14 Oct 2013

What makes a wine "great"? Barolo Rocche della Annunziata 1999, from Paolo Scavino

The often used (and much abused) term "great wine" usually makes me hesitate and have doubts. Doubts about what is meant by such a laudatory term, doubts about who is using the expression and why, and doubts about whether it has any real signification. Of course, in the end, it all comes down to one's own perception of a wine and the ensuing emotions which may or may not have quite a lot to do with one's immediate surroundings and the company with which one is sharing the wine so qualified.

I recently tasted a wine that I can only describe as being "great", and so I feel that I should start by qualify the circumstances and describe my personal connection with this bottle to give the full context which inevitably influenced, to some extent, my judgment when I tasted the wine. Yet there is a form of self-evidence about the impact of flavours and all the other physiological interactions that seem to surpass the complex issue of context. When a wine gives you an impression of beauty, harmony, balance and intense flavour sensations, you are simply stunned, and then moved by its impact. This is what happened to me just over a month ago when opening and sampling a bottle prior to serving it to my guests and dinner companions at home. And the initial impression was reinforced by drinking the wine at table.

We had three friends to dinner, one of them Italian and two of whom live in Rome. We had already consumed a very stylish Champagne blanc de blanc from Pierre Monsuit and a solidly earthy and very full-bodied Spanish Catalonian wine from the Emporda region near the French border, called Terra Remota, Clos Adrien. This went fine with a chicken tagine but the bottle was now empty and I was racking my brain to see what I could serve to follow it, given its intensity. I enjoy improvising like this, trying to make the wine fit the circumstances, the people and the moment just as much as the food. I suddenly remembered a bottle that had been lying in my cellar for about 10 years and that had been given to me by a producer from the Piemonte region of Northern Italy with strict instruction to be patient before opening it. The moment seemed just right.

Here is the bottle, which had never been graced with its rightful label (as shown above) as it was given to me by the producer having been recently bottled at the time.

As the picture shows, this bottle just carried two tiny stickers on which I could barely read the following words or abbreviations: "Rocche Annon..." and "Paolo Scavino". The cork, as shown below, revealed a little more, including the vintage.

I can well remember visiting this estate and their tasting room during some research on the twin neighbouring appellations of Barolo and Barbaresco. It must have been back in about 2003. At the end of my tasting of the Scavino range, one of Enrico Scavino's daughters (I think it was Elisa) gave me this bottle saying that she hoped that I wouldn't be in a hurry to open it as it came from their best vineyard in Barolo and was far too young to be drunk. I have been resisting the temptation ever since, but the time had now come!

The colour was still remarkably youthful, in tones of deep reddish purple, hardly affected by 14 years of time and very bright. The nose was totally enticing as I poured the wine into a decanter having checked it first for any foul play. I served it to the guests without saying anything, just to see the spontaneous reactions on their faces, as none were wine professionals and I often find this sort of test very revealing. I could see that they liked it a lot as the conversation dried up for a while. When I revealed its identity, the Italian lady said how pleased she was that I has shown something so beautiful from her country at a time when things were so difficult in Italy.

I found the wine totally harmonious, amazingly still full of youthful fruit flavours, precise and yet smooth and velvet-like to the touch. It was mouth-filling but in no way overbearing, or even very powerful. It had plenty of intensity, but was totally refined. It just hit that perfect point of balance between immediate sensual pleasure and a deeper line of complexity that sent echoes down my spine and all through my brain. Mind and body were fused together. When I think that there are some puritanical lunatics (here in France for example) who would like to see wine banned as part of an absurdly amalgamated and stigmatized mass of "alcoholic beverages"!

Yes, there are some wines which, when tasted at the right moment and in the right circumstances, qualify for the term "great". They have that indescribable capacity to totally satisfy mind and body and produce a special quality of emotion. Such wines can bring tears to my eyes in the way that other aesthetic impressions received form paintings, landscapes, writing or music can also achieve. One wants such moments to last forever, but they are, by essence, fleeting.

The beauty of the wine is echoed by that of the landscape around Falletto

For those curious about this wine and its origins, I have gleaned and presented below some of the information that can be found in more detail on the family's excellent web site.

from left to right:  Signora Scavino, Elisa, Enrica and Enrico Scavino

The Paolo Scavino estate currently includes 23 hectares (almost 56 acres) of vineyards, some of which are owned and the rest rented. The family base is in the village of Castello Falletto, within the Barolo designated region of Piemonte, in North-West Italy. Similarly to the situation in Burgundy, and like many of their Piedmontese colleagues, the Scavino vineyards are divided between numerous separate plots (19 of them in fact), some having designated vineyard names, as is the case for this top-of-the range wine from the Nebbiolo grape that is the sole authorized variety in the Barolo appellation. But the Scavino vineyards also produce several other wines, from other local varieties such as Dolcetto and Barbera. The estate was founded in 1921 by Lorenzo Scavino and his son Paolo. Today it is run by Enrico and his to daughters, Enrica and Elisa. The web site, like that of so many other wine producers, makes the claim that their aim is to produce wines that have purity, complexity and elegance. The Scavinos totally fulfill that contract.

The Scavino family in the vineyard: the younger generation now in the front seat.
Rocche dell’Annunziata is the name of a vineyard site within the boundaries of the village of La Morra. It lies at an altitude of 385 metres above sea-level and faces south, south-west. The soil is of limestone with underlying sandstone. The sand blends with the lime to improve drainage. The vines were planted in 1951 and 1991 at a density of 5400 vines per hectares. Grass is grown between alternate rows, and the soil tilled in the other ones.

So how much does it cost?
As I discovered when I looked this wine up on Wine Searcher, a bottle of the same wine is now very rare as there was not much of it to begin with, but it can be found in the USA at around 175 euros a bottle, which is far more than I would pay for a bottle of wine, so many thanks to the Scavino family for this gift (which, it should be mentioned, was not valued at this price level in Italy back in 2003). But you should know that Paolo Scavino also produces a range of wines at far more accessible prices and they are all beautifully made.

So what is the true price of vinous paradise anyway?


  1. You don't mention Enrica Scavino as one of the factors contributing to you liking this wine so much, David. It must constitute a subconscious element. Proof: you talk of Terra Remonta, instead of Remota. Remonté, huh?

  2. That truly does sound like a "great" wine, David. Your article shows the importance of "context" in tasting. Both the wine, the place where it was made and the people who made it, and the people who you shared it with all enter into this mysterious equation.

  3. Yes Tom. By pure coincidence, I opened yesterday, having posted this article, my copy of the latest issue of The World of Fine Wine and fell upon a very interesting article by Katherine Cole (who lives in Oregon) entitled "Can wine make you cry?". It deals to a large extent with the same territory and I found it very interesting.

  4. Luc, I was fairly sure that you would pick up on this part of the subtle equation. Yet I must plead full innocence in the matter, as, when I tasted the wine, I had quite forgotten having met Signorina Scavino all those years ago. You are of course entitled not to believe me and discount my argument. It is nevertheless the truth. We could perhaps settle for a subconscious influence, as you suggest/

    1. David, you flatter me by « innuending » - a better verb could be « insinuating » or even “implying” – that anything subtle could come to my mind and you don’t do you justice by pleading innocence. You are as guilty as I am ever so brutal and coarse. But let’s settle for the unconscious side of this doubtful business.
      More seriously, you are absolutely right when insisting on the importance of both the setting of a tasting and the people who share this happy moment. Still, a poor wine will never be “great”, however lovely the company. In contradistinction, an excellent wine might well be spoiled by nutters around you.