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  • Guest contributor
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  • Guest contributor
14 Apr 2014

Levi Dalton, ex New York sommelier and host of the podcast I'll Drink to That!, could not be more of an enthusiast for Piemonte's finest wines. As preparation for my article on the growth of interest in Barolo, I therefore asked him for his comments and how these wines are currently viewed by American wine drinkers. I had room to quote only a small portion of them on Saturday but reproduce them in full below as I think they are so illuminating - JR

The interest from collectors is strong in New York and on the West Coast. It is a much smaller group of devotees than the Burgundy collective, which rules the roost, but it is a cadre that is highly active in the pursuit of opening bottles. In April alone I have been so far invited to sit in on four different dinners with Barolo as the theme, each instigated by a different set of private collectors. And they aren't minor affairs. Vertical retrospectives stretching back to the 1950s and 1960s are, like the shoeshine stands, easy to find, if not something everybody partakes in every day.

There seem to be those who have always believed, such as Mannie Berk, Jamie Wolff, and Gregory dal Piaz, and also those who are exploring Nebbiolo more now that Burgundy prices have gone higher. There seems to be the feeling in the market that Barolo is simultaneously something new to explore and something with a long history, both of those aspects appealing greatly to the American drinking mind. You can see the threads on the winebeserkers.com forums and the like. People are opening the bottles and asking questions about them. The proceedings are at that stage where everybody seems to want to know more. Inquiries into my email about Piemonte travel advice have been steady. There is also the reality that for the price of comparable Burgundy, you could be drinking Barolo with age on it. This isn't lost on anybody.

I think that in terms of market evolution, the demand for Tuscan wines was comparably much higher 10 or 12 years ago. There was a lot of interest in Super Tuscans, and in Brunello. That has waned to some extent. There is less interest in the Bordeaux grape varieties, the prices have gone up, and there was the Brunello scandal. There was also a lot of interest in Amarone that has found less traction now with the turn away from high-alcohol wines. Piemonte is perhaps not trumping Tuscany today in terms of the market overall, but there is more interest from the restaurants in the category in general, and definitely more interest from the collectors.

Barolo has benefited from:

  • Retailers who have actively searched out old vintages for sale, showing customers what the potential for the wine really is
  • Critics like Antonio Galloni and John Gilman who are influential with American collectors [but of course they are no JR!], and who have devoted considerable column space to the subject, as well as participated in or organised dinners
  • The boom in Italian restaurants in New York that roughly coincided with the Frank Bruni era as New York Times restaurant critic
  • The boom in Italian cookbooks during a period where more people are choosing to make meals at home
  • Bloggers who have made Italian wine a priority
  • A younger generation in Piemonte who speak English and travel more than their parents did
  • The perception that Barolo has very traditional producers in an era where very traditional is very hip
  • Global warming and a touch more of fruit, touch less of bitter tannin
  • The success of Burgundy as opposed to Bordeaux, which is mirrored in the success of Piemonte in comparison with Tuscany
  • Being relatively scandal-free in the era of premox, forged trophy wines, and the Brunello blending controversy

What I see now, with the prices for Monfortino and Ca d'Morissio being where they are, is more interest from sommeliers in 'super second' producers such as Brovia and Burlotto. There is the recognition, much as with Burgundy or Bordeaux, that yes the acknowledged estates are great, but that they are also at a level of expense that can be avoided by delving a little deeper into the field. This is now true of the collector market as well, as people try to explore the forgotten producers like Sobrero or Franco-Fiorina, or back vintages of producers that have changed hands, like Prunotto.

With allocations, I personally get the sense that this is still a market where the US is competing with itself. Often a collector is competing for a lot with someone that he or she knows and frequently imbibes with. It is, after all, a small circle. Italians themselves are consuming less and less wine priced at the level of Barolo. The price escalation brought on by the Chinese market has not ramped up for Barolo in the way it has Bordeaux, Burgundy, and possibly the Rhône. Japan is dominated by interest in French wines, and in natural wine. The UK, I know, is a market for Barolo, but you would be better qualified to speak about that than me. I have been to London once, and that was a long time ago. I still get the sense that the United States is the primary market for Barolo, in particular the east and west coasts of the US.

I do feel like prices will go higher, in fact I very much expect it. And for me that is a good thing. I think there is a lot of potential for a big mid-range swathe of Barolo producers to raise quality standards, and that they would do so if the monetary incentive were there. Certainly that is what occurred in Burgundy in the 1970s and 1980s.