Italy's Rearguard Action (March 8, 2000)
Italy, more than any other Old World wine region,
has resisted the siren call of the New World's varietal imperialism.
In other words, labelling by grape name.
New World wines used to be a geographic phenomenon,
the preserve of the upstart wine regions of former colonies
that began to challenge France, Italy, Germany and Spain for
Inspired by California in the 1960s, the wines
produced outside the traditional European regions were labelled
by the grape variety from which they were made rather than the
location where the grapes were grown. The style was different
too. North Americans' impatience with wines that had to be laid
down for several years before they were drinkable resulted in
the production of fruit-driven wines that were immediately accessible.
Soft and jammy, their appeal was their table-readiness and the
fact that they were not chess problems: you could quaff them
without having to decipher them. So successful was the New World
style that producers in Europe began to emulate it. Australian
winemakers having finished their harvest downunder flew to Europe
to create New World products there. Eventually, the wines that
bore varietal labels (Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot,
etc.) all began to taste alike, resulting in a global homogenisation
Except for Italy which, for the most part, has
remained true to its traditional grape verities and time-honoured
methods of production. Of all the wines of the world, the whites
and reds of Italy are the most recognizable. There is no mistaking
the austere, aristocratic taste of a Barolo with its sinewy,
truffle, rose petal and tar flavours or the racy acidity of
a Chianti with its red berry fruit, earthiness and characteristic
The Nebbiolo grape that produces Barolo and Barbaresco
has never performed well outside its native Piemonte. The Sangiovese
that is blended with Canaiolo for Chianti and Vino Nobile di
Montepulciano also makes Brunello di Montalcino and is most
at home in Tuscany. The Valpolicellas and Amarones of Veneto
cannot be replicated elsewhere.
Even Italian whites are unique - Soave, Greco
di Tufo, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, Verdicchio dei Castelli
di Jesi, none could ever be mistaken for Chardonnay, the chicken
breast of wines, or Sauvignon Blanc, that other ubiquitously
planted grape around the globe.
As the world's wines dumb down to an international
style thank heaven for the vintners of Italy who stick to their
local varieties and traditional ways. Flying winemakers should
be stopped at European airports and sent home if we are to retain
wines of character that speak to their ancient roots and to
the culture of the men and women who make them.