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Italian wine: resurrecting dead DOCs
By Joel Hopwood
February 2001

The Italian DOC system has been so devalued over recent decades that leading producers now find that names like Soave and Chianti actually hinder the marketing of their best wines. This has led them, in some cases, to voluntarily declassify their wines to get them taken more seriously. Italian specialist Joel Hopwood suggests a way forward for rebuilding these once great names.

Italian wines are cursed with some of the worst 'branding' in the business. Only in Italy would the bizarre situation arise of a top winemaker voluntarily declassifying wines to the lowest possible quality level. In France, courtroom battles are fought over who has the right to call their wine Chablis rather than Petit Chablis, and the difference between say, St Emilion Grand Cru and St Emilion Grand Cru Classé is taken as seriously as the winemaking itself. The respect in which the AC system is held is an integral part of the culture of wine in France.

In Italy, the situation could not be more different. Italy's most prized wine (in monetary terms at least) is the Tuscan Cabernet Sauvignon wine called Sassicaia, a wine which until 1994 was classified as Vino da Tavola, and yet cannot be bought for less than the price of a first growth claret, and indeed famously triumphed over first growths in a rather embarrassing 1971 tasting. Much has been written about Italy's dreadful wine laws, which promoted quantity over quality, and led, over the course of a generation, to the destruction of the good name of Italian wines. It's a fine old story, steeped in the best traditions of petulant vignerons and stuffy authority, with a dash of Latin rebellion thrown in for good measure. But it has serious consequences for everybody who makes, drinks and loves the wines of Italy.

Two zones in Italy exhibit two directions for the future. One is Soave, and the other Chianti. The reputation of Soave is so bad, one can be forgiven for writing it off as a fine wine region. Every corner shop seems to stock an example of this DOC, and they can usually be relied upon to be fruitless, acid concoctions barely qualifying to be called wine, and always on sale for less than the price of a packet of cigarettes. No wonder, then, that anyone referring to Soave as a benchmark would be assumed to be referring to the nadir, rather than the zenith of Italian white winemaking. And yet next to that bottle of cheap, nasty rubbish on the retailer's shelf will, like as not, be some equally cheap and equally horrible wine from other parts of the world. Sometimes, one can even encounter very poor wines that bear the hallowed name of Bordeaux on the label. Perhaps, if one believes the Which? report of 1998, one might even find that quite a high proportion of any given AC/DOC is actually-- wait for it -­ not really that good.

If you're reading this article, you probably only drink wines from the top 10% of available quality (don't forget that the average bottle sold in the UK costs less than £3). So we all really know that most AC Bordeaux, most AC Cotes du Rhone, most generic AC wine is not that interesting. But somehow, the Bordelais have pulled off the trick of allowing the prestige and quality of the 1855 classed growths to filter down to all wines produced in Bordeaux. Instead of the cheap and nasty stuff compromising the great growths, somehow, the opposite takes place. Chateau Lafite is almost slang for 'very fine wine' -­ even amongst people who have no interest in wine whatsoever! And the same thread of bankability and quality assurance that one expect from the label on a bottle of Lafite runs right down -­ albeit in a very diluted form -­ to the lowliest bottle of generic rubbish which just so happens to scrape in as AC Bordeaux.

It's the other way round in Soave. Suggest a Soave to a serious wine drinker, and they will assume that at best you are suggesting a crisp, refreshing aperitif -­ that's if they take you seriously at all. Somehow, the image transfer with Soave works the other way round. The great wines are permanently compromised by the tanker-loads of sub-standard wine flowing from the Veneto every year. And as a result, they simply aren't taken seriously. Twenty, or even ten years ago, our incredulous wine buff would have had a point. But there is now no excuse -- there are great wines being made at attractive prices, and with uniquely Italian characters. There is only one problem -­ the Italians.

Roberto Anselmi is a very good case in point. A former racing driver, he has been at the forefront in recent years of quality Soave production, making three dry cuvees and one award winning dessert wine I Capitelli with the Recioto di Soave technique. Except that Roberto believes the time has come for his wines to be taken down a peg or two. So he's declassified the whole lot. From being DOC Soave Classico Superiore (admit it, it does have a certain ring!) they are now Indicazione Geografica Tipica Veneto Bianco. Italy's new Vin de Pays classification. Neither the price, quality, cepage or anything else about the wines has changed. Just that from now on, wine drinkers won't be enjoying Soave, they'll be enjoying Anselmi. Fair enough, you might say. But it means that what Robert Parker calls 'the locomotive effect', whereby the popularity and commercial success of quality-oriented growers serves as a powerful incentive to other growers to pull their socks up and get their yields down -­ is gone. So it's bad from the producers' point of view. And now the customer -­ the wine drinker -­ has lost that tiny clue, the thread that enables them to make some kind of sense of the chaotic and quixotic world of wine.

Roberto Anselmi has a very good point -­ why should he be associated with a standard, when that standard is so poor as to let dreadful wines share the famous name? It was merely dragging his own product down with the riff-raff. The obvious solution is to both encourage the top growers to remain in the system, and to raise the bar generally, perhaps reviving the old separation between Soave, Soave Classico and Soave Classico Superiore (nowadays the Superiore merely guarantees alcohol level). Maybe a new designation should be introduced -­ how about Soave Classico Riserva or Cru, and let's make it a DOCG to set it apart from the others. This could be the category into which top growers wines could fall. The new classification both preserves and enhances the Soave name, while protecting the exclusivity of the top names.

All of which brings us to Chianti, where new moves have both improved the general quality of winemaking and the producer's pride in the name. The result has been not only an increase in the quality of Chianti, and particularly Chianti Classico, but a successful effort to gain the wine drinker's attention as a quality region. Producers like Castello di Fonterutoli are leading the way. They used to bottle a standard Chianti Classico normale, a Chianti Classico Riserva and two separate Super-Tuscans, which represented the estates flagship wines. From the 1995 vintage onwards they have simplified their range to one flagship ­ called simply Castello di Fonterutoli and carrying the Chianti Classico Riserva designation, and one 'second' wine, the Fonterutoli Chianti Classico. The importance of these wines is not so much the quality ­- Fonterutoli has been making superb wines for years ­- but the marketing. Firstly, each wine bears the name of the region, which will serve as a beacon to Chianti lovers and an education to Italian wine sceptics. Secondly, Fonterutoli have managed to combine the regional traditions of the Chianti Classico name with the Chateau principle of Bordeaux. The idea of a first and second wine goes back to great Bordeaux Chateaux needing a use for young-vine fruit. But the principle still holds good, and most importantly it allows producers like Castello di Fonterutoli to build two brands for the price of one.

So Italy has a choice ­- if the top growers continue to rebel, and remove their wines from the system, Italy will become a land of boutique producers, tiny allocations and complete confusion. Worse, the crucial low and mid price market will continue to elude it, because unknown growers and cooperatives there depend on the reputations of the DOCs.

Alternatively, Italy can begin to rebuild the once great names, and in doing so, not just make some great wines, but begin to build a reputation with the people who really count ­- the drinkers.

Joel Hopwood, an Italian specialist, is the wine buyer/manager for Chandos Deli, a small chain of shops in Bristol, UK.

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