Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Random Thoughts on VinItaly 2009

Late Sunday night I returned from an exhausting but interesting visit to VinItaly in Verona. It's billed as the largest wine fair in the world and that's not hard to believe. It makes the London International Wine Fair (LIWF) look like a village fête.
This was my second visit to VinItaly. Both times I attended on a sponsored visit, which means I had some required appointments with producers. I wouldn’t go to the fair any other way. The fair is so huge, unless you are an importer with a defined list of producers to see and perhaps some specific target wines that you’d like to discover, it is just too vast to contemplate. Also, unless you have a hotel booked at least a year in advance, and I never plan that far ahead, you won’t have a place to stay anywhere near Verona, so a sponsored trip that includes a hotel is the only way to go.

This year my assigned meetings were a day-long “Taste & Buy” with producers from Basilicata and an afternoon Piemontese “Taste & Dream” session. The “Taste & Buy” sessions are great. You receive a list of available producers several weeks before the event and are asked to list your preferences in order. The organizers then try to schedule meetings with as many of your top producers as possible but you always get at least 5 of your top 10 and usually more. These sessions are a great way to get an intensive introduction to a region. I always try to pick areas that are under-represented in the market usually with interesting indigenous varieties so I chose Basilicata this year and Lombardia and Puglia last year. Without exception (so far!), the producers have been excellent and the wines of a very high standard. I always feel a little guilty that I’m not an importer because these producers are so eager to get their wines into foreign markets. But I do always send my discoveries to some of my Italian suppliers and ask them to consider importing the wines. This year there’s the additional problem that Sterling is in the tank against the Euro. That’s makes ALL Euro-based wines really expensive. In a depressed economy, that’s a non-starter. But it’s good to make contacts for future opportunities.

The Piemonte “Taste & Dream” session was completely the opposite of the “Taste & Buy” experience. “Taste & Dream” was 2 and 1/2 hours of torture. We saw 20 producers, each showing at least 3 wines, some as many as 6, over the course of the session. Each producer had to enter, introduce him- or herself and the business, then discuss the wines, and finally encourage you to visit their stand at the fair. Much was repetitive, boring, or unnecessary. The presentations were not timed with the wines as they were poured so it was easy to become confused about which wine was which. And there were just too many producers with too many wines over too short a time. Worst of all, though Piemonte is one of the finest quality wine areas of Italy, there were just not enough truly good wines. Only one was actually corked (thankfully!) but far too many of the wines were incredibly ordinary and all but one of the producers had no international presence. I’m all in favour of discovering small, unknown producers but the ones on show here didn’t meet the mark. Given that the “Taste & Buy” sessions have produced such high quality wines, it is hard to imagine that Piemonte managed to drop the ball so badly, but they did. Comments from some colleagues about a Trentino “Taste & Dream” session were excellent so it was a Piemontese problem. They just tried to do too much.

And while I’m bitching, the VinItaly catalogue is absolute rubbish! Everyone I know throws it out. Many trees are killed for no good purpose. To improve it, the organizers need to do several things –

1. Drop all the common farm, association, estate words like Azienda, Agricola, Tenute, Consorzio, Tutela, Podere, Fattoria, etc, and alphabetized based on the main name. For example, the Chianti producer I know as “Felsina” is actually “Fattoria di Felsina”. In the current catalogue, it’s listed under “Fattoria”, along with hundreds (!!) of other Fattorie. It should be listed under “Felsina”. Very few English-speakers, and probably the Italians as well, know the exact business name of many producers. So you have to look under Azienda Agricola, Azienda Vitivinicola, Azienda Vinicola, Fattoria, and many other permutations to find any producer. Even worse, one producer was described as Consorzio Tutela Matera DOC. No luck under Consorzio, none under Tutela, same for Matera. I found it under Consorzio DI Tutela Matera DOC. This is just too stupid for words. VinItaly need to get their act together to produce a catalogue that isn’t just an over-sized door-stop.
2. Provide more information on Pavilion maps. At the moment the maps show only stands by grid reference (A5, for example) with no other information. This is fine if you’re looking for A5, but not particularly necessary since the grid references are posted near the ceiling in each hall. All you need to do it look up and get your bearings. However, it’s a bit more difficult if you’re trying to find a dedicated section for a specific purpose, like Basilicata, and you know it’s in the pavilion but not the grid reference. The maps should show that section, perhaps with a colour as the map for the London International Wine Fair (LIWF) does. That way if you don’t know the names of any of the Basilicata producers or their stand reference, you can find their section of a pavilion. As it is, you just have to do a random walk to find them.

Ok, enough bitching. What were some of the highlights?
As a confirmed indigenous varietal geek, the highlights always are finding new exciting varietals. This year I decided I needed to know more about Val d’Aosta so I spent an afternoon visiting with some of them and tasting their indigenous varieties. At Feudi di San Maurizio I had a lovely visit and managed to add a number of new varieties to my life list. Among them were Mayolet and Petit Rouge, which I just learned are the proud parents of Cornalin du Valais from Switzerland. Interestingly, I also tasted Cornalin d’Aosta, that my host, Michel Vallet, was at pains to point out was NOT Cornalin du Valais. Subsequent research has revealed that Cornalin d’Aosta is in fact an offspring of Cornalin du Valais and is known as Humagne Rouge (no relation to Humagne Blanc) in Switzerland – oh my, what tangled genealogy!

Also on the indigenous highlight list (and one of the few things to make the Piemontese “Taste & Dream” a bit less onerous) was tasting a decent Ruché di Castagnole Monferrato. And tasting a selection of Lacrima di Morro d’Alba, a grape native to the Marche, from both Velenosi and Moncaro. I also really enjoyed the Visciole, a dessert wine that is made by first created a syrup from sugar and the local sour cherries of the Marche (Visciole), then mixing the syrup with Lacrima wine which triggers a second fermentation. The product was a very attractive dessert wine that would be lovely with chocolate or berry desserts.
As someone who loves to eat, another real treat of the week was a lunch on the first day at Ristorante dei Signori. Each day this restaurant features 2 famous Italian chefs, offering a special menu of local specialties, accompanied by your choice of wines. Our lunch started with some ox-tail rissoles with celery julienne, followed by kid tortelloni and Orsino garlic, then cheek of beef (so tender even cutting it with a fork almost brutalized it) sprinkled with grown liquorice (on the plate it looked like espresso grounds). To finish we had a fantasy dessert of “JRE or Noir” chocolate cake with an almond crust, rhubarb sauce and strawberry sorbet. We were also provided with a wine list and told to make selections, no restrictions. Wow! We started with the Vetoraz 2008 Prosecco di Valdobbiadene “Millesimato”, followed by the Moncaro 2008 Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore “Verde Ca’Ruptae”, then the Cantina Negrar 2005 Amarone della Valpolicella Classico “Domini Veneti” (perfect with the beef cheeks), and finally the Moncaro (again because the first was so good) 2005 Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Passito “Tordiruta”. Talk about being a kid in a candy store! No one said “no”; no one said “too much”, and there was NO limit on what we could order, except that our taskmistress, Chiara, kept urging us back to work on the Basilicata “Taste & Buy”. When I investigated about booking lunch there the next day, I learned that this experience cost the general public €70 each, which I thought was actually pretty good value, given the amazing food and wines.
The last real treat of the fair was meeting and tasting with Barbara Olson Tori of Enoteca de Rham in Florence. Barbara is a California girl and Stanford grad, like me, who went to Italy during her university days and never really left. After a long and complicated story, she became the owner of her husband’s Enoteca. She has turned the business into a one-stop shop for Italian wine specialists. Her list is extensive and country-wide and includes lots of unusual varietals and obscure regions which is always a real treat for me. One of the top wines I tasted with her were the Ezio Voyat “Le Muraglie” Rosso from the Val d’Aosta. This is sold as a vino di tavola because Ezio clashed with the local wine authorities many years ago when the DOC laws were first introduced and he went his own way. Though obscure, this wine, a combination of Dolcetto, Petit Rouge and Gros Vien (also known as Nus and tasted with the Val d’Aosta producers) can really be considered a “super-Val d’Aosta”. Though not cheap, this is a wine that is delicious and has a real story behind it (too long to relate here) and stories help sell wines. Two other treats from Barbara’s collection included a Colle Colletto 2006 Wildbacher (yes, a Blauer Wildbacher from Austria that seems to have wandered across the border to the Veneto), rich berries and spice, and, my final wine of VinItaly 2009, a Stefano Mancinelli 2005 Lacrima di Morro d’Alba Passito. It was smooth, luscious and rich, a fine ending to the fair.


Anonymous said...

Really enjoyed reading about VinItaly. Must have been great!

paswines said...

Thanks, Steve. I really was an amazing experience. Daunting but amazing.

Wink Lorch said...

What a riveting read, thanks and congratulations! You seemed to have used your time very well in Vinitaly, and have given me even more reason to hurry to discover the Val d'Aosta!

WP said...

Interesting article - We are actually preparing an article which compares and contrasts large trade fairs to samller more personalized events such as Terroir Wines and of course our own Wine Pleasures Workshop Buyer meets Italian Cellar. Can we quote some of your conclusions in our article?