Saturday, December 03, 2005

Classic Barolo: Cavallotto on the Record

A month ago I wrote an enthusiastic article about Cavallotto, the old, traditional-style winemaker of Piedmont. I have drunk their wines at various times and am quite taken with their elegance and restraint. There's absolutely nothing of the fruit bomb about them, and they complement food perfectly. I was curious to know more about the Cavallottos and their point of view on both winemaking and wine markets, especially here in the US. In photo: Laura, Giuseppe and Alfio Cavallotto I contacted Alfio, who is, with his brother Giuseppe, the agronomist and enologist of the family firm, as well as a tireless promoter of their wines. I am pleased to share with you his responses to my questions. Market Trends I'm always interested to find out what's going on in the American market for Italian wine. In a time of a trumpeted "wine crisis" in Italy, which is due to falling domestic consumption and increasing foreign competition--and maybe a bit of overpricing, aka simple greed--Alfio told me the trend for Cavallotto wines was positive. Over the next few years "we'll maintain the same level of exports, and we'll probably increase our US sales somewhat. About 70% of our total production is exported, and 20% of the total goes to the United States." A lot of people wonder about the differences between the US and Italian markets. Alfio said that what has distinguished the American market has been "a greater susceptibility to the wine press. Especially back in the 1990s, it was very hard for traditional, classically styled wines to find a market there. It's changing now and Americans seem a lot more aware of what they're buying. Actually, compared with Europeans, Americans are now much more curious about classic wines and want to discover the various flavors that set them apart." Distribution plays a part, too. "A lot of the difference depends on the importer and his ability to make a market. These guys can make or break a wine." The Harvest of 2005 There was much hand-wringing in the Italian wine press about the quantity and quality of this year's vintage. Heavy rains were particularly worrisome in many regions. Thanks to a warm summer, though, Alfio told me that Cavallotto finished the harvest on October 1. "This was a good two weeks before we usually finish picking. And the downpours started the next day. We were very fortunate." His early assessment of the 2005s: "Very well-balanced, fresh wines with excellent color and softness. Obviously, this isn't a great year like 1999 or 2001, because the grapes don't have the same concentrations of sugars and polyphenols. But the elegance and drinkability of the 2005 Barolos will satisfy even the most demanding consumers." By the way, I couldn't resist the impulse to ask Alfio if he thought prices of Barolo were inflated. "Well, in the US especially some prices are rather high. But because of global economic conditions, and because 'non-typical' wines"--wines not expressive of their territories--"are falling out of favor, there is some repricing going on. Even so, I think wines like ours, which do express their territory and are true to the grape varieties we use, will hold their prices quite well." Read between the lines and you see that international-styled wines like Gaja's are losing their luster along with the commanding prices that were theirs. As I noted in a posting on Jancis Robinson's site several months ago, Sherry-Lehmann here in New York was discounting Gaja's top wines by 30-35%. (Cut to $225-250, they were still absurdly expensive.) Cavallotto, on the other hand, remains reasonably priced ($40-60) for nebbiolos that faithfully express their truffled terroir. Culture and Vision Lovers of Italy and its wines are currently obsessed with the movement toward autoctono or "indigenous" wine varieties. I'm one of those who applauds this trend; after all, it did inspire me to start this blog and name it "world of flavors" (Mondosapore). This long-term trend has already transformed the wines and reputations of regions in Italy's South, but its effects are evident in every region of the country. Alfio views it as a healthy development and, of course, positions his firm and his region as being in its vanguard. "Even until recently, very few producers in Italy really believed in the value of local varieties. Only those of us who made Barolo, Barbaresco and Brunello did. After quite a few difficult years, we've seen things turn around, especially those of us who make classic-style wines. I think consumers are aware of this now, and they're looking for more typical, hand-made type wines rather than 'industrial' ones." At the mention of industrial wines, all thoughts lead to Mondovino, the Nossiter documentary that Americans loved to hate and that Europeans mostly loved. What did Alfio think of it? "I liked it. It brought to light how much of the industrial there is in a glass of wine, and how little of the farmer and his work!" I jokingly asked him about micro-oxygenation. He didn't bite, but he did wax eloquent about oak. "We use only Slavonic oak. I think it's the best wood for nebbiolo because it's the most neutral to the taste and the least sweet." (Are you listening, California?) "It's also really robust, so it's wonderful for the construction of large casks [up to 100 hectolitres]. We use only untoasted wood, so it enables the wine to age better--slower oxygenation for the softening of the tannins that are so strong in Barolo, to create the tertiary perfumes, but not to leave any vanilla flavors." Amen. This is how Cavallotto is hewing to the classic, the "typical." To me it sounds something like a winemaker's version of the Hippocratic oath. Alfio added, "The only problem--but a fascinating one--with sticking to this classic method is that, to get really good results, you have to age the Barolo in wood for three to six years." The Cavallotto family's results speak for themselves. Earthy yet refined. These are complex, long-finishing wines that are beautiful to look at in the glass and glorious to drink. No toast, no vanilla

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Due parole con Alfio Cavallotto

Un mese fa ho scritto un articolo entusiasta dopo una degustazione di alcuni vini Cavallotto. (Ne ho bevuto un po', e lo stile equilibrato mi piace moltissimo, niente di bomba frutto, ecc.) Poi ho avuto l'idea di comunicare con la famiglia Cavallotto, che io sappia qualcosa del suo punto di vista e magari un po' della "filosofia" che anima l'azienda. Qui a sinistra: Laura, Giuseppe ed Alfio Cavallotto Cosi' ho il gran piacere di presentarvi una breve ma informativa intervista con Alfio Cavallotto, agronomo ed enologo, con suo fratello Giuseppe, dei vigneti dell'azienda e instancabile promotore dei suoi vini. Tendenze del mercato Io (e voi evidentemente) sono interessato alle tendenze del mercato per tutti i vini italiani, non solo quelli pregiati come i Baroli, in particolare il mercato USA. Alfio mi ha detto che il trend per i prodotti Cavallotto e' positivo: "Manterremo lo stesso livello di export anche se, probabilmente, aumenteranno le vendite negli USA. Il 70% della nostra produzione viene esportato, 20% negli Stati Uniti." E' chiaro che qualunque crisi del vino influisca sugli export, quest'azienda ha delle aspettative ottimiste. Una questione che preoccupa molto gli amatori del vino italiano (e i responsabili della filiera): le differenze tra il mercato americano e quello italiano. Alfio ha risposto, "Il mercato americano, rispetto a quello italiano ed europeo in generale, e' forse piu' condizionabile dalla critica giornalista." Ironico questo dopo il recentissimo furore Wine Spectator. Comunque, Alfio nota un cambiamento negli ultimi anni. "Soprattutto negli anni '90 e' stato molto difficile per vini estremamente classici e tipici avere grande successo. Ora pero' ci sembra anche negli USA le cose stiano cambiando e che i consumatori siano diventati molto piu' consapevoli di cio' che comprano. Di conseguenza, rispetto agli Europei, sono anche diventati molto piu' curiosi di scoprire quali differenti sapori contraddistinguono i diversi vini classici." La GDO svolge il suo ruolo. "Un'altra differenza e' dovuta alla maggiore importanza che l'importatore e la rete di distribuzione assumono negli USA che, con la loro bravura, possono determinare il grande successo di un vino." La vendemmia Per fortuna, Alfio ha affermato, la vendemmia e' state buona per Cavallotto. "Si e' conclusa il 1 ottobre, ben quindici giorni in anticipo rispetto la media. Fortunatamente le persistenti piogge di ottobre sono iniziate dal 2 ottobre." E allora? Che cosa pensa del vino dell'annata? "Vini molto equilibrati, freschi, di ottimo colore e morbidezza. Ovviamente non sara' un'annata importante come il 1999 o il 2001 in quanto l'uva non possedeva simili concentrazioni di zuccheri e polifenoli. Ma l'eleganza e la facilita' con cui si berra' il Barolo 2005, fara' apprezzare questo vino anche ai clienti piu' esigenti." Non ho potuto resistere all'impulso di porre questa domanda: i prezzi del Barolo sono giusti o gonfiati? Al suo parere, "Soprattutto negli USA alcuni prezzi (non solo del Barolo) sono alquanto gonfiati." Ha notato pero' un ridimensionamento, dovuto in parte alla situazione economica mondiale ma, "anche e soprattutto, a vini poco tipici che entrano ora in una spietata competizione," ha detto. "Credo invece che per il futuro i vini tipici, cosiddetti 'di territorio,' avranno un valore aggiunto sempre piu' importante e aumenteranno il loro valore." Ovviamente, sarebbero buone notizie per un produttore di profilo tradizionale, come Cavallotto--e, quanto a me, spero che abbia ragione. Cultura e visione Ho desiderato sapere la sua opinione della tendenza autoctona, che mi sembra vector del risorgimento del Sud, e non solo. Lo cito a lungo: "Pochissimi produttori del passato, anche recente, credevano al valore di un vino prodotto da uva autoctona, solo noi del Barolo e Barbaresco e Brunello ci abbiamo fortemente creduto. Dopo anni molto difficili questi vini sembrano ora risorgere, soprattutto se prodotti in modo classico. Credo infatti che piano piano il consumatore sia diventato piu' consapevole di cio' che beve e, oltre alla qualita' e genuinita', ricerca sempre piu' vini tipici, di terroir e derivati dal solo lavoro contadino, a discapito dei vini industriali." Ah, vini industriali...questione che ci mena, inesorabilmente, verso la polemica, cioe' Mondovino. Che ha pensato Alfio di quel film? "Mi e' piaciuto. Ha messo in luce quanto di 'industriale' ci puo' essere in un bicchiere di vino, e quanto poco lavoro contadino!" La mia domanda scherzosa di micro ossigenazione non gli era interessante ma il soggetto del rovere--il rovere di Slavonia--l'ha fatto eloquente. "Questo rovere per me e' il miglior legno per il Nebbiolo perche' e' piu' neutro al gusto e meno dolce." (Ascoltate, winemakers di California?) "Ha inoltre eccellenti doti di robustezza che lo rendono particolarmente adatto per la costruzione di grandi botti. Noi utilizziamo solo botti non tostate; in questo modo il legno viene usato solo per la funzione di "invecchiamento" e cioe' di lentissima ossidazione per ammorbidire i tannini del Barolo e creare profumi terziari e non per dare gusti vanigliati." Amen. Cosi' si salvaguarda un vino tipico, classico. E' una versione enologica del giuramento ippocratico, o almeno mi pare. Aggiunge, "L'unico inconveniente, ma anche il lato piu' affascinante di questo metodo classico, e' che per ottenere eccellenti risultati si deve aspettare la maturazione del Barolo nelle botti per tre a sei anni." I risultati dell'azienda Cavallotto--ca va sans dire. Vini complessi, persistenti, molto bevibili. Bellezze del loro terroir.
Botti slavoniche, mai tostate

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Straightshooter Takes on Michel Bettane

I am reprinting the English translation of a strongly worded article which appeared last July originally on the web site LaVinium. It was written by Franco Ziliani, the Straightshooter ("franco tiratore"), whose wonderfully evocative article on Barolo country I translated here last week. Franco has generously granted me permission to bring his point of view to the American wine-drinking public. The translation was provided by his fans at the premier seller of quality Italian wines in the New York area, the Italian Wine Merchants on 16th Street.

I think you will appreciate Franco's knowledge and relish his pungent way of expressing himself. He is a welcome antidote to the smarmy horseshit that characterizes so much wine writing, both in the States and...everywhere else, actually.

Michel Bettane passes judgment on the 2001 Barolo but the King of Nebbiolo remains an unfathomable, impenetrable mystery…

Try to imagine the French wine world’s reaction if an overly self-confident Italian journalist were to judge the leading domaines of Bordeaux and Burgundy by comparing them to “the achievements of the best of Italian enology, whose aesthetic fundaments can be applied, without any trace of chauvinism, to all foreign wines,” including those made in France.

At the very least, Paris and her surroundings would respond by calling him arrogant and presumptuous. They might go so far as to use an epithet like “crazy” or even “vieux con” (“old asshole”). What would happen if this guy were so sure of his science and his “aesthetic fundaments” that he would use his high-handed “personal vision” to mercilessly pan the crème of a coterie of winemakers in a classic zone of production and call them passé, adding that their wines stink and have high levels of volatile acidity and that they represent “a wise, old style, wise but old nonetheless”? Those who love modernity at any cost can take it or leave it: in their opinion, anyone who attempts to respect the historical tradition or identity of a wine is paradoxically opposed to what they consider an undeniable logic for change.

In Italy, in the wake of Michel Bettane’s recent article “Icones et contadini” (“Icons and Farmers,” published in his bi-weekly newsletter Tast and available on his site www.bettanedesseauve.com), which he devoted to the “leading producers of the appellation in Piedmont,” my more-than-authoritative (is that how it’s said?) French colleague will not have suffer the same indignities Ziliani would have had he dared to attack a domaine in Burgundy or Bordeaux or Côte du Rhône who has not conformed to the dictates of the Parker style. But Bettane is in danger of receiving praise for having so acutely applied himself to a story of Barolo intended for lovers of the French language.

Even though he wrote—bordering on the ridiculous—that he was capable of evaluating Barolo by comparing it to the “achievements of the best of French enology, whose aesthetic fundaments can be applied, without a trace of chauvinism, to all foreign wines.” (Sic!)

Neither the present writer nor this publication are believers in political correctness or inflated grades: they like to call a spade a spade and, frankly, they prefer to speak their minds. We have no reservations in saying that not only is Bettane’s article offensive but it shows how it is impossible to understand Barolo unless you possess the necessary humility and willingness to evaluate the wine with an open mind. This article reminds us that Bordeaux wines are one thing and Bettane undoubtedly knows and understand them. But Nebbiolo-based wines are another thing entirely and they can only originate in the magnificent terroir of Barolo.

It would require pages and pages—the best thing would be to translate the whole article—to convey Bettane’s various misunderstandings, misconceptions, and mistakes (last year he gave readers a taste of his very personalized approach to Piedmont wines in the first edition of the supplement Italie della Revue du Vin de France devoted to the region, which he edited). He throws up his hands and admits that “some of my opinions may seem strange to those who follow these wines in American magazines and Italian guidebooks.”

One particular gem will give you an idea. In this chestnut, Bettane is discussing—it goes without saying—Angelo Gaja, the King, the Pope of Popes. Bettane states that “the greatest Barolos today don’t say Barolo on the label. Angelo Gaja has opted for the appellation Langhe (Nebbiolo) so that when necessary, he can add a little bit of Barbera, otherwise not allowed by the appellation even though many producers have no problem adding Barbera without saying anything.”

This is a masterpiece and a telling example of how an illustrious guardian of the Revue du vin de France sees Barolo and the wines of Le Langhe and how he happily embraced—without reservations and/or skepticism—the commonly accepted explanation for Monsù Gaja’s decision not to use the name Barolo for his Sperss. As all good children know, the reason is that he needed to add a pinch of Barbera to the Nebbiolo, of course. No other reason whatsoever…

If these were Bettane’s only outrageous misunderstandings, we would accept them. If he believes the best “Barolo” to be Gaja’s Langhe Nebbiolo, that’s fine. He can drink it. We would be much happier to imbibe a Barolo by Cappellano, Cavallotti, Mascarello, or Rinaldi. But it is a different matter when our professorial French taster, with his legitimately subjective opinions, mercilessly slams other iconic figures, i.e., “the producers who perpetuate a style of wine that I judge to be obsolete and that today has taken the form of an almost religious cult. In this regard, I am in complete disagreement with certain Piedmontese and American critics, even though I respect their position.” When he pans Bruno Giacosa, Bartolo Mascarello, Giacomo Conterno Beppe Rinaldi… No, this cannot be tolerated. Even the facile manner of the insult is offensive: “the way of it afflicts me still,” as Dante would say.

What does Monsieur Bettane actually say about these figures? I feel obliged to translate his observations.

And it won’t take long.

He calls Bruno Giacosa “a grand figure of Piedmont who has been idolized by local sommeliers and Robert Parker.” He affirms that he has “always had a hard time understanding his wines: in the 1980s, the wines were too wild and tended to vary from bottle to bottle. Today, they are much more refined. At least this is true of his Barolo and Barbaresco cuvée haut de gamme. They have finally achieved a delicate, peaceful style but they are curiously lifeless. Extended aging smoothes Nebbiolo’s youngish rough edges and it also gives the wine a certain tannic rustic quality. But it also takes away the vibrancy of its fruit and its texture. An old, wise style. Wise but old nonetheless.”

Although we mustn’t take offense with our French brother, such bêtises and nonsense, for what they’re worth, illustrate his extraordinary critical approach. In his article, he strikes down Giacomo Conterno together with his legacy: “I have never found elegance in their wines and, in particular, never in the celebrated Monfortino. Undoubtedly, this is because classic Bordelaise enology has deformed my palate.”

Bettane describes Beppe “Citrico” Rinaldi as a “man rich in charm and clearly a defender of a respectable tradition.” But according to the critic who believes the best Barolo to be Gaja’s Langhe Nebbiolo spiked with Barbera, Rinaldi’s wines are unfortunately “uneven. Sometimes wonderfully complex but too often they are affected by analytical defects no longer admissible by today’s standards, like volatile acidity or wild animal aromas. My most recent tastings have been catastrophic.”

Well, if you have managed to resist the temptation to write to Bettane and tell him—in the spirit of friendship, mind you—to go to hell, I fear that your patience and tolerance will not last much longer when you read (and I ask you to read and re-read them and test your rage) the sweet nothings that this man from Paris uses to explain Barolo to the French. Shamelessly, he calls Bartolo Mascarello “an old, malicious philosophical winemaker.” What’s more, because he is ill-informed, he claims that Mascarello died last year (he passed away in March of the current year and will be greatly missed).

On the subject of Bartolo and his wines, the French expert (have we any choice but to call him a French expert?) writes that his wines “were originally very fine and pure. Often compromised and ruined by old barrels that gave them animal and wild flavors that his incredulous followers attributed to terroir. I sincerely hope, in memory of the time we spent together in 1988, that his daughter has put an end to these defects.”

There’s nothing that can be said in the face of such a stinging, superficial, and arrogant attitude with regard to Bartolo and his wines. Those of us who have always believed in them are anything but crazy. It offends his memory and his decades of hard work. These heartfelt words ought to suffice to understand how Bettane—as he honestly stated—tastes and judges Barolo with the palate, mentality, and approach of a taste philosophy typical of someone who regularly tastes and drinks Bordeaux. This is clear in his choice of winemakers he calls “masters,” or rather, “those producers who have taken winemaking to its highest level in Barolo”: not just Gaja Roberto Voerzio, Altare, Clerico, Sandrone, but even Parusso, whom he judged—word for word—to be “the most extraordinary stylist of the appellation and who has even managed to surpass his idol Altare in his integration of strength and subtlety.” (???)

In the category of hopefuls, he also proves to be off the mark (Enzo Boglietti and Luigi Pira di Serralunga are hopefuls? It’s more likely that they are certainties). At least when it comes to the classics (here we go again), Bettane finally manages to get something right. Among those who embrace “the steadfast values of the appellation and who show regularity and correctness in style,” he includes important, solid names like Brovia, Brezza, Aldo Conterno, Vietti, Conterno Fantino, the Scavinos, and Cordero di Montezemolo.

But while Bettane considers these winemakers to be classics, he does not hold the Mascarellos, the Giacosas, and the Rinaldis to be leaders and true masters. For him, they are stuck between the dusty icons handed down by the past. They have nothing to say and nothing to give. This attitude is not only absurd and scandalous, but it shows how it takes more than being a great expert (or at least that’s what they call them) in France to truly understand Barolo in its greatest and most authentic expressions. Dommage, too bad, Monsieur Bettane. You have failed your Barolo exam: study up and, most importantly, learn how to taste with more humility and without preconceived notions. You cannot rely on the disfiguring crutch of classic Bordelaise enology. We’ll see you again next September. For the time being, Barolo—the true Barolo—will remain an unfathomable mystery...

Franco Ziliani

Monday, November 28, 2005

Keeping the Faith: Tales of a Wine Importer: Su Aristide la versione italiana

Cari lettori italiani, cliccate il titolo per vedere su Aristide l'articolo su Greg Smolik, importatore USA di vini autentici italiani. Greg e' davvero un credente del mondo di sapori, di bellezze del vino italiano. Grazie. E grazie ad Aristide, chi desidera allargare il cerchio di godimento del vino "nostrano".

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Sogni d'Alanno /// Dreaming Alanno

English version below. In un post precedente ho gia' scritto che sono andato in Virginia per la festa Thanksgiving. Oltre alle solite e belle visite famigliari, ho incontrato una coppia, cari amici di mia cognata, che hanno comprato una casa nel bel paese abruzzese di Alanno. Tom ed Anne si traslocheranno ad Alanno entro dieci giorni, per sistemare la casa. Ecco la bella: avranno bisogno di housesitters (come si direbbe in italiano?) per tutto il mese d'agosto. Ci hanno, generosamente, invitati a restarci come fosse casa nostra. Cosi' a voi cari lettori domando: quali aziende vinicole sarebbero le migliori visitare? E quali piccole citta' e paesi nascosti piu' "varrebbero il viaggio"? Per un Americano senza sacchi di denaro questo e' un sogno della vita, passare un mese in un locale meno affollato dei centri turistici Romafirenzevenezia. La "vera" autentica, oppure la "profonda" Italia. Io accoglio, grato, tutte informazioni sull'Abruzzo... Dreaming Alanno In a recent post I mentioned that I just got back from a short Thanksgiving visit in Richmond, Virginia. It was great to see family again. And it was a huge and unexpected surprise to meet Anne and Tom, good friends of my sister-in-law, a couple who are moving to a hilltop town in Abruzzo, near the Adriatic coast of Italy. They are moving there very soon to renovate the house they've bought. And here's the beauty part: they invited us to come house-sit for them in August. This generous offer is a mind-blower, and a long-held dream come true. I wonder if any of you out there in the blogosphere know anything about Abruzzo and specifically the vineyards it would be good to visit. Needless to say, I'll be blogging my little heart out all the while. Reporting straight from the tasting room, so to speak. What's so fantastic about this is that, for Americans with limited means, we get to savor a little of "the real Italy," well off the over-trodden route of Romeflorencevenice. I welcome any information you can pass along to me about this region, especially Chieti and Pescara and their environs. And thanks to Tom and Anne, needless to say.