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Five (more) Italian white wines worth your while

Commentary

This article is part two of my companion pieces on Italian white wines. Part one can be found here.

I am getting old, but I am not that old. So, it is merely my understanding, not my experience, that the white wines of Italy were once held in higher esteem than the reds, at least in the English speaking world. My guess is that the relative positioning of the two colours of wine flipped in the 1980s with the explosive popularity of Italian food and restaurants. A good old Gavi might do well with a penne alla vodka, but anything with a red sauce wants a Chianti.

In any event, fashion is cyclical and the Italian whites got their revenge in the last decade or so with the craze for Pinot Grigio. I am fairly certain that Pinot Grigio is the most despised wine grape among sommeliers since it has become a kind of shorthand for a not very interesting glass of white wine in the restaurants of North America. I’m a contrarian by nature, so I would counter that mass-produced Pinot Grigio ought to be praised as a gateway to some of Italy’s more interesting white wine grapes, like the ones below.

Cortese

In the first wave of popularity for Italian whites, few were more cited in wine lists than Cortese di Gavi, or simply Gavi as it is sometimes known. It comes from the southern end of Piedmont and is grown around Gavi itself and the surrounding hills. Its classic pairing is seafood from the relatively close Ligurian coast and found its original market in the restaurants of Genoa. Cortese’s compatibility with fish is said to come from a relatively low (for Italian whites) acidity, though I think of it as a particularly fresh wine, often with a lemon-lime character. DOCG Gavi is climbing in price, but I have found very good deals with wines made from Cortese from the Colli Tortonesi.

Pecorino

Pecorino is a grape, a cheese, and a sheep. The cheese is made from the sheep’s milk, and the grape is said to be its favourite snack. It’s mostly grown in the central east of Italy, in the Marche and Abruzzo. Like all good Italian whites, Pecorino tends to make fresh and bright wines but can get into tropical fruit flavours and some depth on the palate. I wrote about Pecorino after attending an Abruzzo trade tasting late year (one of the few live ones in Toronto in 2021), where I found a few made in this style, sometimes after being left on their skins for a few days. As Abruzzo’s winemakers continue to gain increasing attention in the wine world, I expect to find more interesting and complex expressions of this ancient grape.

Pinot Bianco

Why settle for Pinot Grigio, when you can go all the way with Pinot Bianco? Or rather, Weissburgunder, as the Germanic winemakers of Alto Adige call it. Alto Adige is also known as Sud Tyrol and was part of Austria until the end of the First World War. Grapes here, especially whites, are grown in the high altitude vineyards among the Dolomite Alps, but it’s the Southern end of the mountains, so the climate is a mix of Alpine and Mediterranean. That makes it particularly suited to Teutonic varieties like Pinot Bianco. It’s not a very big region, so the number of producers is small, including a few top-notch co-operatives. Accordingly, bargains from Alto Adige are becoming scarce, but the quality of the wines is all but assured. The Pinot Bianco’s from there seem to be particularly balanced between cool climate floral aromatics and minerality and warm climate fruit, often showing notes of apple or pear. (More on “mineralogy” below.)

Soave

I discovered the magnificent crenellated Castle of Soave by mistake, about a decade ago. I was on a press trip organized by a PR company that worked for both the wine producers of the Langhe and Prosecco. They had herded their journalist onto a motorcoach for an afternoon’s drive from Alba to Conegliano. Our one stop on the trip was at the Autogrill just east of Verona. There, across the highway from the combination of cafeteria and gas station, stood the castle and surrounding vineyards on their rolling volcanic hills.

Soave, like Gavi, enjoyed popularity in the first wave of Italian white wine ascendancy, before falling out of favour. It’s come back as a connoisseur’s favourite, and not just for its amusing name. Soave, made in the modern, clean style, exhibits the elusive, controversial and ultimately sought after character of “minerality”. Entire seminars have been devoted to trying to figure out exactly what minerality is. To my mind and palate, it’s a character of acidity that comes close to, or is experienced as saltiness. Conventional wisdom in the wine world is that there is a strong correlation between vines grown on volcanic soils and mineral wines.

Vermentino

Vermentino is cultivated in Liguria and Tuscany, but its main base is the island of Sardinia, where it somehow defies the hot Mediterranean sun to make a crisp fresh wine, often with a hint of floral aromatics, and almost always some lemony fruit notes. It also often displays a character I associate more closely with red Italian wines: a slight bitterness on the finish. In the case of Vermentino, that bitterness comes as a note of almond and has a refreshing effect, a bit like a gin and tonic.


Any and all of these wines make for a great aperitivo, to wake up the senses before dinner, or a companion to a long lunch. All are suited to surviving a long Canadian winter in anticipation of warmer days ahead.

Opinion: Business needs to focus on business

Commentary

In Canada and other Western countries, there are increasing demands for a fundamental overhaul of the role of business in society. But in making their case for reform, prominent business leaders and intellectuals often misrepresent the status quo, minimize the power of markets to deliver broad prosperity—including environmental improvements and social progress—and present their proposals as costless. In reality, however, such radical recommendations to effectively socialize business will fail to achieve their intended goals and impose enormous costs.

Essentially, this new frontier of top-down socialism—whether it’s called stakeholder capitalism or environmental, social, and governance (ESG)—requires businesses to prioritize loosely defined goals (including environmental and social goals) over goals directly related to their businesses. The claims of advocates, that such activities enhance profits, render the need for government action via laws and regulations redundant because if these activities were actually good for profits, firms would undertake them voluntarily. 

Stakeholder capitalism (and ESG) promotes fundamental changes to the role of business in society, which will inevitably reduce firm profitability. Firm resources are reallocated from business priorities such as research and development, supply chain enhancements, and worker training, towards other endeavours unrelated to operating businesses.

But the goal of businesses, since their inception, has been to provide a return to owners by efficiently producing goods and services the public wants and is willing to purchase. Businesses are forced by competition to worry about the needs and wants of their customers, figure out innovative ways to produce and deliver goods and services, and provide post-sale support to promote future business. The only way around this market discipline is for businesses to secure protection or preferential treatment from government.

It’s also unclear why advocates of stakeholder capitalism and ESG assume that businesses—owners, executives, and managers—can identify and execute environmental and social goals better than non-profits or democratically elected governments. Harvard law professors Bebchuk and Tallarita, in their paper “The Illusory Promise of Stakeholder Governance“, conclude that stakeholder capitalism will fail to achieve its stated goals while also diminishing the accountability of corporate leaders because of its opaque and subjective nature (a recent analysis found more than 600 ESG reporting frameworks, many of which conflict with one another).

Perhaps the most salient fact, however, is that these so-called reforms are unnecessary. The historical evidence is clear that societies that rely more on individuals, families, entrepreneurs, and businesses to make bottom-up decisions rather than governments (top-down), enjoy higher standards of living, improved quality of life, greater social progress, better environments, and interestingly more peaceful societies—the stated goals of stakeholder capitalism and ESG.

The idea that businesses ignore the communities where they operate or fail to treat their employees fairly seemingly ignores the real world around us. Consider how many local sporting, cultural and youth events are sponsored by local businesses. Or think about the lengths that businesses go to retain and attract workers.

Finally, this push for greater spending by businesses on non-business-related priorities occurs while business investment in Canada is collapsing. A number of prominent economists including the governor of the Bank of Canada have noted that economic recovery and rising living standards cannot sustainably occur without increased business investment.

Business investment (excluding residential housing) declined by 4.0 percent between 2015 and 2019 (before the COVID recession) compared to an increase of 30.8 percent between 2004 and 2008, the equivalent period before the last recession. Investment in only factories, plants, machinery, and equipment declined by 6.5 percent (2015 to 2019) compared to an increase of 33.9 percent (2004 to 2008). As prominent economist Jack Mintz recently argued, recovering and improving business investment should be the single priority of the federal government and yet it wasn’t even mentioned in the recent throne speech. 

It’s within this context that advocates for stakeholder capitalism and ESG want businesses to reallocate increasing amounts of resources to activities unrelated to improving profitability, thereby further discouraging business investment. Again, contrary to the rhetoric, there’s an opportunity cost when firms divert resources to unprofitable activities. If these ideas were actually good for profits, firms would undertake them voluntarily.

There’s little evidence this new brand of top-down socialism, whatever its label, will result in better economic and social outcomes. Indeed, the answer to many of society’s current problems is less, not more, government. We should rely more, not less, on individuals, families, entrepreneurs, and businesses to direct the resources of society. History is clear—when we do, we achieve many of the goals espoused by today’s reformers, but with the benefit of a prosperous economy.