Monica Larner: Piemonte must resist the fast lane & age its wines slowly
- Written by Diana Zahuranec
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With her beaming smile and infectious laugh, Italian wine critic and author Monica Larner presented the newest Barolo 2010 vintage at the Regional Enoteca of Barolo. She has a sunny view for the future of Italian wines, a firm belief in the value of "typicity," and clear idea of Piemonte's role and responsibility.
Monica Larner is called the madrina, or “godmother,” of Italian wines in her adopted home country of Italy, where she has lived for more years than in her native United States. The title implies guidance and protection, and her long career as a journalist and wine writer in Italy attests to the role the Italians have bestowed upon her. Ms. Larner is known for her intense travel to far-flung Italian wine regions, and for the first several years in Italy, worked as wine columnist and journalist in several Italian newspapers. After helping her family begin a winery venture in California, she was hired by Wine Enthusiast in 2003 to be their first Italy-based correspondent. In 2013, she joined Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate as the Italian wine reviewer.
The madrina is a Barolo and Nebbiolo lover, and is passionate about its multifaceted traditions of culture, history, and ties to the land and people that converge to produce the fine wines of today. With a world spinning ever faster and the communication environment demanding the latest and best wines for a continuous stream of new wine guides and journalists, Monica is firmly rooted on the slow side.
“One of the things that I would like to see happen in Italy is the development of a wine culture of aging,” she said at the Regional Enoteca of Barolo during the presentation of Barolo 2010, “and Barolo in particular has a responsibility because it is a symbol of Italian fine wines that have the capacity to age well.”
As an Italian wine specialist, how do you choose to communicate wines, and what are your goals in doing so?
My objective is to discover how to tell the story of Italy through the grape. I’m not just a critic of wine, and I don’t only focus on ratings and points. I try to use the grape, something so small and yet complex and whole, as a narrator about place, people, and land. Wine is a way to tell about the territory.
In addition, the average wine consumer has changed from what he was before, when Robert Parker’s publication first came out and people relied heavily on a rating system. We’ve arrived at a point where the ratings aren’t enough to interest a wine consumer, because the consumer has become very intelligent and travels a lot. Therefore, I want to unite what I see as Italy, the country to its wines and all the stories behind them.
Now that the narration behind the wines is more important than the technical aspects, there is the risk of telling the same story repeatedly, and trivializing it. What is the wine writer’s role in helping to distinguish the stories?
The focus has changed, and the wine journalist’s role in communicating this is extremely important. A wine’s data sheet is certainly still very useful, but now that producers can write them up and publish them online by themselves, our job is to go far beyond that. Italy has always been in a very competitive position compared to France and other countries: its diverse territories and incredible patrimony of autochthonous grapes are its strengths. This is what the wine journalist should write about, because American and English wine consumers are interested in the stories that go far beyond the data sheet. I’m incredibly happy that I was given the chance to base my career in Italy at this moment because there is immense diversity and potential.
If Italy wants to gain importance abroad, then wineries need to be ready to hold on to their wine and age it.
You’ve said that you feel there’s a momentum underway carrying Italy into a “Golden Age” of wine. Could you expand upon that?
I am absolutely convinced that we are riding the crest of a wave of success for Italian wines abroad, due to Italy’s strengths that I spoke about: its incredible patrimony for autochthonous wines and territorial diversity. Every grape – and there are over 3000! – has a small story to tell, from the regional recipes that pair well with it, to its territorial roots, to pieces of interesting history. Although, it is true that other countries have been more intelligent in promoting their wine. Take France, for example, that decided to promote its five noble grapes and develop those vines. But Italy has so many stories to tell, and I think we’re right at the cusp of a great moment in which this country will be able to communicate its richness. I’m very content to have been hired by Robert Parker now, because this is Italy’s moment.
What are the strengths and weaknesses that a winery should consider in order to ensure they are well prepared to take advantage of this?
Piemonte has a particular responsibility. One of the things that I would like to see happen in Italy is the development of a wine culture of aging. Wineries don’t hold on to old bottles in their cellars, or they give their samples to journalists before the wine is ready to be released; and Barolo in particular has a responsibility because it is one of Italy’s greatest wines. It is a symbol of Italian fine wines that have the capacity to age well. Other regions need to look to it and follow its lead.
If Italy wants to be present in international auctions and gain importance abroad, then wineries need to be ready to hold on to their wine and age it. And then, once it has the chance to develop its incredibly fine elegance, the winery must be able to understand when to release it. All of Italy needs to develop this aging culture, but particularly Barolo, if they want to take advantage of the coming golden age of wine. The Barolo 2010 is exactly the symbol of a vintage that has incredible potential, but that must be handled intelligently.
Monica Larner presenting Barolo 2010 at the Regional Enoteca of Barolo
How can producers resist the demand to taste the newest vintage, with journalists asking for samples and with new wine guides coming out every year?
The producers need to understand that resisting is important, and for this a dialogue between producers and journalists is necessary. For example, several producers have told me they did not feel their Barolo 2010 was ready yet, and I said I completely understood. Let’s wait a little bit. And then there are the special labels, particular editions, and even experiments that all wineries are doing, and they will not have the same release as their main line.
I am absolutely convinced that we are riding the crest of a wave of success for Italian wines abroad, due to Italy’s strengths: its incredible patrimony for autochthonous wines and territorial diversity.
With the distance of years, what do you think has changed with Barolo?
Actually, what I see is a coherence of the years together. I’ve watched as every producer follows his or her style with courage, and with that, there’s a sense of security and strength of character to Barolo. The Langhe territories in particular transmit profound roots and character.
In your opinion, how do the characteristics of the Nebbiolo grape influence this constancy in Barolo wine?
The grape is a big part, but it’s not everything. Instead, there is a great Italian word that doesn’t quite have an exact translation in English: tipicità, or as I say, “typicity.” It describes the connection between vine and territory that is so well developed here compared to everywhere else in the world. Tipicità goes deeper than terroir, and encompasses the cuisine, surroundings, culture, and history. Barolo’s steadfastness comes from this. This grape, Nebbiolo, is the key to Piemonte’s strength, and not least because its best expression is found here. California has some Nebbiolo too, but it suffers, because it does not travel or adapt to other territories well.
There are four principle characteristics to a Barolo: its color, its rich and big aroma, its full yet clean flavor, and its capacity to withstand time. What is your favorite characteristic of Barolo?
It has an elegant femininity, which I love, and a way of being so profound and complex it’s almost magical. I find that among people who know and love Barolo and Nebbiolo, there is a huge enthusiasm for the variety. It creates a sort of wine community of “Nebbiolists” that is totally unique.