Sunday, July 22, 2018

The "New" International Style in Winemaking Veers to the Left

Angelo Gaja had this thing for Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux. And so, he planted it in Piedmont in the 1970’s. Pio Boffa went to Napa Valley in the 1980’s and fell in love with the place and with the wines of Robert Mondavi. And he came home "a changed man." Piero Antinori set up shop in the early 1990’s, above the fog line in Napa Valley, bringing with him his winemaker Renzo Cotarella, and proceeded to invest, plant and make wine from Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot. It was a prescient influence for changes that would be made in their Italian wines, back home. Renzo’s brother, Riccardo Cotarella made a name for himself (and a small fortune) interpreting Merlot in the unlikeliest places, like Lazio, Molise and Campania, in the late 1990’s early 2000’s. These were just a few of Italy’s winemaking giants who were moved by outside influences and who shaped the then-International style of wine in Italy. It was a movement that went long and deep, and it took years to see above the fog of high scores, blinded by seductively lush, drinkable fruity and powerful wines, often deeply oaked and intoxicatingly alcoholic. The critics, and the buying public who soon followed, couldn’t get enough of these wines – to drink, to larder away and to showcase in their trophy cellars. And those cellars filled up quickly with the force of a tsunami that has had mixed results for the collectors.

And then, it pirouetted. And everything changed.

The internet and the ability to gather information (and spread influence) from all around the globe, gave smaller producers (and less influential critics, at the time) a louder voice in the global town hall. In what felt like an overnight shift, but in reality, had been simmering in botti for years if not decades, there was less talk of fruit and oak and power and alcohol. And there were people crooning over acid, and cement, restraint of fruit (and alcohol) and less about power. And more about grace. And just like that, a schism rent asunder, regarding the interpretation of international style. And now, here we are, at a new precipice, looking at what that means.

From this native Californian, who was brought up in a time when all things were possible, and with a certain devotion to saving the world, I see hope in this new international style of wine that has been coming to my dinner table. And not just from Italy. For this observer, it’s well overdue. Having sought out organic produce and farm eggs, raw cheese and whole-grain breads from the 1970’s, wine never quite made it to the level of provenance that my other food stuffs did. Sure, there was an aspirational level to wine that forged a parallel path. Who didn’t want to drink a 1970 Cheval Blanc or Petrus, even though Crédit Agricole was urging French winemakers in St. Emilion and Pomerol to pursue higher yields, by mean of chemical intervention? Talk to the old winemakers in family run wineries around there, they will tell you just how much of a stranglehold the banks (and big AgroChem) had on the regions in the 1970’s, when the world was in an economic recession and French wine wasn’t exactly the first thing on someone’s must-have list from Santa. But French wine was the stuff of legends. They would launch another jeté entrelacé and dazzle their audience. The Italians still were working with a hand-me-down hurdy gurdy, in regards to their marketing leverage. They had to try something different. They had to try harder. And the well-polished Merlot (or Brunello or Barolo or Amarone) was their sissonne, an attempt to take to the air and swing for the fences. And it got them the necessary attention (and scores) at the time. But nothing stands still – everything changes. Every dancer eventually lands back on earth.

And thankfully, what we are seeing now, are wines that are more earthbound, while still retaining their sense of beauty and grace, in a way that is particularly Italian. Oh, and yes, delicious.

While these wines might not past muster for those dug into some Birkenstockian pre-apocalyptic interpretation of what wine should be, it appears to be moving left, towards the middle. Which is where most wine lovers are. Hence, the new international style of wines from Italy are gathering fans.

Take wines from wineries like Nicolò Magnelli’s Le Chiuse in Montalcino, Salvo Foti’s I Vigneri on Etna, Fabio Alessandria’s Burlotto in Verduno or Michele and daughter Maddalena LaLuce’s “Le Drude” Aglianico del Vulture from Contrada Serra del Tesoro. These wines fly in the face of what we came to think of as International style 20 years ago. But I am compelled to posit that we have seen a contretemps in how we look at things “international” now, in the ways of wine. And with it I feel compelled let out a shriek of excitation in this new international world of wine I now find myself willingly transported to, in an extended tours en l'air.

Let us hope there is more to this dance. I for one, welcome a much needed temps lié.

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