I’m often asked how I choose the wines I write about. The short answer is that I look for “identity wines”, the ones that tell a unique story of the place they come from, the vintage year, the grape varieties, the weather, the people, who make them…
Italy has the most diversity of ideal grape growing terroir of any place in the world and also the most native grape varieties (700+). Even two winegrowers a few hundred meters from each other with the same grape variety make different wine. The fun and the challenge is to find wines among all there is in Italy that speak to you…Italians say “Vini che danno emozione.” (Literally, wines that give you emotion.)
To find this kind of “identity wines”, I start with these five guidelines…then, I taste. Your own personal preferences and palate is the sixth “guideline”.
1. Beware of point scores.
Robert Parker invented the 100-point scale for wine in the early 80s, and almost immediately it became the “industry standard”. Any wine over 90-95 points was deemed to be “good”, pushing prices of those wines up. Not surprisingly, winemakers around the world began making wine that would score 95 points or above. For reds, that largely meant “big” wines: robust, fruity, juicy, not too tannic, round in the mouth and easy to drink without food. (The Problem With Point Scores)
If you want to find “identity wine”, wine that expresses the uniqueness of a given terroir, chances are, you will not find it among the 95+ wines, maybe not even in the 90+. Often (but not always),the higher the point score, the more the wine has been “engineered” in the vineyard and the cellar to appeal to the homogenized “international palate”.
2. Look for “wine made from grapes” and little or nothing else (ie. “natural wine”).
Since the sixties and increasingly in recent years, various techniques and additives have been discovered for “constructing” wine with specific characteristics. Usually, these methods in both the vineyard and the cellar are used to appeal to the “international palate”. It is hard for “conventional” or “industrial” wine to express its terroir in an authentic way. That’s a little like having plastic surgery and putting on makeup to impress your date.
On the other hand, when grapes are grown in healthy soil that is full of vitality using organic, biodynamic, permaculture or “ancient” methods and when nothing is added or taken away except a possibly a tiny amount of sulfites to stabilize the wine, the wine can “tell its story”. This was how wine was made in Italy for millennia and often tasted rustic. Today’s best wines come from winegrowers, who are able to use modern science, not to “engineer” wine but to “accompany” it. Since “natural” is not a certification and labels don’t often indicate how the wine was made, you have to do your research.
3. Choose independent, artisan winegrowers.
Italy has a 3,000 year history of winemaking and many more independent, artisan producers than in the US. There were about 8,000 wineries in the US in 2015 and 300,000 in Italy. In addition, the top thirty American wine companies accounted for 90% of sales (Wine Business Magazine, Feb, 2016 p. 42) while in Italy, the 110 largest companies only accounted for 32% of sales. (Anna Di Martino, Feb, 2016) The best way to choose wine is to learn about the winegrowers and their philosophy growing grapes and making wine. That’s why I write about winegrowers in such detail on this site.
4. Experiment with grape varieties.
In Napa and Sonoma in the US, 93% of the vineyards are planted in eight varieties whereas Italy’s 20 wine regions have 700+ varieties. Most are grown in a very limited geographic area. For example, wine made with Nerello Mascalese is bound to be from Mt. Etna in Sicily or Dolcetto wine comes from Piemonte. Different grape varieties have different characteristics naturally, some more tannic, others more acidic, etc. Try different varieties and different wines made with the same variety to find out what you like best and what goes best with the meal or the season or the company you’re with.
5. Look for specialty vendors locally and online.
Check out my list of online resources for finding wine shops that specialize in “natural”, “identity” Italian wines. Many of them are in major cities but will ship wine during months that are not too hot or too cold. The best time to buy wine is in the fall when the winegrowers are clearing the cellars for the harvest and doing their exporting. There is usually the best selection of wine then.
The first and last guideline is, of course, your own preferences. The so-called Judgment of Paris in 1978 was a turning point in wine history because it established the idea that it was possible for experts to use an absolute scale to rate wines. Until that time, wine choice was largely considered to be a matter of personal preference. With so many resources available online and boutique natural wine shops and natural wine bars popping up, we’re coming full circle. Adventuresome wine drinkers can learn about and discover “identity wines” that they like best, bypassing the point scores and the “experts” altogether.
Cover Photo: The Wine Bottega Hanover St, Boston, MA.