Italian wine expert Franco Ziliani
Interview by Oleg Cherne
People know Franco Ziliani as a leading expert and pioneer of Italian wines, but he considers himself no more than a journalist and reporter who honestly details recent events in the world of wine. He has published many articles in global magazines, including Decanter. Over the last 11 years, his blog and website have earned Mr. Ziliani the reputation of an independent critic who sticks to the Italian traditions of winemaking and a connoisseur who is not afraid to start an argument to defend the quality of local wines.
He is both loved and hated, and people look forward to reading his articles as much as they look up to him. «Our wine is in high demand on the domestic market, but undervalued globally, including by my colleagues who prefer France,» he says. «I see my task as presenting Italian wines to the world from their best angle.» Code de Vino Italian wine expert Franco Ziliani shares his favorite national drinks, the nuances and traditions of this unique region, and his thoughts on the eternal Italian scandal.
Pride of Tuscany
— In Russia, we associate Italian wine-making primarily with the wines of Tuscany. What do you think about this idea?
— That’s true, Tuscany is the first thing that comes to mind thanks to Florence, Siena, and their rich cultural and historical traditions. It is a large region, with many quality vineyards and wines, especially in the last 20 years. When we talk about high-quality wine made here, we of course namely mean the symbol of Tuscany: 100% Sangiovese.
— The world of quality Italian wines traditionally includes such leading brands as Tignanello, Solaia, Sassicaia, Tenute dell’Ornelaia… In your opinion, is this status quo justified?
— The wines you mentioned really are a sort of symbol. At the start of the 1970s, they made a revolution in Italian winemaking and destroyed the previously established tradition of making wine by the Chianti Classico standard. Winemakers were curious about what would happen if you added other grapes that didn’t come from Tuscany to Sangiovese.
Those wines had no standard nomination and no controlled zone of origin, they were simply produced as table wines. But the results of this approach were so impressive that they later became the standard known as Super Tuscan. Their success helped the producers of classic zones in Tuscany, including Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino, and Montepulciano.
The wines you named are representative of Italy, even though they aren’t as good today as they used to be. They were so popular that people started to copy them, not only in Tuscany, but in other regions of the world as well. But their wine was dramatically different from the original and lost many of its qualities, flavor and elegance. The main factor they all cared about was capturing a woody sensation in the wine.
— What are the true characteristics of authentic Tuscan wines?
— In my opinion, the best wine is the one that is balanced in everything. This means fruity notes, tannins, elegance; the best wines of Tuscany have all these factors. Speaking of Tuscan wines, I’d like to mention certain small farms in the Chianti area, and also in Montalcino, where Sangiovese reveals its maximum potential and where they make wine from 100% of this variety. This is the best way to show the best qualities of this grape: smoothness, elegance, finesse… Indeed, Super Tuscan wine has paled lately in comparison with these truly great wines, the real wines of Tuscany. Super Tuscan are very complex wines.
— In what way?
— Since times immemorial, wine has been a complement to food and an essential part of any meal. The more you drink, the hungrier you become. But Super Tuscan and similar wines in the world are different because, the way I see it, they are good for tasting, but difficult to pair with food. They are truly nothing special in this respect. The essence of a good wine is that you want more of it once you’ve tried it…
— I think it’s a good thing when you can just enjoy wine on its own, without food. Isn’t that just another aspect of it?
— I believe the goal of drinking wine—over the ages, not only in the Italian tradition but also in Europe (like with the great wines of Bordeaux)—is to accompany food. What I mean is that I don’t like the concept of wine as something to taste or drink on its own. I want to convince people that wine has always been a product related to food. Sure, sometimes we all might feel like the sons of our ancestors who used wine as an element of rituals, but we need to treat wine from our current point of view and use all the resources civilization provides us.
My philosophy of Italian wines is that wine was created to be consumed with food. Truly great wines all have their own individual character. They stand out by their moderateness, acidity and tannins, and that’s why they feel fresh. We can easily look at the example of wines from Montalcino. Yet many international wines lack these qualities, like Australian wines that have almost no acidity in them, making them feel very soft, almost spineless. All they have is a shade of flavor: fruity or woody. But great wine is an expression of balance.
A critic must be independent!
— You wrote on your website that you like Brunello di Montalcino and Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Is it acceptable for a wine critic to have personal preferences? Doesn’t this affect your objectivity?
— I’ve never tried to conceal the fact that I like these wines. But of course, every critic must have an objective opinion of wines. I travel a lot, not only around Italy, but also to other countries. And I am always quite frank that I like certain kinds of wine, including Barollo, Barbaresco, or Piedmont wines. I evaluate them not just as a critic, but also from a personal point of view, which is why when I travel abroad, for example in Spain, I like certain wines from the north of Spain or Germany. But don’t read too much into this. In my opinion—again, not only as a critic, but as a wine enthusiast—this is an objective approach to wine, not treachery.
— Can a person who evaluates taste and the world of wine ever hope to be objective? How can we measure objectivity?
— There are many factors that can influence the work of a critic, especially recently. Namely, ads. It is very difficult to stay independent, and an independent critic must form their opinion of producers and wine technology without letting these external factors influence it.
I have a story that illustrates this fact from a year ago in Montalcino, when some producers tried to add international grapes to their wine instead of Sangiovese. I talked openly about it, and it caused quite a scandal in the Italian press.
In 2008, there was a scandal in the Italian press initiated by Franco Ziliano about wines from Montalcino, a town near Florence. The dispute was nicknamed Brunellopoli. The standard of Brunello di Montalcino wine requires 100% Brunello grape (a clone of Sangiovese). These wines fall into the supreme category DOCG and are very expensive.
Franco Ziliani blamed wine producers for adding cheap southern grapes to their wine to increase output. Several producers confessed to adding other grapes to their wine, but explained their actions as an attempt to make its taste smoother, as some critics and wine enthusiasts believe Brunello di Montalcino is too difficult to drink.
In total, 40 out of 250 local producers association were accused of adding grapes. Famous producers such as Antinori, Frescobaldi, Argiano, and Castello Banfi were also involved. They had to remove thousands of bottles from the market and close vineyards for quarantine. The U.S. government banned import of those wines until they were proven to contain 100% Brunello. The reputation of the region on the whole was severely damaged.
While waiting for test results and court judgement, producers suffered great losses because they had to sell their wine for less in other nominations. The association claimed that any accusations of negative health effects from such wine were false. The conference of producers that gathered later re-established their previous principles: their wine must contain 100% Brunello, and they will reinforce quality assurance.
The end result depends mostly on the oenologist who creates the wine. In the end, it turned out that other wines that got roped into the scandal, including Banfi and Frescobaldi, did not contain other grape varieties; it was established they were made from 100% Sangiovese.
However, its quality was low due to outdated production technology. Today, oenologists creating modern international wines contribute a great deal to this world not just by adding different grape varieties, but by trying new technologies that can potentially increase quality.
— I think shortcuts like that aren’t a rare thing in Italy because we find a lot of fake wine from Italy imported to Russia.
— Right now, the Russian wine market is in the midst of an intense development process. 20 years ago, no one would have believed Russia could support the sale of EUR 50 bottles. Now, many Russians travel and get to taste different wines. But there are also lots of dishonest people in Italy who think that Russians don’t know anything about wine because of their undeveloped wine culture. As for Brunello di Montalcino, considering that the producers re-affirmed their loyalty to classic principles, we can hope they will stick to them.
— You are often characterized as an uncompromising critic who always speaks his mind regardless of the consequences. What are your thoughts on this? For example, you called Wine Spectator magazine Wine «Speculator,» even though hundreds of thousands of people around the world trust it…
— My style of work is very expressive, which naturally leads to a lot of debate. In some cases, even most cases, what I say involves a good deal of humor. I sign some of my articles for Decanter and other magazines as Franco Tiratore, or «shooter,» meaning I speak bluntly without ever looking back.
This is what happened with Wine Spectator. The issue is that their views of wine are radically different from my own. One might say it’s because of their business or marketing approach. They mostly focus on heavy, modern, very «technical» wines. And I can’t stand it when at the end of the year, Wine Spectator publishes its list of 100 Best Wines, and it looks nothing at all like mine. I believe the truly best wines will never make it on their list.
— Two years ago, I traveled around all the chateaus of the first cru in Bordeaux and interviewed their owners. I also visited many chateaus of the second, third, fourth, and fifth categories. And the wine I considered most exceptional was Chateau Pontet-Canet 2005, a fifth cru. Two years later, Wine Spectator listed it in their top 10 best wines…
— That happens sometimes, but I believe they always treat their choices from a commercial point of view, that’s what they care about most. James Suckling is their main expert on Italy. Sometimes our opinions coincide, sometimes they don’t. Naturally, he evaluates everything from a commercial point of view. For example, a few years ago they included Brunello di Montalcino Tenuta Nuova in the top 10, produced by Casanova di Neri using Brunello di Montalcino standards. This was such a treat, we were ecstatic! But I said right away that it had little to do with the tradition of Tuscany. It’s just another modern European wine that managed to make it on someone’s list. The oenologist was Carlo Ferrini. In my opinion, he’s one of the most famous and cunning in his profession. It is no coincidence he was part of that big scandal I mentioned before.
Russians will learn to love Italian wine
— Do you think in general many critics underestimate Italian wines?
— Yes, Italian wine is in high demand on the domestic market, but it is underestimated globally, including by journalists. They mostly prefer French wine. I’d like to tell the world about the best sides of Italian wine.
— What do you recommend for someone who doesn’t feel confident yet in the world of Italian wines?
— It all depends on Russian cuisine, since my main belief is that you must accompany wine with food. I don’t really know a lot about the habits of Russian people today.
— Let’s say, pelmeni.
— Okay, we have those here in Italy too (laughs). You can pair pelmeni with moderate acidity, such as Dolcetto from Piedmont, or wine from Barber grape, the third largest plantation area in Italy. I also know borscht is a popular and truly delicious soup there. You can serve it with a heavier wine with a denser structure. Russians also eat a lot of fish, so you might accompany sturgeon with a structured, rather dense, white or red wine. In other words, focus on finding the right type of wine for a certain dish.
— What Italian wines do you consider the standard of quality?
— Above all else, the Piedmont region. What I mean is wines from Barolo, Barbaresco (for these wines, they use varieties of Nebbiolo). I’d also like to highlight wines from the Soave commune (Veneto region, with the all-time favorite Venice). In Soave, they make white wine from Garganega and Trebbiano.
But there are also interesting producers all around Italy, in Campania, in the center, at the foot of the Montgibello volcano (Etna, Arab) in the south, in the north, and in the Valle d’Aosta region, where people speak Arpitan.
Some wines from Emilia—Lombardy, and wines made from Lambrusco are always a safe bet. In terms of the very best wines, I might also mention Verdicchio di Matelica from Marche di Ancona, and wine from the Mardzemino red grape produced in the north in Trento, Tyrol. Mozart himself praised this variety.
Franciacorta is also worth noting, where they make the best spumante, or sparkling Italian wines, in the region. Ca’del Bosco is certainly at the top in this category. I’d like to send my respects to maestro Bruno Giacosa and his Barbaresco, Barolo, and d’Alba wines.
In Tuscany, we should pay attention to Brunello di Montalcino by Biondi Santi. As for Chianti Classico, I recommend trying the wines of Gianfranco Soldera, such as his Fontodi di Felsina. But first of all, I’d say try the area in Piedmont where they produce Barbaresco. This is my favorite zone.
— What regions in Italy, in your opinion, make the best use of their terroir?
— The character of a wine depends on its terroir, the soil it grew in, and the grape variety. To reflect the spirit of a single area in wine, one must use grapes that are typical for this area. Some estates today place special focus on this idea, trying to present their wine in the best light and manifest its best characteristics by using these elements. Other estates take a different approach and produce international wines in which the characteristics of a specific area take a back seat. It is easier for people to understand wines of this type.
I believe that a serious producer has to utilize the best its terroir has to offer. An example of this are wines made in Etna or Vesuvio, or Soave from Veneto. Here you can fully appreciate the acidity of their soil, as it is the soil that helps create such reserved and elegant wines.
If producers in this area go a different way and, for example, age their wine in barriques, this would be suicide. For example, the latest issue of Wine Italy published a story on some Italian producers who I don’t think represent Italian wines at all. Among them is Castello Banfi, and in that issue he even received an award. My personal opinion is that this producer has nothing to do with true Italian quality. It’s nothing more than wine business. But there are other smaller producers who do their best and make truly supreme products they can be proud of.
— If I want to try some of these producers tonight, what would you recommend?
— It depends on what you’re eating.
— I’ll have mozzarella, a caprese salad, and bread. What wine should I buy?
— For something light like mozzarella, I recommend a white wine from Fiano grape: Fiano di Avellino, made in Campania. As for Tuscan wines, Vernaccia di San Gimignano would be a good option. It is one of the best white wines in Tuscany.
Italian grape — the opposite of globalization
— Your favorite grape is Nebbiolo. Are wines from Nebbiolo the best in Italy?
— Why do I think Nebbiolo is the best grape? I think it epitomizes the opposite of globalization, as it is very hard to cultivate. Nebbiolo grows in very specific areas. Some producers from California and Australia tried growing it in their regions, but it ended in disaster. This grape is capable of fully manifesting itself and showing all the best qualities it has. But it can do so only here, in Italy.
— What other local grapes would you like to mention specifically?
— After Nebbiolo, Sangiovese would be second. It also reveals its full potential only in Italy. Then I would mention the red grape from the south cultivated in the Basilicata region. In Campania, Aglianico is a particularly interesting variety, also known as the «Nebbiolo of the south.» Fiano di Avellino from Campania is also noteworthy. Negroamaro, a red grape from Salento (the heel of the Italian boot), is also excellent. Among these wines, I’d highlight Tomaresca Masseria Maime Negroamaro. I can’t help but mention Malvasia and the Tocaia grape from Friuli. However, now this name is banned, and the grape is simply called Friulano. I should also mention Vermentino cultivated in Liguria and Corsica, although it’s rather Mediterranean, not exclusively Italian.
Among Sicilian grapes, Nerello Maskalese, a red grape cultivated near Etna, stands out to me the most. Also, Caricante, a white grape. Generally speaking, I don’t understand why they cultivate so many international grapes today in Sicily. By using Shiraz and Merlot, local producers try to imitate the Californian style, but I don’t approve of that approach at all. I believe the best wines are those made from local grapes that can best manifest the benefits of their original terroir to the fullest.
— When asked about the quality of French wines, Bordeaux wine critic Jean-Marc Karen said that only 10% of all wine is high quality. Michel Rolland’s estimate is even lower. What do you think is the percent of quality Italian wines?
— Some modern wines are produced in batches. I can’t really say what the percent of quality wine is in Italy. It’s hard to nail down an exact figure. Indeed, there are some truly fantastic wines out there that are very good. There is just OK wine that is drinkable, and then there are some I would never recommend in my life. Not because they are bad, but because they are nothing special. No particular flavor, no real character.
Sometimes this is due to the fact that many oenologists today working for an estate in the north may also be working at the same time for an estate in the south. This territory difference is huge, the distance between vineyards is enormous, and one person can’t recreate and express in such a product the best qualities, character and history of a wine or demonstrate the unique nature of the area where the grapes grow. It is next to impossible.
If you want to drink good wine, look for one that expresses the best qualities of a particular area. I believe we should expose critics who say you can produce good wine anywhere. It is simply not true.
Everything depends on the place and grape selected for the wine. There are areas where you can make the best wine and lands suitable for just good wines, but you can’t make both good and bad wine on the same plot.
I have read many classics of Russian literature from the 19–20th centuries in translation. And they taught me that the Russian people are very proud, and they know the importance of national values. So you must understand why some areas of France, Burgundy and Bordeaux have been cultivating the same varieties for ages. Why don’t they cultivate international grapes in France? And why are there suddenly 6–7 international grapes—Shiraz, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon—growing in Italy on par with the local grapes? People need to realize they can’t possibly show their full potential here. This is what winemakers and wine enthusiasts around the world should think about.