5 trends to watch in Italian wine in 2019

Happy new year, everyone!

Here are some of the trends in Italian wine that I’ll be following in 2019.

It’s incredible to think that more than 20 years have passed since the first major all-Italian wine lists were launched in New York in the late 1990s. Two decades after the advent of the Italian wine renaissance here, the category is stronger than ever. But the 2019 vintage will be a challenging one for Italian winemakers and grape growers.

Italian trade members here in America should also check out this awesome and extremely useful Intravino post with a calendar of top wine events planned in Italy this year.

May your 2019 be filled with happiness, health, and prosperity — and great Italian wine!

Thanks for being here in 2018…

5. Italian winemakers, both large- and small-scale, will face expanding difficulties in getting their wines to the U.S. market.

As one of America’s most important Italian wine importers pointed out in a seminar I attended this year, the Italian wine market is more saturated than ever but the channels of distribution are becoming more and more narrow. Twenty years after the Italian wine revolution began in New York thanks to a handful of visionary importers and restaurateurs, the competition for marketshare in the U.S. is fiercer than ever. But only a handful of the historic Italian wine importers, including those who helped shape the Italian wine renaissance, remain. Importing and distribution channels will become increasingly parcelized.

4. Political, social, and economic volatility will affect consumer choices.

Regardless of ideological affiliation, consumer confidence has already been shaken by the recent market swings and the political uncertainty that 2019 holds. Consumers are seriously asking themselves whether or not we are on the precipice of a recession or financial crisis. Producers are wondering how Brexit and the American trade wars will impact their sales and sales channels. This could actually help to bolster Italian sales since Italy represents some of the best value in fine wine in the market today.

3. So-called populist and illiberal democratic tendencies will begin to emerge from the fringe of Italian wine.

Many don’t realize that Italy’s (and Europe’s) terroirist and populist movements are closely aligned in certain corners of the industry, even among those considered to be (quote-unquote) progressive by English-speaking Italian wine lovers. Americans might be surprised by how European farmers are becoming more and more emboldened and vocal about their stands on immigration and national identity. As it has in the past, social media will amplify their attitudes. With the rise of populism and nationalism in the U.S., American consumers are also becoming more tolerant of intolerance among Italian winemakers.

2. Natural wine is here to stay (whether you like it or not).

Recently overheard in a hipster wine bar in Houston, spoken by a well-dressed 30-something professional who clearly did not work in the wine business: “Do you have anything really funky by the glass? I mean, really natural?” Natural wine is now part of the mainstream wine parlance and lexicon. From my 85-year-old mother who wants natural wine from Sicily (because she believes, however erroneously, that it won’t give her a headache) to the millennial consumer who’s beginning to have the spending power to afford it, natural wine has become as prevalent a category as Merlot or Pinot Grigio — despite the fact that an agreed-on definition of natural wine continues to elude us.

1. Newly imposed EU limits on copper sulphate will have a major impact on organic wine growing.

Beyond this excellent piece on Wine Spectator, the mainstream wine media hasn’t devoted much coverage to the EU’s newly imposed limits on copper. But this is going to be a highly contentious topic among conventional and organic growers next year. The heart and soul of organic and biodyanmic farming is at stake and Italy is the biggest stakeholder. The issue is compounded by the fact that rainfall patterns in recent vegetative cycles have forced organic growers to increase their copper spraying to combat peronospera. See my thread on the copper debate, including my post on the newly imposed restrictions.

Will the “Prosecco Hills” be Italy’s next UNESCO heritage site? A chat with Villa Sandi’s Giancarlo Moretti Polegato

In early December, I had the remarkable opportunity to sit down with Giancarlo Moretti Polegato (above), CEO and legacy owner of his family’s Villa Sandi estate in Valdobbiadene, one of Prosecco’s greatest pioneers and one of its enduring cultural icons.

When our conversation turned to the “Biodiversity Friend Certification” of Villa Sandi’s vineyards, he explained to me that Villa Sandi had implemented the association’s environmentally friendly protocols for two main reasons.

First and foremost, he said, is the fact that the Prosecco DOCG is one of the few appellations in the world where residents literally live among the vines. If you’ve ever driven through the appellation, you know that town squares, schools, and residences are surrounded by and in many cases abut on vineyard land. In the light of how grape farming can impact residents’ quality of life, the winery felt it was imperative, he told me, to lead the way in creating a new benchmark of sustainability and biodiversity.

The other reason, he said, is that he expects Valdobbiadene and Conegliano to be added shortly to the list of UNESCO Heritage Sites.

Some readers may be unaware that “The Prosecco Hills of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene” were included in the “tentative list” of candidate sites in 2010. And in 2017, the area was upgraded to official candidate status. With heritage status on the horizon, he noted, maintaining and fostering Prosecco’s natural beauty and its unique landscape will be key elements in developing the wine- and nature-tourism industry they expect to grow there.

(Read the UNESCO entry for the Prosecco Hills here.)

Above: Biodiversity Friend certification reflects the growers commitment to sustainable vineyard and winery practices.

Another topic I was keen to cover with Giancarlo was the estate’s production methods. It’s not the only estate, nor was it the first, to make its Prosecco DOCG using must instead of a base wine for the second fermentation. But it is one of the few estates (if not the only) to produce all of its wines this way.

Villa Sandi began making its wines this way when it first started to ship its wines outside of Italy, said Giancarlo. It ensured the freshness of the products even after a year of shelf-life, he explained. Because the vinification process takes place in a reductive environment (i.e., in the absence of oxygen), it’s easier for the winemaker to preserve the distinctive fresh aromas of Glera. It also reduces the amount of sulfur needed to stabilize the wine.

He reminded me that in another era (one that I remember well from my university days in Veneto more than 30 years ago), Prosecco was always consumed within a year of the harvest. Today, the wines travel much greater distances and often spend more time on wine shop shelves.

I know that a handful of Prosecco producers use this method for some of their production. But to my knowledge, Villa Sandi is the only one that uses it exclusively for all of its Prosecco DOCG.

Our conversation spanned a number of topics, including the 17th-century Palladian-school villa that stands at the center of the Villa Sandi hydro-powered campus (below).

They use it for the winery’s gala events, of course. But it’s also open to the public year round.

All in all, it was a fascinating chat, with one of the wine world’s most charismatic and inspiring figures. His family is the embodiment of the Veneto spirit of entrepreneurship and the winery’s reception area is lined with photographs of Popes, aristocrats, politicians, and celebrities who have visited the estate.

But with is classic Veneto cadence and warm demeanor, he was also easy going and easy to talk to. He apologized profusely that he had to cut our conversation short: after his Do Bianchi interview, RAI 3 television would be filming him for a national broadcast.

I can’t wait until I can make it back that way again…

Two old vine Proseccos that I really loved from Drusian and Ruggeri

A trip to the land of Prosecco in early December was an opportunity to taste at a couple of my favorite houses.

Over the last 10 years or so, as more and more small-scale Prosecco has come to the U.S., many Italian wine lovers and trade observers have shifted their focus away from some of the bigger producers.

But they forget that Prosecco DOCG, even when produced in large volume, is almost always a “family grower” wine. That’s because the appellation, one of the most parcelized in the wine world, is made up of a vast patchwork of small farms. The best winemakers, even among the most commercial, rely on a network of generational relationships for their fruit.

Producers opened a lot of great wines for me during my stay earlier this month. These two were stand-outs.

It was such a thrill for me to get to taste with Francesco Drusian, a legacy producer and appellation pioneer. His insights into the evolution of Prosecco and its extraordinary arc — literally from rags to riches — were fascinating to hear.

I loved the winery’s 30th anniversary release, 30 Raccolti, a dosage zero produced exclusively from 40+ year old vines from 30 different farms. No apples or bananas here, as the Prosecco old timers like to say. Just salty, minerality-driven Glera with gorgeous, juicy grapefruit notes. Very classic in style and very varietally expressive.

Like the man and winemaker, Francesco’s wines are among the most soulful in Prosecco today imho.

The Ruggeri Vecchie Viti was another highlight.

This historic estate, founded after the Second World War, is owned today by a German multi-national. But the Bisol family, whose winemaking and distilling roots run deep in Proseccoland, still manages the winery on a day-to-day and wine-by-wine basis. And the quality of their labels, across the board, really shined through during my visit there.

There were a number of wines that I really liked in the flight that afternoon but the Vecchie Viti (Old Vine) bottling was the showstopper.

The fruit is sourced from some of the oldest farms and vines in the DOCG, including 80+ year old plants.

The other really cool thing about this label is that it’s not 100 percent Glera: it’s an old school cuvée of Glera (around 90 percent) and Verdiso, Bianchetta, and Perera — the classic Prosecco field blend (no Chardonnay or Pinot Noir here, folks; and yes, both are also allowed by the DOCG).

The wine reminded of the Prosecco I used to drink from caraffe with my friends back in the late 1980s before the Prosecco revolution. Its rich balance of savory and fruity notes would have been ideal for washing down the economically priced rotisserie-fired chicken and French fries we used to gobble down in the hills outside of Padua.

It’s a pity that the wine hasn’t made it to the U.S. yet. It’s got eno-hipster written all over it.

More news from Proseccoland forthcoming. Are you drinking/serving Prosecco this New Year’s? Which one?

Best Christmas wine gift: Produttori del Barbaresco (hint, hint!)

One of the biggest thrills of my year in wine was my first taste of the newly released 2015 Produttori del Barbaresco (classic) Barbaresco with one of Barbaresco’s coolest homeboys, Luca Cravanzola.

Although we’ve corresponded over the years on numerous occasions and we follow each other on social media, Luca and I had never met in person until this spring when we both attended the same raucous, blow-out party in Franciacorta.

Luca’s grandfather Riccardo was the first president of the storied cooperative and he’s worked in the marketing and sales department for some time now.

(Read about the winery’s history on Ken Vastola’s excellent Nebbiolo portal, Fine Wine Geek.)

And how else to put it? Luca is uno dei nostri, one of us as they say in Italian.

People who work in the wine business get asked the same question by laypeople all the time: what’s your favorite wine?

It’s only natural that we answer: well, it depends on where I am, what I’m eating, and with whom I’m eating it.

But when pressed for a more specific response to the inquiry, I always tell them that I have bought and own more Produttori del Barbaresco than any other wine.

In terms of price-quality ratio, there is no more value-driven wine in the world imho. And the generally reasonable pricing makes it affordable for average punters like me.

Especially when it comes to the classic, blended cuvée (as opposed to the single-vineyard designated bottlings), the wine can be spectacular even in its youth. But it can also be cellared with stunning results for decades, depending on the vintage.

I’ve never tasted a bad wine from them and apart from the occasionally corked bottle or a bottle that’s been mishandled or mistreated, my experience in drinking and collecting these wines has always been overarchingly and wonderfully positive.

It’s the wine we drink on special occasions at our house. And it’s the wine that enjoy especially when sharing with my friends.

Just in case you’re shopping for great but affordable red wine for the holidays (or in the off-chance you’re shopping for a gift for me), you can’t go wrong with Produttori del Barbaresco.

Luca, it was so fun to meet you in person for the first time and it was a truly moving experience to taste the new vintage with you — my first kiss from the harvest!

A “Capitalist’s guide” to wine gifts and my bromance Giovanni in the news (JancisRobinson.com)

Above, from left: Nico Danesi and Giovanni Arcari are among my best friends in the world and they produce one of my favorite expressions of Franciacorta (image via the Arcari + Danesi Facebook).

Please click here to check out my “Capitalist’s Guide to Wine Gifts for Christmas,” published today by the Houston Press.

In case you’re thinking of getting me something wine-related for Christmas, it’s a great place to glean gift ideas!

And click here to read Walter Speller’s (unsurprisingly) controversial article and tasting notes on Giovanni Arcari and Nico Danesi’s Franciacorta, published earlier this week by JancisRobinson.com.

The article is available only to subscribers (and out of respect for Walter and his publisher, I can’t share the content in its entirety here).

But I will offer this passage:

    “We are 1,200 km from Champagne and the phenolic ripeness of our grapes is completely different. Therefore we cannot use champagne methods and ways of working,” Giovanni Arcari, who runs the estate with winemaker Nico Danesi, explained. “In Italy we must not think of producing ‘champagne,’ especially because we actually can produce something radically different. Our style is based on the most banal of premises: Wine is made of ripe grapes.” It seems so logical, but hardly anybody in Franciacorta dares to go this way.

Disclosure (in case you hadn’t already figured it out): Giovanni and Nico are among my best friends of all time.

In May of this year, I attended a tasting very similar to the one that Walter describes in his piece (Walter is also a good friend; he was supposed to be at the tasting in May but was called away at the last minute).

Check out the interview and tasting notes here.

And btw, a gift subscription to JancisRobinson.com makes for a great Christmas present!

Buona lettura… enjoy the posts!

EU DECISION ON COPPER: As EU drastically restricts allowable copper, organic grape growers run out of options.

Last week the European Union drastically reduced the amount of copper that grape farmers can use each year in their vineyards.

Through the 2018 harvest, the EU allowed growers to use 6 kg per hectare per year.

Beginning on January 1, 2019, they will be allowed to use “an average of” 4 kg per hectare per year over a seven-year period.

According to the Official Journal of the European Union Vol. 61 (December 14, 2018):

    It is, in particular, appropriate to restrict the use of plant protection products containing copper compounds to a maximum application rate of 28 kg/ha of copper over a period of 7 years (i.e. on average 4 kg/ha/year) in order to minimise the potential accumulation in soil and the exposure for not target organisms, while taking into account agro-climatic conditions occurring periodically in Member States leading to an increase of the fungal pressure. When authorising products Member States should pay attention to certain issues and strive for the minimisation of application rates.

News of the reduction will undoubtedly raise concern among organic grape growers in Italy and beyond. They rely on copper treatments to combat fungal diseases.

Leading Italian winemakers have spoken out against the pending decision after it was proposed earlier this year. Many claim it will gravely affect their ability to farm organically, thus threatening their livelihood.

The heavy metal has been used in vineyards for more than 150 years to prevent peronospora (downy mildew). First developed in France in the second half of the 19th century, copper sulphate (“Bordeaux Mixture”) has become an essential tool for grape growers who do not employ synthetic fungicides.

“We are very concerned,” wrote Matilde Poggi, president of Italy’s Federation of Independent Grape Growers in May.

“For organic producers, there are no suitable alternatives to copper,” she noted in a press release issued by the group. The majority of its members are organic growers.

Today (December 18, 2018), the EU Science Hub blog published a post entitled “EU topsoil Copper concentration highest in vineyards, olive groves and orchards.”

The authors report that “land use and management are the major cause of changes in soil Cu [copper] concentrations, and [their findings] highlight the need for more sustainable, environmentally aware and soil friendly land management practices in order to limit the environmental and health risk associated with high copper concentrations in vineyards.”

“Vineyards,” they write, “were found to have almost three times the average soil Cu concentration (49.26 mg/kg compared to the overall average of 16.85 mg/kg)…”

These levels represent a significant health risk, they note:

    Soil contamination can pose a significant risk to human health. Micronutrients such as copper are particularly relevant as they accumulate in plant tissues. Excess copper can result in liver disease and neurological problems. In addition, the high concentration of copper may cause environmental problems such as water contamination and loss of soil biodiversity.

According to the study, some of the highest concentrations of copper are found in parts of southern France and northern Italy.

Click here for previous my previous posts on this developing story.

News of the new EU norms was first reported in Italy by Maurizio Gily on his Millevigne blog.

Image via the Slow Food/Slow Wine blog.

One of the best meals I had in Italy this year was at Caminetto d’Oro in Bologna. Francesca Gori is a sommelier to watch!

Whenever people ask for recommendations on where to eat in Bologna, my answer is always the same: there’s great food in Bologna but the best expressions of true Emilia cuisine are found in the countryside.

I stand by my position on this issue.

But I’d like to amend it: I enjoyed a bunch of great meals this year in Emilia but one of the best — one of the best meals I had in Italy this year — was at Caminetto d’Oro in downtown Bologna.

Those are the tagliatelle al ragù, above. (In Bologna they’re not called tagliatelle alla bolognese; they’re just called tagliatelle al ragù).

One of my best friends and clients, Paolo Cantele, and I had carved out time for a “working dinner,” so to speak. And he suggested we go there.

I’d actually been there once before, many years ago, with my dissertation advisor and the leading food studies scholar in Italy today, Massimo Montanari. But that was back in the days when I parsed hendecasyllables for a living and only gave a second thought to salumi and giardiniera (above).

I can’t think of a friend in Bologna (and I have many) who would opt to take you out to a restaurant for dinner instead of inviting you to her/his home for tagliatelle fatte in casa (and at the risk of sounding sexist and chauvinist, I have to point out that it’s always tagliatelle fatte dalla mamma).

But, man, the meal at the Caminetto d’Oro (the golden fireplace) was phenomenally good. And the white tablecloth setting didn’t detract one bit from the experience.

But the thing that really took it over the top for me personally was the wine list.

And here’s where the experts will disagree: most would contend that the true Emilian meal is paired exclusively with Lambrusco. And I mostly agree with that supposition.

But when sommelier Francesca Gori appeared with a bottle of Vigne di San Lorenzo macerated Albana (above), I thought I had died and gone to heaven. We opened a number of bottles that night (including a 2012 Bartolo Mascarello, thank you, Paolo!). But the stars of the meal where the Albana and Vigne di San Lorenzo’s stunning Sangiovese (one of the most original and most enjoyable wines I tasted this year in Italy).

Man, why is no one bringing these wines to the U.S. yet? Importers, please get on it!

Francesca also runs the wine and beverage program at storied restaurant’s newish wine bar next door, Twinside.

If I lived in Bologna, I’d be there every night (and Saturday nights in the main dining room).

What a great restaurant and what a great evening in Bologna! Francesca, thank you so much for sharing so many groovy wines.

And of course, no evening in Bologna is complete without a stroll sotto i portici, a walk under the porticoes, one of the city’s defining architectonic features.

When in Bologna, check it out. I highly recommend it (but be sure to reserve, especially for the main dining room).

Cascina Baricchi Barbaresco 2001: man, what a wine!

From the department of “inner light”…

The mosaic of Italian wine is never-ending.

Just when you think you’ve wrapped your mind around all the classics (even after more than 20 years in the trade), another stunning wine seems to pop up out of nowhere as if to remind you that Italy is a fount of endless joy and pleasure.

To borrow a lyric from George Harrison, “The farther one travels/The less one knows/The less one really knows…”

Those lines dances through my brain a few weeks ago when my Italian bromance Giovanni poured me a glass of 2001 Barbaresco by Cascina Baricchi (above).

A bottle or two of the farm’s Timorasso had come my way (thank you, Chambers Street Wines). But this gem from the land of Nebbiolo had eluded my palate… until then.

Man, what a wine! Old school as it gets but with elegance, purity, and none of the rough edges that the old-line prophets of submerged cap once inscribed in their wines (I’m thinking of Roagna, for example, one of my all-time favorites, before Luca started making the wines).

It was no surprise to read, on the farm’s website, that its Barbaresco is raised (mostly) in large-format “un-toasted” cask. And it was equally unsurprising to learn that the winemaker views its wines as an expression of “Langa… the sensations, warmth, wildness, and class that only these wines, from these areas, can convey.”

According to the site, the estate is represented in the U.S. by Bliss Wines in Napa, an importer specialized in organically farmed and non-interventionist wines.

If you’ve never tasted Baricchi, look out for the wines. I know I’ll be snatching up every bottle I can lay my hands on.

Happy birthday sweet sweet Georgia! You are 7 years old!

Happy birthday sweet, sweet Georgia! You are seven years old today!

Last night, before we put you and your sister to bed, mommy and I remembered the day — the week — you were born. I can still see it all in my mind like it was yesterday.

Georgia, you are such a bright and joyful girl.

You love going to museums, whether the art museum, the dinosaur museum, or the real astronauts (your favorite).

You love reading and you love using fancy words and figures of speech (you have a way with words, I always tell you).

You love drawing and you love art projects.

You love your little dog Rusty (and he loves you, too).

You love going to school and you love playing violin. This week you earned another badge for another song you learned to play. Watching you enjoy music and play music has been such a joy for mommy and me.

And sweet, sweet Georgia Ann, you love your family.

Just the other day, mommy dropped one of her favorite mixing bowls and it broke into a thousand pieces.

“Oh no!” she cried, “I loved that bowl!”

You told her you would try to put it back together for her. But when she explained that it wouldn’t work, you still wanted to help.

“What can I do to make you feel better, mommy?” you asked. And that was all it took.

Georgia, we all love you so much — mommy, Lila Jane, and me. We’re so happy it’s your birthday and we are looking forward to celebrating with you today and this weekend when your grandparents and cousins will come in for your party.

Happy birthday, sweet girl. You bring so much joy into the world.

I love you…