More Italians self-importing to U.S. (tasting notes for Cogno 2010 Nascetta)

nascetta cogno

Ever since winemaker Valter Fissore treated me to vertical tasting of his Nascetta (stretching back to 2001), I’ve been obsessed with this wine. That was back in 2008 and I’ve collected the wine with each new vintage since then.

Click here for a thread of posts devoted to this wine, including the correct pronunciation of the grape name and notes on its origins (and Valter’s unique spelling).

So when my local wine merchant (in Austin, Texas) told me that he was closing out his last five bottles of the 2010, I told him I’d be happy to take them.

I was glad to pick up the wine at such a good price but I was also happy to get the last few bottles left in Texas: now that the winemaker is importing the wine to the U.S. himself, he’s lost his Texas distribution and I imagine it will take some time before he gets his foot back into the iron-clad Texas door.

Valter is part of a new wave of Italian producers, small and large, who have shunned the traditional avenues paved by the big importers and their corporate-minded distributors. Instead, as a self-importer, the wines ship from Italy, kiss a dock in the U.S., and then go directly to the distributor. And he only ships wines when the distributor places an order, thus eliminating U.S. storage costs.

“It’s based on the Dalla Terra model,” he told me when I tasted with him at Vinitaly this year, referring to industry veteran Brian Larky’s “winery direct” system.

“All of the wineries use USA Wine West,” a importing and distributing service, said Valter’s broker, Becky Vuolo, an American based in Piedmont. “They just do our clearance and doc[ument]s. Nothing is stateside (no inventory). The wines go directly into our distributors’ warehouse who ordered them.”

abbazia novacella

Above: The main church of the Abbazia di Novacella (Novacella Abbey), one of the iconic Italian wineries that has recently begun “self-importing.”

Becky currently works with three wineries — Abbazia di Novacella (Trentino-Alto Adige), Cottanera (Sicily), and Cogno (Piedmont) — as their U.S. sales manager. Those familiar with the North American Italian wine market might be surprised to learn that such iconic wineries have embraced this strategy (Valter’s is the smallest of the three). And of course, it comes with some pitfalls.

Anecdotally, I’ve been told that Valter faces some serious challenges in certain U.S. cities where he’s trying to rebuild his market presence. And I imagine he has a long and hard road ahead of him.

But after the 2008 U.S. wine trade “reset” (in the wake of the financial crisis), with wineries and importers regularly and wildly shifting alliances, his story is a common one. Many winemakers are now “parcelizing” (my term) the U.S. wine market and have begun to work more closely with small importers and distributors whose territory often covers just one state.

In California (where I’m a wine buyer), many labels are represented by different importers and distributors in the northern and southern territories. In more than one instance, I’ve had two different distributors show me the same wine (both of them claiming to have exclusive distribution rights).

Whether or not this trend will prove beneficial for wineries and consumers has yet to be seen. In states like wild-west California (one of the most liberal in the U.S. in terms of the regulation of wine sales), it seems to make more labels available and at friendlier prices. In states like business-friendly-unless-your-selling-wine Texas, the Valter Fissores of the world face seemingly insurmountable challenges.

I’m sorry to see Valter’s wines disappear from the shelves of my local wine merchant, but I’ll manage to collect the wine through other channels in the meantime.

The 2010 is stunning and it just kept getting better over the course of three nights. In the more recent vintages, Valter told me, he’s been aging the wine and stirring it on its lees. The result is a richness in mouthfeel and an intense minerality that you rarely find in an Italian white wine at this price point (under $30). The 2010 is still very youthful in its evolution and it impressed me with how electric it was (even after three days open in the refrigerator). It was brilliant with cast-iron-pan-fired pork white flour tacos topped with guacamole and salsa: its depth of personality (such a unique wine!) went head-to-head with the vibrant flavors of the dish.

As I munched down my taco and enjoyed one of the “last bottles” in Texas, I couldn’t help but think about how much the wine industry parallels the music industry these days, with more and more “producers” going independent.

Like a song, a bottle of wine doesn’t have much meaning if its author just keeps it at home locked up in the cellar. This wine really sang to me and I sure hope that its music ain’t over.

The story behind Nascetta (and Anascetta)

Romeo, doff thy name!

Above: Valter Fissore of Elvio Cogno (Novello) single-handedly delivered the Nascetta grape from oblivion after he tasted a wine made using this once highly praised grape in 1991. The wine had been bottled in 1986.

It’s regrettable that when I tasted the Nascetta grape for the first time last year, it was served to me ice cold and was described as a “light-bodied white wine.”

While in Piedmont in March of this year, I happily learned that Nascetta is actually a noble white grape variety that can produce long-lived, structured wines. And I had the great fortune to taste Valter Fissore’s excellent 2001 bottling — a nearly decade-old expression of this grape. In my notes, I wrote “rosemary, sage, petrol,” and was blown away by the structure of the wine, its lively acidity, and most of all its gorgeous, unctuous mouthfeel.

Yesterday, in a wonderful post on drinking the last extant bottling of a vintage, Cory nudged me to fulfill a promise to explore the origins of the name. And so here it is.

First of all, a little history.

The name Nascetta was coined by 19th-century Piedmontese enologist Giovanni Gagna (left, 1833-1881), who believed erroneously that the grape was related to the Sardinian grape Nasco (from the Sardinian nuscu, from the Latin muscus, meaning moss). Remember: for the better part of the 18th and 19th centuries, Sardinia, Nice, Savoy, and Piedmont were ruled by the House of Savoy (the Kingdom of Sardinia), with its court in Turin and so commerce between Sardinia and Piedmont was fluid during that period.

In 1877, Count Giovanni di Rovasenda listed the grape using its dialectal name, Anascetta, in his landmark Saggio di una ampelografia universale (Essay on Universal Ampelography). The fact that he uses the dialectal inflection of Gagna’s name for the grape is an indication of how popular the grape was in Piedmont at that time, when it was commonly blended with Favorita (Vermentino) and Moscato. (In Piedmontese dialect, an initial a is added to certain words to compensate for syncopated, i.e., lost vowels; in this case, the acquisition of the initial a would appear hypercorrective, a phenomenon not uncommon in the morphology of Piedmontese.)

Here’s where it gets a little complicated.

Above: The confusion regarding the name of this grape was created in part by Valter’s frustration with labeling requirements. In 2001, he bottled the wine as a non-vintage vino da tavola (table wine) because the grape was not yet authorized for the Langhe Bianco DOC appellation.

Let’s start with some chronology:

1991 – Valter tastes a bottling of 1986 by farmer Francesco Marengo (Novello).
1994 – Valter produces 800 bottles from his own planting of the grape, labeled as Nas-cetta; following this vintage, Valter is forced to stop labeling the wine as Nas-cetta after he is fined for listing an unauthorized grape variety name on the label.
2000 – Nascetta (the grape) is added to the catalog of authorized grape varieties for Langhe.
2004 – Valter bottles the wine as Langhe Bianco DOC but cannot list the grape variety on the label; he labels the wine “Anas-cëtta” using a “fantasy” name because the grape is not authorized for the Langhe Bianco DOC labeling (it’s authorized for the blend but not the label).
2010 – After Valter’s successful lobbying, the 2010 vintage will be first labeled as Langhe Nascetta [sic] DOC.

Above: Valter’s Nascetta is an excellent value for a structured, age-worthy white. Be sure to serve it at cellar or room temperature.

When I asked Valter directly about his use of diacritics (in this case the umlaut and the hyphen), he told me flatly that he introduced them in the labeling for purely proprietary reasons. The mutation of the grape names Nascetta and Anascetta was inspired by his frustration with labeling requirements. The good news is that the confusion has been resolved and this noble white grape will be labeled as “Langhe Nascetta DOC” beginning with the 2010 vintage.

While in Piedmont in March, I also tasted another excellent bottling of Nascetta by Rivetto.

Be sure to read Cory’s post on the last bottle of 2001 and Whitney’s post, too.

… O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.