The queen of wine writers talks about Piemonte, Italian wine, and the newest market tendencies. Consumers’ curiosity is growing, but will we be able to satisfy it?
“Think about it. When was the last time you read a good book about Barolo, in English or translated, that’s passionate and entertaining? There is a desperate need to communicate the wine world of Piemonte.”
Jancis Robinson is a perfect English lady. Reigning queen of British wine writers and a Master of Wine, she is in fact one of Queen Elizabeth II’s personal wine consultants. Her tone is calm, her manner courteous and polite, her humor subtle, and she never seems out of place. When she is expressing her opinion, she is direct and to the point and, overall, uncompromising. “When I review a wine, I always say what I think. I don’t go looking at what others write, and I don’t look back at what I’ve said about it in years past. Wine is alive, and it changes with the passing of time. Every bottle is unique.”
She has equally articulate ideas about the wines of Piemonte: they need unity, collaboration, and an extraordinary capacity to communicate. The Sabaudian hills represent a complex and stratified wine landscape, and at the same time, “the new markets are getting a little bored and overloaded with classic French wines.”
Wine Pass met with Jancis Robinson during the presentation of Barolo 2009 and asked her to recount what has been her personal experience with Piemonte.
Mrs. Robinson, what do you like in particular about our region?
“I’ll say this. When people ask me where to go on a wine vacation, I always tell them, “Go to the Langhe.”
Why is that?
“Because this region offers great wines and superlative cuisine. Even though I’m quite familiar with the traditional cuisine of this region, la cucina Piemontese continues to surprise me. When I was at the Ristorante Piazza Duomo in Alba, Chef Crippa amazed me with his interpretations.”
Wine is alive, and it changes with the passing of time. Every bottle is unique.
Are there other places you hold close to your heart?
“More than places, I’d say the whole countryside. I find that the Piemontese hills express a perfect harmony, a homogenous beauty—in a good way, in the sense that it’s difficult to find ugly parts. It makes your territory the perfect setting for a wine holiday. The scale of the wine sector is perfectly adapted to wine tourism, with small, family-run wineries and non-industrial estates.”
What is the perception of Piemontese wines abroad?
“I can talk about the differences between the USA and the UK. There is a big contrast. In the United States, fine wine lovers are very familiar and comfortable with Barolo. British consumers, on the other hand, know French wines better than Italian. Some do understand Barolo in particular, however, and are aware of the crus, producers, and diverse characteristics. For example, in November of last year we held an event called Barolo Night, an evening dedicated to tasting the top Barolo producers and their crus. But there are still too few British fine wine lovers who really understand the details. Overall, there is a growing understanding of the difference between industrial and non-industrial wine, as well as those that come from specific territories and express particular varieties—which isn’t to say there are no longer great blends. Also, I find it very encouraging that both young British consumers and especially young Americans are seriously enthusiastic and curious about wine. Wine is not just a drink, but a real interest and hobby.”
Speaking of crus, is there a risk that Italy’s are excessively complicated for a non-Italian to understand the different geographical indications?
“On the contrary, I think that the strength of the territory lies in the valorization of the differences. I’m an idealist, and I hope that this region makes it a goal not to follow the tendency of generalization, but that there are ever more precise rules to identify their characteristics. This also holds true because the interests of consumers are changing.”
“The undisputed domination of the great varieties is by now finished. All the world over, there is a trending interest in indigenous and rare varieties. Consumers want wines that speak of the territory from which they come, not wines that express the heavy hand of the wine maker. Even the Asian market is largely looking for something alternative, a new taste. In fact, my latest book, Wine Grapes, is all about the varieties of the world, 1,368 of them to be exact. Italy should be able to take advantage of this: your country has the greatest number of grape varieties in the world, and 377 of them are native.”
I find it very encouraging that both young British consumers and especially young Americans are seriously enthusiastic and curious about wine. Wine is not just a drink, but a real interest and hobby.
But we aren’t always able to communicate them well.
“Italy has a handicap on the international market, and it doesn’t have a national marketing strategy as far as wine goes, which has been true since at least when I started wine writing in 1975. In the UK, for example, I happen to notice that promotion in composed of the occasional invite, and extends within a short range. The producers that come represent small areas or regions, and when they show their wines they seem bored and lacking energy, as though it were routine. It seems to be generated from what that region in Italy is promoting, rather than what the market needs.”
How can we get out of this?
“The initiative should begin at the governmental level in order to give the sector unity. I’ll give you an example: in London, I have no clue who is looking after the interests of Italian wine in London. It also needs something else.”
What do we need?
“A great narrative capacity. As I was saying, it has been a long time since I’ve read a good book about Barolo. One was written about Brunello by Kerin O’Keefe, Brunello di Montalcino: Understanding and Appreciating One of Italy’s Greatest Wines, but nothing on the King of Wines. I think it’s time that someone writes a good book on Barolo and Italian wines. Here in Italy, everyone knows the material, but abroad there is still much to learn. Italian wine can’t afford to stay at home; it needs to know how to communicate itself.”
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