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ITALY: Vintage Italia

Published:  23 July, 2008

If you believe that you can trust a chart to get a fair impression of any vintage, then you must be somewhat naive; and if you think you can use one to understand an Italian vintage, then you are seriously out of touch.

Most wine publications don't bother with a vintage chart for increasingly important areas such as Vulture in the south, or for the longer-established Alto Adige or Valpolicella in the north. Instead, Italy' occupies no more than one or two lines, invariably devoted to Piedmont and Tuscany. This is understandable enough, given that these two regions have produced the most ambitious and successful wines of the country to date. But the consequences of such a gross oversimplification are far more damaging, misleading and far-reaching than most in the trade realise. They also create opportunities for those, particularly in the on-trade, who make a more strenuous effort to reach the truth.

Take Piedmont's Langhe, for instance, and the infamous 2002 vintage: how many negative reports have you read? And how do you think the market reacted? Well, the outlets that could afford it (in terms of both money and space) stocked up on Barberas and Dolcettos from 2001, in an attempt to sell as little 2002 as possible. Many decided not to buy any 2002 Barolo or Barbaresco, without even trying the wines for themselves, and instead looked forward to the 2003s. What they often failed to appreciate is that although 2003 was a very warm vintage that should have given soft and velvety wines (albeit with low acidity and less definition), this was only the case if they were harvested by the beginning of October. The grapes were ripe, but from 2 October it rained for a whole week. This means that you find 2003s that are dilute and flabby rather than soft and round. Are you still so sure you're going to love all the wines from this famously hot year?

2002 vs 2003

The 2002 vintage, by contrast, has been underestimated, and bad-mouthed as a result. In what was certainly a challenging year, a clear distinction should have been drawn from the beginning between early- and late-ripening varieties: but in most instances it wasn't. The rain stopped around 15 September, and while it adversely affected the Barbera crop, it had the beneficial effect of forcing growers to reduce the Nebbiolo yield by a good 40% on the previous year. In a nutshell, the Nebbiolo had all the time it needed to metabolise the excess water, because its harvest took place one whole (and very sunny) month after it stopped raining.

Unfortunately, most of the press didn't really make this crucial distinction clear at the time, so that the market had low expectations right from the start. Accordingly, many producers preferred not to release their Barolos - not because they weren't confident of the quality of the wines, but rather for two completely different reasons. The first was that the quantity of wine would have been too small to be viable. The second reason was that the market wouldn't want to accept the wines anyway (without even trying them): let's call this regrettable phenomenon the '02 syndrome.

Last year, one Piedmontese producer received a communication from his American importer saying something along the lines of: Even though you might receive an order for wines of the 2002 vintage, please note that this would be a mistake on our part, and that we do not wish to receive any wines from this year.' But buying a 2002 Nebbiolo-based wine from a good producer (after having tried it, of course) is a sign of independent judgement and wisdom; it shows that you can think with your own brain.

Those producers who preferred not to release a Barolo or Barbaresco for the above reasons used the grapes to make an often glorious Langhe Nebbiolo: so whoever bought Luciano Sandrone's Valmaggiore or Marco Parusso's blue-labelled Nebbiolo did very well, scooping a very good Barolo for a fraction of its normal price. Which vintage chart would have led you to such a happy result?

The 2000 vintage was a different story again: it brought the highest sales to date, capitalising on the enthusiasm of the American wine press. But in fact 2000, just like 1997, represents quite an atypical expression of Nebbiolo. The 2000 was a very warm vintage, that softened Nebbiolo's tannic backbone and resulted in much rounder wines which won't cellar for as long as - say - the 2001s. Being accessible earlier than normal isn't necessarily a bad thing: I don't mind enjoying a glass of youthful yet approachable Barolo from time to time. But I certainly wouldn't consider 2000 as my desert island' vintage.

The q' word

As should be apparent to everybody in the trade, the high or low opinion that an international wine publication expresses on a vintage depends almost entirely on its own definition of quality. If the q' word means full-bodied, caressing, round and velvety wines, then of course 2000 Barolos and Barbarescos will score very highly. If, on the other hand, it signifies the highest and most perfect expression of the grape's own character', then 2000 (and 1997) would surely be downgraded in favour of 2001 (and 1996). Personally, I look for a textbook expression' of the grape variety (as in 1996). But when I really feel the urge to have a Nebbiolo on hormones, then I tend to reach for a bottle of 1999 (like Paolo Conterno's Ginestra): at least it tastes like it took male hormones and ripples with muscle, rather than sagging under the weight of an unnaturally large bosom.

When attempting to understand the quality and style of a vintage, asking the wine producers themselves isn't always much more enlightening than referring to the charts: they tend to tell you what they think you want to hear. If you even hint at a preference for a particular year, many of them subtly try to reinforce your view. Equally, they are normally very careful not to denigrate any of their vintages, describing even the worst as difficult' or minor'. With 2002, however, this wasn't the case: many producers openly stated that it was a disaster of a year. But such an admission' was really a carefully calculated risk. After a series of seven great' vintages, dismissing one of them as terrible' was a very shrewd way of boosting one's personal credibility, while at the same time being quite affordable from the financial point of view. Dig slightly deeper, and you'll frequently find that 2002 Nebbiolo wasn't nearly as bad as it was purported to be.

2002: a mixed vintage

In other parts of Italy, the real story was either even better or considerably worse. At opposite ends of the country, both Alto Adige and Sicily had a very good vintage in 2002. Tuscany, on the other hand, had a very mixed harvest. The Merlot and other early ripening grape varieties matured perfectly in the area of Bolgheri and in the broader Maremma district, the resulting wines reflecting the characteristics of a good to very good year. But the Sangiovese and other late-ripening varieties generally struggled to ripen in the region, particularly in Chianti Classico and Montalcino, but not, strangely, in the zone stretching from Castellina in Chianti to San Gimignano. Here, thanks to the drying effects of breezes favoured by the open valley, a few producers even dared to release riservas. Those one or two lines on the vintage chart now look more suspect than ever.

The truth, as so often, lies somewhere in the middle. Vintage charts can still be useful, but only if they are read in a different way. The number of points or stars for a vintage shouldn't be seen as directly proportional to the quality of the vintage itself, but rather as the likelihood of finding an excellent wine from that year. One star? Difficult: between 5 and 10%. Three stars? Then you have up to a 40% chance of finding a great bottle. Five stars? The odds are very much in your favour, and you have an 80% chance.

Such a system recognises the reality of the situation: that you can still buy a dreadful wine from a five-star vintage, just as you can buy an unbelievably good wine from a one-star year.

The popular perception of a given vintage has quite a strong influence on sales, but much more so on the international market than on the domestic one. The latter is definitely more influenced by Gambero Rosso, whose much-coveted tre bicchieri award can boost domestic sales by a good 30%, regardless of the vintage. The country that attaches so much importance to fashion and design definitely pays more heed to who shaped the wine than to when he did so, and consequently the name of the consultant winemaker seems to have much more prominence than the year of production.

In global terms, Gambero Rosso doesn't seem to have much influence, and certainly far less than does The Wine Advocate or Wine Spectator. Indeed, the American wine press, far more sensitive to vintage variation, also exerts quite a strong influence on the Japanese market, which means that even if domestic sales of Italian wines are not heavily affected by a so-so harvest, it may still be the case that many cellars are left half full.

According to many export managers, even the 2002 vintage was lucky for some - those who actively targeted new markets such as China and Korea, which aren't (yet) very influenced by the Western wine press. In Europe, Italy's main markets are Germany, the UK and, to a lesser extent, Switzerland, and these markets respond in a manner that is somewhere between that of Italy and the US: they might not rush to snap up a one-star' vintage, but they are nevertheless willing to try the wines and then judge on the results of the tastings. This is why I reckon that we might see many more 2002 Barbarescos in the UK this year than last year.

Be your own judge

Attempting to oversimplify a vintage for any wine-producing country is tricky, but it is absolutely pointless for Italy, where the dazzling array of local grape varieties, together with a new-found pride in their use, has rendered the already very confusing situation even more so. The still-expanding DOC system certainly doesn't help, so the only way to shed any light on the situation is to ditch your prejudices, taste as many wines as you can and trust your own palate.