Thursday, August 28, 2008

Impact of the new EU wine market organisation on wine labelling: a study of "Città del Vino" shows a drastic reduction of wine names for Italy

I found extremely interesting a study recently issued by the Association "Città del Vino" on the impact on wine labelling for Italy of the entry into force of the EU reform of the Wine market on August 1st 2009. And even more interesting now that the debate on wine labelling and the terms of reference associated with it (like for Brunello di Montalcino) is particularly hot in Italy.

According to the projection of the Città del Vino, more than half of the existing DOCG/DOC/IGT in Italy will have to disappear because not compatible with the criteria imposed by the reform that tries to harmonise the different criteria for wine labelling existing at EU level to make them more "consumer-oriented".

This means that wine "Denominazioni"/names in Italy may be reduced from the existing 470 to only 182 and we may lose for example Barbera and that in order to keep "Brunello di Montalcino" we may lose "Rosso di Montalcino" and "Sant'Antimo". The scenario presented by Città del Vino, which takes into consideration the strict criteria imposed by the reform regarding for example the fact that it will be reduced the possibility of denomination in "pyramids", would have a great commercial and cultural impact but this issue has rarely been discussed until now.

It is clear that the positioning of some wine growers (see my previous post on Brunello di Montalcino) that are looking to extend the Terms of Reference for existing names, must be read in conjonction with this element.

For example, if Rosso di Montalcino and Sant'Antimo are going to disappear, what is the commercial impact for wines that are currently using these names?

I do not like the idea to touch at the most prestigious wines in Italy like Brunello di Montalcino in order to make more flexible the conditions for its production (like a modification of the Displinare/terms of Reference), but I believe we should start a serious discussion about the future changes and anticipate them as much as possible. The Tocai/Friulano case has already done enough damage to see a reproduction of this problem (but multiplied by 100 times).

However, I would encourage those who are willing to start a discussion on this issue not to hide the problem or start discussing for example simply the Disciplinare of Brunello, but to open up a large discussion about the impact of the reform and adress one by one the consequences.

I welcome very much the intervention of Valentino Valentini (President of Città del Vino), even if the time is short, the problem is big and the solutions are not many.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Brunello di Montalcino: the view of a famous producer on its future.

As I recalled in my previous post on the stop of the US authorities on the Nobile di Montepulciano, Brunello di Montalcino, the most famous Tuscan wine, is in the middle of a big storm since last March when the Italian authorities started investigations on some big producers of Brunello to verify if they respected the Disciplinare (Terms of Reference) for this wine, which impose that it is made of 100% Sangiovese grosso grape, or if they added some other grapes, like Merlot or Syrah, in order to soften some of the characteristics of Sangiovese and make it more accessible for the big "global" consumers.

I would like today to report the view expressed on this issue (letter in Italian reproduced on the site of the A.I.S. by Franco Ziliani) by one of the most famous Italian producers, Angelo Gaja, who has been responsible for promoting a modern view of Nebbiolo grape in Piedmont.

The name Gaja (the first wine business started in 1859) is in Italy synonimous of wines that have reached a "cult" status, thanks to an absolute pursuit of quality and an approach that has brought in 1961 the father of Angelo Gaja to use only its own grapes (and not bought from other growers) and then limit to the production of Barbaresco. This wine (including the two "Cru" of Barbaresco) has become a reference and its 1989-1990 vintage are highly collectible and sought-after wines (and are among the most expensive wines of Italy).

But Angelo Gaja has since the 1990's decided to move also to Tuscany and has bought in 1994 Pieve Santa Restituta in Montalcino (where he produces the Brunello Rennina and Sugarille) and in 1996 Ca' Marcanda in the area of Bolgheri (where he produces the wines Promis, Magari and Ca'Marcanda).

But what is he saying on the "infamous" Brunello saga?? Angelo gaja does not really manage his words and takes rather clearly the position of those who are supporting a modification of the Disciplinare. I already explained in my previous blog why I consider that there are no reasons justifying a modification of the Disciplinare and that there is already in Tuscany and on the basis of the Italian system of classification enough flexibility for producers who are not willing to respond to 100% Sangiovese to find out alternatives that would leave their commercial attractiveness untouched (Tuscan IGT that are called "Supertuscan" enjoy a large success notably in the US market and with American wine critics).

However, this time I am particularly puzzled by the arguments that Angelo Gaja has used to support such modification: it seems that he considers that since a bunch of producers already possess the best locations in Montalcino and that a large amount of Brunello are produced now in areas that are not well suited to produce high quality Brunello (difficult areas for Sangiovese), the only way to produce high quality Brunello for these producers would be to blend Sangiovese with other grapes.

Two remarks with regard to what he is saying:

a) first of all he seems to argue mainly against the "rental position" that the producers with the best areas are enjoying (because they have either enjoyed these lands as part of a family tradition or because, like Soldera, Mastrojanni, or Diego Molinari they bought it in the 1970's at very low prices) and his proposal to modify the "Disciplinare" seems like a "compensation" vis à vis the other producers, but with a clear effect to diminish the existing "rental positions". I believe that those which own the best locations have the right to produce better Brunello and the rules of the game should not be changed in order to "compensate" the other producers.

b) second, he considers that it is necessary to identify "a formula allowing the "artisans" to show in their wines the great dignity of Sangiovese and to identify this in the label on the basis of 100% Sangiovese and at the same time to the big producers to operate with more flexibility: both should be able to call this wine Brunello". Then, he seems to support two kinds of Brunello: a first class product, pure sangiovese, that we may call the "Real Brunello", and a more ordinary product, an unspecified blend resulting from second class wineyards: a basic, standard, "generic" brunello. I believe this strange patchwork would not help the image of the most famous Italian wine abroad and would simply allow to see our supermarkets filled in with plenty of 10€ "generic" Brunello. It would simply become like a basic Chianti. I do not think this is what the wine lover wants.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Vino in corte: a week-end event at San Briccio di Lavagna (Verona-Italy)

On 5-7 september 2008 at san Briccio di Lavagna in the province of Verona "Vino in Corte 2008" (Wine in the courtyard) will take place. The small old village center will be closed to the traffic and it will be possible to taste in its courtyards a selection of wines from Veneto, Calabria Piemonte and Umbria and Lombardia from 6pm.

I like the way some small communities like San Briccio di Lavagna are able to organise nice events around the wine (but not only, because there will also be a selection of Belgian beers). Sommeliers from the A.I.S. (Associazione Italiana Sommeliers) will be pouring the wines and guiding the tasting.

Friday, August 22, 2008

It's the moment of Beer in Brussels! Great events in September.

Even if the blog is devoted to wine, since living in Brussels I have been drinking with great interest and enormous pleasure many of the hundreds beers that this country produces, which are small pieces of art, often brewed only in very small quantities and in a real artisanal way.

I know that the reputation of Belgian beer is now rather undisputed but only a very small amount of these jewels can be tasted beyond the borders and often not those of the small independent producers.

Even in Brussels, if you can easily find Leffe, Chimay, Orval or Rochefort, it is much more difficult to taste a Floreffe, Napoleon and even more a beer of the brewer "la Brasserie à vapeur", producing more than 50 different beers (some of them with 2 years aging in barrels!!).

Well, I think I will have in the future the opportunity to start a longer discussion and an introduction to some of the most interesting Belgian beers but I just wanted to flash some major events that will take place around the beer in September.

First of all, on 5-7 September the 10th "Week-end de la biere" will take place in the Grand' Place in Brussels. Organised by the Belgian Brewer's Association and featuring more than 40 brewers it will offer a large choice of beers from the whole country.

The second Beer event is the "Bruxellensis Festival" that will take place on 13-14 of September always in Brussels at "La Glacière de Saint-Gilles", 18 Rue de la Glacière, 1060 Saint-Gilles, Brussels. Even if the number of brewers present to the tasting won't be very large, they are all selected among the most interesting independent brewers and for sure they will offer great surpirses.

For the beer fans a warm suggestion if you are looking for a nice cool place to taste a large number of beers in brussels: "Chez Moeder Lambic" (Rue de Savoie 68, at 1060 Saint-Gilles). The place claims to list more than 600 different beers and the environment is extremely nice and cool.

I will keep you informed about the result of these beer tastings in the following weeks.

And for many friends living in Italy and looking for Belgian beers I know that the situation has largely improved during these last years but availability is often limited to the big brewers (Leffe, Chimay...) and they cost about 3-4 times the Belgian price (for example a bottle of Leffe Blonde in Belgium costs around 1€). I have already friends that are organising orders directly from beer shops here in order to get larger choice and better prices.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Availability of Italian wine in Belgium

Some friends are repeatedly asking me to inform them regarding where to find this brunello or barolo that we taste together or that I suggest on the basis of the tastings to which I participate.

Well, the availability of Italian wine in Belgium is actually a matter of great mystery.

First of all, because it is difficult to find an importer that covers the whole territory of the country (should I stress that this is a rather special country, with a peculiar federal structure, three official languages - Flemish, French and German, plus a very large English-speaking international community in Brussels - and a major ongoing conflict between the two largest communities). Most commonly, importers and distributors are "regionalised", and in fact the area that is paying the consequence of it is the area of Brussels, where the availability of good Italian wine is scarce (to say the least).

I personally import myself all the wine that I need (sometimes with friends), first of all because I can only find 10% (or less) of the wine that I am looking for, second because it would cost me (even after paying transport + Belgian excise duties) at least 30/50% more than what I actually pay by arranging things myself directly with the producers or wine sellers from Italy.

Of course not everybody can arrange for personal delivery and this is certainly not the ideal situation. It is important to stress each time (for example when discussing with wines sellers here) the need to improve this situation, breaking this de facto segmentation into regional markets.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Stop to Nobile di Montepulciano in the USA: what's happening to the Tuscan wines?

Not even during the mid-August holidays we can quietly relax and enjoy the summer with a good bottle of wine (actually up to now here in Brussels summer was not so bright but I am thinking about a nice sunny day in Tuscany).

The scandal that hit Montalcino and its Brunello this spring and that brought to the temporary withdraw of millions of bottles of some well known producers of Brunello now is moving further south towards Montepulciano, a wonderful village which is producing the second star of Sangiovese: Nobile di Montepulciano.

But what's happening to the most famous "traditional" wines of Tuscany, recently brought to heaven also by the US wine critics (most notably the Wine Spectator), now stopped by the US authorities for suspect fraud?

Well, I guess most of you know of the scandal that hit Brunello in Spring, where some producers were suspected of blending the Sangiovese grapes (Brunello, according to the "Disciplinare" must be produced on the basis of 100% sangiovese) with other grapes (such cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Aglianico) in order to create a wine easier to drink for what is considered a "globalised taste". If you want to find more details I suggest that you read these articles that well present the situation. The situation as you may know has not been clarified yet: some of the producers have been cleared (but to some the doubts may well remain), some not yet but may well be in the future;

Discussions have flourished about whether to change the "Disciplinare" to introduce more flexibility with regard to the grapes which may be added to the Brunello. I believe that the producers in Tuscany have already a large flexibility in producing the type of "international wines" that appeal to the large public by using the denomination "IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica)" or also DOC (like Bolgheri DOC). These denominations allow to use various grapes in the wines and have strongly supported the widespread world recognition of those wines called "Supertuscans". We should not make of Brunello just another Supertuscan, despite the strong pressure of major interests behind it.

In addition, the market for brunello is clearly not asking for it. The production of Brunello (which is growing probably excessively (too many areas of Montalcino that are not well suited for creating great wines are not cultivated with Sangiovese for Brunello) is largely absorbed by the market and the reputation of what is one of the greatest Italian wines has been growing during the last years. As some fine wine journalists and bloggers (is there a real difference now...?) have noted (see here an article of Monty Waldin), despite the fact that in Montalcino we have noticed recently a large presence of wines that appear not to respond to the general criteria of Brunello (too much concentrated, or round, with signs that other grapes than Sangiovese may have softened their characteristics), there are still the tenants of the tradition (starting of course from Biondi Santi) that reminds us of what a real Brunello is. It is still possible, as many have done from the '90's to use other means to soften some characteristics of Brunello, for example by using french barriques (I' m not a friend of it however).

The news (largely expected) that US authorities are now blocking imports of Nobile di Montepulciano is a rather a big blow to the Italian world of wine. Even if the issues concern a small number of producers, the entire sector will surely pay the consequences and the reputation will suffer for a long time.

As you know, I organised last month an interesting tasting of Brunello. Several persons were participating, some with a good knowledge of Italian wines and notably Brunello, others not at all and from various EU countries: nearly all of them elected Biondi Santi and Soldera Case Basse as the two best wines of the evening (against the competition of more modernist producers like Cerretalto Casanova di Neri, Castelgiocondo Ripe al Convento..).

The traditional brunello and nobile di Montepulciano is a great wine and we should work to protect them. It is not by protecting the geographical indications at international level and then watering down their major characters that we will reinforce the reputation of Italian wines and our credibility.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

A Tour of Italian wines: 10 monthly sessions (September 2008/ May 2009) in Brussels

A small anticipation of a thematic session of wine tastings that will start from the next September 2008 in Brussels/Bruxelles.

The session is articulated on the basis of 10 thematic wine tastings starting in September 2008 and ending in June 2009. Each session will take place on Wednesday or Thursday on the basis of a calendar that will be finalised in September.

This is a non-definitive list of the sessions:

1. Tuscany: the tradition of "sangiovese"

2. Triveneto: the land of white wines

3. A tour around Verona

4. South of Italy

5. Really Supertuscans!

6. The Centre of Italy: a place to discover

7. Piemonte: the land of great red wines

8. The Italy of Pinot noir

9. 1997: a great harvest in Italy

10. The vertical tasting: Guado al tasso (from 1996 to 2001)

It will be the opportunity to discover a large spectrum of wines from most of the Italian regions.

For info: