Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Burgundization of Barolo - An Imminent Sea Change in the Langhe

This past week in New York, I sat down in front of a microphone with Levi Dalton. And talked. And talked. Not so easy for this born-again introvert. In particular, Levi asked me what changes I’ve seen in the Langhe over the last 30 years. That podcast is available here. And while my interview deals more with my Pollyanna version of history, it feels, on the ground in the Langhe, like an impending change is on the horizon.

A week or so before, he asked a similar question to Antonio Galloni (that podcast here), who has been going there since 1997. Antonio expressed concern that the wines and the social climate of Barolo (and Barbaresco) might be shifting towards the more exclusive and limited (and expensive) world of wine in which Burgundy finds itself. Not at all the least because both of these wine producing areas are rather small compared to Bordeaux or Napa Valley. But the tendency for wealthy collectors to gravitate towards the rare and unobtainable is something we probably won’t see going away, unless there is a worldwide pandemic. At which point, who will care about wine of any kind?

The two AC's: Alfredo Currado and Alfonso Cevola in Castiglione Falletto circa 1984
Over the holidays I was surveying my old Piedmont archives and ran across a telex transmission with Angelo Gaja in 1981. Looking back on those ex-cellar prices, I now wonder why we didn’t buy more. Mind you, they were higher than their neighbor’s, but still a bargain, by today’s reckoning.

Today, Gaja’s wines are approaching the DRC club. Only the wealthiest 1% of the 1%ers can savor these wines in their Lalique “100-point” or Zalto crystal wine chalices. Even a visit to Gaja today (see Gaja winery visit letter here) will set back the average Joe a €300 ‘donation’ (to one of several of the Gaja family selected charities). For such a donation (bank wire transfer, one month in advance and reconfirmed by email) one is granted a visit at Gaja that will “include a cellar tour and a wine tasting with wines selected by the Gaja family, which in total will last approximately two hours.”

Another winery has upped the exclusive nature of their wine and visits. In Galloni’s podcast (which is public and on the record) when pressed by Levi, he admits that some wineries have not been smitten with some of his reviews. One in particular, Bruno Giacosa, it was reported by Galloni himself, even went so far as to ban him from visiting.
“There are people who don’t want to let you taste their wines, which is, I think, a bit shortsighted, but it’s unfortunate. I mean there’s places definitely where I can’t go back and taste. We were talking before about Bruno Giacosa, that’s another one, I mean. They were just livid after I wrote what I wrote about their Riserva, their ’08 red label, and I can’t go back there and taste. That’s OK; I’ll just go buy the wines.

“Bruno Giacosa 2008’s, 2009’s are very disappointing vintages, relative to what has happened there since 1961…That’s one of the producers that I own the most of. I still have 1960’s Barolos and Barbarescos in my cellar of Giacosa, so I mean I know these wines really well, I’ve tasted them forever. But they had a really - I think coming out of it slowly - but they really had a rough patch there. I know ’08 and ’09, the wines were really disappointing and I wrote what I thought.”
Imagine someone as passionate and influential as Antonio Galloni, and indeed a nice guy, being shown the door by the Giacosa family? Limiting access to only those wealthy enough or anointed by a winery owner? This doesn’t bode well for people who love wine and have a brain, but maybe not so large of a bank account.

Compound that with the upsurge of interest in the coming vintages in the Langhe, and who knows what kind of a place it will be for wine lovers and wine tourism in 10 or 20 years?

Again, from the recent podcast with Levi Dalton, Antonio Galloni shared his concerns about the Burgundization of Barolo, and the Langhe at large:
“What worries me is that Barolo might become the next Burgundy. Producers might become inaccessible, it’s harder to go now, producers travel more.”

“But I don’t mean just in terms of the wine, I mean in terms of lack of access.”

“There are serious foreign groups - American, European, Asian, ex Italy - of course, looking to make investments in Italy, including the biggest luxury brand and mass market wines groups that you can think of. You name five of them, you’re going to get three right away, that are looking, right now, to buy vineyards in Piedmont. And that will change forever the economics of vineyard land in Piedmont. The local winemaking family can still afford to buy even top tier vineyards in Piedmont. You might have to get a loan, or securitize versus other assets that you have, but it’s still possible. But In five years, it won’t be possible. It’ll become like Burgundy where all the vineyards are slowly going to be owned by investors.”
Tuscany has its share of elite wines for the super-rich, but it is large enough for folks without a million bucks in their checking account to obtain good wines and open doors. You can still sit with a winegrower at a kitchen table.
Roberto Voerzio having a little fun at Vinitaly
But the Langhe is small. Big companies are eyeing this rich real estate. Who knows? What if, in five, ten years, a winery like Bruno Giacosa gets an offer they cannot refuse by a mega-luxury corporation? Or a Cavalotto or an Altare? This is some of what Antonio Galloni is alluding to. It is happening in Burgundy. It could happen, will most likely happen, in the Langhe as well. And those wines will become inaccessible to the people who have loved them and hoisted their banner for decades.

Yesterday, I dropped into my local Italian wine shop to pick up a deli platter. In the wine section, I asked a well-dressed lady if I could help her. She said she was picking up a (6-pack) case of Vietti for her party that night. It so happened to be the 2010 Vietti Barolo “Ravera.” Antonio Galloni raved about this wine, writing:
“The 2010 Barolo Ravera is one of the greatest wines I have ever tasted from Vietti. Stunning. It’s as simple as that. Freshly cut flowers, mint, spices, crushed rocks and pine jump from the glass in a vivid, crystalline wine endowed with captivating purity, clarity and finesse. The 2010 takes hold of the palate and never lets up, gaining body, breadth and volume over time. A breathtaking, perfumed finish rounds out the finish” 100/100 points.
Someday, before they turn the lights out, I'd like to try a wine from my birth-year
I asked the lady if they were going to drink all 6 bottles. “Should I not?” she asked. “If you can, try and hold a few bottles aside to let them have some time,” I answered, “Don’t tell your guests this is a 100-point wine until afterwards. If not, they will drink all 6 bottles and that will be a shame,” I advised.

I’m not sure I will ever live long enough to taste the 2010 Ravera when it will be perfectly ready. And I’m sure most of this wine will be drunk long before maturity sets in. The good news is, these wines are easier to drink when young than the wines being produced 50 years ago. The bad news is, fewer and fewer of us will be able to know these pleasures, if the current sea change that is appearing in the Langhe continues and the Burgundization of Barolo is no less than a fait accompli.

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Tony Laveglia said...

Terrific observation Alfonso. I have never thought of Burgundy like Piedmont but given the trends in today's wine world, why not? I think it more likely than less given current conditions. I guess the best we can hope for is something of a return to the good ole days but I don't think that likely. The future of the wine business is an open book because the beverage has become an economic plus factor . When that happens, wine can very well go the way of oil! It's very interesting. said...

Interesting observation, Alfonso. Don't you think the price escalation affects the biggest names? Barolo and Barbaresco wines aren't inexpensive, but they aren't to everyone's taste. It seems that smaller producers will likely remain relatively affordable. I don't need a Gaja as long as an Oddero or Produttori del Barbaresco is available.

James Biddle said...

As a 15ish year follower of Piemonte wines, I continue to relish my wonderful 2 weeks there in 2008. I just finished Kerin O'Keefe's book on Barolo/Barbaresco; I was amazed at the many changes since 2008--sadly, most in the direction Alfonso writes about. Most of the currect producers are part of family efforts,and they've ridden the many changes in Piemonte. I found them to be optimistic, but tempered with historical realism. "An offer they can't refuse" may be too inticing for 20-25% of the producers.

jason Carey said...

Sadly the world is a place that is becoming more and more bifricated between haves and have nots. the have somes are going away. Remember that in his talk with Levi Dalton, Galloni kept going on and on about his Finance pals.. well you know these are the people driving this increasing unafordability of the Langhe wines.

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