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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 market share.

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 of flavours.

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 bitter finish.

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.

 

 

 

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