Three bottles: Mr Walter Speller

A year and a half ago I hosted a rather special tasting of just under a hundred, I think, 2010 Barolos.  The guests were mostly the UK press.  One of them was Walter Speller, who showed up at opening time (11am) or just before, and was still there six hours later when I was trying to boot people out.  I was immediately impressed.  Tasting young Barolo, even from a flashy vintage like 2010, is hard work.  To do it properly requires some dedication.  Walter did it properly.

And, despite the hype that surrounded 2010 Barolo, he didn’t throw a load of big scores around.  This was slightly dampening from a commercial point of view but – and this is the point – from a respect, integrity, that sort of thing, point of view, it was spot on.  He came along, tasted a lot of wine with care and dedication, then wrote what he thought of them without prejudice.  Nuff respect.

I thank Walter for his answers.

What was the first wine/bottle that got you into the whole wine thing?

If I tell you it was Passerina del Frusinate you’d probably think I make that up.  I don’t.

I was living in Berlin at that time and had just finished my arts degree at the University of Amsterdam in my native Holland.  I had escaped on an Erasmus bursary, a ‘left-over’ one, as no one in 1990 wanted to go to Berlin – something unimaginable now.  Bursaries for London, Paris and Florence had long been taken, but I didn’t know that when I went to see my professor to inquire about Erasmus (I just was looking for a way to get the hell out of Holland).  He quickly convinced me to ‘take Berlin’.  Before that, I had never even thought of the place.  Although I had practically finished all my exams before I left Amsterdam, it took me more than five years to finish my thesis, because Berlin, in a grandiose, if underground, way came in between.  Suffice to say that, although I do not live there anymore, it remains my spiritual home.

I didn’t know anything about wine, but luck had it that around the corner from where I lived, in Kreuzberg, a temporary ‘branch’ of one of Rome’s famous Enoteche, Cul-de-Sac (near Piazza Navona, but now unfortunately reduced to a tourist haunt), opened. The establishment’s sole purpose, I found out much later, was to try and offload older wines that the Roman Mothership couldn’t get rid of on account of Italy’s fetish for super young wines. Every wine that is ordered by an Italian in a restaurant must be of the very latest vintage. Older wines, even if only from the previous vintage, are looked at with suspicion: they surely must be bad or undrinkable, because why else would these bottles still be knocking about? The wonderful consequence is that quite a few wine lists in Italy are heaving with older vintages of great wines at unbelievably low prices – prices that have never been corrected upwards over the years and never have found a buyer, because, well, they are too old…

The Berlin branch of Cul-de-Sac was blessed with a proper chef, one who cooked the stars from the heavens and soon my partner and I would eat there almost every night.  I still do not know where we got the money from or how we could have afforded such extravaganza on a student budget.  I loved the food, but was more interested in all those magical bottles, sitting on very high shelves, which had to be taken down with a tweezers-like pole.  Because of the risk this manoeuvre entailed (staff weren’t always sober) a fishnet had been hung up just over the diners’ heads to prevent potential injury.

Because its purpose was to drain the Roman ‘wine lake’, wines that had been drunk were not replaced at the Berlin branch, so we just kept ordering whatever was left. Student budget meant that the Barolos and Brunellos were off-limit, but then the Passerina del Frusinate turned up. It wasn’t in anyway remarkable, but it had a magical name that evoked a place I didn’t know, a culture that seemed to burst with wine and food and anything, really, that Calvinist Holland would have never approved of or been willing to understand. In the meantime the shelves grew emptier and emptier, and soon Cul-de-Sac Berlin closed its doors for good.

What was the first wine/bottle that took you closer to your maker?

You know what? I have never experienced wine in that fashion. As much as I am in awe of stories of how people saw the light with a single swirl, this magical moment was never bestowed on me or, rather, the one bottle was followed by the next, an even better one, and now after twenty years in wine (which is nothing, really), I kind of see that all these bottles were more like a compass guiding me in a very different direction than from where I had set off.  It had to be for someone, whose seminal moment was a Passerina del Frusinate…

What was the best wine/bottle you have had this year? – OK, the past twelve months.

Always the last! I could say 1965 Mastroberardino Taurasi Riserva Piano d’Angelo, which was out of this world.  But what truly, truly, excites me is when a particular grape variety or a certain denomination is considered rubbish, or under-performing, because of the many mediocre wines it is turning out, and you sense that it cannot be true, because its long and ancient history cannot be founded on crap.  So I persevere and do my field research and it is how I stumble on a true, complex and long-lived Frascati in a pre-historic cellar dug deep into the Frascati hills, and where some 40 (!) vintages of this wine, all minerally, lively, waxy delights, continue to age gracefully.

Or, I just know that all these tiny alto Piemontese denominations once turned out long lived wines.  Interrupted by Phylloxera and two World Wars as well as people moving en masse to the cities to do less demanding work, most of them have been abandoned. When you drive through these hills you see shrubs, but you just know: once these must have been covered with superb vineyards. Then you are introduced to a producer, who found out from old local peasants, that, once, a local patch produced a legendary wine. This producer locates that spot, starts negotiating with sixteen different owners to buy their largely abandoned snippets, which after two years, adds up to just 1.5 hectares. She removes the shrubs and plants Nebbiolo. She has brought a cru, San Quirico, back to life even without being sure whether her efforts would pay off or make sense. Last week, a tasting of seven vintages of San Quirico showed what amazing foresight she had and I had just stumbled upon a new potential superstar.

Or, I just know that Vernatsch is a fully modern wine: fresh, light and with modest alcohol. Lots of dilute stuff indicates the contrary, but I just sense it has the potential to be stunning. So I dig. And what do I find? Vernatsch from 80 years old vines (n.b. trained on maligned pergola – another myth bites the dust), partly fermented whole-bunch, partly the stalks have been added to the tronconic oak cask. The cap has been kept submerged like they used to do in Barolo. It remained for more than 35 days on the skins, and then underwent an elevage of more than two years. The result is a superb wine, fresh and transparent, yet with tannins that remind me of Verduno. This so-called mediocre variety not only effortlessly transmits the freshness of this alpine region, but reinstates its former reputation and gives Alto Adige’ its unique identity back. Goodbye Merlot & Cabernet.

How on earth could I just select one bottle when I come across so many wines that just have me in awe?

Walter: thank you.

Walter Speller on (sub required, and recommended, obv.).