Sommelier sums Italy up in a barrel
July 14, 2007
Italy’s wine industry is vast to say the least. There are over 400 native grape varieties and more delineated wine regions than I care to count. The changes in climate are obvious from region to region and the variety of soil, aspect, and other plant growth is staggering. One consistency that can be observed is that in every corner of Italy, from the mountains to the deserts and everything in between, is that vines want to grow. Restaurants use them as canopies on their patios and ancient cities have them growing out of the walls. Every small family yard has a patch of vines that they use to make wine and sell the skins to the grappa makers in the north. Wine is so much a part of the culture that it would be impossible to believe that the culture is not somehow a part of the wine. The Italian attachment to history works from one perspective as a hindrance on the quality of their wines and from another a form it acts as a distinction that sets them apart from all other wines in the world and more importantly creates a congruency of style throughout.
One of the most surprising things I ran into was the use of old storage materials. In nearly every cantina (winery) I visited, there were not only tono being used but also the old concrete tanks that fell out of technological popularity nearly 20 years ago. A tono is a very large barrel. By very large, I mean that there were a few in Abruzzo that held 360 hectoliters of wine. Each year a tono is sanded and reused and, depending on the thickness of the wood on the tono, they are sometimes used up to 20 years. These barrels, however, present very stiff barrel tannins. Imagine if you laid your tongue on a two-by- four for 10 seconds. Tono has a very similar effect on the texture of the wine. It however gives a certain amount of distinction to the style of Italian wines and due to the broad use of tono a certain congruency is created. As for the concrete tanks used for storing wine after its production, most winemakers say that it is too difficult to rip them out and have therefore lined the insides with glass as to not allow the flavor of the concrete to penetrate the wines. I do, however, doubt the effectiveness of the temperature control and have noticed that most of the wines that have been stored in concrete have a slight oxidized flavor. One again, it is not necessarily a bad thing; it is really more of a distinction. So it makes me wonder if when people say that a wine "tastes so Italian," that they actually are recognizing a wine production style and not the grapes of soil conditions considering the variety of both that exists.
Another commonality among the wines of Italy is the yields that they are pulling from their vineyards is huge. This statement certainly falls under the umbrella of broad generalization but I met many producers that bragged about yields that were against the law in most other countries. Those producers who do lower their yields certainly make wines of greater concentration and character but it is a rarity. In fact, it seemed the sentiment of many of the weaker producers that it was time to rip up and replant vineyards that were 30 years old. It is true that the vines become less productive in their old age but they also make richer and more powerful grapes. Maybe it comes from the European Union’s commitment to buy unsold wine from producers in an attempt to subsidize the industry. It seems that it has facilitated more complacency than anything else.
All and all, I have come to the realization that it is going to take a lifetime of trips to Italy to really understand their wines. It’s a rough job, but somebody’s got to do it.
Zev Rovine is the sommelier and resident cheese monger at the Spotted Frog Bookstore Cafe and Wine Bar where he teaches weekly wine classes. His wine education comes from the American Sommelier Association in N.Y.C. and he tries his very best not to spill the Pinot on the bestseller section. If you have any wine queries or comments he is easily contacted via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .