Wednesday, June 08, 2016

The rise and rise of small wines

I wrote this story for Wanted In Rome some years ago. They no longer have the link live on their website. So here it is in full.
By Bernhard Warner

The mid-1980s was a promising period in Italy. The Azzurri were champions of the soccer world. A dip in oil prices triggered a brief economic recovery. And, in the sleepy villages just outside the Marchigiana port city of Ancona, i contadini could pick up jugs of the local wine for next to nothing.

Today, of course, Italy is the defending champs, but that’s about all. The sputtering economy dominates dinner conversations, and, in the piccolo Morro d’Alba region north of Ancona, the old-timers have seen their beloved local wine – the Lacrima di Morro d’Alba – creep ever upward in price once the little known varietal earned a DOC - denominazione di origine controllata - designation in 1985.

From that day, the contadini’s secret was out. Wine lovers took notice of this little grape with a name that’s a mouth-full.

“The external market is big for us today. We get requests from importers in America, Germany and Switzerland,” says Piergiovanni Giusti (pictured at left), a third-generation winemaker who this year expects to produce about 45,000 bottles of Lacrima di Morro d’Alba. Giusti will export three full-bodied reds and a rosé.

For the uninitiated, the grapes pack a distinctive taste – there is little in common with the region’s most productive grape, the sangiovese. The Lacrima di Morro d’Alba has a pronounced, fruity perfume but is light enough to serve with fish dishes, a necessity as this is stoccafisso country.

Giusti calculates 40 per cent of his yield this year will be exported outside of Italy, to New York, California and across Europe. This is a big change from just a decade ago when he and his father, Luigi, were making wine that was almost exclusively imbibed in the hill towns surrounding Ancona. “The change has come in the past decade,” he remarks.

A similar phenomenon is happening across Italy. Italy is unique. It has over 300 indigenous grape varieties, says Terenzio Medri, president of Associazione Italiana Sommeliers. “There are at least five or ten grape varieties specific to a particular region. And each is distinct. The taste of Tuscany is different from the taste of Piedmont. It’s different from the taste of Friuli and the taste of Emilia Romagna. The distinctions can be observed from hill to hill, terrain to terrain,” Medri says.

“Indigenous wines,” he continues, “are very important to the future of Italy’s wine market.” It used to be that when a diner scanned a wine list at a restaurant in Tokyo, London or New York, the choice was limited to some well-known sangiovese or Montepulciano blends from Tuscany or Barolos or Barbarescos from Piedmont. “This is how the international market viewed Italian wines, primarily from these larger regions. But now if you want wine from a particular territory, you can find it. This is very important.”

To be sure, it’s a gradual education. Many indigenous wines simply don’t have the distribution clout of a Brunello di Montalcino or a Barolo. And that’s probably okay – for now.

With a forecast of 550,000 bottles this year, the total output of Lacrima di Morro d’Alba still limits the export potential. So, the six communities that produce Lacrima di Morro d’Alba, named for the quaint hill town Morro d’Alba, have little choice but to concentrate on quality over quantity, investing each year in upgrading the production process. They scored a DOC rating a decade ago and figure the wine quality is good enough to put them in the running for the coveted DOCG designation, Italy’s most prestigious wine rating.

That this obscure vintage is finally getting noticed by wine appassionati should come as no surprise. It’s an ancient varietal that, legend has it, was a favourite of Federico Barbarossa’s court. But in the ensuing centuries, the grape has fallen into obscurity as Central Italy developed its love affair with heartier grape varieties, namely, the ubiquitous sangiovese and montepulciano. As Federico I’s favoured wine makes its comeback, the biggest confusion may be in the curious name. “People see ‘Alba’ and think the wine is produced in Piedmont,” says Giusti.

“Lacrime,” or tears, is a reference to the grape itself. At the time of harvest the grape is brimming with juices, until one day a ruby teardrop appears on the skin. “That’s the signal,” Giusti says. “It’s ready for harvesting.”

About 100 km south, near the Marche-Abruzzo border, the hilly terrain tumbles dramatically as it nears the sea. It must be hell to manoeuvre a tractor up these slopes, but it’s terra ideale for the vines. They are in the perfect position to catch the sea mist in the morning and they have prolonged exposure to the sun in the afternoon. This is pecorino country, another local grape that is winning over the critics and wine lovers alike, even if the name sounds a bit, well, cheesy.

“Certainly there’s a bit of confusion, but it’s limited exclusively to the occasional drinker,” says Simone Capecci, a Marchigiano winemaker whose family, at Poderi Capecci, specialises in vino pecorino. Its “Ciprea” pecorino, a flavourful white with a crisp, golden hue and citrusy bouquet, is now sold in Denmark, Japan, Germany, America, France and Belgium. About 40 per cent a year of the yield is sold outside of Italy, says Capecci.

“Pecorino is a wine that’s in fashion now,” says Medri, echoing a familiar refrain from sommeliers contacted for this article. Like the Lacrima di Morro, the Pecorino has been rediscovered in the past decade by discerning wine lovers, thanks to the work of a few family-run vineyards in the Offida region of Le Marche and just over the border in Abruzzo.

The grape is an ancient one, first cultivated by the ancient Romans, primarily on the eastern slopes of the Apennines. The grape is a bit delicate – it’s generally grown between other varieties for protective purposes – but it seems to be thriving today on its hilly perch. And it’s becoming a conversation piece at Manhattan cocktail parties, or so another journalist informed me recently.

The contadini’s loss is New Yorkers gain, evidently.