Among the many hundreds of Italian vines there is a pecking order. Some are more important than others. Often, the ones in power don’t shy away from letting the subjacent ones know who is on top.
In Italy, Nebbiolo and Sangiovese are the Chairman and the CEO. But not just any Nebbiolo or Sangiovese. The Nebbiolo must come from the Langhe, preferably Barolo or Barbaresco. And Sangiovese, while prolific, must be from the right neighborhood, Montalcino. Everywhere else is the other side of the tracks.
If you are Montepulciano or Nero d’Avola, what are the chances you’ll make it to the ruling class? You might have breeding and pedigree, but location is paramount. You have to come from the right place. And knowing one’s place in Italy’s viticultural society is vital to one’s status.
Let’s look at the ladder of dominance, from the perspective of a common grape, Trebbiano. Known for its ubiquity over its rarity, this grape was written off years ago for being light and thin and acidic, possessing little character. Yes, there are a few producers in Abruzzo who have been able to coerce nobility out of their plantings, like Pepe and Valentini. They’ll make it to Baron or Count, but never to King or Queen.
“It’s the way of the world,” a cellar master in Abruzzo once told me. “You are born where you are born and you live the life you were meant to live. Kings and millionaires don’t always have the greatest life.” The cellar master was a humble man, a peasant, who rose up in his village to commandeer the cellar of a small estate. But he never forgot who was in charge of the land. “We don’t own these vines, those belong to the wealthy land owners,” he once remarked as we were walking the vineyards. “They are down at the beach, eating fresh seafood and playing bocce ball in their swim shorts. They take long naps; they put on three or four kilos in the month of August. And when they come back for harvest they are sluggish from their leisure. Just like their crus, the important wines we make for them in their small French barrels.” It took me years to understand what he was driving at. Now it is very clear.
Even if you have the blood of royalty in your grape line, like Sangiovese or Nebbiolo, this isn’t an automatic shoo in to the board of directors. That is the realm of executive platinum class, the Barolos, the Brunellos. And all the rest fall in place after, like a seating or an org-chart.
What about a wine like Vino Nobile (di Montepulciano)? Isn’t it almost as great as a Brunello? To some yes, but to those who set (the rules of) the table, they don’t get a place at it.
So even if you come to the areas regarded as the highest level of status in regards to producing wines from grapes, one still might not have access to the executive dining room. Piero Antinori said in an interview with Charlie Arturaola at Vinitaly, “My family in the 14th century started to produce wine.” In 26 generations one can get a leg up on the latecomers, not only in their embrace of the land and the vines, but also in the upper stratum of the society. A cowherd from Ragusa has many generations of uphill struggle to arrive at a point even remotely near a family with that track record.
And so it goes with the hundreds of lesser players, from Barbera to Canaiolo, Vermentino to Grillo and Cococciola to Nero d’Avola.
My last trip to Sicily was a revelation in the class structure of grapes, wine and men. Even in the contradas around Etna there was a pecking order that I didn't know existed. A winegrower I was with, as we passed a winery would say, “He’s from Tuscany, he’s not from here.” If a winemaker was from 90 minutes away in Central Sicily, he was also considered an “outsider.” If the class structure has drilled down to the contrada level, one can only imagine the dramas being played out in Barolo and Montalcino.
Back in Abruzzo, with the cellar master, after we had picked and eaten some fresh figs on the property, he remarked to me, “They think they’re going to live forever. If they own 200 hectares in Abruzzo or the top vineyard in Piedmont, they all will have the same fate as you and me. This they cannot buy their way out of.”
As he led me to a table outside, near his beloved vines, the breeze from the sea cooled as it rolled up the hill. His wife had set a table with fresh vegetables, and a bottle of fresh white, a Trebbiano from Abruzzo, was opened.
“What they have obtained in this world is great, but what they can never buy is health, humility, simplicity, happiness. Yes, their beds are softer and their pillows have more feathers in them, but that won’t assure them of restful dreams, or that they will even wake up in the morning.”
What I have learned over the years from the cellar master, my guru from Abruzzo, is to know your place, in the vineyard, at the table and in the universe.
My old pal the cellar master, he knows his place. And I will gladly sit at his table and take my place. Anytime.
written and photographed by Alfonso Cevola limited rights reserved On the Wine Trail in Italy
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