How many wines does it take to become an Italian wine ambassador?

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Italian Wine Podcast goes live from the Vinitaly International Academy (VIA) Italian Wine Ambassador Flagship Course, tasting 150 wines in 5 days. Are you curious to discover the full wine list? Read on!

Italian Wine Podcast becomes a fly on the wall at the renowned VIA course, taking place 4-8 April 2024 in the beautiful wine capital of Verona. We are completely blown away by the comprehensive quality of this exceptional Italian wine course.  So, you want to be an Italian Wine Ambassador? This is your path to success!

Nowhere else will you find yourself immersed in a course that gives its students 4 Guided Tasting Sessions led by 2 MWs, covering 91 individual wines specially selected to demonstrate the excellence of modern Italian wine. If that’s not enough for you, the course includes 9 masterclasses presented by Italian Consortiums who have become official Supporters of the Course. These sessions give the Italian Wine Ambassador candidates 57 further wines to taste, evaluate and discuss with experts. Finally, the difficult 4-part exam takes place on day 5 and the students taste 2 wines blind as part of the exam. Grand total of wines tasted in 5 days? 150.  In case you’re not great with math, that’s 30 wines per day! 

This year there are 64 students from 27 countries who have converged on Verona after the selective application process. This group joins the VIA Community, comprised of over 1300 people who have taken the course since it began in 2015. In the past 9 years, 358 Italian Wine Ambassadors have been certified, 16 of whom earned the title of Italian Wine Expert. Looking forward to seeing how many new Italian Wine Ambassadors will emerge at the end of VIA Verona 2024! 

Italian Wine Podcast is excited to bring you all the news from the Faculty-led guided tasting sessions taking place from April 4-7, and then [drumroll please] the news from the post-exam Pinning Ceremony where the new Ambassadors will be revealed!  Stay tuned, taste vicariously with our coverage of the sessions and, at the end of this marathon, we will reveal the VIA Course Wine List for Verona 2024. Stick with us and you won’t miss a single wine!  

Session One, 4 April 2024 

The 27th edition of Vinitaly International Academy (VIA) Italian Wine Ambassador Flagship Course kicked off in Verona on April 4th. With 64 students from 27 countries attending, energy, excitement and definitely nerves were all running high on the Main Stage of wine2digital in VeronaFiere’s PalaExpo space. Day 1 gave the Ambassador candidates a literal taste of the week to come, with three Masterclasses presented by Consortiums who have become VIA supporters.  After 3 intense presentations and having tasted 18 wines, everyone was whisked off to Franciacorta, where they enjoyed a tour, tasting and gala supper hosted by Cristina Ziliani of Berlucchi at the gorgeous Palazzo Lana. 

Session Two, 5 April 2024

Day 2 launched the candidates fully into the serious business of the VIA course, first with a session on the Magna Grecia presented by Chief Scientist, Professor Attilio Scienza, followed by the first of 4 guided tasting sessions led by VIA Faculty member Sarah Heller MW and guest faculty Andrea Lonardi MW. These 4 tasting sessions are at the very core of the VIA program, having developed since the course began in 2015 into the current format that allows students to taste 91 Italian wines before taking the notoriously challenging exam. The sessions are divided by wine style, rather than geographically, providing the students with a new perspective on Italian wines and how to evaluate, discuss and promote them outside Italy. VIA’s mission is to teach wine professionals and educators to master the diversity of Italian wine in a rigorous, organized manner, thereby fostering a global network of certified Italian Wine Ambassadors and Italian Wine Experts who are highly qualified to support and promote Italian wine throughout the world. 

Each Tasting Session has a wine list carefully curated by the VIA Faculty to showcase both benchmark producers and the vast diversity of Italy’s native grapes. Students are exposed to wines that are difficult to find outside of Italy and are guided through each tasting, based on a pedagogical structure developed specifically for VIA. The wines are evaluated using the unique VIA Tasting Grid, created as a reaction to existing approaches to tasting which often ignore or side-line aspects of wine that are key to the native grapes and winemaking techniques of Italy. The evaluation of texture for white wines has been added and, as with tannins for red wines, students learn to comment not only on the level of texture, but also to use a descriptor to demonstrate the phenolic character. The grid also separates the intensity of the wine from the concentration of the wine, giving students more aspects to draw from when making conclusions about both age-worthiness and quality level. The overriding concept behind VIA is to create an elite group of certified Italian Wine Ambassadors who can speak with authority and profound knowledge about Italian native grapes, winemaking and wine styles. 

The first Guided Tasting Session on Day 2 included 16 white wines, primarily from the north of Italy, distinguished by differences in neutrality, minerality, acidity, texture and aromatic qualities, followed by 14 northern red wines that demonstrated various levels of a “sheer” element through their paler color palettes. The two exceptions to the northern location of the wines were a white and a red from Mount Etna in Sicily, showcasing the unique and important characteristics of wines currently being made on the volcanic soils at high elevations. Heller and Lonardi discussed the past, current and future positioning of Italian white wines, with Heller commenting, “People are trying to retreat from alcohol, so what does a fine white wine in Italy look like now? It used to be high alcohol Verdicchio, but now it is heading to more linear whites from Mt. Etna.” Lonardi added, “Gaja is investing in a new winery for vinifying whites in Piemonte, which points to increasing demand for and quality in northern, high-acid whites.” Throughout the white tasting, topics such as climate change, volcanic soils, the inherently Italian note of bitterness, and phenolic textures such as oily and waxy were all discussed in relation to the wines in the glass. Some of the native grapes reviewed in this session included Cortese, Trebbiano di Soave, Timorasso, Arneis and Nascetta. 

The red wine portion of the Session covered the contrast between wines of site and wines of style. Heller commented, “Piemonte is currently all about site specificity,” with Lonardi adding, “Many Italian grapes were positively affected by climate change, especially light colored, light body reds.”  He went on to discuss his theory of “pinosophy,” – the growing importance of the segment of the global wine market that mimics Pinot Noir. The 14 wines tasted represented the high number of Italian red wines that fall into this category, with their light color palette, moderate alcohol by volume, red fruit character and low tannins. Native grapes covered in this tasting included Schiava, Grignolino, Freisa, Cornalin and Nebbiolo.  

The first Tasting Session of the Italian WIne Ambassador course was extremely impactful for the students, provoking many detailed questions, delight at the extent of the tasting, and not a little anxiety about the depth and breadth of information and comprehension to be gained in the next three sessions to come. 

Session Three, 6 April 

Day 3 began with a second session presented by Professor Attilio Scienza, delving into the challenges of climate change and how looking to ancient training methods and canopy management may provide positive strategies for the future. 

And then it was straight into the tasting, with 16 whites and 11 reds.  Tastings today were grouped into flights based on commonality, but emphasizing different styles within each group or, as Sarah Heller put it, “looking at stylistic similarities with key differences. 

VIA students are typically quick to get into the nitty gritty details of tasting and today was no exception. Much of the discussion revolved around winemaking techniques, taking into account the challenges, the positives and the negatives. Andrea Lonardi brought up the fact that, “because young, fresh, easy to drink style is so popular now, there is a lot of reductive winemaking that is creating some harsh characteristics. Working with lees enriches the palate more, adding aromatic and oxidative elements in a gentler way.” Sarah agreed and added, “there used to be a lot of ‘going hard’ on reduction, which did produce some unpleasant aromas.  Vermentino flights were a bit ‘dark’ for a few years, but that style is decreasing now.”  The conversation led the international students to offer their thoughts about which white wine styles would be saleable in their respective markets, highlighting the fact that VIA students come from all over the world, with a wealth of information to share about the global wine industry and Italian market share. The wines tasted were from central and southern Italy and ranged from coastal to inland whites, with lots of focus on soil contribution and structure in the wines. Native grapes considered here included Biancolella, Fiano, Falanghina, Greco, Pecorino, Trebbiano d’Abruzzo and Malvasia, among others. 

The red tasting session began with a mini masterclass on Valpolicella and Amarone, led by Andrea, who is not only a recently certified Master of Wine (Italy’s second), but also the Vice President of the Consorzio Tutela Vini Valpolicella.  Andrea’s insight, not to mention his great drawings of the 5 valleys of the region, was invaluable to the students and their understanding of wine styles past, present and future for Valpolicella and Amarone.  He presented an insider perspective and commented, “in Valpolicella we are Venetian, we like to sell! Until recently, all the wines were based on market trends. Appassimento was the style and terroir was not important. Now the best producers are where the best soils are – topography, slope, exposure are the keys. Fresh grapes are more interesting for Valpolicella now and the Superiore category is changing everything.”  Five wines from the region were tasted, followed by six more northern native reds, many of which students had never tasted before. The possibility to taste and explore wines made with grapes like Schioppettino, Refosco, Lagrein and Teroldego sparked a lot of conversation and debate among the VIA students. 

Session Four, 7 April  

It’s the day before the Italian Wine Ambassador certification exam and the tension was palpable as students arrived for the final day of tasting and learning. Straight into the guided session at 8:30am, with 19 wines, showing their place, focused on central and southern reds. The conversation centered on tannins, evolution of the wines, ageing potential and challenges in winemaking due to climate change.  

The first flight of 4 Tuscan wines brought out all the learning objectives surrounding Sangiovese and the denominations that include this crucial Italian native grape. Lonardi pointed out, “Sangiovese develops more tannins in drought and heatwaves. New irrigation in Tuscany will help prevent this. What you see now in Piemonte, you will see in Chianti soon. The precision, the level of details will arrive in Tuscany. There is a beautiful complexity in the soils of Tuscany.”    

Heading further south, flights were divided into Mediterranean, Puglia, Aglianco and, finally, a complexity, acidity & alcohol-off between Nero d’Avola and Sagrantino.  Lonardi commented, “Aglianico is great for climate change, late ripening, with layers of complexity of fruit and spice. They are moving away from the fake, intense, hard tannins that are so unfashionable now.”  Heller added, “The peppery spice notes really give Aglianico elegance and help us distinguish the two areas of production. The Taurasi pepper is a white pepper, more lacy in character, while the Vulture is black pepper right on the center of the palate.”  Some of the other grapes included in the tasting were Gaglioppo, Monica, Cannonau, Nero di Troia and Negroamaro. 

The final Faculty Tasting Session for VIA VERONA 2024 focused once again on wines of style, taking a look at some historical and less well known Italian wine styles. Sparkling was first, always a crowd pleaser, with 3 tank method wines from Prosecco and Lessini Durello, followed by 3 classic method wines from Trento DOC, Franciacorta and Alta Langa.  

Italian rosés came next, with 3 “rosati” as they are called in Italy, from Sicily, Veneto and Puglia. Alternative sparkling, as Sarah labelled the next three wines, included Lambrusco, Brachetto d’Acqui and Moscato d’Asti.  

And the final flight of the week? Sweet wines, of course, with 3 delicious styles from Sardinia and Sicily.  

This tasting was provocative, particularly with the classic method sparkling wines across their various regions. Lonardi explained, “Alta Langa is the oldest production, Oltrepo Pavese was next, Lessini Durello was third, Trento DOC fourth and Franciacorta is the youngest region of production.”  Italian Wine Ambassador candidates were encouraged to consider which wines showed more Chardonnay dominance, which wines aged longer on lees ,and which wines showed financial investment in ageing in oak. 

Rosé winemaking techniques were discussed: pressing vs. saignée. All Italian rosés were originally based on the saignée method, where the focus is on the red wine making. In Veneto, Chiaretto wines were saignée wines from corvina/corvinone, in Puglia the rosato wines were saignée from Negroamaro and in Abruzzo, Cerasuolo wines were saignée from Montepulciano grapes. Sicily is now up and coming in the rosati scene and students were able to taste a direct press rosé from Etna made with nerello mascalese, as well as a Chiaretto and a rosato made with Bombino Nero in Puglia.  

The sweet wines included a real treat for students, a Vernaccia di Oristano DOC Riserva from 1968, an unfortified, flor-aged, oxidative, dry, high alcohol, sweet wine concentrated over the years to a beautiful, mahogany caramel color which wowed everyone with its potency. This wine moved Sarah Heller to tears, as she read the emotional notes from producer Silvio Carta, whose son left home in 1968 to study enology far from home and returned to Sardinia to bottle this wine in honor of his parents and all they sacrificed for him and his family. An amber Marsala and the ever-wonderful deep golden Ben Ryé Passito di Pantelleria from Donnafugata then took us all to Sicily on a wave of saffron, honey, dry apricots and hazelnuts – a truly sweet way to end the 91 wines tasting sessions for this year.   

Check out the full wine list at:  

https://drive.google.com/file/d/1qs8oXDERGExC_7HEMrZ6L2FOyJ1nuMv4/view?pli=1 

As we say at Italian Wine Podcast, that’s a wrap!!  Good luck to all the 2024 VIA VERONA students who will take their exam on 8 April. 

If you’ve been seduced by VIA Guided Tastings, get ready to apply for VIA VERONA 2025. Applications will open in December 2024, so keep an eye on the VIA website: will you be the next Italian Wine Ambassador? Study up with the required textbook, Italian Wine Unplugged 2.0 (2023 winner of the OIV Award), available on Amazon. And if you want to dive deep into all things Italian wine, check out our Podcast, we are the only wine podcast that has a new show every single day of the week! 

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