Pure and Simple

29 Mar 2006

This week I would like to explore an aspect of the complex world of wine. The Italian wine industry appears to be experiencing a recovery and, while we wait for a confirmation from the Vinitaly show in Verona regarding the strength of present trends, it is worth looking at the decisions that may have helped to improve production figures. Now, about twenty years since the ‘methanol wine’ scandal, I feel it is important to think about the naturalness of wine.

It is not a straightforward issue and it needs to be addressed in a balanced way without being too dogmatic. There is one potential misunderstanding that needs to be clarified from the outset. Naturalness is not intended to mean an uncritical, sudden and general conversion to organic or biodynamic methods, though they do deserve respect and proper consideration. I think we should rather speak of a process. It is a process involving a continuous and patient search for an approach that allows us to produce wine as naturally as possible—both in the vineyard and then in the cellar.

The quest for naturalness begins among the vines and is achieved by limiting the use of synthetic products as far as possible. Contrary to what was thought some years ago, albeit in good faith, chemical fertilizers are not perfect replacements for the organic molecules which the vines use as nutrients. The plant itself tells us this by manifesting signs of weakness and susceptibility to pathologies of unusual virulence over time, flavescence dorée being just one dramatic example.

Using phytopharmaceuticals presents similar problems of sustainability but this does not mean we have to do without them—sometimes, unfortunately, there are no alternatives. It is simpler to make use of new methods which allow us to prevent or “cure” the problem just as effectively, but with fewer side effects compared to the more invasive solutions. We can see proof of this in many Italian regions, from Trentino to Tuscany, where successful trials are being carried out using innovative and low environmental impact methods of defense against parasites, based on releasing pheromones that confuse insect pests and inhibit reproduction.

In many countries of the world there is an excessively liberal use of yeast and additives once the grapes are moved to the cellar. But we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking the solution is to go along with short-sighted custom. This would lead downhill. Wine is so fascinating because each bottle depends on a series of causal variables—from climatic trends to the winegrower’s skill—which never yield the same result.

Diversity is everything and if we remove variability, we also lose a lot of wine’s appeal. If we try to boost a mediocre year by using various ploys to conceal its defects and standardize its flavor, we are siding with those who want to apply an industrial approach to wine. If there are fewer differences separating one bottle from another, the only criterion driving purchasing decisions will be the lowest price—and the only ones to win that game will be the large multinational groups.

Unscrupulous present-day methods even allow the characteristics of a particular vintage to be simulated but I do not know if you can use the word wine for a drink prepared using tricks so far removed from normal agricultural practice. That is why there should be no reason for people to be worried about legislation that enforces virtuous behavior.

The debate about naturalness is an essential step in competing with the rest of the world and, in particular, with new producers. There is a European identity of winegrowing and this identity—as well as political identity—is based on union within diversity. Diversity is rooted in the intimate link of each winegrower with a particular terroir, which transmits characteristics to the wine which cannot be reproduced elsewhere. Union is rooted in a shared ancient tradition which does not exist in other geographical areas. It should be preserved, while maintaining naturalness.

First printed in La Stampa on February 20, 2006

Adapted by Ronnie Richards

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