Texting the Tuscan Sun
Who cares about messaging fees when you've just spent $100 on a bottle of wine?
This gimmick comes in response to the scandal that erupted in 2008, when the Italian government investigated the 2003 vintage and found that several of the 250 producers in the consortium had adulterated their wines. Brunello can only be produced using 100 percent Sangiovese grapes grown only in a small demarcated area surrounding the village of Montalcino. It then must be aged for two years in oak barrels, and then another four months in bottle, and a Brunello cannot be released until five years after the harvest. With the 2003 vintage, however, it was discovered that some winemakers fraudulently used grapes other than Sangiovese. Over 700,000 cases were impounded, and around 1.3 million liters were eventually stripped of the prestigious denomination of origin.
Of course, scandals in Italy’s food and drink sector — especially those involving origin and authenticity — are nothing new. Last month in Campania, the nation’s agriculture minister disbanded the consortium that oversees buffalo mozzarella because so many cheesemakers — including the consortium president — were watering down their mozzarella with cow’s milk instead of using the traditional 100 percent buffalo’s milk. At the moment, there is also new investigation into the other famed Tuscan red wine, Chianti Classico — which would not be the first time.
From the outside, the law enforcement of authenticity may seem absurd, but big money is at stake. One of the biggest markets for Brunello is the United States — and we all know about that insatiable American hunger and thirst for anything Tuscan. This love affair began innocently enough, perhaps with Frances Mayes’ treacly bestseller Under the Tuscan Sun. But by now it’s careened downhill toward full-blown Tuscan Lust, driving a market for everything from Tuscan bathrooms to Tuscan driveway pavers to Subway’s Tuscan Chicken Sub.
The same day the Brunello consortium announced its text message verification, I may have witnessed the nadir of Tuscan-branded products: Purina’s Fancy Feast Elegant Medley “Yellowfin Tuna Florentine.” Florentine? Really? Yes, now even your kittycat can experience the Under the Tuscan Sun lifestyle.
Village Voice restaurant critic Robert Sietsema pointed out the faux-Tuscan cat food on his blog, writing he “nearly hurled in the supermarket aisle.” In an angry post, Sietsema wrote: “We’ve seen how the food industry takes terms like ‘Tuscan,’ stomps all over them, and then presents them back to us as their own newfangled flavor. We’ve seen Tuscan pizzas (even though Tuscany has no pizza tradition), Tuscan flavored potato chips, Tuscan frozen entrees, and just about anything else ‘Tuscan’ you can think of, totally betraying the very concept of Tuscan food, which involves a handful of local ingredients, simply and freshly prepared.”
A similar sense of outrage pervaded a panel I attended in early February at Vino 2010 — Italian Wine Week in New York — grandly titled “Transparency, Traceability, and Wine: The Italian System of Guaranteeing Authenticity of Origin of the Grapes to the Source” moderated by Michael Weiss, instructor at the Culinary Institute of America and author of numerous books on Italian wine.
Attendees received a folder with a single sheet of introductory text tucked inside. “No set of laws or group of lawmakers can guarantee the quality of a wine or it’s appreciation by a consumer,” read the document. “As in all of the major wine producing nations there have been greedy people who have produced wines that are not genuine.”
The Brunello scandal — the elephant in the room — was mostly avoided, only hinted at in abstract ways. “It’s incredibly courageous that the Italian government has sponsored a panel on transparency,” Weiss said.
The panel was both accusatory and defensive. Before 1995, 85 percent of Italian wine was identified only as tavola, or table wine. Now, just 15 years later, there are over 300 DOCs (or Denominazione di Origine Controllata) as well as the more exclusive 44 DOCGs (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, with stricter guidelines and more controls). Weiss bemoaned how the sheer number of DOCs confuses American consumers, and then asked: “Does the DOC system serve consumers well?”
“It strikes me as confusing,” said Wolfgang Weber, a former critic for Wine Enthusiast. “I don’t think the typical consumer is going to understand.” And if the consumer doesn’t understand why one wine is DOC, another bears the mark of a DOCG, and yet another is unclassified, well, then they have no idea why one wine costs $90 and another costs $9.
The Italian in the panel’s hotseat was G. Ricci Curbastro, president of Federdoc, which oversees all the denominations of origin in Italy. Curbastro’s defense of the DOC system was poetic, if not particularly helpful: “In Italy, each valley speaks its own language, it’s own dialect. We have 450 varieties of beans! Can you imagine?” His demeanor was that of a shrug: Hey, Italy is what it is. How can one govern a nation that has 450 kinds of beans? The DOC system is about the best we can hope for.
This shrug seemed to pervade the room. A famous master sommelier named Ronn Weigand sitting behind me shouted at one point, “It’s Italy! It’s the greatest wine country in the world. If people are confused about Italian wine, tough luck! They need to study it more and learn!”
With that sort of attitude, it’s no wonder people stick mostly to Italian wines they’ve heard of before…such as Brunello di Montalcino. In fact, during the height of both the fraud scandal and a worldwide recession, sales of Brunello actually rose six percent in 2009.
It’s really hard to convince people to move beyond the overpriced, overhyped Sangiovese-based Tuscan wines. This nagged at me during Vino 2010 as I tasted about 50 Brunellos and 50 Chianti Classicos in the grand ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria. Not that there was anything particularly wrong with these wines. I mean, I’ve drank a lot of Sangiovese in my life, and I’ve always felt the grape makes a wine that’s too usually acidic and too cherry-fruit-juicy for my tastes. But a number of these Brunellos were nice enough, with added complexity of cocoa and smoky notes that tamed the acidity. Still overall, I felt…meh. So many of the Brunellos and Chiantis seemed like pizza and pasta wines, just with price tags of $50 or more.
Something didn’t seem to add up, and it had little to do with the scandal. The Brunello kind of luxury pricepoint just seems so out of step with reality right now. In fact, one of the final panels at Vino 2010 was titled “The Future of Luxury Wine.” The outlook seemed pretty bleak for wines selling over $30: By some estimates, the industry has seen a 30 percent drop in sales of wine costing more than $30 a bottle. Sommelier John Wesson, founder of Best Cellars offered a new way to look at Quality versus Price. “I believe the wealth that was created in the last decade will never return,” Wesson said. “This recession is going to do one thing really well. It will weed out the junky luxury experiences and get us back to the real experiences that give back.”
I came away from Vino 2010 deciding I needed to develop a new approach to wine. We’ve all heard the trope that wine is an everyday pleasure, that there are so many interesting, authentic wines under $20. Yet so many people still ignore this notion, still remain intimidated by wine — or else approach wine as a luxury to be acquired, a foe to be conquered, or a scientific puzzle to be methodically solved. I want to weed out the so-called “luxury” experiences that don’t deliver, and seek out the ones that do. I want to tell stories about wines from lesser-known regions and grape varietals, as well as values from well-known producers. I want to talk about wine as an idea, rather than as a status symbol.
Beyond the quality-price ratio, I want to explore wine as a legitimate plank of the humanities, worthy of the highest sort of criticism. A good value wine offers us an experience similar to that of a book or a film or an art exhibition. Tasting wine, then, becomes no different from study in any of the other humanities — reading works of Russian literature or looking at German Expressionist paintings or listening to Rigoletto. It goes without saying that you don’t have to be rich to enjoy those cultural activities. I believe it’s the same with the wine. • 16 February 2010
|Sangiovese Beyond Brunello and Chianti
I personally don’t enjoy Sangiovese wine enough to get crazy about whether or not a particular wine is made with 100 percent Sangiovese. In fact, I’m partial to wines in and around Tuscany that actually blend Sangiovese with other varietals. Heresy? Perhaps. But if you want to experience quality Sangiovese on the cheap, here are three lesser-known DOCs that offer reliables wines under $20.
Grown in a small area about 10 miles northwest Florence, Carmignano has been blending Sangiovese with Cabernet Sauvignon since the 18th century — long before the rise of the popular, over-priced “Super Tuscans” you see on so many Italian restaurant wine lists. If you want a good pizza wine, this is it. Try Castelvecchio Carmignano 2004 ($13), a blend of 75 percent Sangioves, 10 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 10 percent Canaoilo Nero, and 5 percent Merlot.
• Morellino di Scansano
“Morellino” is simply what the people who live in the hills around the village of Scansano, in the Maremma, call Sangiovese (it’s the same grape). The Morellino di Scansano DOCG allows winemakers to blend up to 15 percent of other local, nonaromatic black grapes. A nice feature of these wines is there is no DOCG requirement for aging in wood — meaning you can find young, fresh, crisp examples with less than a year of aging. The best are also much cheaper than other Tuscans. Case in point: Le Pupille Morellino di Scansano 2005 ($19).
• Rosso Piceno Superiore
This is one of my favorite value recommendations for people who already enjoy Chianti. Rosso Piceno is a DOC in Le Marche, and the wines contain anyway from 30 to 60 percent Sangiovese blended with Montepulciano. Look for bottles designated Superiore, which are produced in a limited region around the town of Ascoli Piceno. Saladini Pilastri Rosso Piceno Superiore Vigna Monteprandone 2005 ($15) is one of my favorite value Italian reds.
Jason Wilson is editor of The Smart Set. He also edits The Best American Travel Writing series (Houghton Mifflin) and writes the Spirits column for the Washington Post.