About thirty years ago, I attended an Italian wine dinner in Sydney. At the time, I thought I knew a fair bit about wine – and being of Barossan background, was undoubtedly biased. And I knew that I didn’t like the Italian wines served at the dinner. My memory of them was of being poorly made, with many oxidised and not attractive on the nose or in the mouth. I didn’t know what brettanomyces was back then but upon reflection, I must have been tasting that as well.
I am happy to admit now that, back then, I didn’t know that much about the world of wine. But I suspect that my assessment wasn’t too far wrong. Many Italian wines were still made in an ancient style and, to a young Australian used to bright and generally clean wines, Italian wines could taste unbalanced and jarring.
In the 1980’s, Flying Winemakers, many Australian, propagated the Old World, including Italy, preaching such heretical mantras as winery hygiene, vineyard yield reduction, controlled fermentations and chemical analysis. They also brought with them an understanding of the latest winery technology. While they met initial resistance, these New World winemakers were having amazing sales success in important markets, so it made economic sense to adopt their practices. As a result, the base quality of Italian wines improved dramatically.
Then came the 1990’s and the massive influence of Robert Parker. Parker favoured highly concentrated, high alcohol blockbusters born of late picking and influence of new oak. Those wines highly rated by Parker attracted phenomenal prices. So the whole world – including Italy – slavishly, somewhat naturally followed the quest for higher Parker points. And what we saw in the world of wine was a massive intersection of…sameness. Dead fruit, powerful but “undelicious” wines of which more than a glass was difficult to drink.
In Italy, where the culture of wine and food has been symbiotic for eternity, they realised that in striving for better quality and greater world market appreciation they had lost something even more important – their culture of regional uniqueness and food friendliness.
And so the pendulum started to swing back. Italian producers clung tightly to the lessons of higher quality (vineyard health, yield, organic practices, winery cleanliness). But they also reached back to the heritage of traditional winemaking.
This has continued to such an extent that a country that was in the dark ages of winemaking a generation ago, is now a pioneer.
Indigenous grapes – there has been a move away from international varietals back to indigenous grapes. The modern winemaking techniques allowed previously marginal varieties to shine and become wines that truly speak of their place;
Organic / biodynamic production – Italy continues down this path with great purpose. Wine is a food – consumers are paying the same attention to what they drink as to what they eat. It is pointless to eat organic meat and vegetables washed down by a wine laden with additives. In Panzano-in-Chianti, arguably the highest quality growing area in Chianti Classico, 95% of 22 producers are certified organic. And while sulphur has a place in the preservation of wine, a growing section of the population has health issues with it. So there is a push for much lower sulphur levels. Zuffa Wines in Romagna makes a sangiovese that has 2-3 parts sulphur per million;
Oak – many entry level Italian reds see zero oak. They are just expressions of the vineyard, fresh and quaffable. If there is oak used it is often very large format, and old. Oak is used as an aging vessel, not as a flavour additive;
Concrete vats – there is a move away from stainless steel and oak back to concrete fermentation vats. Many believe that this is the most benign fermentation vessel;
Climate change – new clones are being developed (e.g. Cabernet Volos) and used that require significantly less spraying (two versus fifteen times per season) with a huge impact on tractor usage, soil compaction and general environmental fatigue;
Biodiversity – monoculture is bad for the long-term health of the vineyard. Enrico Rivetto of Rivetto Wines in Piemonte ripped out a hectare (two million euro worth!) to plant fruit trees, aromatic herbs and wheat, create ponds and bring back birds and environmental diversity. Giovanni Manetti of Fontodi in Chianti grazes Chianina cows in his vineyards;
Single vineyards – Italy is a landscape of diamond cut facets that begets thousands of tiny vineyards. Winemakers are discovering the different characteristics brought to their wines by expressing this plethora of different microclimates.
Pasqualine Lepeltier, first female Master Sommelier of France, recently opined “the next revolution will go through the palate…what we eat and drink has such a direct impact on our pleasure, on our intuition, on our intellect and on our body.”
Italy is perfectly poised to take advantage of this revolution. For diversity it makes more than 350 indigenous grapes into wine from limitless unique microclimates. Plus it is leading on vineyard health, biodiversity and minimum intervention. Italian wines will bring endless excitement to its quickly growing fan base. It has come the full circle since my first introduction to the bretty wines of 30 years ago.
It is ironic that Australia, a country that did so much to bring Italy out of the dark ages of winemaking, is now lagging the student in some of the more innovative practices and philosophies.Australia, with a more conservative drinking public and a fervour for cleanliness and science, is now challenged as to “what next?”
Can the great teacher become the great student?
Are we confident enough to let the authentic regionality and diversity of this wide brown land be expressed in the bottle? With less additives and intervention to conform to a marketing style? And with attention to sustainability and biodiversity?
If the answer is “yes” to all of these questions then we are in for exciting times ahead.