Piedmont trip January 2020

by Wine Owners

Posted on 2020-01-27


By Miles Davis, 27th January 2020


Summary

Piedmont is on the up, the area and the wine. The region is extremely picturesque, and the food and wine scene is superb. Winemaking is better than ever with younger generations bursting through full of energy and enthusiasm and the wines are getting better and better. In my experience, they are becoming more approachable too. The natural acidities of the grapes and the soils can handle, if not benefit, from the warmer climate and there have been some very fine vintages in the recent past. In global terms, Piedmont is relatively undiscovered and comparative values to other great regions make for a compelling story – read on!


Background

I have just returned from three glorious days in Piedmont. The weather was fine, the food was finer, and the wines were finer still! As readers will know, I have been singing the virtues of Piemontese wines, and the value they offer, for many months now. I was not expecting to have my enthusiasm heightened, just confirmed really, but this trip exceeded all expectations. I have been a few times before but the combination of seeing some top-notch producers, having a local courtier (David Berry Green, DBG Italia) as a guide, and in the company of both an experienced wine journalist (Victoria Moore, Daily Telegraph) and a wine merchant (Mark Roberts, Decorum Vintners), the stars aligned and we hit some celestial heights.


Compared to Bordeaux and Burgundy, Piedmont has not been making wine for very long, certainly not commercially. Producers have been operating for decades rather than centuries. The Nebbiolo grape that provides us with Barolo and Barbaresco was not even the top variety in the region 30 years ago, that was Dolcetto. Back in the eighties, Conterno Fantino encouraged larger orders by giving away six bottles of Barolo for every sixty bottles Dolcetto ordered! Now Dolcetto vines are being grubbed up and replaced by Nebbiolo - oh how trends change! This one will not be reversed, however. Producers are defensive on Dolcetto, arguing it makes wine for everyday drinking and whilst I really wouldn’t mind drinking Bartolo Mascarello Dolcetto most days, it doesn’t compare to the joys produced by Nebbiolo.


Wine Owners Piedmont Trip January 2020
Victoria Moore & David Berry Green - © Miles Davis, Wine Owners

Notes

The striking and salient points derived from the trip were all positive. The region has never generated so much international interest, both generally and in the wine department, but largely thanks to the wine department. In 2014 ‘The Vineyard Landscape of Piedmont: Langhe-Roero and Monferrato’ became the official name of a UNESCO World Heritage Site and this has brought tourism flooding in, although some of it is now becoming a problem. The village of Barolo itself and its 700-800 residents now plays host to international rock concerts; Bob Dylan and Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam have played to 7,000 (presumably ageing and wine loving) rockers in the last couple of years. Basta! scream the residents, producers are less concerned. The U.S., Germany and England are already major markets for the wines, but others are growing. Australia, Japan, Malaysia, South Korea, Singapore were all mentioned, as was Scandinavia. There was one noticeable absentee – China. ‘Not yet’, the producers said.


Wine Owners Piedmont Trip January 2020
 © Miles Davis, Wine Owners

The Wines

The wines we tasted were largely brilliant and we all agreed what a good reminder it was when we had our first poor tasting - it offered reassurance that we hadn’t become so inured to the place that we had become complacent! To be fair the Baroli we were tasting were mainly from the fabulous 2016 vintage and we were tasting at very good growers, some famous, some less so, but more on them later.

I was surprised by the approachability of most of the wines, a marked difference to previous experiences. The wines were pale, supple and elegant and with a weightlessness (something that perhaps Nebbiolo can deliver more than any other variety) yet packed with fruit, power and nuance at the same time.

Times have been a-changing in Barolo country and where they haven’t changed too much, the results have improved dramatically. The ‘Barolo wars’ are well documented, indeed there has even been a film made about them and concern the traditionalist approach versus the modern. Briefly, this translates into long maceration periods and ageing in large oak barrels (botti), the traditional approach, versus shorter maceration, temperature controlled fermentation and small oak barrels, the modern. It was interesting to note that the two wineries employing the highest percentage of small oak barrels produced the least good wines. The better wines were made in the traditional way but are harvesting better fruit, implying improved work in the vineyard.

As with other regions, alcohol levels in Piedmont have been rising, largely due to climate change. Most of the wines tasted were at 14.5%, but such are the natural acidity of Nebbiolo and the soils you really don’t notice, at least not until you’ve had the whole bottle yourself! It is a very different experience compared to drinking Bordeaux wines at the same level. Another local variety, Pelaverga, produces an even paler juice which is amazingly light and fruity. I had just started dreaming of summer barbecues when I noticed G.B. Burlotto’s offering weighed in at 15% - keep it away from the kids!


Wine Owners Piedmont - G.B. Burlotto
 -G.B. Burlotto © Miles Davis, Wine Owners

The Market

As previously commented on here, the market in Piedmont wines is firm. Without the geopolitical issues currently hanging over the wider market, it would be a fair chunk firmer. The very loudly heralded 2016 will be released this year and buyers are waiting to pounce. If 2010, another great vintage, is anything to go by they most certainly will, and probably in far greater numbers than back then. In the grand scheme of things, Piedmont is an adolescent and will continue to grow. Wine making will continue to improve and prices will rise.


The Producers (in brief) (and not all)

Punset (Nieve) – previously unheard of (by me). Bio-dynamic and very in touch with climate and nature. Only releases when the wines are ready. Marina Marcarino’s Barbaresco Basarin 2013 (a year very similar in weather to the brilliant 1982, her first vintage) is available now. Delicious and only 13% alcohol. So desperate to make wine, she lied to her parents about the course she was taking at University. They wanted her to join their family widget making business – we were all glad she didn’t! Her range is just great, elegant and refined. She may even save the planet too.

G.B. Burlotto (Verduno) – Premier League status and I now know why! Verduno, at the northern tip of Barolo country, is the village of the moment and its best vineyard, Monvigliero, known for its elegance, is the piece of dirt everyone wants a piece of right now. Fabio Alessandria makes c. 8,000 bottles of Monvigliero - Investment Grade ‘A’. His whole range is superb.

Fratelli Alessandria (Verduno) – Cousins of Fabio and not to be confused with the Glaswegian band. Rising up into the Premiership. Traditional methods, improvements in the winery and focusing on improving quality, not expansion. Their Langhe Nebbiolo ‘Prinsiot’ 2016 is already in my cellar for drinking and I’ve been buying ’13 Monvigliero for investment.

Trediberri (La Morra) – Nicola Oberto and his parents bought a 5 hectare site in La Morra in 2008 and have 2 prime hectares of Rocche dell’Annunziata. Definitely one to watch, this guy is on the move and has been studying Bruno Giacosa’s methods. Refreshingly honest, he was genuinely most excited about his recently made Annunziata 2019 - at three months of age! The Langhe Nebbiolo ’19 might be one to sample. Moving from on the radar to gentle accumulation…

Wine Owners Piedmont - Nicola Oberto Trediberri (La Morra)
Trediberri (La Morra) – Nicola Oberto © Miles Davis, Wine Owners

Roagna (Castiglione Falletto and Barbaresco) – Now in the hands of Luca Roagna, they are one of the few growers making really serious wines in both Barolo and Barbaresco. The star has been rising for some time. Organic with old vines. We tasted wines from the poorly reviewed 2014 vintage (he releases later) at 10 degrees in the cellars. Although the wines were also cold, they sang their heads off. Both from Barbaresco, the Albesani (2,000 bottles) with the most amazing nose and the Montefico (1,000 bottles) stood out for me. Invest with confidence!

Crissante, La Morra – not on my radar before, Alberto has been running this family affair (we met Nonna (his nan), 88 and still dancing) since 2008. The family owns 6 hectares of vines, 5 of hazelnuts and a lovely holiday house they rent out. The Barolo Classico ’16 will ticks a lot of boxes when released. Thier Capalot ’15 will also give immense pleasure. The ’13 is currently available. Firmly on the radar now.

Bartolo Mascarello, Barolo – Investmnent Grade A. Brilliantly understated and traditional with a touch of jazz, but only in the artwork on display. Maria Theresa’s 2018 Dolcetto was superb, the ’16 Barolo sublime. A blend of 4 vineyards with production at 15-20,000 bottles. Genius. Interesting to spot an empty Trediberri box by the back door!

Giovanni Rosso (sounds so much better than Red John!), Serralunga – Proprietor Davide turned up as we were leaving, completely unphased by his tardiness. How someone so laid back has managed to create such a bustling business is amazing; two tasting rooms, one with a full restaurant style kitchen, a helipad, a contract to make BBR house Barolo and sales all over the world. Our impromptu host excelled in showing us the famous Vigna Rhionda vineyard. Once our feet were double caked in clay he informed us the terroir was nearly all limestone! A rushed tasting followed which was a bit inconclusive but with their top cuvée selling at £500+ a bottle, something is working. Another visit required!

Luciano Sandrone, Barolo – impeccable presentation. Famous for their Barolo labels Cannubi Boschis (Aleste since 2013) and Le Vigne, and now the uber rare Vite Talin, that they vinify themselves, they not only sell a lot of grapes from their Roero sites, they also sell finished wine to others. A mixture of traditional and modern. Barbara works with her Uncle Luca, only 3 years apart in age and Luciano (Barbara’s father and Luca’s brother) is still on site having begun his wine life with Giacomo Borgogno, bang next door and right under the slopes of the Cannubi Bioschis vineyard. Great 16s, the 15s also very attractive. Lovely wines, I have been buying and will continue.

Wine Owners Piedmont - Luciano Sandrone
Sandrone © Miles Davis, Wine Owners


General comment

It was an inspiring trip and easily surpassed expectation, particularly in the wine department. Growers tend to be family run businesses, are friendly, engaging and genuinely passionate. The bigger businesses are the antithesis of this and, dare I say it, more reminiscent of Bordeaux producers. These personalities are clearly reflected in the wines and different styles are very apparent.

On my return to my desk I found the tail end of the Burgundy 2018 en primeur offerings. The relative prices just do not make sense. On every level, there is no comparison; there are dozens of Grand Cru Burgundies from a host of producers releasing wines at more than c. £150 a bottle, in Piedmont a tiny handful. From a recent release of Giacomo Conterno’s 2015 wines, only the legendary Monfortino (the most expensive wine in all Piedmont) was above this price level. Many Burgundy premier crus cost more than exceptional Barolo cru, village wines more than ‘classico’ blends etc., etc.

For drinkers and those wishing to dip their toe, all of the producers make an entry level wine, be it a Langhe Nebbiolo, a Langhe Rosso or a Nebbiolo d’Alba. These are released earlier than the aged Barolos and offer an inexpensive way of treating yourself and opening the door.

As ever, please fire away with questions.

Wine Owners Piedmont - Luciano Sandrone
© Miles Davis, Wine Owners


Wine Market Investment Report December 2019 - Part 2: Looking ahead

by Wine Owners

Posted on 2020-01-16


This article is a follow up to our 2019 year end round-up by Miles Davis, published on the 10th January 2020.

The outlook for 2020

The geopolitical climate will continue to dominate the fine wine market in 2020. Uncertainty continues to hamper confidence amongst wine traders and although our view that the robust long-term fundamentals of wine will play out, there are some short-term issues (more on these below) that need to settle. If these issues, some of which are very specific to the wine market, can settle, we will look back on 2020 as the year of opportunity. Physical assets are doing well, gold is at a seven-year high, and we live in a climate of negative real interest rates. Stock markets are trading at all time highs and there is liquidity in the system, it’s just not finding its way into wine right now. Wine has been underperforming these other assets recently (one-year performances), see here:


WO 150 Index Wine Owners Investment Report

The fine wine market continues to develop and change, and is becoming more interesting, with different fundamentals developing for individual markets, making them more autonomous all the time.

A whole new and significant factor is the U.S. and its trade tariffs, not only treating wines from different countries differently, but Champagne differently to still French wines, and wines above or below 14.1% alcohol from the countries on their hit list. Tariffs will influence the underlying markets, so until we have further clarification it is difficult to predict what may happen next.

As a result, I expect the wider market to start the year a little unsure of itself. There are and will always be opportunities within the wine market, however, but perhaps portfolio allocation has never been more important, producer too. And maybe more important than both of those considerations, are prices and relative value. Buying on the bid side of the market will be the key and good buying will be richly rewarded.

A reminder of performance over a five-year period:

WO 150 Index Wine Owners Investment Report

I continue to favour Italy, particularly Piedmont and some of the super Tuscans and vintage Champagne. 2016 was an amazing vintage for Piedmont and new releases of Barolo should be considered. Of the major markets, I am generally lukewarm on Burgundy, but keener on Bordeaux where some fantastic older vintages, particularly ’89, ’90 and ‘96, are more available on the market than for some time. I think there will be some amazing opportunities this year in this area. I maintain my view that younger Bordeaux is fully priced, especially block buster vintages of ‘05, ‘09 and ’10 where supply is still plentiful and prices are high. I would be highly selective and very price sensitive in California and other ‘lesser’ investment markets, and always on the look out for lower levels of alcohol.

If I had to name one brand to buy this year it would be Sassicaia.

The issues in 2020

Brexit

The election result in the UK cleared the UK air after a period of uncertainty and it appears that producers and importers are relaxed, for now, about any Brexit impact.

Tariffs

The possibility of further U.S. tariffs has taken the place of the Brexit uncertainty but the situation there will become much clearer in mid-February, but I cannot believe anyone is going to be brave before then. If the tariffs remain as they are, I think the market will react in a positive way, negatively if they are any more punitive. The fact that the tariffs are only levied on wines under 14.1% alcohol, and thus wines stronger than that are exempt, is largely ignored by the market as an overriding sentiment takes over and the damage is done. Only wines from England, France, Germany and Spain are currently subject to these measures, making the rest of the world, particularly Italy in my view, look more interesting in the short term. France has particularly annoyed the U.S. with its digital tax aimed at the big tech companies and Champagne, given exemption last time round, may be in the firing line. But who knows what is going to happen next on this issue – the uncertainty is somewhat paralysing.

Hong Kong

The situation in Hong Kong is also creating uncertainty. The people are scared about the future and feel strongly enough to risk life and limb in protest, and China is not happy. The protests have calmed down from their most violent but there were heavily populated demonstrations at the turn of the year. Last week Beijing replaced their H.K. liaison officer with a senior and trusted aid of President Xi, hardliner Luo Huining, who ominously says that “everyone eagerly hopes Hong Kong can return to the right path." He comes with a reputation for fixing tough problems for Beijing!

The situation is complex, and it is likely the impasse will run and run. China can afford to be patient; it is sitting with the stronger hand and can probably slowly strangle the territory into submission without using undue force. Hong Kong has a long history of migration (especially post Tiananmen Square) and the numbers from now on will make interesting reading. Mainlanders are currently arriving at the rate of 50 a day but how many are leaving? Ultimately, I expect a huge number of democracy loving, wealthy locals will be leaving before 2047 but that this is the dawning of a new era for Hong Kong.

As well as being a lively wine hub itself, Hong Kong has been and is the gateway to China for fine wine and houses a lot of the experience and expertise in the region. More than ever, personnel and the location of businesses are transferable, and Hong Kong may lose market share in the longer term. This does not affect the long-term demand for wine, just where and how it is traded. If China was to open Shenzhen as a free port, for example, the impact would be immediate, and Hong Kong would be shunted sideways.

Other themes and points of interest

Bordeaux

The overall share of trade in the wines of Bordeaux has continued to decrease and the 2018 en primeur campaign was another damp squib. 2019 is another good, possibly great, vintage but the Bordelais need to respond accordingly if they want to stop the rot (how many times have we heard that!??). Young Bordeaux wine is still in a state of over supply with warehouses packed; a new lease of life is urgently required and if the Bordelais, by lowering prices, can take advantage of the huge media machine of en primeur to capitalise, they have a chance to turn the worm. I believe they have severely undervalued the power of the en primeur message over the years – we live in hope!

Climate change

Apart from the devastating fires we have seen in the U.S. in recent years, and Australia very recently, what does climate change mean for fine wine? Although winemakers are learning new techniques to deal with warmer weather the obvious and irrefutable consequence will be higher alcohol levels. Bordeaux 2018 demonstrated this in spades, with most wines well above 14%, and some around 15%. Although a lot of these wines can be well balanced, where the riper, more generous fruit copes with the higher alcohol levels, it does not take away from the fact there is a higher level of alcohol, and that’s not good. Most people, but especially connoisseurs, would prefer their wine to be around 13%. Other than the obvious benefits of scarcity, this is another good reason to favour older wines, they tend to be less alcoholic. I remember 2010 recording higher alcohol levels than we were accustomed to and causing quite a stir at the time - they seem perfectly natural now.

General (more for drinking)

South Africa has been receiving some very good press in recent times and quality is improving. It maybe not yet offering wines for investment, but it is certainly worth dipping a toe. I recently bought Meerlust’s Rubicon 2015 following some massive reviews, for not much money, for example.

Piedmont has had a string of good vintages, and there’s a lot of great quality Langhe Nebbiolo and Barbaresci on the market. Produttori del Barbaresco 2016s are both excellent and good value. Prices for these types of wines are the equivalent of generic Bourgogne.

Climate change is good for Beaujolais. The Gamay grape is a tough little number that needs plenty of sun and warmth. There has been plenty of investment in the region and quality and the number of wines providing pleasure is on the up. Do not overlook the versatile Chardonnay from the area either, a leaner style in general compared to the Maconnais and further north.

2018 Burgundy will provide plenty of easy pleasure but don’t believe all the hype from the merchants. Check alcohol levels, there are some that are too warm but in the main they, especially the reds, are generous.

Try and understand the critics and their scoring. At the Judgement of Paris in 1976, the range of scores, out of twenty, came in between two and seventeen. Some of today’s critics don’t really start at anything below ninety three (out of one hundred) and famous producers in half decent vintages are all north of ninety five. Big scores sell wines and are commercially attractive for nearly all involved – they just don’t necessarily reflect the truth! It has all gone way too far and this observer, for one, has had enough of it.

Wishing you well for 2020!

As ever, if you have any questions or would like to discuss anything wine related, do let me know.


Wine Market Investment Report December 2019 - Part 1

by Wine Owners

Posted on 2020-01-10


A year end round-up by Miles Davis, 10th January 2020.

2019

The wine market in 2019 was dominated by geopolitical factors, and as a result had a rather frustrating year and performance suffered. To re-cap these factors were: trade wars (particularly U.S. vs. China), U.S. tariffs on some European wines, political unrest in Hong Kong, and Brexit. Obviously, Brexit is far from over, but some confidence has returned since Boris Johnson’s majority victory on the 12th December as it spells a clearer way forward, however good or bad that may be! Sterling strengthened and the FTSE responded well to the news. Uncertainty has a terrible influence on confidence and trading, so the result was as good for business and markets within the U.K. as it could have been. This is significant for wine as London is still the centre for secondary market trading and Bordeaux prices have responded accordingly and have firmed up a little. It was too late to save the month, however, and indices slipped in December.


Index Current Value MTD 1 Year 5 Year 10 Year
WO 150 Index 311.29 -1.39% 0.04% 60.55% 87.03%
WO Champagne 60 Index 480.45 -2.58% 2.69% 63.78% 156.05%
WO Burgundy 80 Index 730.69 -1.82% 4.14% 143.05% 227.60%
WO First Growth 75 Index 271.28 -1.13% -3.86% 46.50% 61.34%
WO Bordeaux 750 Index 365.04 -0.40% 7.77% 68.13% 107.31%
WO California 85 index 685.6 0.95% 0.81% 100.42% 296.03%
WO Piedmont 60 Index 332.55 -0.99% 4.59% 77.66% 114.09%
WO Tuscany 80 Index 321.06 2.61% 9.66% 65.19% 87.94%


The wider WO 150 index was flat on the year, brought down by First Growth Bordeaux as all the other sub-indices here posted modest gains. Burgundy has at last taken a breather, in the second half of the year, having been on an incredible run for over ten years.

Tuscany has been the best performer in this group, led firmly by the ‘Super Tuscans’, with various vintages of Sassicaia and Tignanello occupying a lot of the top performance spots. Sassicaia has been the beneficiary of some great awards and very high ratings in recent times. All first-hand experiences and second-hand reports of older vintages of Sassicaia have been strong, so it can be concluded this performance is based on merit. Tignanello is a brand that just ‘works’, it delivers enough quality at the right price level and is highly recognised and it can be found on wine lists across the globe; it ticks a lot of boxes, something not easily achieved in the wine world. The huge production levels (127 hectares under vine – Pontet Canet is c. 80 and the average size of a Burgundy domain is 6.5!) has always dissuaded me from investing but maybe it’s time for a change of heart?

Tignarello

Piedmont has performed steadily, the index is +4.6% for the year, and there is no doubt interest in this area is on the up. Various vintages of Giacomo Conterno’s Monfortino took several places in the list of best performers. It is one of Italy’s very finest wines and given it is only produced in exceptional vintages it deserves to be expensive – and it is, at over £1,000 a bottle. The equivalent top dogs of Burgundy and Bordeaux make it look cheap however, and they are made every year, Petrus is significantly larger quantities too. The relative value of Piedmont has been a strong theme for 2019 and there is no questioning the quality. Here is a price comparison:


Wine Vintage WO Score Price (bottle)
Giacomo Conterno Monfortino Barolo Riserva 2004 100 £1,181
Giacomo Conterno Monfortino Barolo Riserva 2010 100 £1,133
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Romanée Conti 2005 99 £19,248
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Romanée Conti 2010 98 £14,976
Petrus Pomerol 2005 97 £2,675
Petrus Pomerol 2010 93 £2,616


Italy and Champagne escaped the wrath of the Trump administration’s 25% trade tariff imposed in October, unlike still wines from England, France, Germany and Spain under 14% alcohol. This may prove to be short lived as the U.S. is now considering more widespread tariffs across Europe, possibly as high as 100%. We await further news on the 18th February. The Champagne index was having a very steady year until December when it gave back half of its 5% gain.

The broad-based Bordeaux 750 Index had a decent year, returning 7.8%. The biggest gainers were largely wines that we would not consider ‘investment grade’ and generally towards the lower end of the price range. The appellation of Pessac Leognan contributes a surprising number, and Margaux. This demonstrates that there’s life in Bordeaux, just maybe more in the ‘drinking’ rather than the ‘investment’ category at present. Of the losers it is interesting to note a significant proportion of Sauternes among the largest fallers – buy to drink only is the continuing message.


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