Sunday, March 12, 2017

Italian Wine in the Second Decade of the Third Millennium Gets Off to a Shaky Start – 2011 and 2014 - Analysis, Expectations and Opportunities

With absolutely little or no pragmatic devices, and relying on instinct, I have hit a wall in the second decade of this new century, with regards to Italian wine. Two vintages, 2011 and 2014, are beginning to feel like other vintages, 1972, 1973, 1981, 1983, 1991, 1992 and more recently, 2002. I say this, not as a collector, for I have tasted wines from Piedmont and Tuscany from some of these vintages and have been happily surprised and rewarded. But as one who looks at these wines on an inventory spread sheet, week after week, and year after year, I have noticed alarming trends over the perception of vintages. From whence do these views emanate?

For the purpose of this post, I will concentrate mainly upon Piedmont and Tuscany, even though we now have people collecting wines from everywhere. But let’s view those two regions as bellwether markers for Italian wine, in general. Even though I know that is not entirely accurate, nonetheless the regions (and indeed, the whole of Italy) are often judged (and embraced or discarded) over the perception of the potential for greatness in a vintage from Piedmont and/or Tuscany. In pre-internet days, one would rely upon magazines, books and the occasional newsletter in which to base an idea about how good or bad a vintage might perform in the long run. Often these divinations are little more than verbal prestidigitation. Surely a Burton Anderson or a Luigi Veronelli, in days past, got around and were good enough journalists to make a fairly reliable assessment of things on the ground. Talking to old vintners about 1934 or 1937, 1945 or 1952, and relating it to 1974 or 1978, was high game in those days. And for the most part, it worked well enough.

But the internets changed the game. At the dawn of the 21st century and the new millennium, information was rampant and random, and expertise was often subjective. And without proper vetting of a situation, a vintage could be lost. 2002 was a recent case, in which the buying public snubbed and decimated wines destined for collectors cellars. But it had a larger effect in that people just getting on to chat rooms and peer group discussion sites saw alarm in the prognostication over such a vintage like 2002, and they abandoned those wines with nary a sniff or a sip.

I remember a Brunello I was dealing with, Renieri. While not a collectable wine, it was (and remains) a good drinking wine. But people were starting to walk into stores with their copies of The Wine Spectator or The Wine Advocate. James Suckling, who was still at the Wine Spectator, noted, "For many producers in Italy's premier wine region, 2002 may be best forgotten. It rained for most of the summer, making it one of the area's wettest and coolest growing seasons of all time. In addition, freak hailstorms and vine diseases were widespread. When the harvest finally began in late September, it was under only partially sunny skies.”

Antonio Galloni, writing then in his “Piedmont Report” said this about 2002: "Few subjects have aroused such passionate discussions in recent years as the quality of the 2002 vintage. It was a damp growing season, with the region receiving roughly double the normal amount of rainfall. Temperatures were on the cool side all the way through the summer. Then, in early September a violent hailstorm struck large parts of the Barolo-producing zone, inflicting its most severe damage in the towns of Barolo and La Morra, but also hitting parts of Castiglione Falletto and Serralunga. The damage was unprecedented. I can still recall driving through the region, which I often did in those days as I lived in Italy at the time, and surveying the damage. The vineyards looked like someone had literally ripped the vines out of the ground. Suddenly the weather improved dramatically and conditions were picture perfect for the rest of the fall. In vineyards that were not wiped out by hail producers were able to harvest.

The press did not mince words in its harsh early assessment of the vintage, which clearly upset producers, as some observers issued their opinions before the harvest was even concluded.” (Read the whole report here).

Suckling and Galloni were on the ground and had (and still have) a measure of expertise in the subject. But there were blogs, newsletters, chat rooms and for all intents and purposes, 2002 was D.O.A. Selling the product was unceremonious and miserable.

I’m seeing this now with the 2011 and 2014 vintages, albeit with a little less venom. But I am witnessing passive-aggressive disdain (and rejection) for wines from these vintages. First off, the 2011 vintage from Montalcino and Brunello.

Example: the 2011 Casanova di Neri Brunello, whether the “White Label” or the “Tenuta Nuova,” every time I have had it I’ve said to myself, “this is a pretty damn good wine.” But the wine languishes on stock lists and in warehouses. And now the 2012 Brunellos are starting to roll in, all with high ratings and people with smart phones clamoring breathlessly for their “allocation.” For sure, grey markets will exploit this and you will see secondary offerings for some of the “biggies.” Meanwhile, the winemaker who made both those wines scratches his head (as do the importer and the distributor) wondering why someone will reject a wine (in the case of the 2011) that gets glowing reviews in the 2010 and 2012 vintages. Are they not going to drink the wine? Or is it merely a day-trading mentality that has taken over the marketplace? The winemaker is also a farmer – he or she cannot plow over a whole vintage and expect to pay the light bill. Someone has to pay, someone has to play.

Enter the 2014 vintage. Already the Barbaresco is released and while the vintage, 2014, was problematic in Barolo, not so in Barbaresco. Aldo Vacca of Produttori del Barbaresco will be releasing his Riserva cru wines ( in 2019) one year after his 2013’s ( in 2018) and has said that in Barbaresco, 2014 (“a better year in Barbaresco than in Barolo”) was as good as 2013. Right now, people are “swooning” over the 2013 Barolos, and the press is fueling that fire, rightfully so. But advance press is encouraging collectors to “snatch up the ‘13’s” with the subtext “because the ‘14’s might not be as good (or collectable)” in order to provide reluctant buyers with a sense of urgency. With prices getting higher in the Langhe for Barolo, are nervous winemakers (and wine marketers) are trying to “out-Bordeaux” the Bordelaise wine traffickers with an exigent rational for parting with one’s money?

Meanwhile I pour over stock lists of 2014 reds from Tuscany, mainly Chianti Classico, and get not-so-subtle feedback from potential buyers, that they are sitting on their hands waiting for a better vintage (or maybe a better price?).

I was beginning to feel that 2014 was going to be a lost vintage (like the 2002 and 2011) and then a bottle of Badia a Coltibuono Chianti Classico was opened in front of me. What I smelled and tasted realigned my preconceptions. The wine was absolutely delicious. Much like the 2011 Casanova di Neri “Tenuta Nuova” Brunello that I had recently tasted. My post-concussive skull is flummoxed with these cogitations. Here, all around me are worthy wines from unheralded vintages. Meanwhile the chase is on for the perfect “10’s.” Oh, that is what it’s all about – the trophy hunter and his insatiable desire for that which is just beyond his reach - here we go again.

The good news is, for people who have matured emotionally beyond the “shiny souvenir” stage, there are a lot of good-to-great wines available for near drinking and even for some years in the cellar. Point in case. 1973 in Piedmont wasn’t regarded as such a good vintage. Winemaker Dan Petroski was born that year, and every so often, he opens up a bottle or two (or three or four or more) and likes to relive a period in time when he himself was part of the “new crop” of ’73. And while Dan thinks wines from his birth year aren’t exactly “great” I tend to look at it a little differently. These are wines that have weathered time and fashion. Piedmont was a poor place then; very few roads were even paved in the Langhe in 1973. It was a farming community and the farmers relied upon nature, lived or died by it. So they had to be intuitively aligned with the cards that were dealt to them every year. There was less access to manipulation, and hence the wines, year to year, would be irregular, not the same as the next vintage. That’s the stuff of character. And wine lovers like me really appreciate the differences. They're like our children (whom we all should love). But they’re different. And that is something in the world of wine we seem to have forgotten - in this age of numbers and scores and peer pressure and bright shiny things in the corner. Too bad for the storm chasers. But really good news, for us navel gazers.

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