begins with two chapters that set the stage then drills down through the layers  starting with major grape groups and families (familiar names to most of us), moving on to major native and traditional grape varieties (less familiar names here), “little known” (not lesser or minor) grape varieties, and then by a brief chapter on “crossings.”

Italy Beyond the Usual Suspects

Suspicious of how much there might be to learn, I started with three grape varieties that I know pretty well and have written about, Pignoletto from Emilia-Romanga, Lacrima from Marche and Piedmont’s Ruché. Reading through the entries was a humbling experience because there was so much more to know about these grapes and the wines produced from them than I ever imagined.

The grape variety entries are detailed and very personal, which makes them a pleasure to read, with notes about specific producers and occasional specific wine recommendation. The notes on the major grape varieties such as Sangiovese and Nebbiolo are particularly detailed and informative, as you would expect, but what about the less-known grapes?

Well, there are dozens of them analyzed here, so I decided to try to narrow the focus be reading only the entries for grapes from Emilia-Romagna —  I am somewhat less ignorant of this region than other parts of Italy because I lived for a time in Bologna when I taught at the Johns Hopkins center there.

Mostosa the Debt-Slayer

The list of little known grapes from this area was still very long and in some cases just a few rows of vines remained.  D’Agata treats each carefully and occasionally pleads for someone to step in and save a promising grape variety from extinction. Obviously one purpose of the book is to raise awareness of these grapes and the wines made from them and to support those who seek to preserve them.

My favorite “lesser known” grape variety? It has to be Mostosa, so named it is said because of the large quantities of must (mosto) that it produces and the large quantities of wine that result. A productive grape, you might say, and perhaps for that reason is sometimes associated with a wine known as Pagadebit (debt-payer).  Fine wine or Chateau Cash Flow? I’ve gotta get back to Bologna to find out.

D’Agata’s book caught me by surprise and has earned a place on this skeptic’s wine book wall. I can’t wait to take it with me to Italy and let it guide me to some fascinating new experiences.

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If you find this interesting you might want to check out De Long’s Wine Map of Italy – beautiful and informative.

Anatomy of Australia’s New Wine Strategy

Click on the image to view one of the Restaurant Australia videos.

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In my last column I talked about Australian wine’s plans to re-brand itself on the global market through an integrated food-wine-tourism campaign called “Restaurant Australia.”  Delegates to Savour Australia were treated to four specially produced videos  (click on the image above to see one of them) that introduced the concept and, not coincidentally, also introduced the chefs and purveyors who would be providing some of our (delicious) meals over the next few days.

Beyond Sensory Overload

The audience seemed to pause, slightly stunned, after each video. At first I thought that it was just sensory overload. And it was. The stunning images presented on the big screen with rich surround sound was an intense experience, to be sure. The fact that we experienced it all again later, meeting the chefs, tasting the produce– that was intense too.

But now that I am back home and reflecting on the experience, I think that perhaps we also paused for a different reason. The whole purpose of our gathering was wine. We had journeyed long miles to Adelaide to see and hear Australia tell its wine story. But where’s the wine?

Yes, wine and a winemaker appeared in each video, but they seemed a bit of an add-on rather than the featured element of the message. What would happen if you left out the wine ? Nothing much else would change. Is that the way we want people to think about Australian wine — an afterthought in the grand “Restaurant Australia” concept?

Now There’s Your Problem

Obviously not — and it would be a mistake to judge the marketing campaign by a few introductory videos. But, as I thought about it, I began to recognize that it was related to a bigger problem.

One of the chapters in Extreme Wine is about wine and modern media — I call it Extreme Wine Goes to the Movies — and it concludes in part that wine’s inherent sensuousness seems to be difficult to translate to video. Yes, wine famously unlocks all the physical senses and a few of the mental ones, too. But it is an experience good. Like fly fishing and some other things you might be able to think of, its more fun to do than to watch someone else do.

That’s why there are surprisingly few films where wine plays a really central role. There are a few excellent ones (Sideways fans please put down your pitchforks!) but you’d really expect there to be far more than I found in my research. Food, on the other hand, seems to be something that video can capture very well. Does watching someone drink wine in a movie make you thirsty? Maybe. Does watching a celebrity chef eat a delicious dish make you hungry? You bet it does!

Hungry?

No doubt about it. Wine’s magic is difficult to capture on the silver screen (or that little screen on your tablet or smartphone). That’s why we have Master Chef but not Master Enologist.  There are rock stars in wine, but they don’t generally transcend the wine category the way the foodie celebrities increasingly do.

Wine Porn versus Food Porn

My foodie friends are always taking X-rated “food porn” photos of the the plates they are served at fancy restaurants. But my wino buddies generally don’t bother to snap “wine porn” images of their glasses (although I admit to some G-rated bottle/label shots myself).

Assume that I’m correct about this for a moment (or, better yet, grab a copy of Extreme Wine and read a more detailed account, which uses Sideways to show why really powerful wine films are so rare). Given video’s undeniable importance in communications today, what is wine to do? Well, one answer is to do what Australia wine seems to be doing, which is use what works (the foodie side of the campaign) to drive the message.  They call it “Restaurant Australia,” but I have a better name.

Strongest Brand in the World?

I call it The Italian Way. What region has the strongest generic wine brand? Well, here in the United States I would say that it is Italy (although France can make a claim because of Champagne’s powerful brand). Americans love everything about Italy — the food, the people, the art, the scenery, the food again, and now with the new Fiat 500, even the cars.

Americans love Italian (or sometimes Italian-style) coffee. And they love Italian wine. Just the fact that it’s from Italy gives it an automatic advantage at supermarkets, restaurants and wine shops.

It seems to me that “Restaurant Australia” aims to get Americans to love warm, friendly Australia in the same way that they have always loved warm, friendly Italy. A good idea? Yes. But not easy to do. If it was easy to achieve Italy’s reputation, everyone would do it. But it is worth trying. Australia has authenticity in its favor — it really is warm and friendly and the food and wine you can find there really are great– and that’s worth a lot.

Is it the only way to re-brand Australian wine? No — tune in next week for my report on another approach to this problem.

Grape Transformations: Piemonte’s Twin Tornados

This is the second in a series on people who have revolutionized the way the world thinks about wine or a particular wine region. This post takes us to Italy’s Piemonte region, famous for its Barolo and Barbaresco wines.

Two winemakers stand out here. Many of you have probably already guessed the first name: Angelo Gaja, who is associated with the transformation of Barbaresco. The second name? I’ll leave you in suspense for a few paragraphs. See if you can figure it out.

Gaga for Gaja

Angelo Gaja changed the way the world thinks about Piemonte wine (and to some extent Italian wine in general). Joe Bastianich (writing in his book Grandi Vini) says that Gaja is “the most famous Italian wine producer in the world” (this may come as news to the Antinori and Frescobaldi families, but I’m sure Joe knows what he is talking about). Barbaresco was seen as the plain little sister of sexy Barolo until Gaja changed everything.

Exactly what Gaja changed and how is a matter of opinion, although the achievement is clear. Bastianich looks to the vineyard, the development of particular vineyard sites and the production of “cru” single vineyard “terroir” wines. He also praises Gaja’s efforts to travel the world promoting his wines and the other wines of the region. The power of Gaja’s personality is clearly part of the story here.

Matt Kramer, writing in his book Making Sense of Italian Wine, tells a different story. For him Gaja’s contribution was in the cellar even more than the vineyard, where he introducing an international style to the wine by using small French oak barrels (Gaja also controversially introduced international grape varieties to the family’s vineyards).

Gaja’s second and perhaps even greater achievement, Kramer suggests, was to charge outrageous prices for his wines. “While few people know about wine, everybody’s an expert on money: Could this Gaja … really be worth that much money? The sheer chutzpah was captivating and so, too, it turned out, were the wines.”

Gaja became a role model for Piemonte and perhaps for aspiring winemakers throughout Italy.

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Barbera, Bologna, “Braida”

As much as I admire Angelo Gaja, enjoy his wines and respect his innovations, he is not alone on the Piemonte “grape transformations” podium. The second “tornado” is someone who did for democratic Barbera what Gaja did for aristocratic Nebbiolo. The achievement may be even greater.

Nebbiolo, the noble grape that is responsible for the great Barolo, Barbaresco and Langhe Rosso wines, is far from the most planted Piemonte grape. It has the best reputation, but perhaps because it ripens so late and requires specific site characteristics to excel, it is not as widely planted as you might imagine. There is 15 times more Barbera than Nebbiolo in Piemonte.

Barbera! Making this humble everyday wine respected  and even fashionable today is a signal achievement. This is the claim to fame of the late Giacomo Bologna of “Braida” winery in Rocchetta Tanaro, just a few miles from Asti.

Barbera is not finicky like Nebbiolo — it will grow pretty much wherever you plant it in Piemonte, both where it produces outstanding grapes and where quality is not so high. There was not much of a premium for quality grapes in the early postwar era when wholesalers would buy indiscriminately and lump them all together. Giacomo Bologna thought he could do better and set out to achieve excellence beginning in the 1960s, when Gaja was also picking up steam.

The old Barbera was nothing special, but focusing on specific sites with old vines and low productivity, engaging in aggressive cap management and aging the wines in small French oak, Bologna was able to create both a new Barbera wine and a new image of Barbera wine. The top wines, including the famous Bricco dell’Uccellone, redefined the region and jumpstarted the quality wine movement.

Another “Braida” Revolution?

We visited Braida in June when were in Italy for the wine economics conference in Bolzano. Nadine Weihgold led us on a tour of the winery, pointing out the many ways that Giacomo Bologna’s vision and plans have been fulfilled since his untimely death by his wife Anna and his two children Raffaella and Giuseppe (both of whom are enologists).

We tasting the single vineyard wines and then Ai Suma, an extreme version of Bologna’s idea of Barbera that is only produced in special years. These are wines of distinction and reputation and so popular in Italy that a surprisingly small amount leaks out to the rest of the world.

Giuseppe Bologna happened to pass through on his way to the barrel room and, hearing the wine economics conversation, sat down to join us. “Is there anything else you’d like to taste?” Nadine asked? Embarrassed and apologetic, I confessed I wanted to follow these great wines with their vivacious but less prestigious little sister – La Monella, the frizzante Barbera that was the company’s first success. A simple wine, but with style and quality.  Were they offended? No, just the opposite. Grinning with obvious pleasure, Giuseppe went to work, corks started to fly and soon were we chatting away in mixed Italian and English.

Ai Suma might be literally the summit of Giacomo Bologna’s mountain, but his son Giuseppe has his own dreams and plans — and they include Pinot Noir. Pinot is a blending grape in this part of Italy, but Giuseppe has hopes that it might some day learn to stand on its own as Barbera has. He called for a barrel sample and the wine was very interesting — not an imitation of Burgundy, Oregon or New Zealand, but something different, still developing, full of potential.

Pinot Noir in Barolo-ville? Giuseppe Bologna must be nuts. But then they probably said that about Giacomo Bologna and Angelo Gaja back in the day.

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This video has nice images of Giacomo Bologna and family and tells the winery’s history very well (I think you can catch the gist even if your Italian is a little rusty). The first video features Angelo Gaja telling his own story. Cheers!

Invisible Wine … Revealed

The main theme of Ralph Ellison’s classic novel Invisible Man, according to one plot summary, “is the invisibility of the underdog. As the title suggests, the main character is invisible because everyone sees him as a stereotype, not as a real person. While the narrator often bemoans his state of invisibility, he comes to embrace it in the end.”

If we think of invisibility this way (and not the more literal  spooky H.G. Wells way) then I suppose that Kerner is an  Invisible Wine.

Son of Frankenwine?

Kerner is a hybrid wine grape – a cross between noble Riesling and very humble Schiava Grossa, also known as Trollinger in Germany and Vernatsch in its native Alto Adige region of Italy, where it mainly produces inexpensive everyday  red wines for local consumption.  Kerner is a relatively recent invention, first bred in 1969 according to the Oxford Companion to Wine, and named for Justinius Kerner, a 19th century poet and song-writer with a particular affinity for wine.

Justinius Kerner

Hybrid grapes have the same reputation as movie sequels. They are frequently profitable and sometimes very enjoyable, but never as good as the original. There are exceptions to this rule (both for grapes and for films) but in general the stereotype holds. Kerner is often viewed as a Riesling sequel, having many of the qualities of Riesling, but with higher yields and better frost resistance.

Critic reactions to Kerner are mixed. Jancis Robinson, like me a big Riesling fan, writes that “The large white berries produce wines commendably close to Riesling in flavour except with their own leafy aroma and slight coarser texture.” She calls it a “great success story.” Oz Clarke is less enthusiastic, writing that “It is one of the better modern crossings … which perhaps is not saying a great deal.” You see what I mean about stereotypes.

There are about 3700 hectares of Kerner in Germany, far behind Riesling (22,000 hectares), Muller Thurgau (13,000 hectares) and Sylvaner (5000) among white grape varieties but still a considerable amount. While varietal Kerner wines are made in Germany (some quite good, according to Robinson), I suspect most of the grapes are destined for “invisible” inclusion in various blends, which is what happens to hybrids.

A Different Story in Italy

Peter Baumgartner

The story is quite different in Alto Adige, that part of Italy that was Austrian before the First World War and exists today as a semi-autonomous region with both German and Italian (as well as Ladin) as official languages. This is the home of Kerner’s parent, Schiava/Vernatsch, and Kerner is embraced here for what it is, not as a Riesling sequel or substitute. The Valle Isarco (or Eisachtaler in German), which follows the Isarco river up into the Alps,  is the main Kerner region and here, freed of stereotypes, it achieves something quite special.

We were fortunate to have a private tasting of the wines of the Cantina Porduttori Valle Isarco (a.k.a Eisacktaler Kellerei) in Chiusa. Peter Baumgartner, a local banker who is the cooperative winery’s president, explained the winery’s business side (look for an upcoming post on cooperatives in this region) and guided us as we tasted the wines.

Cantina Valle Isarco specializes in white wines (Baumgartner plans to phase out the remaining reds in the portfolio): Sylvaner, Muller Thurgau, Veltliner, Traminer Aromatico, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Bianco, Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Riesling and of course Kerner. Production is about 1 million bottles a year and the market is mainly local: 50% in Alto Adige, 40% in other parts of Italy with most of the remaining 10% exported to Germany and Switzerland. Wines are produced to hit several price points starting about about €6 for the entry level and moving up from there.

The Cantina makes four Kerner wines starting with the entry level wine (which we did not taste) and moving up through the premium Artisos series, a limited edition Sabiona Kerner (made from grapes from the Sabiona Monastery vineyards) and ending with a deliciously sweet Kerner Nectaris Passito made from late-harvest grapes left to dry and concentrate their flavors on straw mats in the manner of Amarone.

Wine Wisdom from Charles Barkley

I once heard the sports philosopher Charles Barkley say that a particular basketball player was successful because “he plays like himself” instead of trying to be someone else.  I think the Kerner wines made by the Cantina Valle Isarco are interesting (and apparently successful, too) because they “play like themselves” — they seem to be made to be themselves and not an imitation, substitute or sequel for something else.

In fact, they are among the very best white wines of Italy. Or at least that’s what the editors of the Gambero Rosso guide seem to think. My 2007 Vini d’Italia guide lists three Kerner wines (from Cantina Valle Isarco, Manfred Nössing-Hoandlhof and Abbazia di Novacella) among the 282 wines from all of Italy receiving the highest “three glasses” (tre bichierri) award. That’s a disproportionate achievement for an invisible wine from a tiny Alto Adige valley.

Kerner shows that local wines can excel if local markets embrace them and that even invisible wines can sometimes shine in the spotlight if they follow Charles Barkley’s sage advice.

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Cooperatives have a bad reputation in the wine business. Some of the worst wines in the world are made by cooperatives that favor quantity over quality. But, as we have seen here, some of the best wines are also made by cooperatives. High quality cooperatives are unusually prominent in Alto Adige. Why? How? These are questions I’ll try to answer in my next post.

Thanks to Peter Baumgartner for his generous hospitality during our visit to Cantina Valle Isarco and also at the opening reception of the AAWE meetings in Bolzano.

Against the Tide: Globalization vs Italy’s Indigeneous Wines

The tide I’m talking about is the globalization of the wine market and I frequently hear that its ebb and flow bring in the main international wine grape varieties and the styles associated with them and wash out unique local wines. There is a grain of truth to this — one winemaker explained it to me this way. If I make poor but distinctive local wine and can’t sell it, I can blame international market forces (and not my own lax wine making) and just plant Merlot. Classic cop-out, he said.

This maybe true, but it isn’t the whole story. There is also the pipeline effect. Global markets create big pipelines that need to be filled and sometimes it is easier to fill them with a few standard wine varieties and styles than with hundreds of different small production wines. (The current movement to ship wines in bulk — in big 25,000 liter containers — and bottle in the consumer market reinforces this trend.)

And of course the demographic of wine consumption is changing, too (the who, what, where, when, how and why) with more new consumers who face a steep learning curve that sometimes works against wines that lie outside the mainstream. There are lots of pressures on winemakers today and globalization is certainly one of them.

Arguable Premise

But I’m not sure that the premise of the argument is correct. Although the wine market is much more global than in the past, it is still surprisingly local compared to many other industries, with most production sold in the country of origin. And although it is easy to spot increasing consolidation within the wine industry, it remains remarkably fragmented compared to most other international businesses.

And, to keep the momentum going, while it is easy to look at the wine wall and see acres of Cab and Chardonnay (and other “international” varieties) from all around the world, it is just as easy to note how very many distinctly local varieties are present.  It is sort of a macro-micro thing. If you look at the wine industry in terms of Rabobank’s very cool map (above) of international wine trade, it is easy to see the world defined by those big international flows, but if you look at it in terms of DeLong’s even cooler Wine Map of Italy (below), for example, the persistence of local wine markets becomes clear.

Like a Coat of Paint

We explored this global-local tension during our recent trip to Italy to attend the meetings of the American Association of Wine Economists in Bolzano. Italy is far and away the world’s largest wine exporting nation according to Global Wine Markets Statistical Compendium data, with average exports of 1,861 million liters during 2007-2009 period. France and Spain are second the third with 1,379 million liters and 1,292 million liters respectively. Australia is a distant fourth in the data set with an average of 782 million liters for the two year time period.

So, if the global tide argument holds, you would expect Italy to be covered like a layer of paint with endless hectares of international variety wine grapes. And, of course, there is a lot of Merlot, Cabernet and Chardonnay to be found in Italy along with other international standard varieties like Sauvignon, Riesling and Pinot Noir. But what stands out when you think about Italian wine is the success of indigenous wine  varieties and styles. Italy makes and sells international varieties, but the indigenous wines are what define it as a wine country.

Support Your Local Winemaker

Sometimes this success is driven by export markets (think about the popularity of Chianti and Sangiovese) but there are many successes that are really quite local in scope and stand as delicious counterexamples to the the incoming global tide theory. Let me give you three examples from our Italian fieldwork (Pignoletto, Lacrima di Morro and Ruché) saving a fourth case study (Kerner) for  a more detailed treatment in my next post.

Pignoletto is a dry white wine grown only in the hills outside of Bologna. “Lively, crisp, aromatic” is how Jancis Robinson describes it in her Guide to Wine Grapes. Pignoletto is distinctly Bolognese — grown there, made there and I think that every last drop of it is consumed there, too, since it goes so well with the rich local cuisine (almost as if they evolved together … which I guess they did).  It would be hard to beat the simple meal of salumi, cheese and bread that we had with a bottle of Pignoletto frizzante at Tamburini‘s wine bar in the Bologna central market.

Lacrima di Morro d’Alba is a distinctive red wine from the Marche region. Robinson describes is as “fast maturing, strangely scented.” Burton Anderson says that it is a “purple-crimson wine with … foxy berry-like odor and ripe plum flavor.” Apparently it fades very quickly, but it is distinctive and intense while it lasts.  It sure stood up to the very rich cuisine of Ferrara when we visited our friends in that city. We were fortunate that the restaurant owner guided us to this wine from the Mario Luchetti estate.

Ruché comes from the Piedmont and we stumbled upon it by accident (which I guess is how we usually stumble …). We were attending the annual regional culinary fair in Moncalvo, a hill town half an hour north of Asti. Thirteen “pro loco” civic groups from throughout the region set up food and wine booths in the central square and sold their distinctly local wares to a hungry luncheon crowd.

I had never heard of Ruché and honestly didn’t know what it might be until I happened upon the stand of the Castagnole Monferrato group. They were cooking with Ruché, marinating fruit in Ruché and selling it by the glass — they were obviously very proud of their local wine. I had to try it and it was great. Suddenly I saw Ruché everywhere (a common experience with a new discovery) and enjoyed a bottle at dinner in Asti that  night. “Like Nebbiolo,” Jancis Robinson writes, “the wine is headily scented and its tannins imbue it with an almost bitter aftertaste.” An interesting wine and a memorable discovery.

I think we all have these great “ah ha!” wine experiences when we travel so why am I making such a big deal about these three wines? Well, that’s the point really. Distinct, truly local wines are commonplace in Italy. What is in some ways the most global wine country is also perhaps the most local. Global and local exist side by side and if they don’t entirely support each other all the time, they aren’t necessarily constant, bitter enemies, either.

The key, I think, is local support of local wines and wine makers. That’s why these three wines have survived and sustained themselves.  I don’t think “me too” wines are capable of gathering local support.

Why does this come as such a surprise to us in the United States — why do we so easily swallow the idea of the unstoppable global tide. It is, I suppose, a legacy of prohibition, which destroyed many local wine cultures in the U.S. Wine today continues the difficult task of recovering from prohibition’s long lasting effects.

Are There Really Local American Wines?

So are there American wines that are local in the same sense of Pignoletto and Ruché? Sue asked that question as we drove out of the Asti Hills and headed north. I don’t know, I replied. Maybe. Petite Sirah is kind of a California cult wine, but it isn’t local in the same way as these Italian wines.

Here in Washington State we seem to have a thing for Lemberger, which sells out in the tasting rooms of the wineries that make it and seldom shows up outside the region. It’s an Austrian grape, but it has made its home here. Can you think of any other wines like this? Please leave a comment if you have a suggestion!

Perhaps we buy the global tide argument because it is so foreign to us? I think it would be interesting if we imported more than Italy’s wines — perhaps we could share their idea of really local wine, too.

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