Well into his 80s, Antonio de Nicola still makes every one of his wines by hand.
For 56 years, he has harvested nebbiolo grapes from the misty slopes of Piedmont in Italy to make his Barolo, which he ferments in four enormous oak casks (called “botti”) under a rusty tin roof (they say his winery was once a slaughterhouse).
We came across Antonio’s work while sourcing our forthcoming Italian Collection (the first since 2019). But it wasn’t his Barolo that caught our eye. Each year, Antonio takes the grapes that don’t go into his Barolo and makes a second wine, known as a “declassified wine.”
If you don’t know about “declassified” wines, they are one of the great secrets of the wine world – a kind of “back door” into some of the greatest terroirs of the old world.
More on that in a moment…But first, did you know that wine is 80% water? In this week’s tasting, Julien Miquel, our resident wine expert, strips wine down to its basic chemical components, explaining what makes that wine you love taste the way it does… why we make wine from grapes but not from lemons… why wine should be okay for keto diets… and much more…
Wine “Declassified” (continued)
Mostly a European phenomenon, a declassified wine is a wine made by a classified winery (a winery that produces wines under an official appellation of some kind, like Barolo) in a manner that disqualifies that wine from bearing the appellation’s name on the label.
There are any number of reasons a wine might be declassified. A winemaker might have felt like experimenting with his process or eschewed the use of certain chemicals. Many appellations, especially those in France, have strict rules governing how a wine can be made. Deviate and you lose the right to put the appellation on your label (a constant gripe by winemakers who choose to go organic or natural.)
Another possible reason has to do with the grapes. Perhaps they came from a parcel that was too large and therefore not in compliance with local rules for parcel size. Perhaps they came from an unsanctioned grape varietal. Or perhaps the winemaker chose to only use the top 10% of his yield for his flagship wine, and do something else with the rest.
Either way, declassification may sound like a strike against a wine. Certainly, it will cause the wine to retail at a lower price.
However, it is not necessarily (in fact, it rarely is) an indication of lower quality. More and more, French and Italian winemakers on the vanguard are choosing to deliberately declassify their entire wineries in order to explore new styles and ideas (or, simply, to thumb their nose at the local powers that be).
And so, declassified wines have become a hunting ground for finding a bottle with grapes from a great terroir, made by a great winemaker, but at a deep discount due to the labeling. Famous historical examples include the 1990 Les Forts de Latour (from the famous Château Latour and now $300 a bottle) and the 1995 Pavillon Rouge (from Château Margaux and now $200 a bottle).
Whether our forthcoming declassified nebbiolo from Antonio de Nicola will become as collectible, we can’t say. But you’ll find out what all the hype is about very soon. And maybe you’ll decide to put a case aside.
The Wine Explorer