During the second week of April, I had the opportunity to attend VinItaly – one of the largest and most well-attended trade shows for wine professionals – and two smaller, organic off-shoot shows: VinNatur and Vini Veri. These tastings brought growers, suppliers, sommeliers, and wine buyers together near picturesque Verona. It was a very special opportunity to taste wines alongside the growers, a process that is important in gaining a true understanding of the wines on our shelves and the farming behind them. Attending a show like VinItaly is the next best thing to actually visiting a producer.
VinItaly has grown in prominence and size over the years and it now gives a wonderfully kaleidoscopic view of Italy’s wine scene. Passing from one stand to the next, a visitor can see, on the one hand, scantily clad brand promoters or, on the other, casually dressed farmers, surrounded by regional maps and harvest photos. Recently, many small producers have started migrating to off-shoot shows because VinItaly has become too big and impersonal to give their wines the exposure that they desire. These smaller tastings, which are often organic, are much more manageable than wading through the crowds at VinItaly.
In many respects, VinItaly is part spectacle – reminiscent of an ongoing Fellini film that is unsure of both its beginning and its end. The vibrant, gesticulating crowd has an almost theatrical presence that can make it challenging to focus solely on tasting. Nonetheless, the show still offers up intimate encounters with small, provincial growers. Fortunately, this was much more my experience of the show. Large brands are not represented on our shelves at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge – instead, we favor smaller producers who make carefully crafted wines. Often, these are producers with whom I have developed a personal relationship.
I knew from previous experience that I had to approach the show with a plan so that I wouldn’t feel overwhelmed. My goal was to taste and speak with each of the producers whose wines I stock at the shop. Overall, I was very successful, though even five full days of tasting and talking isn’t enough to get a full understanding of a grower’s wines, a vintage, a varietal, or a region. I tried to taste the more delicate wines earlier in the day but it wasn’t always possible, based on the throngs that crowded the stands. By the end of the day, my mouth ached from tasting what would often be more than 100 wines! It became difficult to differentiate primary fruit flavors of strawberries, raspberries or black plums from secondary and tertiary notes such as herbs, spices, tobacco, and earth. However, at the end of every day, it was extraordinarily satisfying to look back on moments that reaffirmed my confidence in the producers we feature at the shop. It was also exciting to find a few new gems that will shortly be making an appearance!
What exactly was I looking for in the wines that I tasted? I was looking for wines that were alive, expressive, interesting, and honest – full of character, personality and authenticity. This is not so simple in a wine-producing country like Italy. Over-production and a lowering of quality standards during the 1950′s was replaced by modernization and homogeneity in the 1980′s. Only recently has Italy started to reconsider its small-farming/traditional roots with growers planting indigenous varietals and employing non-technological cellar work. I wanted to taste with growers that believed that “less is more,” or, more specifically, “nothing can take the place of the quality of the fruit.” Finally, the trend of aging in new oak which, in my opinion, weighs a wine down with clumsy flavors of vanilla and butter, has finally started to dissipate even though Robert Parker continues to find it favorable.
To read Part II of Gemma’s post, please click here.
Gemma Iannoni is the wine buyer and a cheesemonger at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge.