International vs. Indigenous Varieties: What the Future Holds
Recently, in Verona, a conference billed “A Hundred Italian ‘Bordeaux’: Style, Elegance, Terroir” took place in the posh surroundings of the Villa Gritti. Among those attending were some of the superstars of Italian wine, including Prof. Attilio Scienza of the University of Milan; Giacomo Tachis, technical director of Antinoir and one of the forces behind the Supertuscans Sassicaia, Tignanello and Solaia; and Giampiero Nadali, alias Aristide, who reported this event at length on his respected blog. This article is a loose translation—really a summary—of Giampiero’s detailed report. It will be followed by another posting, in which Giampiero detailed the tasting that was the climax of the gathering.
Globalization? Nothing New Wine is, and has been, a business since Antiquity. Giuseppe Meregalli, President of an import company of the same name, explained that the négociants of Bordeaux played on an international stage two or more centuries ago and were instrumental in launching the Grand Cru classification system of 1855. The basis of that system was price: premiers crus were wines that customers were disposed to pay more for than for deuxièmes and so on. The merchants knew their markets well, had vision and were enterprising. There was precious little finance involved, zero marketing and no mass media, it goes without saying.
Gigliola Bozzi Gaviglio, President of Vinarius, the association of Italian wine retailers, explained that the strength of Bordeaux wines rests in the fact that they have a well-known and easily recognized style, based on the uniqueness and value of the terroir. This style is reinforced by the ability of the vineyard owners to focus all their efforts and their reputation on “flagship wines” as brands developed with the négociants. (She shied away from actually saying it, but the word we use in our house is “marketing”!)
One less wholesome aspect of the Bordeaux model, according to Aristide, is investment in prestige wines, which has distorting effects on the market.
“No Conflict between International and ‘Local’ Varieties,” Claims Scienza
Prof. Scienza declared, “There is no conflict between the maximum expression of ‘international’ varieties planted in Italy and the new faction promoting ‘local’ varieties. There is, rather, the need to invest in research and development of new varieties centered on the hybridization of Bordeaux grapes (Cabernet, Merlot) and ‘national’ varieties so that new wines of Italian style can be created.”
Meanwhile, there’s Giacomo Tachis. Many indeed believe that he is the father of the Supertuscans, Sassicaia the first and still the most famous of them all; and this “Bordelais” wine is among those which altered and revitalized Italian wine production, especially in Tuscany itself. “For now and possibly in the future, the renown of a wine is principally due to its variety, its vitigno. But it should be remembered that only in certain defined regions and localities does a grape reveal its ‘true’ style, with qualities that justify the renown. In other words, the same variety never produces identical wines in different places…”
The moment has arrived to proceed forthrightly ahead: to research and innovate with hybrids that can express the unique character of Italian terroirs. Now that we have established a certain reputation for quality on the international markets, there now seems to be a demand for stylistic alternatives that aren’t completely “made in France,” such as Sassicaia, Ornellaia and also the San Leonardos and Supertuscans. These are now competing with the premium wines made from indigenous grapes, and it is the time to introduce new varieties that are capable of expressing the best of Italian agronomy and wine know-how, and which can be united with Italy’s entrepreneurial spirit and the huge range of terroirs available throughout the country. The lesson of Bordeaux is there for us, again as articulated by Giacomo Tachis:
“Bordeaux has taught the world. So much so that the emerging wine nations—Chile, Argentina, California, Australia, South Africa—have taken account of Bordeaux not just technically but in their production and commercial philosophy. Europe is Europe, and the heart of the European wine world remains France, particularly as it is expressed in Bordeaux. America, Australia and the new countries produce, and will continue to produce, excellent wines. But they don’t have the culture, art, and literature of Europe (especially the parts that border Italy and communicate with Italy). Our wine is produced and sold with this value added.”
Photo by Giampiero Nadali