Antonio Galloni, founder of Vinous in 2013 and wine critic from 2006-2013 for Robert Parker’s influential publication The Wine Advocate, responds to our questions about Piedmont wine, its international appeal, and its touristic potential.
How would you judge, overall, the perception of Piedmont wine in the US market?
Piedmont remains the most important Italian region as far as great wines go, especially reds, for American collectors. Then there’s Tuscany, but the lure of Barolo and Barbaresco is unmatched. There are few Italian wines that can share the same table with the greatest wines of France, the United States, and the rest of the world.
In the mind of an American consumer, would you say that a Piedmont brand exists, or simply particular wines, like Barolo, Barbaresco, and Asti?
The particular wines are what American consumers think of, such as Barolo, Barbaresco, Barbera; but also the brand names of single wineries are very valuable. Wineries such as Gaja, Produttori del Barbaresco, Giacomo Conterno, Aldo Conterno, Bruno Giacosa, Luciano Sandrone, Bartolo Mascarello and Giuseppe Mascarello create a strong image in the consumer’s mind after years of making extraordinary wines.
What are Piedmont’s strengths, the reasons why someone would choose Piedmontese wines?
I find Piedmont to be one of Italy’s and the world’s most extraordinary regions in terms of variety. You can go from Arneis to Dolcetto, from Barbera to Barolo, and finish at Barbaresco: there are so many nuances to discover. Then there’s Moscato, another wine with great potential if it’s made with care and attention. Very few regions can offer such diversity. In addition to this, there’s the very high quality of its best wines. I’ve been convinced for many years that, at the level of great wines, the best Barolo and Barbaresco offer the same quality as other great wines of the world, with the capacity to age well in the bottle, yet at much more affordable prices. Piedmont is the Burgundy of Italy, with many small producers making great wines, and where the quality remains consistent, probably because the Pinot Nero is much more sensitive to climate changes than the Nebbiolo grape. Currently, there’s been a boom of interest in Asia for Burgundy wines. One day, these consumers are going to discover Nebbiolo, and when that happens, there won’t be enough wine for all the world.
What are its weaknesses?
Piedmont has two weak points, and they are both of a commercial nature. One is the limited production of its most important wines compared to the great wines of Tuscany and Bordeaux. You’ve got to be a true wine lover to go and search out certain labels that have been produced in such few numbers. And the greatest weakness of Piedmont is its generational transition.
In Piedmont there’s an extraordinary cuisine, a wide range of high quality raw material: the white truffle with a glass of Barolo or Barbaresco is probably the most glorious food and wine pairing in the world.
This is a very delicate point at which quite a few wineries find themselves at the moment. Many producers, also famous ones, tend to remain small firms under family management: this is a wealth of the zone but, at the same time, they often lack the preparation or the culture to understand how to introduce new incentives. I strongly believe in the value of young people, and overall women because oftentimes they work harder since they feel they have to prove themselves
Is there space on the international market for the more “popular” red Piedmontese wines, those with a base of Barbera and Dolcetto; or do you think competition is too strong to be able to emerge on the market?
The Barbera would do fine, both from Asti and Alba, because it tends to be easily drinkable. Then, Barbera is a variety that pairs very well with wood, including French wood, and therefore is easy enough to make wines with a large consumer audience in mind. Unfortunately, Dolcetto would not have such an easy route in the USA.
For Americans who are serious wine lovers, is Piedmont a tourist destination comparable to Burgundy or Tuscany? Are our services and hospitality up to the same standards?
Tourism is one of the strong points of Piedmont, yet still not fully taken advantage of. The fact that many high-level wineries are still under family management makes Piedmont more similar to Burgundy than to Tuscany. Then, there’s an extraordinary cuisine, a wide range of high quality raw material, and the white truffle that, with a glass of Barolo or Barbaresco, is probably the most glorious food and wine pairing that exists in the world. But Piedmont lacks the structure, particularly in hospitality, to properly receive the international tourist. Last year I sent two couples to one of the zone’s most beautiful hotels, and both of them complained about the service. It’s a question of culture in the personnel and those who manage these hotels. A high-class tourist is used to hearing just one response: “Yes.” Period.
Finally, the wine service in Piedmont is, frankly, horrible. Last summer, in one of the most beautiful locales in Alba, I was served a 2007 Barolo ruined from heat exposure due to bad conservation. In this same restaurant, at room temperature, they’ve stored 12 magnums of one of the greatest wines ever made in Piedmont, one on top of the other, out in the dining room. Can you imagine bottles of La Tâche or Romanée-Conti treated like that? What did this wine do to deserve such poor treatment? What will the client find when he’s bought this wine? A dead wine. Recently, in one of the Langhe’s Michelin star restaurants, I was served two bottles of Champagne ruined by excessive light exposure. The sommelier didn’t even taste the wine before serving it, and consequently brought two defective products to the table. These things cannot happen in serious establishments. With a few exceptions, Piedmontese restaurants don’t understand the immense privilege they have to be able to work with such great wines. They only think of the bottom line. It’s a shame.
The lure of Barolo and Barbaresco is unmatched. There are few Italian wines that can share the same table with the greatest wines of France, the United States, and the rest of the world.
What do you think of the potential of Piedmont’s lesser-known wines, the “minor” autochthonous vines and those from less famous territories, such as Canavese, Tortonese, and Monferrato?
I find all of these zones to be fascinating. Unfortunately, I’m only able to taste some of them. When I lived in Italy I would often go to Monferrato. I find it to be one of the most beautiful places in Piedmont because it’s still not heavily traveled. And then, there’s such sweetness in those rolling hills…
To conclude, as an enthusiast for Nebbiolo and for Piedmont, how would you define the differences in terroir between the Nebbiolos of South Piedmont and the pre-Alpine ones of North Piedmont?
I would have to write a book to talk about all the differences there are. In general, the wines of North Piedmont are a bit more eternal. I find this part of Piedmont to be more interesting, given the climate changes. I think these will be zones to follow closely in the future. They already are. In the zones of Barolo and Barbaresco there are infinite nuances to understand. It’s a lifelong task!