Thursday, July 29, 2021

By the Bottle: Walter Speller

Wine lovers on wine and the vinous life 

Walter Speller is one of the top experts in Italian wine. He writes for Jancis Robinson as well as managing his wine consultancy, Hunt & Speller. Reading his writing is like looking at a very calm sea after a huge storm. You know there is a lot going on there, for when the storm was raging, our boat almost sank and we were almost lost at sea. But who would know it now?

Walter is a deep current. He has learned to convey peace and calmness, but he knows things. Life isn’t neat. And his writing ferries one across depths. When I read about a wine that I think I know very well, when Walter writes about it, it’s like I’d never tasted the wine before. And he makes me want to open a bottle right away, to see what he sees, feel what he feels. He’s a fabulous influence on me in my wine life. I learned new things with this interview. That’s how it is with Walter, always learning something new. Please welcome him to our little series.

What wines do you have standing up right now?

Quite a few! Some 40 Schiavas from Alto Adige, and I cannot wait to start tasting them, but I always keep my patience and let them sit in my cellar for some time. The first time I delayed tasting a new vintage of Schiava was for a whole year, because I wanted to see if I was right thinking that the serious ones (the number is growing) don't need to be drunk within the year. It turned out I was right.

Schiava is just one of the many indigenous grape varieties looked at with great suspicion in my market, because its reputation has been tarnished by industrial production and winemaking from the 1970s on, or so. But my golden rule is: if a grape variety has been around for literally hundreds of years it cannot be bad. This is the lead in each of my investigations in order to find out when and why its reputation became tarnished. I then follow up by identifying producers who still believe in it and treat it with respect. Every time, no exceptions, these investigations reveal a drastically different picture and from that point on I am caught by missionary zealousness: I need to help save this variety!

What’s the last great wine you drank?

Greatness is in the eye of the beholder. Recently I got entangled in a bizarre Twitter skirmish with two colleagues about Pinot Grigio, one saying he simply thought it was a boring variety and that he had never tasted a good one. The other claimed that an 'average' grape variety, like Pinot Grigio, compared with a great one, only occasionally excels.

This made me  reflect on what makes a wine great. I believe it must start with the intention to make something outstanding. The supposed inherent quality of a grape variety is not enough. I would even go further: it is often secondary to the effort. If a grape variety is merely the vehicle of expression of origin, as the French terroir concept most people ascribe to has it (I don't, by the way), why should it be any different for Pinot Grigio? I think all of this is a clear case of 'unknown makes unloved'. I'd say: it is okay to admit you do not have enough experience with something to have a valid opinion on.

But I digress.

The last two great wines I drank (sorry, can't make up my mind)? Paltrinieri - Eclisse 2019 Lambrusco di Sorbara, and Ciavolich - Fosso Cancelli 2018 Trebbiano d'Abruzzo.

Are there any classic wines that you only recently had for the first time?

Custoza. It is a white blend made in an area that is a stone's throw away from Lake Garda. I must have had it before, because back in the 2000s when I was working as a sommelier and wine merchant manager in London I already stocked it. But only now I approached it as a classic wine, which dawned upon me when I was doing research in situ and visiting producers to prep for a seminar and article.

It turned out to be a revelation. Custoza's freshness and persistence combined with lightness (they are around 12.5%) is captivating. It is the type of wine that seems so unassuming, so easy to like and enjoy, but with plenty of depth. Its age-worthiness came as a surprise, as does its super modest price. It scores on every count. The wines also revealed that Cortese, called Fernanda here, isn't bland or neutral at all. It's the aromatic red thread that runs through practically every Custoza wine, but it retains its super-lightness on the palate, a quality that only now is being appreciated more widely. Custoza taught me a lot.

Describe your ideal drinking experience (when, where, what, how).

At the end of the day, winding down in the kitchen while cooking and chatting with my husband. It could be any wine, but often it's a sample I am hugely enthusiastic about or impressed with, and I want to hear my husband's opinion, as a potential corrective measure, or (which I am hoping for) confirmation. I can become so infatuated by a wine's story or the approach in the vineyard and cellar, that I need a reality check, just to be certain that I am not starstruck.

Having said that, standard in my fridge is a bottle or two of Fino or Manzanilla.

What’s your favorite wine no one else has heard of?

I genuinely do not have a favorite wine, but apart from that I am delighted to say that in the age of the internet even the obscurest of Italian grape varieties and wines are now in the public domain.

I'd change this question (politicians do it all the time) into : what's your favourite scorned wine, a wine that is generally thought lowly of? and then, again, I couldn't choose, be it Schiava, Soave, Pinot Grigio. The latter in its Ramato version, traditionally fermented on the skins for a short time which gives the wine a coppery hue (ramato means coppery in Italian), is evidence that what are considered Italian natural wines are often arch-traditional and historic ones.

What wine should everybody drink before the age of 21?

I couldn't tell, I didn't start liking wine before I was 24. During my time as a student in Amsterdam it was beer and 'Four Roses'.

What wine should nobody drink until the age of 40?

This question implies that there are certain wines that cannot be 'understood' by anyone younger than that. It is, of course, nonsense. Ironically it is regularly the over-40s who cannot come to terms with unusual wine styles, the clearest example being the so-called 'natural wines' (whatever they are). These wines turn the conventional wine rule book upside down, which is often the true reason for resentment (rather than their alleged defects), especially by my generation that sees its influence slowly slip away. I am ok with that. We get endlessly more diversity in return.

I think the under-40s are generally more open-minded.

Who in wine — winemakers, winery owners, writers, retailers, collectors — active today do you admire most?

This is a question that is impossible to get right. It is all those who taught me and didn't shy away from confrontation - in short, those who endured me - and still do.

The person I consider my Maestro is Nicholas Belfrage MW. Nick, together with that other giant, Burton Anderson, has been one of the first to recognise the greatness of Italian wine at a time when it was a minority's view. Tellingly, both are American rather than European.

I have enormous admiration for Jancis Robinson (who, by the way was the editor and publisher of Nicholas Belfrage's first book, 'Life Beyond Lambrusco' in 1985). She has given me total liberty to report on whatever I think is relevant and has never restricted me, neither by editing nor choice of topics, in any way. I cannot emphasize enough how exceptional and rare this is. I have learned a huge amount from her.

I must mention Josko Gravner, whom I consider a kindred spirit, a monument of integrity and one of the wisest person in the world of wine. His wines are the essence of his personality and the challenges he faced while sticking to his guns. 

Plus Roberto Conterno, of the Giacomo Conterno estate: detail-obsessed and a perfectionist second to absolutely no one. Striving for perfection, like Roberto does, could easily lead to pedantry, but in his case it leads to augmented transparency. He and Gravner are very different personalities but cut from the same cloth.

Do you count any wine as guilty pleasures?

La Dolce Vita doesn't know the concept of guilt.

Has a wine ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you?

Wines can be controversial triggering endless debate and thoughts. These wines I immensely appreciate, even if I do not always enjoy drinking them. The wines that cause my aversion are those that imitate rather than represent as well as almost any Italian dry red wine made of dried grapes.

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a wine recently?

How, in a blend, a very subtle variety can trump over others and take the lead. I feel blends are a little underappreciated in Italy, but probably not for much longer, not least due to global warming and climate change.

What moves you most in a wine?


Which styles do you especially enjoy drinking?

It depends on the mood, the day, the season. Any style really, as long as the wine shows balance. For me it is about balance, balance and again balance. Oh, did I mention balance?

How do you organize your wines?

I wish I could. Recently I had to temporarily move the contents of my cellar due to a water leak. This took up the better part of a Saturday. This made me realize, again, that possession slows you down.

I should have known better. So far in my life I moved 16 times and as a result and over the years me and my husband reduced the stuff we had to drag up and down from one flat to the next to the bare essential. I like to think my taste is minimalist. I have fond memories of 'moving house' in Berlin back in 1992, using the tube to transport all my possessions in one go: a mattress and two plastic bags.

What wine might people be surprised to find in your racks?

A bottle of egg-flavoured Marsala. I can't bring myself to open it, but neither can I throw it away, because it is this style that literally killed the true Marsala. It is an unwanted artefact.

I also mourn the demise of Vernaccia di Oristano, although here there are flickers of hope.

What’s the best wine you’ve ever received as a gift?

Biondi Santi 1997 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva.

How have your drinking tastes changed over time?

My taste has not so much changed as widened. I love the unknown and especially search for wines from a younger generation, who have a hard time to be heard in Italy. If Italy doesn't begin to support this generation soon, it runs the risk of becoming irrelevant.

You’re organizing a dinner party. Which three people from the wine world, dead or alive, do you invite?

For a raucous evening full of wine, gossip and laughter two dear colleagues. A third would be misplaced in this vinous menage-a-trois.

What wines are you embarrassed not to have drunk yet?

As a Dutchman I am embarrassed to say I have never drunk Dutch wine.

What do you plan to drink next?

GB Burlotto's Dolcetto.

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Ole Udsen said...

Brilliant stuff! But: Vernaccia di Oristano is NOT dead! (- it just smells funny, Frank Zappa would have quipped.) There is some excellent VdO being made these days, and while the historical stalwart, Contini, still makes brilliant VdO's, there's a clutch of producers that have seriously upped their game in the past few years. VdO is alive, and better than at any point in time during the last 30 years.

Mitchell Pressman said...

Walter Speller, I so admire your sense of wonder, despite the fact that you know so much. As usual, the folks that know the most are the most open to change, or perhaps more to the point, revelation. Great piece.

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