Devil's Advocate: Deep Dive Into Italy

A rather different column this week, about the extraordinary Vinitaly International Academy courses.

Reading time: 3m 30s

Robert Joseph with horns
Robert Joseph with horns

Focused Wine Knowledge Necessary

In a recent column, I suggested that, instead of – or certainly as well as – focusing on broad wine education, more attention needs to be directed towards effectively providing lots of focused wine knowledge on specific regions and countries.

Nowhere is doing that better than Italy, thanks to something called called VIA - the Vinitaly International Academy. It is a joint venture between Vinitaly and ICE – the Italian Trade Agency – and the efforts of a small force of nature called Stevie Kim, managing director of Vinitaly International.

Every spring a week before Vinitaly opens its doors, 50 or so people from across the world make their way to Verona. The group is very diverse, with retired nurses and venture capitalists sitting next to sommeliers, wine retailers and wine auctioneers. The only things they all have in common are a command of English, a passion for Italian wine.

Before coming, they have all – hopefully – sat through some 40 hours of online videos, studied a dedicated textbook and, somehow or other, done a lot of tasting of all sorts of Italian wines many of which are not likely to be found on the shelves of many wine shops anywhere outside Italy.
 

Extraordinary Depth of Knowledge

The depth of knowledge is extraordinary. Students are, for example, expected to learn about soil types throughout Italy and anthocyanin and terpene profiles of key grapes, their origins, aroma and flavour profiles’ and ‘historical and cultural significance’.

With this effort behind them, they spend three days, tasting – often blind – and attentively listening to presentations by Hong Kong-based Sarah Heller MW who made a splash in the wine world by becoming the youngest ever Master of  Wine, former New York restaurant wine director  Henry Davar and the multi-award-winning and walking Italian wine encyclopedia, Professor Attilio Scienza.

The tasting sessions – covering around 130 wines – include deep dives into Franciacorta, Barolo and Nero d’Avola and include discussions of the different iterations of Etna and Lambrusco. They all lean heavily on rigorous WSET/ Master of Wine, step-by-step procedures, with students being encouraged to focus on the texture - beyond the simplicity and, in Heller’s view, ‘meaninglessness’, of terms like ‘mineral’ - and to embrace what Davar calls the “floral, herbal, salty, spicy aromas and flavours that set Italian varieties and their red and white wines apart.”

As in the MW exams, identifying the precise origin and vintage is less important than describing the logical analysis behind the answer.

This is all followed by an exam featuring a couple of blind wines, 100 multiple-choice questions and a couple of testing essays.

Test Questions

For the multiple choice, which is worth half of the marks, students have to be able to answer questions like this:

Ormeasco grows where and what other name is the grape known by?

a. Lazio; Cesanese
b. Liguria; Dolcetto
c. Veneto; Molinara
d. Alto Adige; Kerner
e. Campania; Piedirosso

 

A typical essay question might be:

Discuss the growing areas of Vermentino and its associated biotypes.

While the example of a blind tasting wine listed on the VIA Syllabus is a Benanti Pietramarina Etna Bianco Superiore.

Highly Merited Awards

Students who score 66-89 points are qualified as Ambassadors; 80-89 gets them an Honours distinction and, with 90 or more, they get to be Experts – provided they pass another six-wine blind tasting.

I can tell you about all of this because I sat in on this year’s course as an observer – and felt hugely humbled, both by the gap between my knowledge of Italian native grapes and sub regions and the students’, and by their passion and commitment. I was reminded of documentaries about dance, music and acting masterclasses, competitions and auditions. For the three days, the only thing that mattered was wine, and not just wine, but Italian wine.

Out of the 56 students none did well enough to become Experts and only 19 qualified as Ambassadors. Watching the successful ones – and their peers – as the results were announced, was a moving experience for everyone present. It was like seeing men and women who’d reached the summit of a particularly challenging mountain. For some, it was a first attempt at the summit; others have got to the peak after four tries. The South American venture capitalist, who made it first time looked happier than if he’d just signed a multi-million dollar deal.

Nearly 40 students, however, didn’t get what they hoped for. One American sommelier who had won his Ambassador badge last year missed becoming an Expert by a couple of points, but, like many of the others, he’ll be back. If not in Verona, at one of the VIA courses and exams in the US, China or elsewhere.

Even without the certificate, the participants spend a few days immersed in a subject they clearly love and find fascinating, in the company of like-minded souls.

So far, there have been over 1,000 of them, of whom just 290 have got to be Ambassadors and only 15 are Experts. Masters of Wine have failed – as I most certainly would have done.

I must admit to having some reservations about the hurdles the students have to get over. Even with 66 points, participants would qualify as expert to most observers, and I reckon that even with 50, they know a lot more about Italian wine than almost anyone you are ever likely to meet. But, I can't argue with all that passion - or the fact that Ambassadors across the world are earning quite nicely by talking, writing and teaching on behalf of Italian producers, regions and distributors.

For anyone interested, the next VIA courses will be held 27-29 July simultaneously in London, Hong Kong and Austria. Sarah Heller will be teaching live to all three, from the Institute of Masters of Wine.

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