Wine notes

Thursday 14 January 2010


Italy’s national values may be staunchly conservative and traditional, but the reaction to the reactionary is never far away, and never fails to find enough support to become a voice, even if it is initially underground. Curiously, Italy is also the country, which performs the miracle act of converging the reactionary with the progressive. In this case, its seemingly innate sense of tradition and conservatism is the basis of one of Italy’s, and possibly the world’s, most innovative trends: that of the production of “natural wine”.

Natural wine, of course, doesn’t exist. To paraphrase the late Maynard A. Amerine, America’s most famous oenologist and teacher, wine without the intervention of man or woman is nothing more than grape juice in the process of turning into vinegar. Nevertheless, the movement, or rather a large range of associations, wine fairs and producer groups that have sprung up in the last 10 years or so in Italy, is almost always referred to as “Vini Naturali”, natural wine, or “Vini Veri”, real wine. The latter is also the name of the most influential association of wine producers, who has defiantly turned its back on Italy’s largest winefair, Vinitaly, by staging its own gathering of a select group of likeminded wine producers at exactly the same time. Presided by the late Teobaldo Cappellano, the association soon faced a split off by several producers, headed by Angiolino Maule, calling itself “VinNatur”. These two groups only represent the top of the iceberg, with many other permanently or loosely organised groups, such as Triple “A” (Agricoltori Artigiani Artisti), La Sorgente del Vino, Vini di Vignaioli, and the brandnew Parlano i Vignaioli, an initiative from Italy’s most promising and yet most inert region, Campania coming to the fore.

Although most of Italy’s quality conscious producers are acutely aware of organic and biodynamic grape growing and wine making practices, the “natural wine” movement has not been ignited by worries concerning sustainability or consumer health in the first place. It is much more the result of a genuine longing back to traditional agricultural practices and times when agrochemicals were not known and international grape varieties and barriques had yet to appear in Italy’s vineyards and cellars. This heartfelt sentiment can be traced back as far as the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, and finds its main inspiration in Mario Soldati.

Soldati, one of Italy’s most respected writers and film directors until his death in 1999, was fascinated by the country’s food and wine culture. Between 1968 and 1975 he travelled extensively throughout Italy to record its ancient viticultural and winemaking practices. Considering himself a chronicler of this history, he wanted to witness it firsthand before it would inevitably disappear behind stainless steel and clonal selection. He published his observations in what was to become one of the Italian “real wine” movement’s handbooks, Vino al Vino. The work does not primarily documents wines of the highest quality, but is in search of the genuine, the “real”, embodied by wines that were the result of ancient agricultural practices. Wine not primarily representing nature but culture, and one Soldati feared was in danger of disappearing forever.

Soldati’s ideas may seem sentimental, but his book, recording historic and traditional methods, summarises the very way Italy experiences wine. Contrary to France’s terroir concept, which tends to explain wine’s identity as the result of plant, soil and climate more or less exclusive of human input, Italy sees wine’s identity as the result of history, culture and traditional practices, including vinification. It is the same concept that became the very basis of Italy’s DOC and DOCG’s.

Over the years Soldati’s enthusiasm for traditional practices as well as his concern for their disappearance, has gained a steady following and echoes of his ideas can still be heard, most notably last year May in an appeal, called “In difesa dell'identità del Vino Italiano” (In defense of the identity of Italian Wine). The appeal appeared online at the height of the Brunello scandal and was formulated by Porthos, a group of wine journalists, whose motto is “Ribelle Nobile Disperato” (desperate noble rebels). Named after Porthos, one of Alexandre Dumas’ Three Muscateers with an insatiable appetite for good wine and food, the group tried to mobilise public opinion against what they describe as an attack on the history of Italian wine.

Brunellogate, as the scandal also came to be known by, divided the Italian wine landscape into diametrically opposed camps. On the one side, a high profile group of consultant oenologists and wine makers argued the impossibility of following the word of the law in producing a 100% Brunello wine only, arguing that even if it would be possible, it would result in a wine that consumers would not appreciate.

The other camp, represented by the likes of Porthos, see the very suggestion of the problem not being fraud but the Italian law itself, which fails to accommodate market demands and preferences to render Italian wines more competitive, as an unacceptable attempt to bend the rules. According to Porthos, the other camp uses Italy’s highest denominations without any respect for its history and traditions, which were originally designed to safeguard and guarantee the identity and integrity of Italian wines. To restore some of the credibility of the DOC and DOCG disciplinaries, Porthos demands from the authorities a stricter implementation of rules and tighter controls.
It also demands stricter legislation concerning the use of chemicals and systemic products, and condemns cultured yeasts, enzymes and biotechnology in general, which are used to produce better wine, but in reality “make vain the concept of territoriality (sic)”. Porthos emotional appeal in defence of the identity of Italian wines was followed by an online petition, which the very first to sign were Teobaldo Cappellano for Vini Veri and Angiolino Maule for VinNatur.

Porthos voices the growing concern of many Italian wine producers who see Italian wine becoming more and more standardised in an effort to appeal to international markets. According to them not only the introduction of international grape varieties in Italy’s vineyards are to blame but also the omnipresence of technology in its cellars, introduced and endorsed by oenologists. These consultants regularly advise multiple wineries, while often lacking the time or the experience to understand each single terroir. Pressed for time many consultant oenologists will rely on the execution of their protocols or instructions, to be executed by staff in vineyard and cellar. Any risk is arguably undesirable, if the final wine is to bear the trademark of the consultant, in order to secure international attention and sales.

Aside from these protocol-like oenological practices, there is general concern of the use of chemicals in the vineyard and cultured yeast in the cellar. Great wines that reflect their origin should be the fruit of agricultural methods which now have almost disappeared, and which need very little or no intervention in vineyard or the cellar. Wines that practically “make themselves”. This adage has lead to a sense and urgency in experimentation not seen since the 1980s when Italy’s wine production took an enormous leap in quality forward, not in the least instigated by modernisation of its cellars and the introduction of stainless steel and temperature control. This new scene characterises itself by a relentless desire for experimentation to the point of total anarchy. Current trends are borne out of a reaction against the modernisations introduced in the recent past, and are often their complete antithesis.

The clearest leitmotiv between all associations and all wines is a growing commitment to indigenous grape varieties. Italy’s infatuation with international grape varieties, which in the past were glorified as an “amelioration”, may well have come to and end, now that it realises that a certain “sameness” in the wines can be counteracted most effectively by using indigenous ones. And lower yields and better vineyard site selection will heighten this even more.

But variety and site are not the only determining factors in the character of wine. Central to all these concepts is the idea that the way the grapes are processed and the juice fermented is all part of wine’s identity. Fermentations are generally without the use of cultured yeast, and temperature control is more often than not rejected. An enormous curiosity in any fermentation vessel other than stainless steel, be it amphora, large oak casks, cement vats or glass ballons, has led to a very strong laissez-faire policy during all phases of the vinification. As wine, now more than ever, has come to stand for something “natural”, “pure” and “genuine”, new oak barriques are avoided. Many producers opt for large old oak casks for fermentation as well as ageing, and the initial hints of vanilla in the wine is the sole compromise producers who threw out their stainless steel to start working with wood are willing to put up with during the first two years of their use.

The idea of wine “making itself” sees numerous different interpretations, from hardliners, who fearlessly reject any use of sulphur, as well as more moderate approaches, using as little sulphur as possible, and at the bottling stage only. Both views have resulted in an increased tolerance of winefaults in the resulting wines, the most common being oxidation, and high levels of volatile acidity. Although the organic movement seems to attract many untrained newcomers, this can only partially explains this tolerance, as even skilled and experienced wine makers show a forgivingness to winefaults unheard of before, while pushing the limits as far as they can.

While sulphur has become the new bête noire, the use of indigenous or ambient yeast is on the rise. Many of the aforementioned associations decline the use of cultured yeast altogether, arguing that natural yeast, which normally is present in the cellar as well as the vineyard, is part of the terroir. Although this being a very strong argument, it regularly leads to higher levels of residual sugars in the wines. In combination with a general rejection of stabilisation, filtration and sulphuring, a refermentation in the bottle can occur, which, again, is not seen as something faulty and undesirable, but the consequence of wine being a “living thing”, which also reflects itself in bottle variation.

Since “control” has become a dirty word for many producers, vatting times are greatly prolonged, with fermentation curves often going up and down depending on the ambient temperature of the season. Malolactic fermentation may occur or not (unsurprisingly, inoculation with lactic bacteria is out of the question) and the wines remain on skins and, more and more, stalks for as long as possible, as grapes regularly end up into the fermentation vessel without being destemmed. Vatting times are also greatly extended by long ageing on the lees. Especially “Triple A” considers a long lees contact fundamental to the wine’s health. Often, frequent batonnage is not considered essential, and there is surprisingly little fear for reduction on the part of many winemakers. Racking can be as little as once a year, and the resulting wines often seem to support the impression that this practice is executed more often out of routine than necessity in more conventional winemaking. After the wines have been bottled many producers think nothing of holding off their release for another 12 to 24 months, and regularly even longer. As the release date of the wines are often postponed for years, their elevated price tag comes as no surprise.

The most obvious trend, and one wholly unstoppable, is the fermentation of white wines on the grape skins during part or the entire period of the alcoholic fermentation. Gravner may have been one of the first to experiment with this, ending up with wines no longer white but distinctly orange in colour, but many producers have adopted this ancient practice, arguing that all the goodness is in the skin, whereas the pulp of the berries mostly contain water. Frequently these whites have a distinct aroma of apricots, and for the unaccustomed consumer many of them may smell the same, implying that distinct terroir characteristics have been sacrificed. But producers who use this technique are quick to point out that no one would ever say that about red wines, which are all fermented in this way. According to them it is just a question of experience and regular exposure to these wines that will make wine lovers become aware of a diversity of aromas and tastes never experienced before. They also argue that the method greatly increases the ageability of these wines, as the style is often oxidative and the maceration of the skin will have added some tannins to the wine, an indication that they may prove to be robust, if not everyone’s cup of tea.

Many of these “old new wave wines” are so unorthodox and without any precedent that hardly any of them manage to pass the official controls, and are regularly rejected as “untypical” and, ironically, “untraditional”. As in the past, some of the very best wines with a real heightened sense of place have no choice but to take refuge under the lowly IGT designation, as did the Super Tuscans in the past. This fact will invariably weaken the higher DOC and DOCG category further, as it is incapable of either honouring experiments nor recognising quality and therefore loses more and more any credibility or stimulus for high quality wine production.

Although the category of “natural” or “true wine” may seem niche, several of its unorthodox approaches and techniques are resonating in the wider vinous landscape. Notably Bisol started producing in tiny quantities a Prosecco called NoSo2, without any added sulphur. And more and more Prosecco producers are adding a line of bottle fermented Prosecco to their range, after examples from the completely organic CostadiLa estate appeared to be a much greater success than was initially expected from a niche product like this. Even something simple as Lambrusco can be had as a “metodo ancestrale” vintage wine as Bellei shows. The use of amphora for fermentation as well as ageing will become much more wide spread than is now the case, with especially COS showing the undiscovered potential with its Pithos Nero d’Avola, and Castello di Lispida in Veneto’s Colli Euganei using it to ferment Friulano and Merlot. And while conventional producers tend to shun any kind of collaboration out of fear of teaming up with the competition, the many “natural wine” associations and winefairs have created platforms for lively discussions and exchange of ideas and experiences, which are set to become a growing force in Italy’s winescape, and widen the horizon for producers and consumers alike.