by Hugh Johnson
Collecting my thoughts about Italian wine, where it has come from and where it is going, was quite a journey. Comparing it with the contributions of other countries has been vital to the process. The outside world has warm feelings about Italy. It loves your country, its fashions, its cities and its wonderful food. But it does not see Italian wine in isolation. It must compete, prove itself, be more seductive, more delicious and better value than the competition. And the competition, from round the world, is getting warmer every year.
The modern era of wine has compelled every country to define its priorities.
France has chosen to reinforce its traditions and build on its strengths, challenging the rest of the world to beat it at its own game. What else can it do? France discovered or bred most of the grape varieties the world desires and invented the concepts of châteaux and domaines by which many of the best are still sold. It can work on raising the quality of bordeaux, burgundy, Loire and Rhône wines and champagne, but it can’t change them. The New World pities France for this. It should be envious. It would be ridiculous to plant Pinot Noir in Bordeaux, Cabernet in Burgundy or blend Syrah with the finely-tuned mixture that defines a Bordeaux château. What is the point of confusing your customers when they come to you for a specific product, a specific flavour? France has a set pattern of flavours, and an astonishing number of practitioners. If they fail someone else picks up the reins, but rarely changes the product. Is this because of the laws of Appellation Controlée? Partly, of course, but mainly out of reluctance to change a recipe that works. Making the same wine better is the name of the game. The customer knows what to expect. France would be crazy to change its strategy.
Germany has a similar historical situation – but of course overwhelmingly a domestic market. If it minded what the rest of the world thinks it would reform its wine laws. Germany, sadly, is an example of how too much democracy is the enemy of quality. Not many years ago when I wrote about its finest vineyards, and how necessary it is to have south-facing slopes and good soil in such a northern climate, I was criticized by a government minister for being ‘elitist’. I should respect all land, and all farmers, as equals. ‘You call it elitist’, I said. ‘Your customers call it quality. It’s not surprising you don’t have many customers left’. Happily quality in Germany has been rescued by a body of private individuals, the VDP, a body not unlike this Comitato in some ways, but forced by circumstances to become actively political.
What of Spanish wine? How very different it is from Italian. History has bequeathed it remarkably little. Few grape varieties, few famous names, far fewer ecological niches than Italy. One wonderful grape, the Tempranillo, however many names it has, is the backbone of Spanish quality. Some of the fine new wines of Spain may be great, but they are inventions rather than rediscoveries. History and geography are both more expressive in Portugal. Local traditions and grape varieties are found in almost Italian richness. But so far they are slow to emerge.
Greece also shows us what variety and potential quality may have been silted over by generations, even centuries, of inactivity. Greece has leapt from nowhere in the wine world to a very promising position, thanks largely to the benevolence of Brussels, in little more than a decade. I must mention Hungary too – and not just because I have taken an active interest there. The traditions of Tokay were just too fabulous to ignore. Hungary has the vineyards and varieties, traditions and tastes of an old and sophisticated market. How long will it take to revive? For the moment it has been well and truly overtaken by Austria.
Before I come to Italy I must use a few words on the New World. Does it hold surprises or do we know its strengths and weaknesses already? The long-established successes, California and Australia, have passed the easy stage of their development. Their market may not grow much until they show us their local strengths – and I don’t mean just degrees of alcohol. I am talking about great artisan wine-makers demonstrating their unique terroirs in memorable wines. Artisans are the secret of Italy the New World has to learn.
New Zealand, Chile, South Africa, Argentina are all showing us some seriously good wines. Their future depends on intelligent reading of the market place. Wine and its market are the chicken and the egg. For a century and more it was my country that called the tune. They modelled bordeaux and port and even champagne the way they are because the English were prepared to pay for it. Whose turn is it now? Robert Parker and Marvin Shanken have made it clear what they want. Next the Chinese?
Italy at last. Let’s ask ourselves for a start why everyone loves Italian wine. Is it history and tradition they are buying, or red-hot technology, or something that seeps from the blessed soil of Enotria accompanied by smells of prosciutto and parmigiano and mozzarella? It can’t be a pan-Italian thing. As we all know, Italy’s soul is too complex, and far too regional, for that. (So is France’s, by the way. Try mentioning Bordeaux in Burgundy or vice versa, let alone ordering a bottle).
One easy answer is that there are so many kinds that they can answer all our needs. You don’t need to look elsewhere (except, let’s face it, for champagne). But this reason contains its own contradiction: there are so many labels that everyone gets lost. We all admire the creativity and pride (not to mention imagination) that creates an infinity of different labels. We just question sometimes whether they are more different labels than different wines.
We (I mean we customers) look for footholds on this uncertain surface. We may be more attracted by the solid names of tradition. Chianti, Barolo, Valpolicella, Soave or Verdicchio will get our money. Or we may seek assurance in grape varieties we think we know and go for a merlot or pinot grigio or even a vermentino. We are very likely to think locally, to choose a Collio in Friuli, a Frascati in Rome and a Nero d’Avola in Sicily. Some are seduced by history: mention a Medici or the ancient Greeks and they reach for their credit card. Readers of guides will know the Tre Bicchieri (but most people won’t). A huge chunk of the public will ask the waiter what to drink, whether in Italy or abroad. Many will have family allegiances to wines or regions and many more happy memories of holidays in wine regions. There are as many ways of choosing wine, in other words, as there are customers for it. No wine, and no marketing approach, can hope to catch them all.
I once asked a distinguished producer and négociant in Beaune the secret of Burgundy’s success – success not always, in those days, related to quality. “We are selling a dream”, he said. And that, of course, is exactly how most wine is sold. Lacryma Christi didn’t have to be good in those days; the name and the Bay of Naples was enough to sell it. Today the dream needs technical back-up. Every year that passes it needs more flavour a sweeter nose, better balance, more polished tannins and a longer finish. Few things are more helpful to a producer than to have competitive neighbours: the market grows with the number of quality producers in the neighbourhood.
Italy has succeeded in reaching the super-quality league with the same ease with which you lead the worlds of fashion and design and Formula One machines. When the moment came to give Tuscany a First Growth or two it seemed easy. Barolo and Barbaresco needed only confidence (Angelo Gaja provided that) to join the top table. We can see similar moves in the Veneto and Sicily, and probably elsewhere, as we speak. Can we say that greatness is inherent in certain grapes? Is it, let’s say, limited to Nebbiolo and Sangiovese, or is it latent in some varieties of the Veneto and the Mezzogiorno as well, waiting to be massaged by new techniques into stardom? I believe it is. I believe in 50 years’ time our successors will think we were quaint not to see greatness in the Montepulciano or the Falanghina.
Then comes the business of discovering the best places to plant them. The progress of the New World depends on discovering not just, for example, that Cabernet Sauvignon has high potential in the Napa Valley, but defining which slopes and soils of Rutherford or Spring Mountain are its Latours and Lafites. Italy has work to do on this front. We know a lot about the Langhe hills, much less about Chianti and the Maremma, let alone Mount Etna. One day, let’s hope soon, more labels on more different bottles will make clear precisely where the wine comes from, year after year. It is more useful information than much of the fantasy on them now.
For the moment all Italy’s greatest wines are red. Is this inevitable? This extraordinary peninsula, endowed with the Alps and the Apennines to give it almost every possible ecological niche, must be capable of sublime whites as well as very good ones.