Charles DeGaulle once observed that ruling post-war France was a monumental challenge; what else, he said, would one expect from a country which produces 246 kinds of cheese? If DeGaulle thought so many distinct fromages posed a problem, imagine if he’d been charged with managing the Italian wine world, where more than 50,000 wineries bottle wines in more than 500 official classifications in four major categories. And that’s only after repeated attempts at streamlining, regulating and organizing that most beautifully disorganized of countries.
That splendid chaos, fortunately, doesn’t mean that the quality of Italian wines is suspect; quite the contrary, Italian wines have never been as popular, or as routinely good, and the continuing revolution in vineyard techniques, quality controls, vinification and aging means that wines from the Boot continue to reach new heights. While purists still caution that further internationalization (more oak and fruit, less structure and age) can strip Italian wines of their personality and individuality, the over-all effect has been to bring great wines to new levels and previously unrecognized regions into the spotlight.
Not only are Italian wine sales up internationally, but prices continue to soar as well. It’s part of the duality in Italian wine today; while a growing number of good wines, especially from previously underappreciated regions like Sicily, Puglia and Emilia-Romagna, are entering the US at great prices, the super-Tuscans, Barolos and Barbaresco have skyrocketed to near-Bordeaux price levels. As Ron Balter of Chicago’s Italian Village trio of restaurants – Vivere, Italian Village and La Cantina Enoteca – recently noted, the 30% price increase for Ornellaia Super-Tuscan this year means from now on, he’ll be more careful about buying marquee wines only when they are excellent. In the meantime, he’ll be widening his search for the new Italian values.
Balter is helped by his customers’ willingness to explore a little more of the wine list, and by the uncertain economic times. “People are more aware of how they’re spending, and so they are trying things they were not previously aware of. They are starting to avoid the super Tuscans and trying wines from Sicily and other regions,” he says.
NEW WINES, NEW BARGAINS
In Philly, things are much the same, says Evan Lambert, wine director and co-owner of Toscana Cucina Rustica and Savona. “Prices have risen dramatically, and the Barolos, Barberescos and Brunellos are pricing themselves almost onto the reserve list. The super Tuscans as well.” But wine importers are sensing the opportunity, says Lambert, and are scouring the countryside for good wines at relatively bargain prices. “As a result, restaurateurs are able to offer new wines at more affordable prices from reputable importers who are finding these wonderful microproducers.”
Selling these wines, though, is not always easy. At his restaurants, Lambert has sommeliers on the floor at all times to hand-sell the less well-known wines; at operations where there are no wine directors or sommeliers, he recommends using all the old, familiar tricks to boost sales: menu cards, blackboards, bar signs, by-the-glass promotions, anything that will push the wine into customer consciousness.
Importers clearly are aware not only of the needs of average restaurants for quality wines at reasonable prices, but the growing wine appetite of Italian-oriented chain restaurants like Olive Garden, Buca di Beppo, Romano’s and Maggiano’s. Importers who once kept their Salice Salentinos and Aglianico del Vultures, to name two Southern Italian DOC wines with improving reputations, for the last of their sales pitches, now showcase them in tastings and press kits.
But that doesn’t mean the higher-priced reds of Italy aren’t selling well. At I Trulli and Enoteca I Trulli in NYC, wines such as the widely-praised 1997 vintage Brunellos are holding steady and selling well, says wine director Charles Scicolone, enough so that I Trulli carries about 10 of them.
While I Trulli’s customers are usually well heeled enough to pay for the Brunellos and super Tuscans, it’s been a bit of a challenge to get them to buy the lower-priced bargains. “You know the old saying: ‘How do you sell more wine? Raise the price.’ We have a number of very good wines priced under $20 and they really don’t sell. I sometimes make recommendations that a certain less expensive wine will be a far better match than something that costs much more, and customers look at me like I’m crazy.”
Scicolone also sees a growing thirst for Prosecco, probably partially due to the promotional efforts of supplier Mionetto, which has spent heavily on promotions and marketing, and even has helped import the Prosecco bar concept to the US.
Recent changes in the Italian market may mean better prices for Tuscan wines, though. Many major super Tuscan producers like Biondi Santi have bought land in southern Tuscany, and one of the results is more attention is being paid to other Tuscan DOCs like Morellino di Scansano, where producers Erik Banti, Fattoria Le Pupille, Moris Farms and Aia della Macina, among others, turn out seductive Morellino and creative baby super Tuscans.
As noted in Cheers many times, especially in stories about Olive Garden’s wine education program, Italian wine and food are integrally bound. To an Italian, wine is not just an occasional celebration; it is as much a part of the meal as bread and oil. That’s why most Italian wines are, in general, less likely to be heavy with toasty oak and vanilla flavors and more likely to provide a good fruit and acid balance that works with most foods. (However, small French barrels for aging are popping up all over the country, and are the bane of those who love Italian wines best when the effects of wood aging are kept to a minimum.)
It bodes well for the Italian wine industry that the American restaurant business is embracing Italian concepts both in urban centers and suburban chain restaurants, since wine and food are so bound together. If the French wine industry, alarmed about the slow erosion of their international wine market and searching for ways to turn the trend around, really are serious about new concepts, maybe they should consider investing in a French bistro restaurant chain in the US, where great roast chicken and haricort verts are paired with Cotes du Rhone or Loire wines. It couldn’t hurt.
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
Italian wine labels can be the most confusing. Here are some tips about common terms and acronyms.
DOCG: DENOMINAZIONE DI ORIGINE CONTROLLATA E GARANTITA (Certification of Controlled and Guaranteed Origin). The highest of the four tier Italian classification system, received by fewer than 20 wines. Current DOCG wines are: Albana di Romagna, Asti and Moscato d’Asti, Barbaresco, Barolo, Brachetto d’Acqui, Brunello di Montalcino, Carmignano, Chianti, Chianti Classico, Franciacorta, Gattinara, Gavi, Ghemme, Montefalco, Recioto di Soave, Sagrantino, Taurasi, Torgiano, Valtellina superiore, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, Vermentino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. DOCG wines are defined by outstanding characteristics related to a particular climate and environment. Before becoming DOCG, these wines must have been classified DOC for at least 5 years.
DOC: Around 300 DENOMINAZIONE DI ORIGINE CONTROLLATA (Certification of Controlled Origin) wines are produced. As with DOCG wines, the acronym designates a specific production area whose wines have strong characteristics related to climate and local environment. Even D.O.C. wines production should follow strict procedures. According to Italian legislation, the label on a controlled wine must carry this certification of origin which indicates the viticultural area to which it belongs and the method of production. Like DOCG wines, DOC wines may indicate a sub-region.
IGT: INDICAZIONE GEOGRAFICA TIPICA More than 120 wines in Italy are classified as IGT, the third of four classifications. IGT is the classification between DOC and VDT (Vino Da Tavola), the lowest level. Much like France’s vin de pays.
VINO DA TAVOLA The classification for more than 25 million hectoliters of wine produced each year in Italy. A generic denomination for wines of non-specific origin or other classification, and the one often used for super Tuscans. Recent years have seen an increase in high-quality, reasonably priced VDT wines.
CANTINA SOCIALE A wine producing co-operative where several associated growers contribute grapes to a common product.
CLASSICO This is a generic term indicating a limited area within a particular DOC zone.
RISERVA Indicates a longer ageing period which can mean up to 3 years in the barrel before bottling, depending on the D.O.C.
SUPERIORE A vintage wine which obtains a 1% increase in alcohol content through ageing.
VQPRD (VINO DI QUALIT