When a writer reaches a point in life where looking forward is an ever rarer privilege, the moment would seem opportune to look back and reminisce. I’ve lived in Italy for well over half a century, writing about wine, food, and other diversions. So, on hitting eighty, I decided to recollect some of my experiences over a period that spans what has come to be known as the modern renaissance of Italian wine.
The Good, the Bad and the Bubbly
Picture the author at his home in the remote hills of southern Tuscany seated at a stone table under an arbor facing three open bottles of wine—one red, one white, one sparkling—and three tasting glasses, from which he frequently sniffs and sips, then swishes the wine in his mouth and swallows, occasionally nibbling on morsels of bread and appearing to be actively engaged in a conversation, though there is no sign of another living soul in sight.
Author: So, old boy, all set?
Boso: Ready as I’ll ever be. But I still want to know why you insist on calling me Boso?
Author: Well, you’ll certainly remember my illustrious ancestor Boso, the margrave of Tuscany in the tenth century.
Boso: Sure, the whole crazy story. You learned about this Boso from your sister, tracer of lost souls, and you were so enthralled by this big cheese in the family that you started collecting clues about his life for a book called Boso’s Tuscany, and you got to chapter seventeen and …
Author: Gave up the ghost. Hey, congrats, your memory seems to be improving.
Boso: No doubt sharper than yours. But, I repeat, why call me Boso?
Author: Well, what would you prefer: Alter Ego, Second Self, Doppelgänger? Those aren’t even names. Anyway, like it or not, I’m in charge here. I’m the author and you’re a figment of my imagination. So you ought to be happy that I’m making you into a full-fledged persona.
Author: By the turn of the century I’d become disillusioned with the wine scene in general, not just in Italy. There was a tendency everywhere to standardize winemaking to please the palates of a new breed of critics who evaluated wines on a numerical scale. I’d always believed that describing wine in words was more meaningful to readers than rating them with numbers. Boy was I wrong. My way of writing about wine had been eclipsed by the preponderance of taster-raters and their numbers game.
Boso: Numbers game?
Author: The hundred-point rating system, which originated in the States and spread to Europe and beyond, changing patterns of producing and consuming wine from California to France and Italy. Soon wine drinkers didn’t seem to want words anymore, just scores and slogans. The craze for instant gratification not only crucified wine writing, it bled the soul out of wine.
Boso: So does anybody write about wine anymore?
Author: Well, hardly anybody. Literary-minded authors are an endangered species, a dying breed. Somebody or other called us winosaurs.
Boso: Winosaurs, not bad. But you Shakespeares, what was your shtick?
Author: Let’s say we tend, or tended, to evaluate wines in terms of origins, focusing on people and places, the natural and human factors that determine quality and character over time. Every wine worth lingering over has a story behind it, and to me the writer’s job is to convey that story to readers so that they can better understand and appreciate what’s in the glass. A point-rating gives only a fleeting notion of a wine’s value at the moment it’s tasted, and yet consumers everywhere have let themselves be sucker-punched by the numbers game.
Author: I learned as I went along. There were no really reliable guides to the wines even in Italian. Well, make an exception for Luigi Veronelli, who was the closest thing to a guru Italy had. His catalogues and books were ahead of everybody else and, naturally, people who cared about wine beyond their own family vineyards followed him.
Boso: Including you?
Author: Sure, but the difference was that I’m an outsider and a journalist and a born skeptic and I’ve always been a loner. So most of what I learned came from firsthand experience, traveling and tasting and asking questions and, above all, observing. If I hadn’t tasted the wines and got to know something about their origins, I wasn’t about to write about them.
Boso: Which leads to the million-dollar question: why did you write about them?
Author: Maybe by the time we get to the end of this saga I’ll have answered that question, but I doubt it.
Boso: Okay, but some background information seems in order here. Like how did you get interested in wine? When did you start writing about it? What were your qualifications, etcetera, etcetera?
Author: To start with the etceteras, I grew up in Minnesota in a family more oriented toward books than pleasures of the table. Wine was not part of my culture. When I came to Europe as a college kid, and then settled in Rome in the sixties, I discovered a whole new world of wine and food and I’ve been exploring it ever since.
From the introduction to Vino, the Wines and Winemakers of Italy (1980):
More than just a trip, this book represents a continuing adventure in which time plays a greater role than distance, for it began in 1959, when I first entered Italy at the Brenner Pass and drove down the old route through Bolzano and Trento to Verona, passing more vineyards in an afternoon, it seemed, than I had seen before in my lifetime. I have traveled many wine roads since, in Italy and elsewhere, yet my most vivid impression of the sort of place that wine comes from is still of those vineyards of the Adige valley, climbing from the stony banks of the river to as far up the mountainsides as a man with a hoe would dare to scramble.
Author: I loved following the old Roman ways. The Aurelia and Cassia to northern Lazio and Tuscany, the Flaminia to Umbria and Marche, the Salaria to the Adriatic coast, the Appia through southern Lazio to Campania. Those routes were reconstructed, of course, in the sense that they’d been widened and asphalted, but most of them traversed the Apennines, so the curves and climbs were endless and the surfaces often rough.
Boso: So a challenge to drive.
Author: More than a challenge a thrill. Traffic was rare and the scenery was magic. Virtually every turn in the road evoked an encounter with antiquity: castles and monasteries and fortified villages and farms and those towering hill towns that date back through the Middle Ages to Roman and Etruscan times. And everywhere vineyards and olive groves terraced into the wooded slopes.
Author: Inns in country places served local wines almost exclusively. Before you’d even order food, they’d ask whether you wanted bianco or rosso, which usually came in carafes. Or sometimes the host plunked a bottle or flask of the house special on the table with a tumbler for each guest and a spoken assurance that the wine was not only buono but genuino. If a wine was particularly good, I’d ask where it came from and seek out the source.
Boso: Seems sort of hit or miss.
Author: It led me to some fascinating characters in wonderfully out-of-the-way places. Even the most taciturn of vignaioli open up when recounting their wines. And even though my Italian was rudimentary, I understood them. We’d check out the vineyards and end up in the cantina full of ancient barrels and casks in cavernous settings with the requisite mold and cobwebs and odors of wines of generations past.
Author: … in 1968, I was offered the job of news editor at the International Herald Tribune in Paris and couldn’t pass that up. So I loaded up the VW and headed for Paris, arriving in June during the final phase of the student riots.
Boso: So from Italy to France, a step up in the wine world.
Author: I didn’t think of it that way. I had a special feeling for Italy, so, in 1969, I bought a crumbling old farmhouse in Tuscany, in the remote uplands outside of Cortona, and fixed it up as a base for vacations. As it turned out the vacations got longer and longer, since I was able to pile up loads of overtime working nights at the Herald Tribune.
Boso: So splitting your life between France and Italy.
Author: Yes, though the difference was that in France I was living out a workaday reality and in Italy I was pursuing a dream.
Escape to Tuscany
My aspirations grew until, in 1977, I turned down a generous offer to become managing editor and quit the IHT—my last gasp of stable employment—packed wife, kids, and a dog named Grappa into a Peugeot station wagon and headed for Tuscany.
We settled into our old farmhouse near Cortona, into what had been a vacation place in the Paris years and was now a permanent residence. There, as we raised a daughter and son as virtual Italians, I ventured into a late-blooming career as a writer on Italian wines.
We lived in splendid isolation at a remote burg called Teverina with no phone or TV or ready access to newspapers and the kids happily ensconced in a five-grade elementary class in a two-room schoolhouse with lunches prepared by a cheerful mamma cook.
About half of my time was spent writing and half on research, driving around calling on winemakers whose names I’d gleaned from the limited sources available in Italian. There were no mobile phones then and public phones were often out of order. Most of my visits were made unannounced, spur of the moment. With no set appointment, I’d show up and introduce myself—sometimes as early as seven in the morning.
My journalistic experience was indispensable—powers of observation and rapid analyses of situations, judgments of character, plus my one outstanding asset taste memory. If a wine made an impression on me, I could recall its aromas and flavors for years afterward.
Author: Through writer friends I’d found an agent in New York, who liked the manuscript and seemed reasonably confident he’d find a publisher. But, after a raft of rejections, a dozen or so mainly from big-name houses, he excused himself in a way that left no doubt he considered the project hopeless.
Boso: Why hopeless?
Author: Well, most publishers liked the writing, but others stated bluntly that Italian wines didn’t have the status to warrant a book, and that separate volumes on northern and southern Italy were out of the question. Comments ranged from the likes of “Who the hell would buy a book on Italian wine?” to “Who the hell is Burton Anderson?”
Author: Yeah, well, I was pretty damned stressed out, going fifteen-sixteen hours a day seven days a week. With that end of the year deadline looming, it was the most hectic period of my life. Then, at a certain point, about the time I started in on Sicily, I realized that I could do it and my frenzy gave way to euphoria.
Boso: So you relaxed a little.
Author: No way, but I entered what you might call a state of grace, knowing that the end was in sight and growingly confident that I had a hell of a good book going. Of course, I couldn’t be sure of what Peter Davison might think about it, but I no longer doubted that it would be published.
Boso: So what did Davison think about it?
Author: Once he got over his snit fit about my missing the deadline, I believe he actually fell in love with it. He wasn’t one for dishing out praise, but he told me that it was the first non-fiction book he’d handled that needed practically no editing. In fact, the galley proofs were ready way ahead of schedule. Publication was set for December but by October they’d sent out 500 review copies, more than they’d ever done for a book by a first-time author.
Boso: So great expectations.
Author: You bet. I was sure it was on its way to becoming a best-seller.
Boso: And what happened?
Author: Well, it didn’t become a best-seller.
A Smashing Debut
Boso: What’s that you’re holding?
Author: The remains of my first copy of Vino, the Wines and Winemakers of Italy.
Boso: What happened to it?
Author: I cannot tell a lie. I kicked it apart.
Boso: You’re kidding. Why?
Author: Well, after a profusion of favorable reviews, including that mention in the holiday book section of Time, I figured it was on its way to becoming a bestseller. Instead, the first sales report said it sold something like a coupla hundred copies. I was so pissed off I slammed it on the floor and kicked the bejeezus out of it.
Boso: Oh boy, yeah, that’s you. But, I mean really, kicking apart your first copy of your first book.
Author: Yep, kind of crazy, but as it turned out no real harm done.
Boso: What does that mean?
Author: Well, I needed a mark-up copy to keep track of any changes I’d want for a second edition. So I taped it back together, filled it with notes, and it’s been on the shelf ever since.
“We make magnificent wines here, surely among the greatest on earth,” [Bruno Ceretto] continued, “and I say that with no qualms whatsoever. I’m happy to see great French wines served in our better restaurants. But my ambition is to have Ceretto wines on the lists of the great restaurants of Paris. Until that day comes, until there’s some equilibrium in the international price structure, I don’t think we Italian winemakers who care can feel we’ve realized our potential in this field.”
We call it the magic bottle,” Croesi said, “because it always looks full.”
In fact, it was almost empty, but there was a touch of magic in the wine. Its components, taken individually, would seem to lack finesse, but taken together, like brush strokes in a Van Gogh landscape, they expressed the quintessence of an environment. One should ask no more of a wine, or a landscape, than that.
“You hope for a wine like Maso Scari 1971 every year,” said Michele de Cles. “But, if you’re lucky, you might get one like it once in a decade. If you’re not lucky, it might be once in a lifetime.”
Witness Sandro Princic, about thirty, blond, blue-eyed, vigorous, self-assured, drawing wine with a bulb-handled ‘thief’ from a vat in the family cellar at Pradis di Cormons, outside Gorizia.
“Taste this,” he said, releasing some of the limpid golden liquid into my glass. “To me, our Tocai of Collio is the best wine in the world!”
His father, Isidoro, about sixty, graying, blue-eyed, vigorous, jocular, grinned up the ladder at his son. “That Sandro,” he said in heavily accented Italian, “he’s a proud one, isn’t he?”
Coralia Pignatelli della Leonessa, proprietess of Castell’in Villa near Castelnuovo Berardenga, provides indisputable evidence that women—princesses, at that—can make wine as well as men. “As well? I think better,” she said. “Women are more sensitive to subtleties, more refined in their tastes. If more women were involved, we’d have finer wine.”
Some Tuscans still shake their heads in disbelief, but none would any longer dare question Sassicaia’s credentials, especially after the astounding triumph in London. There, in a showdown of world Cabernets sponsored by Decanter magazine in 1978, Sassicaia swept the field of thirty-four wines from eleven nations, winning unprecedented perfect scores of twenty from two of five panelists and the unanimous accolade of “the best wine in the tasting.”
The people in a country village, their features so curiously mixed between ancient Umbrian, Etruscan, Latin, Goth, Hun, and Gaul, regard you with cool suspicion when you approach: another invader threatening to upset the tranquility of a summer afternoon? No, merely a pilgrim come to try the wine. Your impromptu host becomes your instant friend, who will not let you go until you have drunk your fill in a cool cantina and sampled homemade prosciutto, salami, pecorino, and cakes, and vowed repeatedly to return some Sunday with your family for a real feast.
My introduction to Torre Ercolana came with that 1968. I had heard wine described in musical terms before—those allusions to instruments, tempos and tones that wine writers sometimes resort to when they tire of citing fruit and flowers. But this went beyond mere violins or trumpets, andantes or allegrettos. My first mouthful of Torre Ercolana was like my first earful of Beethoven’s Fifth: so overpowering that it left me grasping for adjectives to describe it. But, come to think of it, most adjectives wouldn’t do anyway. How do you put a symphony into words?
The wine world is filled with people who like to draw neat lines between the types of wine that come from different places. Some even go so far as to submit that there is such a thing as, for example, a “typical Italian” or “typical French” wine. In Italy distinctions are often drawn between “northern” and “southern” wines, the implication usually being that the northerners are naturally superior.
I would direct any such misguided souls to the brothers Antonio and Walter Mastroberardino, administrators of a winery that ranks as outstanding, not only in Campania or in southern Italy or, indeed, in all of Italy, but anywhere in the world today. All that would be needed to sweep away the cobwebs from prejudiced minds would be two or three glasses of the finer Mastroberardino wines, which in speaking for themselves also put in a good word for their southern brothers.
As a recent convert to Marsala—good, nay, excellent Marsala—I risk sounding like a missionary of a very unpopular faith. Oh well, good Marsala needs a few apostles to spread the word if it is ever to carry off a revival, now that some responsible producers have determined to wash the egg (not to mention cream, coffee, banana, strawberry, and chocolate syrup) off its face.
On Pantelleria, as in so many other places in Italy north and south, mechanized cultivation of vines is a practical impossibility. They must be tended vineyard by vineyard, plant by plant, by the knowing hands of man, as they have been for millennia, since the Greeks and Phoenicians came to this dark and mystical island in the sun and created nectars for the gods.
The Enigmatic Eighties
Italy is wine’s leading enigma. How can a nation produce and export more than any other in a world that knows so little about its wine? This book [The Pocket Guide to Italian Wine] is an attempt to fit the answer into your pocket.
Barolo is at its best when there’s a nip in the air—now in autumn with game in season and white truffles to shave over all manner of dishes and in winter when wood-fires smolder all day and there’s time to roast and braise beef until it’s so tender you can cut it with a fork. Barolo is for experienced palates, though acquiring a taste for its rich, warm, intriguing but uncompromising beauty is a privilege rather than an obligation.
Pinot Grigio’s rise to fame—cynics might call it notoriety—could never have been anticipated during its inauspicious early days in Italy. Though the wine can reach admirable levels from skilled producers, few would attribute its commercial triumphs to noble status. Rather its burgeoning fortunes seem due to a name which magically conveys the notion that a Pinot can be uniquely Italian.
Boso: Speaking of booms, what about Prosecco?
Author: Yeah, I absolutely did not see that one coming. In Vino I talked about a pleasant little bubbly that was scarcely known beyond the Veneto. I’d come across it in Venice in local bars that served it as an ombra, the aperitif or tipple that Venetians sip at intervals during the day. I couldn’t imagine that Prosecco would ever be a worldwide phenomenon.
The practice of making wines that contain some degree of residual carbon dioxide—a natural byproduct of fermentation—continued merrily through the ages, most actively in the hills and valleys of northern Italy between the Apennines and the Po, in Emilia, Lombardy and Piedmont. There, nearly every grape that grows is a potential source of wines described as spumante or frizzante. The list takes in varieties for both white and red wines, ranging through the likes of the popular Lambrusco and Moscato for Asti Spumante to various clones of Malvasia, Barbera, Brachetto, Bonarda, Grignolino, the Pinots, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot, the lowly Trebbiano and, yes, even the loftiest of the Piedmontese nobles Nebbiolo.
Resurrecting the Renaissance
Boso: So Italian wine survived methanol.
Author: I was amazed, frankly. But then, the Italians historically have shown resilience in the face of adversity. What they call l’arte di arrangiarsi or the art of getting by or, better, a knack for survival or, better yet, a genius for bouncing back from predicaments that seemed hopeless. Less than a year after the scandal, leaders of the wine industry had not only resumed business as usual, but were showing unprecedented buoyancy in their work.
In the halcyon days, most landowners were titled or wealthy families from Florence or Siena with castles or villas surrounded by sloping land which supplied them with wine, olive oil, vegetables, fruit, nuts, mushrooms, beef, pork, poultry, game, firewood, and, if they were lucky, even a handy bit of unreported income. Most estates, or fattorie, comprised vast spreads of mixed crops tended by contadini, who, to make up for their token stipends, were ceded a podere, a small farm, which kept them more or less self-sufficient. The manager, or fattore, had to be shrewd (furbo, an admired trait in Tuscany) to keep the contadini from purloining a greater share of the estate’s produce than he himself could deal off on the sly while fixing the books in a way that kept the owners happy. Of course, all parties knew what the others were up to, but in its Machiavellian way the system worked.
Bear in mind that by the 1980s some sort of terminology was needed by English-speaking writers to explain the peculiarly Tuscan phenomenon in which wines of no official status beyond vino da tavola often outclassed wines that carried Italy’s “highest” rank, the guarantee of DOCG. Conditioned by this ambiguity, we writers often used the epithet with a sense of irony, sniffing and sipping and swishing our “Super Tuscans” with our tongues in our cheeks.
By the late eighties, the renaissance was in full flower. Some would submit that in the previous three decades, Italian wine progressed more than it had in the previous three centuries. Or, as some might say, in the previous three millennia, harking back to when the Greeks colonized southern Italy as Magna Grecia and alluded to the territory as Enotria, the land of wine.
When the dregs had settled to his satisfaction, Cavalli grasped the neck of a bottle of the ’61 and, aiming it away from himself over a sink, removed the bottle cap and gave the wizened cork a gingerly twist. It needed no more coaxing, exiting in an explosion that splattered purple over the white tile wall and elicited a shout of glee from my host.
It took him three short, foamy pours to fill my glass half way with the astonishingly bright violet liquid. I lifted the glass and gave the wine a gentle swish, which left arches on the side of the glass like mauve-tinted gothic windows. To the nose, it suggested grape jam, damp earth, sun-dried tomatoes and something spicy, like nutmeg. As lively on the palate as a young wine, its flavor was dry but mellow with hints of ripe plums and tar. And there at the finish was that suggestion of bracing bitter that characterizes Lambrusco of any age, even twenty-six years.
Anything as venerable as aceto balsamico would have to have webs of history spun around it, laced with legends, myths, and anecdotes. Devotees have been known to sit up half the night recollecting experiences, bantering as spiritedly about vinegar as other Italians do about politics, sports, automobiles, music, sex, wine or memorable meals.
My own introduction to aceto balsamico came late one evening after dinner at a fine restaurant, where the number of courses and wines ranged beyond count. As a parting gesture, the host handed each guest a teaspoon and carefully dripped a few drops of a very old balsamico into it. A nightcap never to be forgotten.
Boso: What now?
Author: The Atlas, imagining what it could have been if I’d been able to do a second edition.
Boso: Why, wasn’t the first edition good enough? It won all those prizes, no?
Author: Sure, it won all those prizes, swept the board as wine book of the year in the US and UK.
Boso: So what was the problem?
Author: The problem was that I had only two years to research and write the Atlas and that wasn’t enough to complete the first edition to the standards I’d anticipated. I was counting on a second edition to perfect things, especially the maps.
Boso: What happened?
Author: After more than a year of revising and planning for a new edition, we began dickering about costs, and the publisher opted out. Said they couldn’t possibly meet my proposed fee and couldn’t afford to revise the maps. Look at this [the Author holds up what he describes as his “mark-up copy” and flips to pages filled with notes and comments, sketches and cancelations and various hard to decipher marginalia]. If ever a book needed a revision, it was this.
Over a period of four thousand years Italians have woven together a nationwide tapestry of Vitis vinifera unequaled for color and texture. Vineyards have been planted in most places where function permits and in many where practicability was not a prime consideration: across the foothills of the Alps, down along the Apennines to the toe of the boot-shaped peninsula, and out on the islands of Sicily and Sardinia. Vines suit the nature of a country whose cultivable land between the limits of mountain and sea supplies the basics of what has come to be known as the Mediterranean diet. But wine goes beyond material sustenance to nourish the spirit of a people whose highest form of culture might be described as the art of living. Italy today moves at a modern pace, but within the context of a history that remains an active element of everyday life rather than a tired record of the past. Every corner of the country has its own variations of old and new, lending special flavor to each of its cities, its hill towns and seaports, its art and music, its cooking and its wines.
Perhaps learning about wine in the country led me to approach the subject in a different way. For to me no wine, however satisfying to drink, could be complete without a curriculum vitae: who made it, when, how, and, the fundamental question, where? In Italy, where every hillside has its own look and feel, the lay of the land, the texture of the soil, and the variables of climate are the keys to a wine’s personality. For, with few exceptions, fine wines tell more about the vineyards they were born in than the cellars where they were raised.
Since then Valentini’s aged Trebbiano has risen in prestige and value while the others have remained in the rank and file of the Abruzzi’s invariably youthful whites. “Yes, but wouldn’t you know that some of those same growers who refused them in the past came to me recently to ask for cuttings,” he said. “Well, I showed them to the door and told them: If you come by night and steal them, you might get away with it, but if you come by day, I’ll shoot you.” The Lord of the Vines laughed, knowing that even if they spirited away the cuttings, they could never match the wisdom, or the wizardry, behind perhaps the only Trebbiano that has ever been described as great.
No, Italy’s idiosyncratic ways of cooking shouldn’t be muddled in generic stews. It’s worth recalling that Italian peoples, historically separated by mountain ranges and expanses of water, never supported monolithic rule long enough or strongly enough to forsake their parochial identities. Even now, long after former kingdoms, principalities, duchies, and lilliputian republics metamorphosed into twenty regions comprising nearly a hundred provinces, ethnic peculiarities remain in customs, speech, and cooking. The local flavors of Italy’s trattorie, osterie, locande, taverne, pizzeria, pasticcerie, botteghe, and mercati are often imitated but rarely duplicated elsewhere. In more than thirty years of dining in the country, the meals I’ve most savored invariably told a story of a people and a place.
Well, I had gone on record some time ago as holding Verdicchio a cut above other popular Italian whites. I had even taken a liking for the fizzy and sparkling versions that here are true to tradition. But, I confess, my eyes weren’t really opened until the late 1980s when I tasted a 1982 Verdicchio di Matelica (from the smaller, higher DOC zone set in the Apennines) from the estate of Fratelli Bisci. The Bisci brothers surely hadn’t raised their wine as a Burgundy, yet it had depth and intricate shadings of bouquet and flavor with a lingering voluptuousness that would have left more than a few vaunted crus of the Côte d’Or behind feeling lean and mean.
It might be hard to swallow the idea that a wine labeled Südtiroler Ruländer Qualitätswein eines bestimmten Anbaugebietes Kellereigenossenschaft Schreckbichl could be as Italian as a Verdi opera or a pizza napoletana. That same bottle may be labeled as Alto Adige Pinot Grigio denominazione di origine controllata Produttori Colterenzio—somewhat easier for customers not accustomed to umlauts and 22-letter words.
Studies in Contrasts
The wine’s ultimate aging potential isn’t known, because all vintages to date are in splendid form and improving. As for the price, Ettore Falvo shrugs with a serene smile that seems to say that at Avignonesi Occhio di Pernice isn’t considered so much a commercial item as, perhaps, a gift of the gods.
“It’s true that fine wines rely on enological skills that might be defined as artistic,” says Angelo [Gaja]. “But, in my Piedmontese heart, I’ve always known that the fundamental of a great wine is terrain. I learned from my father that certain vineyards produce superior wines, because there’s something special in the soil, the lay of the land, the microclimate—the genius of what the French call terroir.”
But then Sergio Manetti has found plenty to amuse himself in the thirty years since he bought the small Monte Vertine estate near the village of Radda in Chianti, thirty miles south of Florence, and, soon after, sold his family steel business to finance winemaking and other diversions. “I’m a lucky man,” he says with a chuckle in his raspy voice. “I’ve been able to do pretty much everything I like to do in life.”
John [Dunkley] has long been respected as one of Chianti’s most astute observers, combining the detachment of an outsider with a critical spirit that has engendered some legendary quips. For instance, when Chianti was promoted from DOC to DOCG in 1984, he voiced his reservations about the guarantee with the query: “But what happens if an unsatisfied customer demands his money back?”
Author: In fact, over the last couple of decades there’s been a clear tendency toward better balanced, more elegant wines. Skilled practitioners are using small barrels to achieve more intense color and flavor in wines with subtle background notes of oak that enhance style and complexity. And, most noticeably, there’s been a re-evaluation of native varieties, everywhere, north and south.
Author: But there’s little we idealists can do to contain the spread of mediocrity, the ‘McDonaldsization’ of the food world, if you will. Italy has been contaminated too, though I’d have to say that overall Italians have resisted the invasion with more aplomb than others. You know why? Call it local pride or, if you prefer, the old Roman genius loci.
The Rating Game
Boso: You mention wine snobs comparing Parker points, obviously looking for those hundreds that signify perfection.
Author: I repeat that I don’t believe there is, or ever will be, a perfect wine. Or, anyway, I’ve never to my knowledge tasted a perfect wine, though I’m not sure I’d recognize one if I had. That’s why I rant and rave when raters hand out their perfect hundreds. What could be more dreary than a world full of winemakers convinced that they’d achieved perfection?
The virtuosos often taste in solitary confines remote from the atmosphere in which wine is normally consumed: with food, in company in convivial surroundings, as a drink to be savored and admired, not as a specimen being put to the test. It depresses me to witness wines being judged clinically, scrutinized and analyzed by impersonators of wine-tasting robots.
Here I’m talking about wines that bespeak their origins. And, yes, I’m an advocate of the tenets of terroir, the credo of cru, as conceived by the French and embraced by winemakers everywhere who work with grapes from designated vineyards. To us terroiristes, it’s essential that procedures in vineyards and cellars respect the nature of the soil, the ecosystem, the variables of each vintage, the bona fide ways of producing and aging wines. Such wines carry an indelible pedigree, whether they come from a grand cru chateau or a devoted vigneron’s half hectare.
Here’s a sampling of winespeak descriptive terms in no particular order: prickly pear juice; witch hazel; earthy mushrooms; creosote; tamarillo; animal gaminess; pomegranate; Christmas cake; mulch; showy nose; medicinal nose; brooding nose; nutty nose; damp fur; minerally accented red plum; pungent minty plums, balsamic marzipan; beefy-textured chestnut; cream soda; fried flowers; butcher shop smells; beef blood; pigeon blood; grilled bacon; blood sausage; incense; India ink; squid ink; linseed oil; hairspray; cherry Jell-O; cracked green peppercorns; Acapulco sunsets; graphite shavings; pink panty punch; orange zest; crystallized ginger; musk; jammy bramble fruit; coal dust; cheesy; cherry-berry; spice box; diesel; smoky plum; shoe polish; huckleberry; weedy; leafy; lead pencil; truffly underbrush; camphor; cotton candy; smoky meat; oriental spices; quince; tree bark; gooseberry; warm suet pudding; the Elephant & Castle tube station.
Awesome! And to think that the sources of all those wondrous sensations were once just plain old bunches of grapes.
As I wrote many years ago, and continue to maintain, the key to the identity of any authentic Chianti Classico—as in the wines of any great region—is individual expression. A wine from Gaiole or Radda should be distinguishable from its counterparts from Panzano or Castellina. It should also be subtly diverse from its neighbors, with its own array of character traits and nuances and its own level of excellence. And yet, there should be something universal there as well, not a common denominator but a generic mark of distinction. Whether you call it race or breed or rustic elegance, as I do, it is there in the truest and finest wines of Chianti Classico in that indescribable but unmistakable magic of the place it comes from.
I too have a penchant for alternate routes, byways, back roads, the further out-of-the-way the better. Getting lost is a privilege in Tuscany. That is, if you enjoy drifting around imagining things the way they used to be. Somehow, after more than fifty years here, I’m still capable of rolling over a rise and catching a view and feeling that same enchantment, that same tingly thrill that I felt the first time I came through. I have this habit of conceptualizing old maps as I travel, coming upon towns and villages that were once self-ruling entities—fiefs, dukedoms, minuscule city-states—that require only a little cerebral stardust to wish away the blemishes of the modern age.