The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Italian Artisans Take Hong Kong

A visit with Riccardo Illy and Dario Cecchini

Riccardo Illy, left, and Dario Cecchini, right

If you’re going to speed over to Admiralty district at 8:30AM, it’s always helpful to meet up with one of the world’s premier coffee personalities to ensure that you’ll be properly alert. Such was the case yesterday when Domani Ristorante hosted not only Riccardo Illy, but also welcomed famed butcher Dario Cecchini for a morning chat.

Illy is the third generation of the family’s coffee empire and in 2008 they acquired Mastrojanni, whose 1990 Brunello di Montalcino I distinctly recall enjoying for the first time at an IWM tasting at St. Regis New York and which remains one of my favorites. His grandfather had created the first modern espresso machine. For his part, Cecchini is the eighth generation of butchers in his family’s lineage. To say that each has an innate understanding of his craft would be quite an understatement.

It was a very casual talk, facilitated by Domani GM Stefano Bassanese, who touched on Italy’s opportunities. As Cecchini was quick to note, the current financial crisis creates opportunities, particularly for artisans. He suggests that most industries are born of artisans and Illy’s feeling is that Italy’s strength in this area can lead to success if artisans commit to thriving together. Illy has a clear understanding of La Dolce Vita and how Italy should use this concept to foster growth and partner with other sectors that fit into the image.

Their major accomplishments and personal brands aside, it is simply refreshing to see the narrative move towards optimism and focus on strength. Both Illy and Cecchini are great personalities in their own right and are ideal spokesmen for Italy’s growth through passion and craftsmanship.

Four Seasons, Many Wines in Hong Kong

The changing seasons’ changing palates

Hong Kong’s winter festival

The weather in Hong Kong is perfect right now. Between early October and mid-December, we get a break from the heat and humidity and prepare for a few chilly months in non-insulated buildings, or as we call it here, “Amarone season.”  Maybe other people call it “winter”?

During this time, we thank our friends Friulano and Lambrusco for the summer romance we shared. They made sweltering hot days bearable and Saturday afternoons at sea nothing short of perfect. As we look at which wines were most popular during the summer, it seems that La Roncaia’s Friulano, Borgo dei Santi’s Pinot Grigio and Movia’s 2009 Sauvignon were runaway favorites, while some of our clients immediately clung to Marjan Simcic’s beautiful Chardonnay and celebrated full moon’s with Movia’s Lunar Chardonnay. As the weather turns, it becomes Gravner season here. It’s a favorite time of year. I think some people call it “autumn.”

We’re about to introduce some long time friends to our clients here with shipments due to arrive straight from Tenuta San Leonardo (Trentino) and Agricola Punica (Sardegna), which was just featured at the 3 Bicchieri tasting last week at Hong Kong’s Asia Society. These regions of Italy are still quite unfamiliar in HK, and we’re honored to have their very best arriving to our cellars in the coming weeks. Fortunately, HK is really ready to discover these wines and with so much to celebrate in the coming months, you’ll surely hear more about them here.

Discovering the Why of Bodega Chacra in Hong Kong

Piero Incisa della Rocchetta visits Hong Kong

The kitchen at Hong Kong’s Cafe Grey

Last week, IWM HK was thrilled to welcome back Piero Incisa della Rocchetta of Bodega Chacra and Tenuta San Guido back to Hong Kong. Bringing Piero from the other hemisphere means sharing him with collectors, everyday drinkers, hotels, restaurants, media and private clubs. The visit focused on Piero’s incredible Pinot Noirs and Merlot of Bodega Chacra, in Patagonia, Argentina. These wines have rocked our part of the world since 2010, and our events were quickly filled by folks interested to meet Piero and understand ‘the why’ behind Bodega Chacra.

Table at Hong Kong’s Cafe Grey

For each event, we paired two vintages of Chacra wines so that Piero could relay the obvious but oft-overlooked fact that vintages are not bad or good, but a reflection of nature. The best example of this throughout the week was Cincuenta y Cinco, a stunning Pinot Noir from un-grafted vines planted in 1955. Tasting the 2009 vintage (14% alcohol) next to its 2010 counterpart (11.4% alcohol) showcased a more juicy, fruity wine in the former and a more fragrant and elegant Pinot in the latter. Both wines, as with all Chacra wines, smack of purity and have the kind of structure that instantly makes questions about the potential of Argentina wines become redundant.

Even the most loyal Chacra supporters were surprised to learn that Piero uses the same source for barrels for Cincuenta y Cinco and Treinta y Dos as DRC employs.  Treinta y Dos, beginning with the gorgeous 2010 vintage enjoys 2 years in barrel, and Piero spoke at length about the process of learning how to best express his wines.  Barrel selection alone is an arduous and expensive process, but Chacra is in itself a true project of passion.

Piero Incisa della Rochetta after the event

When Piero speaks of terroir, he speaks not only of the land itself and the advantages of Patagonia (sunlight, wind, cool evenings, elevation, etc) but also of the people who work in the vineyard. I’ve attended nearly 20 events with Piero and he always mentions these points. The wine is a reflection of the people, of nature, and of the most nonintrusive approach to farming which in turn honors the land. One thing that illustrates that point: Bodega Chacra employs horses rather than tractors because horses don’t compact the soil as much.

One of Piero’s talents beyond winemaking is communication. As the former Global Ambassador for Sassicaia, Piero brings a clear understanding of how to relate key ideas to wine lovers of any culture. In my next post for Inside IWM, I’ll share a bit more about the various events we held during the week–a little something for everyone. But to me, ‘the why’ always deserves its own space first.

The Coming of Autumn and Brunello in Hong Kong

First loves, 2007 wines, and awakening a new wine-loving public

The vines at Valdicava under a blue Tuscan sky

With 2007 Brunello season well upon us and the right weather on its way for Brunello enjoyment, it’s good to see where Italian wines stand among Hong Kong’s collectors. There’s no doubt whatsoever that these 2007s are a special class of Brunellos, and of course I feel that the right ones belong in the cellar of any passionate collector. I also understand that Brunello has only recently become a collectable wine in Hong Kong, so I always have to find new ways to start that relationship between Brunello and wine lover.  The great part is that I always look much smarter than I am for being the guy who’s brought the finery of Brunello di Montalcino into a wine-lover’s life. It’s not so much unlike setting your friends up on a date and watching them fall in love right away. Actually, it’s much less complicated.

The big winners of 2007 Brunello season are the folks who’ve known Brunello and have likely sought after it in the past in various parts of the world. But here in Hong Kong, there’s still less competition for collectors to acquire these wines than in New York where Brunello release days are nothing short of a bloodbath.

For me, Brunello is incredibly personal as it’s the first wine I truly fell in love with. This has been no brief affair, as I thought it might be. My first Brunello was actually Casanova di Neri, which was introduced to me by Giacomo Neri himself on a visit to the estate years ago. It is the exact location where I caught the Brunello Bug. That day my troupe also visited Altesino and Poggio Antico, before I experienced my first Super Tuscans, a flight of Sassicaia, Ornellaia and Solaia at the Enoteca La Fortezza at the top of Montalcino. I know that my girlfriend at the time was a bit jealous, as lovers often are when a true threat arises. Angelina Jolie could have walked by and I would have been less mesmerized.

Though I know many who are new to Brunello di Montalcino will be going solely on trust, I eagerly anticipate the day, years from now, when they open a delicious Canalicchio di Sopra or Valdicava they’ve cellared and think ‘Hey that guy wasn’t kidding after all.’

To all the experienced Brunello collectors in Hong Kong, enjoy the lower levels of competition for these incredible wines while it lasts. We’re a little ways from the annual bloodbaths, but that Brunello Bug catches us all at some point.

The Hunt for Licorice: Or Sabermetrics, Antonio Galloni and Hong Kong Palates

What happens when you quantify subjectivity?

Image courtesy of the FDA

On his Fermentation blog, Tom Wark’s recent post “Examining Antonio Galloni’s Palate, Examining Antonio Galloni’s Palate” uses an approach similar to famed method of sabermetrics, the statistical analysis often seen in the evaluation of baseball players, to explore trends in wine ratings from Robert Parker’s new man in California, Antonio Galloni (Galloni has long been reviewing Italian wine, and recently added first French and then California wine to his roster). In this post, Galloni offers replies to some of Mr. Warks’ observations and we’re able to get inside his head (er, palate?) a bit further.

But let’s begin with sabermetrics, a concept near and dear to my sports-loving heart. Sabermetrics, of course, gained public fame following Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball, a study of Billy Beane of the Oakland Athletics who used alternative principles to evaluate the effectiveness and potential of baseball players.  Having Brad Pitt in the movie Moneyball certainly got people to pay attention to this phenomenon that has revolutionized the way that sports management makes decisions. Now it seems as if this method of analysis has moved beyond sports.

In his post, Wark uses statistical analysis to pick up on commonalities in Antonio Galloni’s most highly rated wines, which he does to understand Galloni’s take on California wines. Wark finds that if you’re an avid supporter of licorice, you’re going to be very excited; licorice appears as a descriptor appears in 57% of Galloni’s 95+ rated wines from California between the 2008 and 2009 vintages.  This raises the question, “Is Galloni pushing a licorice agenda?” Probably not, but will winemakers in California now try to make their wines more licorice-like? I think that’s a likely outcome for some.

Galloni responds via emails to Wark that in evaluating a high number of wines from the same region, a writer simply has to vary the descriptors in order to differentiate the wines he’s sharing. He has a fair point, and as wine is completely subjective, what Galloni perceives as an impression of licorice, you or I may find to be closer to dark chocolate, for example. Fortunately, I have never had a client return a bottle of wine because it did not taste exactly like the tasting notes I’d provided. Like Galloni, we write descriptions that offer guidelines to understanding the experience of the wine, both in substance and winemaker philosophy.

Wark compares the ratings of Galloni to those of Robert Parker, using the same wines in similar vintages in order to speak to subjective nature of tasting. He finds that Parker uses the word “licorice” far less frequently in his highly rated wines than Galloni does in his. Perhaps they perceive the same flavor to be different fruits and spices? Or perhaps they may simply have different personal taste preferences? This latter answer is certainly likely.

I did my own analysis by looking at Sassicaia. During 1993–2000 vintages, neither Robert Parker nor Daniel Thomases rated Sassicaia over 92pts, even as Parker referred to the 1995 as “exceptional” when awarding the wine just 92pts.  Antonio Galloni begin reviewing Sassicaia with the hot 2003 vintage and he has never scored Sassicaia lower than 93pts through the 2009 vintage. Has Sassicaia improved so much that even in such a tough year, it was better than the “exceptional” 1995 vintage? Does Galloni just like Sassicaia more than either Parker or Thomases? Are there other factors at hand, perhaps the increasing popularity of wines that are Super Tuscan, Italian, or Bordeaux-style blends?

In Hong Kong, many of my local clients admit that they cannot relate to the aromas and tastes described in the reviews of their favorite wines. The taste references are simply foreign to Hong Kong palates. Given the immense popularity of ERobertParker, The Wine Advocate, Burghound and even the IWM eLetter, for that matter, I wonder how wine writing will adapt to using more regionally recognizable descriptors. Perhaps more time in Asia will allow critics to expand their sensory vocabularies and relate to target audiences more closely.  Galloni happens to be in a position where his both a critic and widely critiqued, so no doubt that whatever he does it will be deeply analyzed and probably over-reacted to.

Speaking of sabermetrics–writing this entry reminds me that I have just three weeks to prepare for my big fantasy football draft. Hiring Wark as a consultant might be a wise move.

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