~When I decided to make my recent trip to northern Italy, I discovered a few others who would be visiting the Piemonte region around the same time (it was also truffle season).
~My relationship with the people who were visiting Piemonte stems from contributions on a few wine-oriented bulletin boards on the Web. I had met only one of the people in person—once—but he is so disliked on many bulletin boards that others wonder why I even talk to him.
~I talk to the fellow because I understand that he is harmless and that he is also interested in wine rather than in talking about wine. He says that some of the things wine geeks post online drive him crazy; something we have in common!
~The difference between us is that his responses often cause a fight.
~Anyway, I avoided meeting up with wine geeks on my travel through Piemonte and into Valtellina. My trip was by invitation from a Danish wine importer named Henrik to whom I am deeply indebted for his hospitality and the meetings he had set up for me.
~Thanks to Henrik, I met with many producers that I’ve never heard of and likely will not hear of in the U.S. until small, passionate importers discover them.
~I got the distinct impression that many of the Italian producers I met don’t say what they really feel about wine geekdom for fear of antagonizing the flow of American money, even if the dollar is rather worthless right now.
Every time I changed dollars into euros I not only lost money, I felt like I was a citizen of a Third World economy.
The dollar is so worthless that a few producers told me they are not making money in the American market and therefore they are looking to Asia right now.
~One or two producers, however, did tell me how they feel.
~By design, the Piemonte producers I met were not the names most Americans will recognize: no Gaja, no Giacosa, and no Conterno, all names that surely understand the value of wine geekdom. But I already know their wines. Meeting them would serve little purpose— whether it is real or perceived, I don’t do well genuflecting to royalty.
~Still, with a few exceptions, the wines I tasted were outstanding. The exceptions included some producers who aren’t careful in their methods and some who seem to think wine is supposed to be wood.
~In Italy the word “barrique” has lately become idolized—well, not the word but the process, a process that too many producers overdo because, as one producer told me, “It’s what Americans want.”
“Barrique” refers to aging wine in small French oak barrels, a concept that was just about unheard of in most of Italian wine production until two or so decades ago.
~"It's not what all Americans want,” I told the producer, but he only knows what he is told and what people seem to have learned from wine magazines, not to mention what tourists buy from him.He admitted that he does not drink barriqued wine at home.
~When I pointed out the promotion value of magazine ratings he seemed indignant, going into a dissertation on why he does not stoop so low as to beg for reviews. I got the feeling someone was forcing him to produce over-oaked wines.
One producer said to me that he already knows the quality of his wines and he doesn’t need Gambero Rosso’s glasses or American point scores to make him feel any better (Gambero is a major wine review magazine in Italy that assigns numbers of glasses to rate wine).
It seemed that, like me, these producers have trouble genuflecting.
~To my taste, the “barrique” method wipes out many otherwise perfectly fine wines. I wish Italians would stop doing that to their wines. Some producers commit the crime on Barolo and Barabresco, but most of the criminal activity is perpetrated on Barbera.
~At two producer’s cantina, I tasted side-by-side Barbera of the same vintage, one in the traditional method and one with the added French barrel aging time. When subjected to “barrique” treatment, the normally racy, often acidic Barbera is offensive to me, like chewing on a wooden front deck that had been soaked in acid.
~One producer seemed impressed that I managed to identify his Barbaresco wines as typically traditional. He had been ridiculing Americans who visit the big names to taste wines that he dislikes.
~Fortunately, the tradition behind producing Barolo and Barbaresco is still strong in Piemonte as well as the Sforzato tradition in Valtellina. The tradition in each region does not preclude oak, rather it highlights judicious use of barrels. When done right, the tradition offers stellar wines.
~Still, the “barrique” stuff made me wonder to what extent the New World truly influences Old World winemaking, and to what extent the influence may be good or bad.
~I suppose the jury is still out, but I know where I stand on the issue.
October, 2007. All Rights Reserved.