Allegrini 2024

A journey around the world’s vineyards with “Wine Advocate Robert Parker” signatures

In a global context, the wine culture and market has a thousand facets. Which Italy must learn to know and address

“From up here the Earth is beautiful, without borders or boundaries, it is blue ... what a wonder”. These are the words, which have gone down in history, of Soviet cosmonaut Jurij Alekseevič Gagarin, the first man, on April 12, 1961, to leave the Earth’s atmosphere and make a revolution around the Earth, seeing it in all its magnificent entirety. It is a bit of the feeling, of estrangement, but also of wonder, that one gets when looking “from above” at the world of wine. And you don’t need to climb aboard Vostok 1, just let yourself be accompanied, from one country to another, from one territory to another, and from one glass to another, by the signatures of “Wine Advocate Robert Parker”, a benchmark for wine critics and wine culture itself in the world.
France, Italy, Spain, California, South America, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand ... the wine world, just like the Earth, is beautiful and borderless, constantly changing and with an infinite number of common points of contact and struggles. Some to be faced together, such as the one to the effects of Climate Change, others to be experienced in healthy competition, above all, of course, the challenge to conquer markets. These are all the topics that ended up at the center of the interviews that WineNews had the chance to do with the “reviewers” of “Wine Advocate Robert Parker” - Joe Czerwinski, William Kelley, Erin Brooks, Yohan Castaing, Luis Gutiérrez, Erin Larkin, Monica Larner, Anthony Mueller and Stephan Reinhardt - met, a few months ago, in Zurich, at “Matter of Taste”, the exclusive tasting of the world’s best labels.
The result is a high and other point of view, able to place Italy in a broader context, in which it does not always play a leading role, while the New World - which so new, beyond wine culture, is not - has already learned so much.
Each country, thus, takes on different contours, and even tiny Switzerland, observing it closely, does not just buy bottles from the rest of the world, but produces half of the wine it usually consumes. And far-away Australia, which certainly does not have the history of France or Italy, discovers without superstructure or preconceptions the beauty of terroir, understood as the encounter between grape variety, terroir and know-how aimed at ensuring not only the best possible result in the bottle, but also doing so with respect for environmental sustainability.
Along with wine, however, critics and journalism are also changing, and as Joe Czerwinsky, who covers Napa Valley and Rhône, recalls, “over the years the number of critics, bloggers, influencers, and newspapers has grown exponentially: it is a very different landscape from what it used to be, but our task is still the same, to offer the consumer the opinion of a different expert for each Region, starting with Napa Valley, which, in recent years, has turned toward producing wines capable of expressing elegance and freshness. To certify which wineries are making real efforts in the direction of sustainability, a key aspect for “Wine Advocate Robert Parker”, we introduced the “Green Emblem”. It is a separate parameter from what is wine criticis, based solely on what is in the glass: balance, length, intensity, complexity”.
On the West Coast, between Sonoma and Oregon, Erin Brooks points out California’s “great climatic and topographical variety, but the most interesting region today is Oregon, because the climate is more temperate, the temperatures more moderate, there are not the extreme peaks of California, and it is much less prone to devastating fires. Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Gamay are doing very well, and, in the future, the quality will grow even more. I believe that, in the wine world, there is a kind of pendulum that determines the styles in vogue, moving from one position to another, moving between generations, and this influences the work of producers, both Italian and Californian”, Erin Brooks concludes.
If the present is so complex, history has written it in France, which is now experiencing a time of enormous change and great challenges. “Champagne and Burgundy are reaping great successes, but it's not true for everyone: Champagnes in large-scale distribution are struggling, as are wines from Macon and Chablis”, says William Kelley, point of reference for Bordeaux, Burgundy, Chablis, Beaujolais, Champagne, Madeira, and sparkling wines from Great Britain. “In Bordeaux the major players are working very well, they have repositioned their prices to a very high level, but there are hectares and hectares of vines, planted recently after the boom of the early 2000s, that are currently suffering greatly. In each of these regions today, the effects of Climate Change will have to be addressed, for example, by planting different clones that postpone the ripening of the grapes and limit the alcohol content”.
France, however, is also more than that, and lesser-known territories often trivially suffer from “the limitations of the distribution system”, as Yohan Castaing, signing for “Wine Advocate Robert Parker” from Loire, Languedoc-Roussillon, Provence, Champagne, Bordeaux and Southwest France, points out. “Quality continues to rise everywhere, from the Loire Valley to Provence to Languedoc, and I am convinced that, little by little, these regions will find their place, but the Loire is definitely the most interesting region right now in France: fresh and elegant wines, both whites and reds, and very good value for money. Provence has been very good at creating the phenomenon of rosé wines, while Sauternes suffers from the stigma of everything sweet and sugary, but also from a lack of consumer awareness”.
In Spain, “native varieties are part of the wine Renaissance we are experiencing, and the newfound pride in our country’s wines”, says Luis Gutièrrez, head of Spain and South America. “In the past we experienced a certain inferiority complex: we were constantly comparing ourselves with France, but also with Italy, and native varieties did not have a reputation for quality, quite the contrary. But today everything is different, so much so that people see in native varieties an added value and differentiation to make wines with personality. If you decide to make a varietal wine, such as a Cabernet Sauvignon or a Chardonnay, in a Region of Spain, you will have to compete with varietal wines made anywhere else in the world. Instead, producing a Garnacha de Gredos means producing a unique wine, as well as an Albariño from the Rias Baixas, that is, wines that cannot be produced anywhere else in the world, because the terroir gives the wine a unique character”. The Iberian vineyard, of course, also has to deal with Climate Change, but Gutièrrez is convinced that “there are many tools to combat climate change, and the native varieties are the ones that, through the decades and centuries, have adapted best to a given territory, and are therefore the ones that, normally, work best”.
Much more recent is the viticultural history of Australia and New Zealand, “where, however, there is a 16,000-year-old indigenous culture that was wiped out by British colonization, which brought viticulture in around the mid-19th century”, says Erin Larkin, signature from Oceania of “Wine Advocate Robert Parker”. “Speaking of terroir, being New World, we don’t have any particular obligation to grow one grape variety in a particular Region, rather than another, but key terroirs and key grape varieties are, however, emerging. I give an example: it is not mandatory to grow Chardonnay on the Margaret River, but it is a given that it is superior to all other Chardonnays produced in Western Australia. Clearly it’s still a work in progress in terms of classification, these are very young wine regions compared to others globally, but we are growing fast, it’s a very dynamic world, and I think within 10 to 15 years, or maybe less, we will have a clear picture of what will be the best matches between terroir and varietals in Australia. The most common grape varieties are internationals, but, with the immigration of Italians, Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, Sagrantino, which are well adapted to warmer climates, have also arrived”, Erin Larkin concludes.
Between the Southern Hemisphere, in this case South Africa, and the U.S., operates, however, Anthony Mueller, a long sommelier career behind him and an exceptional nose, by all accounts. “A good taster, as well as a good educator, must first have proper training, acquired through study and tasting. Through our work the wines must speak, and we must always be aware of what is happening in the territories on a planetary level. One cannot think of knowing a wine region without knowing the wine world and its top producers. In tasting”, Anthony Mueller explains further, with an eye on health, “you cannot swallow every single glass, but to get the full picture you have to refer to the secondary taste: so you take the wine, you smell it, you taste it, you spit it out, and, at this point, if you liked the wine, you proceed with a second tasting that involves a little swallowing. You must always drink in moderation, because, as many studies certify, there is no level of alcohol consumption that can be called safe”.
Approaching, again, Italy, we then make a stop in Switzerland and Germany, two key markets, certainly, but not only. “An interesting aspect is that only 1.5% of Swiss wines are exported, the rest are consumed in the country, but they barely cover 50% of total consumption, so the other half of the requirements are imported from abroad”, says Stephan Reinhardt, reviewer for wines from Switzerland, Germany and Tokaji, Hungary. “Italians are the next-door neighbors for the Swiss, we drink a lot of Italian wine here, especially from Piedmont, but also from Tuscany and Veneto”, Reinhardt says. Pointing out that, even in Switzerland and Germany, the debate on wine and health is lively, but it must also be emphasized that “wine is a cultural product, the wines we are talking about are not wines for mass consumption, they are artisanal products, the result of a millenary culture: we do not drink wine to get high, but to know and celebrate a territory and those who made it great, we must educate people to conscientious consumption”.
And Italy, closing this tour among the world’s vineyards, what role does it play in such a rich and varied, yet competitive, context? No one can tell it better than Monica Larner, Italian editor of the world’s most authoritative voice of wine critics. "Italian wine still needs to improve in communication abroad, and to make order among so many appellations. We need to offer a more fluid, multidimensional and interactive picture of Italian wine that makes sense to those who do not experience it closely but would like to know it better. From a marketing point of view, it is amazing the great work done by Chianti Classico, with the Uga, a dynamic way of telling the story of the territory, as also done by Barolo and Barbaresco with the Mga”. The future, also from a commercial point of view, is, however, “of Italian whites, a world yet to be discovered, especially if we look at native grape varieties such as Soave, Falanghina, Carricante. There are wines with great terroir, thanks to volcanic or limestone soils, and with Climate Change”. Among Italy’s strengths, Monica Larner adds, “is the ability to combine wine tourism with the country’s gastronomic culture and cultural and artistic richness. Tuscany has been doing it for many years, Piedmont does it with the exceptional quality of its wineries and cuisine, and Sicily is certainly no different”.

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