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Grandi Marchi – the Seminar

Grandi Marchi – Welcome to the Pantheon

Map of Italy showing the Grandi Marchi Estates
Pick an estate, any estate…

No, I’m not talking about the gorgeous temple-turned-church in Rome. But just as the Pantheon of Rome is a church dedicated to “all the Gods”, so is the “Grandi Marchi” a kind of reference to many of the great wines of Italy. Please note: NOT all of them – not by a long shot, not even if we took just one wine from one great producer in each of the most important zones. Okay, maybe using the Pantheon was a bad analogy. Nevertheless, the Grandi Marchi is a small collection of the most renowned and historic estates in Italy, and they presented some of their wines this week in Zurich. Here’s what it was about.

Who – or What – is the Grandi Marchi

The Istituto del Vino Italiano di Qualità – Grandi Marchi comprises 19 estates from across Italy, representing leading producers of fine Italian wines that are considered both representative of their regions and innovative in their winemaking. They are also all family-owned and have a history going back at least fifty years – and in several cases, such as with Antinori, going back over centuries. The current president of the Institute is Piero Mastroberardino of the eponymous estate in Campania.

A complete list of the member estates can be found at the end of this post.

The Event

Grandi Marchi tasting room at the Park Hyatt in Zurich
18 glasses times … how many participants? Ah, forget it….

The main event was a guided tasting seminar with an MC (Christian Eder, vinum Magazine correspondent for Italy) where each of the estates presented one of their wines and were given the opportunity to talk for a few minutes both about the estate and the wine that had been selected. Only the Biondi-Santi estate (of Brunello di Montalcino fame), for reasons unknown, had neither a representative nor a wine at the seminar. Afterwards there was a walk-around tasting where each estate presented several other wines from their respective portfolios.

What Was Said, What Was Poured, and How Were the Wines?

The wines were, without exception, superbly-made. Polished and refined, there was nary a rough edge nor a sharp corner to be found. Okay, that last bit might be a bit exaggerated; two of the wines (two of my favourites, in fact: Osar from Masi and the Barolo from Pio Cesare) offered a couple of corners, but they were certainly going to smooth down with time in bottle. All of the wines poured but two were made within the last seven years, and all of them could be enjoyed immediately.

You can find a brief summary of the estates, as well as which wines they offered at the seminar – complete with my tasting notes – here. If they had something particularly interesting or funny to say at the seminar, I’ve included a few words about each of their respective presentations.

What Was Learned?

Piero Mastroberardino, as president of the Institute, was the first to speak, and he said a couple of things that I found quite interesting. First, that 2017 marks the first year that Zurich is the most important date on the tour calendar for the Institute. Considering that the tour includes stops in Asia (with its very important emerging markets) and in North America (with, astonishingly, two dates in Canada and only one in the USA), I found this quite intriguing.

But what made that assessment even more interesting was his observation that the Swiss market is a mature market, a comment which he made nearly in passing. Now, it is no secret that the Swiss market is quite different than that of, oh, the rest of Europe, for example; the average Swiss consumer is willing to part with more money for a good bottle of Italian vino than their typical German, Austrian, British or French counterpart. Two to three times more, in fact, according to statistics from the OIV. And so it should be no surprise that the premium and ultra-premium products of the estates of the Grandi Marchi typically find their way into Swiss hands on the regular.

But is there no growth or innovation in the Swiss market?

If this is true, one would have expected the seminar to be a forum for presenting an argument for increasing sales, be it through new products, improved quality or some other innovation. This was not the case.  The wines at the seminar were, generally, the flagships of their houses. They were not risky or particularly innovative, even if they may have been innovative at one time in the past. There were a couple of exceptions; a case, again, could be made for Osar, as a wine made with 100% Oseleta from a biotype that was discovered and “rescued” by Masi that exhibits, in my opinion, raw potential and interest; or with Il Tascante, the wine made by Tasca d’Almerita with Nerello Mascalese, which remains a little-known – yet up-and-coming – variety that is also very exciting.

But there is an alternative hypothesis: perhaps the market equilibrium in Switzerland is something with which the members of the Institute are satisfied. An intriguing idea that, if true, would go a long way towards answering my question concerning the generally high-value, yet very “safe” wines presented. The wines were good, polished, benchmark wines – and totally expected. Therein lies the rub. It was a bit like going to see a concert from a famous band: you expect them to play their biggest hits. If they don’t, you’ll leave disappointed. Well the Grandi Marchi did not disappoint; all of the famous wines were there in the seminar. So they were, naturally, not offering anything challenging or new. Even the tasting afterwards was more of a “greatest hits” album than a new release. Not that there is anything wrong with that, per se.

Third alternative: saying that the Swiss stop on the tour was the most important was akin to a rock band saying that the audience at (insert current city here) is the best ever. Politically expedient? Certainly. Accurate? Not necessarily.

But What Was Interesting?

…but these are MY 18 glasses.

Well the wines were excellent, and some were also truly interesting. Beyond that, I learned something from each of the representatives who spoke. Here are some highlights:

  • Switzerland, with just over eight million people, consumes 6.5 million bottles of Prosecco Superiore annually, making it the #1 consumer of that wine worldwide
  • The subregion “Nizza” in the Barbera d’Asti DOCG will, as of the current vintage year (2014), be sufficient on the wine label to indicate what is in the bottle. “Barbera” is no longer necessary. Henceforth, Nizza DOCG is its own Barbera denomination
  • As of the 2013 vintage, Gaja’s Sperss has returned to the Barolo denomination – and they have opted to use the EU designation of DOP instead of the Italian DOCG. From 1996 until 2012 the wine had been blended with a little bit of Barbera and was, therefore, ineligible for the Barolo designation
  • Pio Boffa – head of Pio Cesare – has a good sense of humour and doesn’t mind taking the piss. After Gaia Gaja presented Sperss, Boffa presented their Barolo – with comment “Barolo doesn’t need any extra names to be recognised for its quality”. I haven’t laughed that hard in days, and I tip my hat to Mr Boffa. Besides, the wine was superb
  • Christian Eder seems to feel that Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc are insufficiently distinct as to be worthy of separation, when he introduced the legendary Sassicaia as “still 100% Cabernet”. Honestly. Those two grapes really are quite different, and the wine is 85/15 Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc. Sharing an ancestor and sharing half a name does not, in any way, mean that the grapes are similar. Don’t believe me? Well, have a look at Riesling x Sylvaner. If you think that that grape approaches the heights of which Riesling is capable, then I suppose you and I have nothing further to discuss
  • According to Attilio Sarcone of Tenute Ambrogio e Giovanni Folonari, who make Tenuta la Fuga Brunello di Mantalcino, 2012 was a Five-Star vintage. Pressed on this point by Christian Eder, who, quite reasonably, asserted that many producers do not feel this to be the case, Mr Sarcone only managed to be a bit evasive. Not convincing…

Highlights of the Tasting

As I’ve already written, the wines were superbly-made across the board, some of them also being very interesting. Of course I had my favourites. These were:

  • Osar – Masi
  • Sperss – Gaja
  • Barolo – Pio Cesare
  • Sassicaia – Tenuta San Guido

I have to admit, I was surprised that the Radici didn’t crack the top four for me. I’ve had the wine several times, and always loved it. Plus, I’m a big fan of Aglianico generally and Taurasi in particular. The biggest surprise for me, personally, was the Mille e Una Notte from Donnafugata, which was a 1996 vintage. This wine truly contradicted any and every prejudice that Nero d’Avola cannot age and only gives fruity, heavy wines. It was a beautiful opportunity that I am grateful to have been allowed to take advantage of.

Please do read my summary of the wines and estates to see how all the wines came across!

The Member Estates
(with their region of origin from, roughly, North to South) are:

Alto Adige Alois Lageder
Friuli Jermann
Piedmont Gaja
  Michele Chiarlo
  Pio Cesare
Lombardy Ca’ del Bosco
Veneto Carpenè Malvolti
Tuscany Ambrogio e Giovanni Folonari Tenute
  Biondi-Santi Tenuta Greppo
  Tenuta San Guido
Marche Umani Ronchi
Umbria Lungarotti
Apulia Rivera
Campania Mastroberardino
Sardinia Argiolas
Sicily Donnafugata
  Tasca d’Almerita

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