Agricultural environment - Viticulture - Wine and Emotions

Italianess in grape growing and wine: important values that we must defend and communicate

31 December 2014

Grape growing in “our boot” has profound roots (Enotria tellus: meaning cultivating plants tied to a pole). There are many archaeological testimonies: vessels in Syracuse, finds in the Po Valley and the Etruscans with their rituals and conception of drinking and cultivating the vineyard. The Etruscans even exported their wine in France. Amphorae found in modern-day Bourgogne prove this. Then there’s Columella (first century AD) who beautifully described how to conduct a vineyard and where. Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) wrote in his Natural History of the Rhone Valley, which can be considered the first home of quality wines in all of France and was founded in modern-day Narbonne. The Romans were responsible for the expansion of the vineyard and its cultivation northward with present-day effects on both the creation of ‘wine for all’ and the clear definition of “Vinum”, that is, watered wine and “Merum” or straight wine.

Tuscan agrarian landscape in the Middle-Ages

In the Middle Ages, wine was recovered thanks to the religious men living in abbeys and monasteries, the signs of “tractoria” (wagons for transporting grapes), the “palmentum” (zones for pressing grapes), the “cellarium”… tinelli (cum vessels fidctili et ligneis, 1036). All this history is crucial to us understanding the deep roots from which we come. Pier Dè Crescenzi, 1233-1320, discovered the characteristic differences between grapevine varieties (leaves, clusters, tastes, attitudes to aging). The Venetian Republic, a master of commerce and gateway to the East, offered us priceless fonts about wine and its origin. Perhaps the most compelling example is that of Malvasia. And then there was Catherine de’ Medici, married in 1533, who introduced France to the refinements: the use of the fork, a perchance for flavour and the aromas of wine and art.

With all this wealth, which I have only minimally and quickly summarised, we try to immerse ourselves in everyday behaviour. I have thought for a long time, at least three decades, about the dynamics of the grapevine and wine in all their manifestations; but also of professional and scholastic education and communication, and I am absolutely convinced there is a large ‘gap’. We have become increasingly less reflective and proud of what belongs to us, above all, of a history, culture and artisan tradition that is among the finest in the world. Instead, we have become increasingly dependent on the world of ‘French’ wines and its terminology, grapes and viticultural and winemaking choices. There are plenty of examples of good winemakers or wine experts who, wanting to feel ‘important’, defer to France and happily cultivate Bordeaux or neighbouring varieties… without giving enough consideration to their history, the wealth of territorial germplasm and agricultural areas, and in short, have no pride for their roots or the foresight of true future economic values. But have you ever heard of an “Italic” grapevine being grown across the Alps? Perhaps the only ones are the Trebbiano, called the Ugni blanc, which is used for distillates in Charente, a large Cognac region, or Nielluccio in Corse, a Sangiovese biotype.

To be even clearer, I will use only one example. It’s an almost daily occurrence, often in the most unexpected circumstances, to hear the term “terroir”. The most ‘naive’ winemakers, the older ones, more experienced ones and those who want to communicate their status all use it. But it’s also been picked up by many others. We organise conferences with the headline Terroirs, inviting expert professors from strictly beyond the Alps to tell us news about Bordeaux and Cabernet and Merlot wines… (I recall the ‘thoughts’ of Professor UsseglioTomasset!), to tell us how to use ‘wood’ to add aroma to wine, how to use the chips of different woods… and how the addition of this new ‘ingredient’… creates an aromatic delight… always in the scope of the “terroir” as the speaker will constantly reminds us, pronouncing the name with a slowed and forced French accent.

I have spent a lot of time with French expert colleagues, both for scientific and cultural exchanges and as a representative at the OIV in Paris and I am grateful for this fruitful past. I above all applaud my colleagues of the INRA-Angers (Christian Asselin team) who, in difficult times, succeeded in bringing to light a complex topic that the Romans already knew well and identified as “territorium”. I applaud these friends and researchers of Anger, who after gradually receiving no more funding for their project, managed to sell the ‘brand’ that has conquered many important spaces.
Back to viticulture, I remember when the French wine world chose ‘non culture’ as a national strategy, that is, absolute weeding with dangerous residual herbicides in the vineyards, also looking to export this technique… fortunately with limited success with us despite the support of some luminaries. Then there were the urban rich residues and the all sorts of rubbish they used in the Champagne vineyards. We didn’t waste time in Italy either… and introduced new systemic fungicides, insecticides, miticides… It was a time (the late ‘70s) when I, on-the-other-hand, discovered the research and teachings of Ivancich Gambaro in Padua and entered in contact with Baggiolini, Baillod and Schmidt at the Federal de Changins Station (Switzerland), which was extraordinarily avant garde in proposing a viticulture more in harmony with the territorium… and with a deep awareness of the need for healthier food and environments. I collected and sent predatory mites (to biologically counter spider mites) to my colleague Serge Kreiter, ENSAM, at the acarology laboratory of Montpellier and they were… just starting and we… were so far ahead!

Viticultural landscape in Tuscany

However, I do not wish to ramble or simply point out misdeeds. I simply want to wake up those who are profoundly sleeping. Today in France there are many organisations (Association des Vins Naturels, La Renaissance des Appellations, Vins S.A.I.N.S.) and it seems appropriate to remember that we must also respond to our cultural decadence. We have forgotten our priorities and have renounced our past or continued to break into many streams of ‘know-it-all’, albeit consolidated, entrepreneurs. The longer I walk on this earth, the more I find that many Italians lack a mindset that stems from their school education and find it hard to rebuild themselves on a large scale. I will try to explain myself better. The approach of the French “system” is based on the Cartesian method, which questions and wants to come to a reasoned demonstration of reality: i.e. definition, thesis, antithesis, conclusion. The typically ‘Italian’ approach, not method, demands ideological adherence to a statement, to postulates, with all the consequent possible manipulations of thought, or worse, detachment from reality. We have adhered to many ideologies… in our history and even today… we have plenty of examples of them.

Going back to my brief remarks, praise goes to the economy of French wine, which is structured, compact, divided into disciplines and highly professional. We must observe it well to learn and then, with our own slightly ‘artistic’ ability, always do even better. Slavishly copying is only detrimental. The extraordinary and varied regionalisation of our wine heritage is waiting for us to discover unique values elsewhere and, perhaps, we no longer realise how close they are. I therefore believe that we have certain strengths that are economically original and on which we must work quickly:
  • the many germplasm of grapevine varieties and their strong regionalisation;
  • the landscapes of Grapevine and Wine, a mosaic of refined energy enriched by history and culture;
  • the professionalism of the Italian medium-and-large-enterprise sector, but also in its intelligent and prepared artisans;
  • the production and communication of increasingly healthier wines and territories and the harbingers of other economies of total and Italian wellbeing.

This is my hope for the solid success of Italian wine in the future.

Zibibbo vine variety in Pantelleria island, Unesco heritage

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