The tale of collectable Italian wine’s meteoric ascent over the past decade has been repeated often enough that the consensus is that Italy has (finally) arrived. When Club Oenologique invited me to produce The Italy Report 2023, highlighting wines with the greatest relevance (or at least potential) for collectors from Italy’s fine wine regions, I was thrilled for the opportunity to – I hoped – do justice to the wines that have been my focus since I started out in wine.
The next few months, though, came with a creeping sense of trepidation, as I had to acknowledge the deep ambivalence that has always surrounded wine assessment in Italy, particularly using numeric scores. This hit home as we were collecting samples for the very first report, on Brunello di Montalcino, when I stumbled across a Letter to Journalists from Matthew Fioretti of Cerbaiona, a rising regional superstar, titled ‘Cerbaiona: A No Points Zone’. In addition to the author’s views on the 100pt scale’s inappropriateness for assessing wine (‘the meaning of these numbers – what the number actually refers to – is completely vague and imprecise’), it contained similar views to those expressed by legendary Barolo traditionalist Teobaldo Cappellano back in1983, that numerical rankings are divisive and the ‘making of dogma by the slothful.’
While there isn’t space to repeat their views thoroughly here, they certainly gave me pause. Their claims were not limited to Italian wine, but as I have written for Club Oenologique (and elsewhere) before, I believe there is a deep disadvantage to Italian wine when judged according to international standards. This approach mostly evolved out of Anglo-French wine culture then spread through the global wine trade. Historically, even Italy’s most prestigious wines were mainly enjoyed by local or, at most, regional elites and thus the grapes and styles largely developed outside the systems that produced the wine world’s shared aesthetic values.
This phenomenon is arguably exacerbated by the use of a yardstick as implicitly objective and universal as the 100pt scale. While great Napa Cab or even Rioja is reasonably compared with Bordeaux, on which both were historically modelled, a great Barolo and great Burgundy are simply trying to do different things, even if they are superficially similar. I have largely sidestepped the 100pt scale in my writing, viewing myself foremost as an educator, especially through my role at the Vinitaly International Academy, a program with the explicit goal of presenting Italian wine in its full historical, anthropological and even biological context.
I’ve revisited the traits characteristic of the region and grapes and tried to celebrate wines that successfully interpret these
However, there are more and less sensitive ways to apply any system of assessment and I believe providing context can go a significant way towards what Fioretti calls ‘a softer and more inquisitive form of journalism and criticism.’ In each of my reports, I’ve revisited the traits characteristic of the region and grapes and tried to celebrate wines that – in my subjective view – successfully interpret these, rather than adhering to some universal model of quality.
The assessment process for the Italy Report 2023 had to reflect this. Though I’m a firm believer in blind tasting for minimising bias, it has limitations for assessing how well a wine expresses its producer’s intentions or site characteristics. Given the acknowledged importance of site specificity for the quality of Barolo and Barbaresco especially, and increasingly for Chianti Classico and Brunello di Montalcino too (somewhat less for Amarone, though this is also changing), I’ve tried to combine the ‘raw’ quality assessment of blind tasting with a more context-conscious judgment.
For each report, the wines were first assessed blind (except in Barolo and Barbaresco, where this was not available) then a further assessment was made with complete information about the producer, winemaking and site to hand. For the latter, resources published by Alessandro Masnaghetti’s Enogea as well as the relevant Consorzi have been invaluable for gaining a granular understanding of the geological and topographical nuances, particularly in Barolo, Barbaresco and Chianti Classico, where Masnaghetti gave me a personal tour. Many specific site descriptions are made in reference to those maps. Meanwhile, some wines were tasted at the estates – a more holistic approach, but more open to bias – and this has been noted in the reports.
My great hope, like (I assume) any critic, is that readers will in fact read the notes rather than looking at the scores alone. I have tried to pack them with the same context I had in front of me when I made my second assessment, in the hopes that this will lead to a deeper understanding of the wines and hunger to learn more. I have also tried to be as clear as possible about my own preferences, acknowledging well-made wines even when they don’t fit my taste, but saving my highest praise for the wines that do.
To lay my cards on the table, these preferences are generally for more structure than richness; transparency and definition rather than power and concentration. This can translate as flavours unique to a particular variety or place, even when from a purely hedonic standpoint they might be less appealing than rich fruit or polished oak. These are, unsurprisingly, values I developed while focusing from the start of my career on the great wines of Italy. I hope to present these wines in their best light and, hopefully, come closer to what Fioretti says a wine should do: ‘instil wonder and curiosity – and remain free of hubris.’
Find the results from The Italy Report 2023 at the links below, presented via each individual region (and featuring only wines scoring 90 points and above). Tasting notes and scores are available to all registered users of The Collection, the online home of our premium wine and spirits content. To register for free, click here.