Sunday, August 02, 2015

Italy and their Wine Debt to France

Photograph by Pierre Jahan/Archives des muse├ęs nationaux
For as long as I can remember there have been oblique encounters between Italophiles and Francophiles. In years past, it seemed there was always that expert in French wine who wanted to display his prodigious erudition for all to see. It was more oppressive than impressive.

Recently the tides have turned. Barolo is the new Burgundy. Brunello is getting its groove on, and raincoated and umbrella’d Bordelaise sniffle and sneeze in response to their sunny Tuscan cousins. It’s a bit of a parlor game for the ruling class.

My first foray in France was preceded by a harrowing road trip from Italy. Venice, Tuscany, Cinque Terre, all things bright and beautiful about Italy and wine were laid before me and I took the bait. And then I was dragged to Southern France.

All those years, hearing stories from French collectors and sommeliers (the ones with the dangling tastevins) I had a totally different idea about what to expect. When I got there, I thought, “Wait, these people aren’t that different from the Italians I just left. They appear to like cheese a bit more. But what’s the big deal?”

And I’ve been saying that (to myself) going on 30 years now.

My field research, not at all scientific, has shown to me that the French and the Italians, in the vineyards, have a lot more in common than not. They work as hard. They have the same concerns, about their government, their religion, their money, their children, their mortality.

Yes, their wines are a little different. But really, not so much as I had been led to believe, early on, by those important people. Mind you, never did I get that impression from any of my French colleagues in the wine world. Never. It was always from the outside, from someone who wanted to appear as "important" and "serious" about their wine connoisseurship.

That said, I’ve been thinking the Italians have a debt to the French. I’m not sure they can ever repay it. I don’t think it’s that kind of deal. But I believe it’s worthwhile to ponder over a few of high spots.

The appeal of beauty is universal. If one makes a beautiful wine, does it really know any boundaries? Beauty is. The French and the Italians, in my experience, take pleasure in beautiful things. And by the looks of it, in fashion, in art, in music, in food, beautiful things between these two countries flow back and forth, not stopping to have their passports stamped.

Because of that, if the French make something more beautiful, the Italians notice. And some of them are motivated by that. Is it a competitive thing? Is it jealousy? Is it inspiration? Who cares, if more beauty comes from it.

Let’s talk about competition. Have you ever sat down at a table with a gaggle of winemakers? What do they do? Well, if there’s food and wine on it, they do the same as the rest of the folks on earth. They eat and drink. They also appreciate, in measures. Again, this is my experience. I don’t care who it is, from wherever in the world. There’s always the chance to learn something and take it back to the workshop of course. But the aspect of pleasure and community supersedes any competitive urge.

Stewardship. Whether it be art or potatoes, are the French not great stewards? Of the vine, in the fields, they live with Nature in the same way Italians do. They understand resources are finite. And when it comes to precious things, like water, like soil, like great art, they don’t appear to want to save only things French. I haven’t made a huge study of this, but I have seen enough interplay in winemaking circles to see the ongoing dialogue and collaboration. Imagine, two countries, which at this time produce roughly half of all the world’s wine. Why wouldn’t they work together? The reality is, they do. More than we know. And definitely more than the snotty oenophiles of old ever realized.

A million years, ago, I’m driving an elderly French winemaker, a student of Emile Peynaud, to an experimental vineyard in far North Texas. He wanted to see the place where some of the rootstock was born, rootstock which helped save France from the scourge of phylloxera. On the way there we were talking about my family roots and he mentioned that he had many good friends in the wine industry in Sicily. I knew that there was a connection between Palermo and France, historically. But I asked him why. “Oh, we did a lot of business with the Sicilians. Grapes, finished wine. Mainly for Vermouth production.” How many years have we been drinking French wine not knowing there was a little Italian DNA inside those bottles? Didn’t seem to bother us. I once told that story to one of those tastevin-swaggering olde-school sommeliers. He dismissed it saying, “Bah, bulk crap for the peasants!”

Looking back, the Italian wine we make now, so much of it is better, for so many reasons. And in no small part, because the French influence was there. Yes, but also because of collaboration, the sharing of ideas and thoughtful husbandry.

I know many of my readers are in France, can tell when I look at who is coming to these pages. Inquisitive nature doesn’t stop at any border. Wine travels without a visa. Beauty sails through customs.

Thank you France and thank you my French colleagues, for your work and for your care. Because you do what you do that way you do it, Italy is a better place. And, I’m sure the Italians would also remark the inverse is also correct. And they would also be correct. You’re both on top of the wine world, high-fiving one another. And the wine world is richer for your continued efforts.

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