Last summer, in a podcast episode Diana Zahuranec discussed the differences between Italy and North America in how wine is produced, as well as socially perceived. Diana also went over Piedmont’s native grape varieties and wine appellations. As part of Thoughts on the Table Transcripts, this post contains the textual version of Diana’s episode.
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Hello and welcome to thoughts on the table, the audio blog on food and food culture. Paolo here back with a recurring guest today, with me is Diana Zahuranec! Hi Diana.
Hi Paolo, it’s great to be back!
I’m super happy to have you back, Diana, people have been commenting on your podcast – one of the most successful podcast [we had] was the one on the mediterranean diet we just had in January, this year.
You know, you have this amazing ability to capture Italian culture and describe the Italians better than I would be able to do, being maybe too Italian…
Well, that must be the anthropologist in me that can observe.
Yeah, it’s possible – you’re studying us. That’s what it is. But, anyway, Diana has been living in Italy for 4 years now and she works at Wine Pass, an online magazine on wine in the Piedmont area, correct?
Yes, it’s exactly correct, it’s in Italian and English, and it’s geared towards wine tourists that are coming to Piedmont.
Excellent, and so wine – we can say – is pretty much your job right now, right?
Pretty much, yes (laughs)
Which is fantastic because we finally get on the topic. So, yes, wine is defining of the Italian culture itself and I’d love talking about wine [in this podcast]. But, how did you get to be interested in wine – how did it start?
Well, my interest in wine naturally started over here, in Italy, because I moved here after college, therefore most of my time in the US I was younger and didn’t actually drink wine. And so I came to Italy, I went to the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo [Piedmont] for a one-year masters program in Food Culture and Communications-
That’s the Slow Food university, right?
Exactly, it’s the Slow Food university. And, during this year-long program, we had a lot of different kinds of classes and many of them would last just a couple of weeks because [we had several professors which] came from all over the world. And several kinds of these classes were tasting classes on salumi, or chocolate, or cheeses and there was also a tasting class on wine.
Mhh, pretty tough there! (laughs)
Yeah (laughs)… “Difficult year” in Italy… And in these tasting classes there were black glasses set up in the classroom – they were opaque of course. Each one had a smell that you could find in a wine. And what we did we smelled these without looking inside and we would write down what we thought the scent was. Whether it was vanilla, or pineapple, or… something. And then we would look and see if we got it right. And it was incredible – the more we did it, after just a couple of lessons we started being able to identify it right away and we could even identify the same smell in the wines. And it was just incredible how much of a difference that made in tasting wines.
Yeah, I don’t like how wine is often a very intimidating drink to people, because just knowing a little bit more about wine […] it makes it so much more enjoyable. And it’s not that difficult. So, that’s how I started getting interested in wine.
It’s amazing. And now you work at Wine Pass, so I suppose you have been continuing to discover more and more about wine. And tasting more wines?
Yes, exactly. At Wine Pass I write a lot about the different wines of the region, or wine makers, or we go on itineraries for wine tourists and we write them out, we map them out, tell people where they could eat or buy a bottle of wine, and so forth. And the more I write about this, the more I learn about wines and wine makers in the region, and it’s very interesting. I’m always learning more about wine here.
Yeah. I’m very interested to know if there is any differences in wine production between North America and Italy, for what you were able to observe there, in Piedmont.
There are huge differences! Of course I didn’t actually ever go and visit wineries in Napa, and I don’t know a ton about American wine, but I know a lot more about the differences in the American and Italian culture. And I do know… that a big difference is the size of wineries. In general, the average Piemonte winery is small – it’s a family production. I think that it goes without saying for all of Italy that a lot of the wineries here are small. You can consider a big winery to make about maybe 500 thousand bottles a year, and a really big one maybe a million bottles in a year, whereas in the United States a big winery could make several million cases, and in a case are 12 bottles of wine! So that’s a huge difference.
I see, I see, so the size… Which I suppose goes with the size of the territory.
Yes, it does, definitely. And so that kind of gives a difference in the mentality. Because if you’re a small winery, you’re doing all the work, you’re doing everything. From the wine-making, you’re in the cellar, you’re in the vineyard. You are producing the wine, and you are promoting it too – you’re inviting guests into the wineries, so you’re doing everything. Whereas these big wineries [in the US] are great at accommodating people and making a profit off of it… because they can charge people when they come in and taste wines. These wineries in Italy, I can think of maybe one that would charge you to actually go on a tour…
Well, I guess they’re proud of it. And they’re not used to having too many visitors as well, I suppose. It’s their family business. So, it’s not just a job – they will take you through and show you everything. As oppose to, you know, you [meeting] the public relations representative for the company. And maybe tours are one of the services offered – whether it’s for money or not – but it’s still just your job – right?
Exactly, exactly. There’s a lot of passion. It’s their life. It’s what they do all year round, all the time.
Yeah, I remember my experience about Piedmont and wine is [that] my dad used to order wine from Piedmont, a place called Lu [in the Monferrato region] – a very small town. This maker was extremely small, and I remember every year we would go and he would order the wine and then he would get it shipped and then he would bottle it himself in my grandma’s basement. And, me and my brother, which we were like 8 and 4, were there to help bottling the wine. Which may sound crazy to North Americans… that kids are involved in the production… But that’s the thing – kids don’t like wine because it’s kind of an acquired taste and we were never interested… But, going back to Piedmont, I remember visiting this production and particularly the cellars – this super cool, dark place, and cool in temperature too – it was like, maybe 16 Celsius? – And then they would get a little bit of wine out of these kegs and pour it in a nice glass, and bring it upstairs, to taste it on the kitchen’s table. And this is how my dad would choose which wines to order.
Yeah. It was fantastic, that’s still my memory. So I’m imagining that this scales to the entire region, pretty much…
And, what about the process itself… the actual production. Do you know of any differences, on the technical side?
I don’t know a lot about the technical processes of winemaking, in the two different countries, but I do know that California uses a lot of water and irrigation, whereas in Piedmont they don’t, it’s a lot of dry cropping. As of maybe two years ago, I think, they allowed certain regions to use water in extreme droughts… but I know that in general they don’t use irrigation at all. They kind of look at [irrigation] as “forcing the plant”, you know, it’s not its natural habitat, you’re forcing it to drink water when nature wouldn’t give it to it.
And actually this is another thing that is different between here and the US, as much as I know. This goes hand in hand with their practices in the field, which are very often organic, but not actually certified. They’re organic and they are sustainable, but they’re not certified. Because they do it out of respect for the vine and for the vineyard, they don’t try to find loopholes in organic [food] certification where they can use a little bit of one chemical, or not, but they really try not to use any chemicals at all, many winemakers don’t. So this is good news…
Yes, absolutely and I noticed this in general, in Italy and Italian products, ‘organic’ (or “agricoltura biologica” as they say) is present and you can find it even in supermarkets, there’s a section on organic food, but it’s not as trendy as it is here.
I think that in general the consensus is that there isn’t much difference with respect to regular produce and there certainly isn’t much [difference] in flavor in Italy, I find.
Oh, no. No, there’s not a difference in flavor at all.
Actually, the organic might even be not less flavorful, but “older” because people don’t really buy it and so the products get old quickly.
Exactly. Not as fresh. Yeah. What about instead the differences in culture? What is your experience with that? How do you see Italians relate to wine?
Yes, that’s a very big difference from the US and Italy because wine is really a part of [the Italian’s] daily life and it always has been.
Even a glass of wine at lunch time is not looked down upon and it’s always drunk with food. It’s not really this special drink for only special people during parties or other holidays, but it’s an everyday drink that you have with your food. The difference with that in the U.S. is that I see often in movies or television shows or pictures on Instagram, for example, people will have their full glass of wine by their computer as they work.
Or they’ll have one right as they come home from work to unwind and de-stress and it’s seen … To an Italian, I think that would be like taking it out of its context. I’m not saying it’s bad to drink it like that, but it doesn’t make sense to an Italian to drink it like that. It makes sense to drink wine with food. It’s part of the meal.
Yeah, appreciation of food itself is to have it with a little bit of wine and pair it. If you’re having fish, of course you’re going to prefer a white wine and red wine will go, of course, with meats and cheeses, especially hard cheeses.
Yes. And a lot of the times these reds, or these white wines, if you have it without food, it just isn’t the same. Piedmont is famous for having very tannic wines.
Which is tannins are that feeling on your tongue of having a dry wine. It can get a little bit tiring on your palate if you just keep drinking wine after wine.
Which I’ve noticed at different tastings with Nebbiolo, [which] is one in particular that’s very tannic. We can talk about that later, but… If you just drink this wine without having any food with it, you miss out on a lot of flavors and a lot of the enjoyment because… it’s just too much to handle, basically.
We already mentioned that you are based in Piedmont, of course, and Nebbiolo is one of the wines that you have been tasting. Would you say that that’s one of your favorites?
It is definitely my favorite. The favorite. It makes… several famous wines that come from Piedmont, such as Barolo and Barbaresco. But it also makes a lot of other wines, always from Piedmont, such as a Langhe Nebbiolo, there’s a Roero Nebbiolo, or different Nebbiolos from Alto Piemonte, like Boca, and Ghemme, and Gattinara.
There’s so many, and every time you taste them, even though it’s 100% Nebbiolo grape, they all taste different.
They all have a very different profile, and it’s so interesting and I just love Nebbiolo. Never disappoints.
All these wines are based on the same grape and they’re just aged in different ways to achieve a different product, a different wine that is a different denomination, correct?
Right. Or maybe people would understand more appellation? I don’t which one is used more, but that’s right. Although the differences come also from the soil or altitude.
Right. Nebbiolo itself is also an appellation. It’s not just the name of a grape.
It’s also one of my favorites, by the way. I do like that family of wines as well. I don’t like wines that are too mellow. I don’t know, if I can describe that…
Yeah, it’s definitely … No, it’s definitely not a mellow wine. They’re very… At the same time, they’re elegant and powerful.
It’s hard to explain that unless you actually drink it and understand how the wine is. It’s a really great wine.
Yeah, and [about] Nebbiolo, also there’s a curiosity about the name, which I happen to know. I’m sure you want to talk about it.
Sure. Yeah, Nebbiolo comes from the word ‘nebbia’, which means fog in Italian and it takes its name from this because the fog is a big part of the landscape in Piedmont… And Nebbiolo is a late maturing grape that has a very long growing cycle. It’s harvested whenever the mists start to roll in, in the late fall. That’s why it takes it’s name from ‘nebbia’.
Fantastic. It’s always fascinating to picture it. When I think of Nebbiolo, I do see the rolling hills covered in fog. It kind of makes it really magic. It’s really cool. What about other grapes in Piedmont?
Oh, yes. Piedmont has a lot of different native varieties. The big ones (that actually are produced even more than Nebbiolo) are Barbera [and] Dolcetto, two big red grape varieties.
White ones are Moscato and Arneis. Then there are lots of others. I mean, tons of these obscure names, especially in the higher hills.
But others that you might come across, for red wines are the Verduno Pelaverga.
And there’s Grignolino, Ruché and Freisa, these are all red wines. And red grape names as well, the wine is named after the grape. For other whites that you may find, there’s Gavi, Erbaluce, Nascetta, and Favorita. And these are all other names that you might find around. I think, Gavi and Erbaluce for the white wines, you will find more commonly abroad than the others, but obviously the Moscato and Arneis and the big names that I’ve already named, you will be able to find those abroad.
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Do you have more information on any of these wines? Like Barbera or Dolcetto?
Yeah, Barbera and Dolcetto are the names of the grapes and then they make a lot of different wines and you’ll find them named after like Barbera d’Alba, Barbera d’Asti. The same thing with Dolcetto and that comes from where they’re made. So ‘d’Alba’ means ‘from Alba’, ‘d’Asti’, ‘from Asti’, which is in the Monferrato, a winemaking region in Piedmont. Dolcetto, for example, you might find Dogliani. It might just be called Dogliani, even though it’s Dolcetto di Dogliani. That’s another place where it’s made, or Dolcetto di Ovada, which is a really great Dolcetto.
And all these are wines which are D.O.C., as we say in Italy, so that the denomination of origin is controlled.
Which means that they are certified to be produced from grapes from that particular region that their appellation refers to. Is that correct?
Exactly. Yes, it also puts some different guarantees on the quality and the time that it’s aged.
How many months or in what kind of material it’s aged in, wood or stainless steel. It depends of course on the wine. And then there’s D.O.C.G., which is, you could say one step higher.
And of course you can find wines of great quality that aren’t even certified at all.
But this is just a general rule to figure out what those letters mean on the labels.
Yeah, absolutely. I think if you’re not familiar with the wine, it’s a good thing to look for the certification because it will give you certain guarantees. Diana, it has been fantastic, of course, talking with you. It’s so fascinating and I wish really to take a tour now in Piedmont and go through all those valleys and try all the wines that you mentioned, because I do know a few of them, but I can’t say that I’m an expert, so I definitely have work to do.
Oh yeah, you should visit. You’re invited and anyone listening to the podcast is invited to come to Piedmont.
Absolutely. You’ll take them around personally.
That’s what Diana is promising you (laughs).
So, for you listening, if you have enjoyed this podcast, please do us a favor. Go on iTunes or whichever podcast player you use and subscribe. It really means a lot to us, and if you’re inclined, please leave a review as well on iTunes. Feedback is always welcome. Leave your comments there or on the blog. We’re very happy to hear anything you may have to say and it’s really important to us. Diana, again, thank you so much. It’s been awesome.
It has been great – thank you.