The best wine writers are willing to offend if it means telling the truth. That’s easier said than done. When a writer publishes an article or a book that is likely to offend the producers that he or she covers, that can make future work more difficult. Doors close. Phone calls or emails are not returned.
Fortunately for us, Kerin O’Keefe is willing to offend if she has to. That’s not her mission. As the Italian Editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine, she has delineated her values. If producers don’t agree, she doesn’t allow that to alter her writing.
Her 2012 book Brunello di Montalcino staked out clear lines in the growing debate over a region’s sense of place. Her newest book, Barolo and Barbaresco: The King and Queen of Italian Wine, offers a similarly valuable perspective on a wine region’s evolution.
Forget about arguments for or against trendy topics like Natural Wines and the existence of terroir, because nothing causes more debate among lovers of fine wine than decanting. And most people have a love-hate relationship with those transparent glass containers.
When it comes to decanting great Italian wines, I happily adhere to the ancient adage, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”, which generally means forgoing the decanter. Case in point: on my recent rip to Piedmont to taste the latest vintages of Barolo, Barbaresco and Roero at the annual press tastings, followed by visits to producers who opened up numerous vintages – including a 1971 Barolo Monfalletto at Cordero Montezemolo and a 1978 Barolo Bussia at Giacomo Fenocchio – most winemakers shied away from decanting. Instead, they opened the bottles at the beginning of the visit to let the wines breathe before pouring. Local restaurants rarely recommended decanting either, not even for a 1997 Gigi Rosso Barolo Arione, which the beverage director opened as soon as we ordered and left it to breathe for an hour while sipped on a young white with our starters. All of the wines showed beautifully.
Vineyard practices and climate change have yielded wines with high alcohol levels that used to be seen only in New World bottlings. Italian Editor Kerin O’Keefe asks, is this the new normal?
No one can deny that Italian wine has benefited from a string of great vintages over the last 15 years. Hot, dry summers that extend into September and shorten the growing cycle have, with few exceptions, like 2013 and 2014, replaced the cooler, wetter harvests that plagued much of the country until the late 1990s.
For decades, reaching ideal grape ripening was a major concern for growers, particularly in northern and central Italy. But this once all-consuming challenge has almost become passé.
While quality across Italy is generally higher than ever before, there’s a caveat: rising alcohol levels. And climate change isn’t the only culprit.
It’s generally assumed that Italian white wines are cheap, cheerful and made to be consumed during the first year after the harvest. And while this may be the case for most Italian whites, and for the majority of white wines made around the globe, Italy produces some stunning whites that break the drink-now stereotype by developing depth and complexity as they age.
Wine drinkers in the United States have long been pigeonholed as obsessed with dark, oaky, powerful wines, and this perceived preference has impacted international winemaking for more than two decades. But as more and more wine lovers there and elsewhere turn away from this heavy-handed style, many winemakers around the world, and particularly in Italy, are taking notice, as Kerin O’Keefe reports.
For years now, many wine writers and winemakers in the Old World, and even some in the New, have blamed the existence of excessively ripe, oaky, alcoholic wines squarely on American wine drinkers. Just look at the justifications given by the Italian wine press for Montalcino’s infamous 2008 grape-blending scandal, “Brunellogate.” In a rare show of unity, Italian wine blogs, websites, and even mainstream newspapers covering the scandal surmised that any alleged blending of Sangiovese with other grapes such as Merlot was done to soften the wine and make it easier for “inexperienced American palates.” Critics continue to point to the US market as the raison d’être for this more muscular and obvious style. In his column in the May 2012 issue of Decanter, Hugh Johnson delightfully describes these concentrated, tannic wines as “wrist sprainers” that are “offered to us in their thickly-muffled youth, coffeed up with oak, their dense flavors, sweetness, tannins, and alcohol clogging up our palates.” He adds, “I know it’s the style favored in the US.”
From the shadows of Italy’s famous consultant winemakers, who drove the country into the spotlight with cult bottlings from international grapes, a band of less starry names is finally emerging. Kerin O’Keefe profiles six oenologists working with native grapes who are reluctantly getting the attention their efforts deserve.
Food and wine have always been important for Italian Americans, and today many star US chefs are of Italian descent. This love for Italian food has helped drive the popularity of Italian wine.
Even though an increased focus on food and wine pairing is a major force behind Italian wine sales in America, some experts attribute the sustained success of Italian wine here to a tailor-made style that caters specifically to the ’American Palate‘, a term which has become synonymous with highly oaked, overly dense, sweet and powerful wines.
Surprisingly accepted as a reality for years by many in the media and by wine producers themselves, the concept behind the American Palate – that a single style can capture the taste buds of an entire nation – is generating sharp debate, if not a downright backlash, as evolving consumer preferences are turning away from this heavy-handed style.
A modern-day war is being waged in Italy’s most renowned and treasured wine regions.
Of course there are no real battlefields and no loss of life. Instead, this war is being fought in seemingly idillic vineyards and winery cellars up and down the peninsula as two schools of tought clash. In jeopardy in this conflict are native grape varieties, prized wines and years of winemaking tradition. Some obeservers even argue that those who admire and enjoy Italy’s unique wines could suffer.