My Dear Italian Winemakers...
By Matt Kramer, columnist
Forgive the familiarity, but I can't help feeling affectionate. After all, I've been hanging out with you -- eating your unforgettable food, drinking your wonderful wines, examining your endless vineyards -- for a long time now. For years, I've walked your paths and bicycled your hilly roads, and I even moved to Piedmont to research and write a cookbook.
I say all this because I have to say something else: Will you get real? I'm not talking about prices. Sure, they're crazier than ever, but so too are California and Bordeaux prices. I don't blame you for trying to get yours.
Instead, what I'm talking about is the profusion of utterly meaningless labels. Now, I know pretty well the Italian love of bella figura, the "beautiful style" that makes Italy so distinctive. I'm all for it.
But this bella figura business of giving wines meaningless names -- and not telling us anything on a back label -- is outrageous. I'll give you some examples. In fact, I can give you hundreds of Italian wines that offer us an invented name with no meaningful appellation and no explanatory back label. And they're never cheap, either.
In less than 15 minutes at my local (well-stocked) Italian wine shop I came across Excelsus from Castello Banfi. What is Excelsus? Beats me. It's red, and it's 50 bucks. There's no back label that tells us about grape variety or anything else except "Toscana."
How about something called Montevetrano, from a producer named Silvio Imparato? What is it? Where's it from? Who knows? Again, no back label. There's no info, nothing except the importer's name -- and a $56 price tag.
Then there's a wine called Nardo di Montepeloso. Want to know something about it? Good luck, especially at $46. Again, there's no back label, no interest in anything but bella figura -- at our expense. (Nardo is a grape variety, but you knew that, of course.)
These are not appellations, mind you, places that you could look up in a book. These are just empty, grandiose-sounding names.
Tuscany is the mother lode. The Tuscans are obsessed with what Italians call fantasia labels. The producer Poliziano has something called Elegia. No back label. What is it? It's a "red Tuscan table wine." That's it. Oh, and that'll be 30 bucks, per favore.
Castello della Paneretta -- a great Chianti Classico producer -- makes something called Terrine, whatever that is. The bottle tells us nothing, except that it's a "vino da tavola Toscana."
Inevitably, the market will sort it all out. But in the meantime, Italian wines lose. They become not only ever more (unnecessarily) esoteric, but shallow and opportunistic. Above all, they sap meaning not just from labels, but from the land itself.
Much of this has happened because of Italy's outmoded and chaotic appellation laws. New regulations are in effect, but they do little more than abandon any pretense that place is primary. Anything goes, with a very generalized indication of place; e.g., vino da tavola Toscana. These days in Tuscany, just about any grape could be in the wines.
Great wines come from somewhere, not just somebody. Of course the producer matters mightily. But when I buy a Meursault Genevrières from François Jobard, I'm getting a world of information from that designation, as well as a stunning wine from an implacably high-minded grower.
Imagine if Jobard decided to label his single-vineyard Meursault as, say, "Mon Rêve." Now multiply that narcissism by thousands of growers. How long would Burgundy be seen as great? Indeed, how long would "Burgundy" even exist?
Excuse my lack of diplomacy, but just who do you Italian winegrowers think you are? Are you greater than Chianti itself? Or Friuli? Or even unfairly-abused Apulia? Do you think that all of your barrels and blending and bella figura substitute for the enduring substance of site itself?
Are you so ashamed of your place that you seek to assume a new identity? If, for example, the Chianti Classico appellation has become so demeaned in your own eyes, whose fault is that?
No one has ever translated bella figura as "beautiful character." And it doesn't translate in wine, either.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from columnist Matt Kramer. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. (And for an archive of James Laube's columns written just for the Web, visit Laube on Wine.)