The vineyard, grape and wine have accompanied people and civilisations from the earliest times, but we can’t yet fully understand this extraordinary richness. It would be useful, informative and even enjoyable to retrace the testimonials that provide us with the archaeology of the territories, the literature from the oldest writings and representations, to continue with the endless stages between past centuries and our time. The latter (1950-1975) is the period that has best defined the vineyards, in which the cultivation of vines has changed significantly, our knowledge of grape fermentation processes have been enriched, as the knowledge about the subsequent evolution and aging of wines. It’s also a period in which the technician has consolidated his operation mainly to the cellar and spent little time among vineyards and grapes. He must transform all that arrives in the cellar using every means ‘allowed’ by ever more complex laws just to reach his purpose: the fundamental goals of production increases and cost containment with ever more innovative means.
I was thinking recently that I have had the opportunity to observe a historic transition with its major changes, thus being both a witness and a participant.
I have an equally clear memory of my father who, as a protagonist of the previous period, told me to make note of the change: “for us wine artisans, the moment of defeat has arrived. Now wine is “made” in the cellar. It is created the way the consumer likes it and it is produced in big quantities”. In subsequent times (1954-1974), my father proved to be a prophet and we survived only thanks to the loyal customer base my grandfather had served. I have difficult but also beautiful and spontaneous memories of magnificent harvests shared with many friends and relatives or prolonged tastings in the cellar of each barrel and then lunches for the guests (mother had prepared for days!) that started very slowly, of them leaving with a smile among the red-lined casks on the ‘Leoncino OM’ truck circled in grey.
Then the ’80s came, in which, little by little, the grape regained its fundamental value. The vineyards received more attention, production was reduced and some even thinned the grapes to the ‘disgust’ of our grandparents who remembered a recent history of sacrifice and collecting the berries that had fallen to the ground…
This period also marked the beginning of a new need: wine became the world of passionate people who were totally immersed in the culture, history and emotion of sharing a banquet. It’s a period that shook the world and some territories achieved important success through huge investments in capital and human energy. It was a real renaissance especially for the enlightened and the deserving ones who brought the prestige of good wine to every corner of the globe.
Of course, production decisions continued to be made in order to standardise wines, to isolate them from their areas of origin, to obtain products easily reproducible elsewhere or even products symbolic of “nothing”, supported by intensive techniques in the vineyard and cellar and effective advertising.
In this period, there was a strong and still growing demand for authenticity and beauty in many of our habits and behaviours. After the “snacks with a surprise gift”, after plenty of surrogates of every kind and category (housing, clothing, environment, food, holidays), there was a very clear demand for more authentic, original, genuine and ‘natural’ values. Our nourishment returned to being the great glue of conviviality and life expectancy (first we eat well, then we talk, think and see our doctor less).
The food industry was also the subject of deceptive legislation regarding authenticity and this made life difficult for the consumer wanting to understand the origin of their products (meat, cereals, milk, olive oil, fruit and vegetables and… wine). But is wine still authentic?
The grapes are produced in many different environments with very different methods and so is the resulting wine. In several cases, the wine appeals to simplified and standardised tastes that head towards becoming soft drinks… It is not uncommon, however, to hear about wines that age very well, to hear talk about sensational vintages, “verticals” tastings, soaring wine auctions… but have you ever wondered how real these wines are? Or if they are full of dangerous preservatives like SO2? Why shouldn’t the buyer know?
The true life of a wine is measured only by whether it has been produced without the addition of preservatives or additives, otherwise they must be declared. And here the letter of Columella in the De Re Rustica comes to mind “We consider the best wine that which ages without additives. Nothing should be mixed into it because it alters its natural taste. The finest wines are those that have provided the best pleasure only through their natural qualities”.
The success of wine has always brought us, almost everywhere, towards forms of monoculture with their related series of problems. Thus their environmental sustainability becomes essential and should be regulated and “felt” by all to contain the negative impact on the territory. Vineyards “consume” the soil and pollute so much that they are at odds with their beauty… hence the need to cultivate better. So I thought we could summarise, in a few sentences, a better way to produce wine perhaps more just and authentic.
- The vineyards must meet the criteria of environmental sustainability and create the basis for wines that bear the character of the place from which they come. The producer must let the environment express itself in the most real way and carry out a cultivation that collects and transfers the particular characteristics of that site from which it derives and link it to the local history. Remember that the soil “dominates” the vine, from first growth until the first sip of wine. Old vineyards need to be revalued. The consumer must be offered true wines that speak of origin, seasonality and the varietals of the area. This is the strongest choice and the richest both culturally and intellectually.
- The wine, before being good, must be true in that it corresponds exactly to reality, and thus frank, genuine, honest, reliable and sincere. Then it must be good, preferably very good and healthy. The wine must convey real emotions and its magic lies in making us even more “genuine” to ourselves and possibly to others. Avoid mystifying wine through misleading, out-dated or dishonest advertising. Wine is an impressive cultural matter and thus deserves great respect and maturity of the mind.
- The current legislation must be profoundly simplified, with a few clear and unambiguous rules and then enforce them. The current legislation is “opaque” and lacking in content useful to the buyer. It’s amazing that the consumer is not given the same information on a wine label as they are for any other food product (what is added, removed, including anything not coming from the grapes). The categories of producers should be made more transparent. After the valuable brand of each one there should be a truthful listing of “industry, bottler, artisan”(prominently written).
- Existing schools should collaborate to enrich the programs with an education that places more emphasis on the disciplines of sustainable agriculture, viticulture of the territories and their history and wine as a noble and authentic product. School subjects should embrace a more complex and functional logic on sustainable economic issues: agriculture is a complex, dynamic and fragile ‘organism’ and must have a complex preparation (farming today and tomorrow: remember that we reap the benefits that come from the past!).
- In the past few decades, we have rejected deeply the most basic rules of good farming, choosing instead a quick, short-sighted and foolish profit. The consequences are evident in the increasingly complex problems of pathological adversities for each crop, in the loss of soil fertility and the loss of enthusiasm in many farmers.
- The young, if well-educated and professionally prepared represent a solid future but we must “build” and verify that their ‘entrance’ in agriculture is a fully conscious one even if it is encouraged by economic incentives. Their skills and constant preparation are the assets necessary to their fate and that of those who will succeed them.
- Last but certainly not least, we need a useful tool to monitor the potential environmental impact generated in the various stages of wine production. This would help the producer to grow and immediately inform the consumer of the production strategy of the company they’re about to invest in. I’m referring to calculating their Carbon footprint – Environmental Life Cycle Assessment.
“Man’s maturity means to have regained the seriousness that he had as a child at play.”
( Friedrich Wilhem Nietzsche)