Terrific Terroir

26 Apr 2006

I would like to return to a topic which has always been of major personal interest, but is now so more than ever in view of the upheavals affecting its evolution. So let’s talk about wine once again.

In earlier articles I examined the Italian situation and debate on producer consortia, emphasizing the need for a new natural approach to making wine. I am now keen to alert consumers and our producers (here I am using ‘our’ in a broad sense: ie, not only Italian but more generally the European proponents of a certain way of making wine according to nature and tradition) about what is happening in other winemaking areas around the world.

Winemaking has not been a sole prerogative of the Old Continent for some time. But of the 260 million hectoliters of wine produced globally in a year, 200 still come from Europe (with three countries—Italy, France and Spain—claiming 75% of the total). Wine is produced in over 70 countries from all five continents.

However, the historical birthplace of winemaking is witnessing a slow but inexorable decline in the land area planted with vines. This is partly a consequence of financial incentives provided by the EU (which also encourage the abandonment of areas which are high quality but difficult to work), while the wine sector in the rest of the world is experiencing optimistic enthusiasm, intent on increasing planted areas, volumes and income.

Winemaking in these ‘new’ areas is a very recent phenomenon. Though brought by European immigrants, it only started to make a significant mark in the 1970s—truly an instant compared to old Europe’s millennia-old wine culture. Yet in the brief space of these thirty years, the ‘New World’ wines have achieved notable success in markets that traditionally consumed European wines.

It is worth looking more closely. The entire wine producing system of California, Argentina, Chile, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand is focused on maximum profit criteria. For years, vineyards were only planted on flat ground where mechanization and consequent reductions in labor costs ensured very high yields and profits; added to this, a blind faith in technology led many winemakers to think that wine could be created in the cellar, and agricultural research was therefore abandoned. To complete the picture, the choice of grapes varieties revolved around the three or four usual ‘big names’ in the international marketplace.

The result was wines that were usually very acceptable, sometimes good or very good, and offered at unbeatable prices, but they lacked that key element of our European wines: personality. In any case how can you give a style and genuine character to products which often combine grapes picked a thousand kilometers apart (it actually happens) and due to very lax legislation, if it is present at all, do not have proper quality control? This lack of monitoring of wine producers is the real difference between non-European winemaking and our approach, which has always been strictly regulated by official bodies, control and certification systems. There can be no doubt, it is the vineyards of Europe that support biodiversity.

Whether the vineyards are planted in the coastal climate of Bordeaux or the calm atmosphere of a Cistercian abbey in Burgundy, on the terraces above the meandering Rhone or Moselle, or produces top cru wines in the hills of Piedmont and Tuscany, it is here that you can experience the history, climate, the land, or in a singleword, the ‘terroir’, that have defined a cultural, economic and human story of wine. But we cannot remain dazzled by our glorious past. European producers need to join forces to meet the challenge of products that are commercially attractive but, apart from a few rare exceptions, are nothing to get really excited about.

So I propose that the forthcoming second edition of Terra Madre should provide an appropriate showcase for our small winegrowers, a platform which can clearly show to the world the value of their work and daily efforts.

First printed in La Stampa on February 27 2006

Adapted by Ronnie Richards

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