So a few weeks ago, I posted on this site a set of questions that I wanted to figure out as I went through a great amount of Northern Italy and Switzerland. Unfortunately, that journey is complete, but not without a great amount of observation and appreciation to the people that dedicate their life to the craft. This trip answered a lot of questions for me, but if you remember, I posted 9 questions that I wanted guidance on. Here are those nine questions with what I “got out of it.”
1.) Why all the different grape varieties? Does it matter more to Italians, Americans, or wine dorks like myself?
–The United States has a little over 4,000 wineries registered on government tax lists. Italy has over 840,000 wineries registered with the government as well as centuries of experience over anyone in the New World. It is inevitable that with this many wineries operating, every angle of wine should and will be explored. Does it really matter? Perhaps not to “Joe the American,” but surely to families that have inherited generations of pride in their land, that has been destroyed by war, abandoned for factory work, to return to the land that their grandfather’s great-great-grandfather cultivated. I was a hater on this, now I see it, and I will go in depth on this when I talk about the Valle d’Aosta in a future piece.
2.) Are there more serious forms of Pinot Grigio?
–Here is one of the most fascinating (and to me, it should have been obvious) things I have learned about Pinot Grigio: It isn’t grown everywhere. As a matter of fact, even though Pinot Grigio is grown in northern Italy, it is really confined to the northeast, somewhere I didn’t go.
Of all the wineries that I visited, not one single winery grew or bottled Pinot Grigio. The white wines I got to experience where of varieties such as: Cortese, Arneis, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, “Historical” Chardonnay, and the rare, but not extinct Timarosso grape. ***editor’s note, I could write pages and pages on this varietal, and the awesome people that make this wine. You know what? I will…soon.
3.) Is there still a rift in Barolo between wineries that use large oak barrels and those that use small French oak barrels (I will explain this later on, once my questions are answered)?
–Turns out, it is still really taboo to some winemakers to use French Oak barrels in Barolo.
Ok, what are we really talking about? At the root of it, we are talking about a French Oak that imparts flavor more aggressively, with more oxygen approach to wine than Slavonian, which is thicker, and imparts less influence on the wine than its French counterpart. In Italy, it is said that “the vineyard makes the wine, not the winemaker.” This is the heart of the argument. After this, it the argument develops into simple economics: French Oak barrels and barricades (holding 59-225 liters of wine, respectively) are useful for about 3-5 years, depending on how it is prepped. Slavonian “Botti” barrels range in size from 1,500-10,000 liter barrels, which are replace maybe after 25-35 years, so there is a cost of barrels to consider.
Next, let’s talk about approachability of the wine itself. Whatever barrel the wine is aged in, in Barolo, it will be in barrel for a minimum of 18 months. What happens in that time? Who cares? The reality is that the French Oak lets more oxygen into the wine than the Slavonian. As a result, the French Oaked wines are more readily approachable early. People that use the big Slavonian barrels will mostly hold on to the bottles for a few years until release (Barolo will be held another year in bottle before release, no matter the oak, giving it an up to 3 years minimum for aging. Yes, there are different levels, like Riservas and Chinato, but let’s be simple, mmmkay? I’ve already bored a few of you to sleep here…)
4.) Is there any more tradition to Italian winemaking? How much of it is mechanized today versus, say, 20 years ago?
–I wouldn’t say there is any more tradition in Italy than there is in California. They don’t really stomp grapes with their feet anymore, they want the juice in bottle, like anyone else. It is a business after all, and they want efficiency.
5.) Is George Clooney gonna hang out with me?
–No, although almost EVERY winemaker I ran into said “he was just here,” without prompt.
6.) Can’t there be more beer than Peroni?
–I tasted a few beers out of Tuscany and Florence. They are good. Looking at it from a beer buyer point of view however, I think that with the explosion of the American craft beer scene, Italian breweries are fighting an uphill battle. They don’t have the known history like the Germans or Belgians, so it will be tough for them to get their foot in the door. If a lot of Italian beers are imported, the lineups from breweries should be diverse, sustaining the evermore knowledgable American beer buyer the whole year through.
7.) Piemonte, Tre Veneze, Prosecco: these are wine players on a world stage… What are the unsung heroes that are massive in value and over-deliver in taste and quality?
–I am stoked to write about places in Switzerland, like Tocino, and in Italy, places like Monferrato and Valle d’Aosta because they are making the most stunning wines you never heard of. It isn’t that the wines they are making are from completely obscure varieties. In reality, they are the forefathers of modern wine in Europe! Once again, more on that soon…
8.) Pairing local with local: that works with a lot of wine and cheese/food styles around the world; does it exist in Northern Italy?
–Absolutely. From Sardine Butter (Oh my God, that was addictive), to focaccia bread, to homemade Salami, to tomatoes, raw sausage, carpaccio and beyond, almost everything that I ate with the wines in that region, came from that region. Heck, yesterday, I was at a winery that was picking figs and fruit off the trees when I arrived so that they could make a compote for the meal that they were serving to us later! Local for them is not to be advertised, but to be understood.
9.) Just how different is “Old World” style winemaking from “New World” winemaking?
–I’ll be brief on this and explain in detail later, but I will repeat this from a winemaker I met this week: “The vineyard makes the wine, not the winemaker.”
–There is soooo much more to come!