Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Traditional and International, or Modern Italian Wine: What am I talking About?

Taken from the last issue of Cosa Bolle in Pentola:

When I discuss a wine I will often classify it as either traditional or international, which are fairly precise concepts in Italian wine journalism. But if you're not Italian, you may have no idea of what they mean.

Traditional, as you might guess, is a wine made from varietals traditional to the area in which it is produced, say Sangiovese and Canaiolo for a Chianti Classico, or Barbera, Dolcetto, or Nebbiolo for a wine from Piemonte's Langhe.

The differences begin in the vineyard, with the harvesting: Everybody aims for top quality fruit, but traditional producers are not as likely to overripen their grapes, at least not intentionally (in a very hot year it will happen) -- many keep an eye on grape sugar levels, and when they reach the point that will give a wine of x percent alcohol, they harvest.

After harvesting the grapes are fermented, either in steel tanks, cement vats, or upright wooden containers, with temperature control to keep the must from getting too hot if the winery has it, and most now do, and pumpovers (when the must is pumped over the cap of grape skins and such that rises to the top of the tank during fermentation) or pushdowns (when the cap is pushed into the must) to increase extraction.

Following fermentation a simple wine of the kind to be released young is kept in tank (steel or cement) for a time prior to bottling, while more complex wines are aged in botti, which are large casks (high hundreds to thousands of liters), generally made of Slavonian oak. The young wines don't have any oak at all, while the more complex wines, e.g. Barolo, Brunello, or Amarone have comparatively little, because the surface area of the cask is small with respect to the volume it contains. In other words, there won't be much in the way of vanilla/cedar aromas on the nose, and in terms of color the wine will be fairly pale, and tending towards garnet -- no poured ink. On the palate it will be fruity, with lively red berry fruit and (perhaps) quite a bit of acidity, while the tannins will be from grape, and will be lively in youth, tending towards velvet with time. Not much in the way of pencil shavings nor cedar in the aftertaste, which will likely be fruit driven.

In a nutshell, with respect to the international style, traditional wines tend to be brighter, with more marked acidities, fruit that's ripe, but not overripe unless the vintage was very hot, and have more aggressive tannins, especially when young. Problems? One is determining what is a traditional varietal. In most of Italy, if you mention Cabernet or Merlot, people will nod and say, "French." And they are, but the farmers of Carmignano, outside Florence, began working with Cabernet in 1720, while the vineyards around Lucca are full of cuttings -- Syrah, among others -- brought home by merchants in the 1800s.The situation is similar in many parts of northern Italy, where foreign varietals were introduced more than a century ago. Vines that have been in an area for this long have become, as far as I'm concerned, local.

The other problem that can arise with traditional wines is an attachment on the part of the winemaker to equipment that is, yes, traditional, but also just plain old. Specifically, though botti, the big oak casks, have a much longer lifespan than the small oak barrels used by the modernisti, they do eventually reach a point where they begin to impart off aromas and flavors, what are known as puzzette (little stinks). A stink is a stink, and not a tradition, but you still can come across traditional wines aged in casks that should have been changed long ago. Fortunately they're not as common as they once were.

Wines of the international style, which is also referred to as "moderno" by some journalists, much more closely resemble the wines made elsewhere in the world -- Bordeaux, California, South America, and also Australia, and were indeed introduced in the 60s and 70s in large part to appeal to international markets. At least that was the initial goal; now they enjoy a great following in Italy too.

With respect to traditional wines, international wines differ in a number of respects. One of the most important is the varietal makeup; whereas traditional wines are made from varietals that have long been grown in a given area, international wines often contain significant percentages of newly introduced French varietals, in particular Cabernet and Merlot, though now people are also working with other varietals, including Syrah, Petit Verdot, and Pinot Noir. Some appellations, for example Chianti Classico, allow the inclusion of French varietals, while others do not; in many areas where the primary appellation doesn't allow them, there will be a catchall appellation that does, e.g. Langhe DOC for the Barolo-Barbaresco area, or Sant'Antimo for Montalcino.

The other major difference between the traditional and international styles is wood use, and indeed the use of small oak -- 225 liter French barrels, called barriques -- in many ways defines the international style: the surface area of the barrel is large with respect to the volume of wine it contains, and as a result the wood has a tremendous impact upon the wine, imparting vanilla and cedar aromas, stabilizing color, which tends to be darker and more purple, and smoothing the wine, providing velvety tannins that have cedar or vanilla overtones, while also reducing the overall acidity.

With respect to traditional wines international wines tend to be richer, softer, smoother, and thus more approachable. They also tend to be less unique, because the wood, unless it is very deftly used, acts as an equalizer, smoothing the wine over and giving it something in common with all the other wines in the world that are aged in small oak barrels.

This is of course the goal behind the style, but is also the reason that as you drink more Italian wine you may find your preference shifting from the international style (if that's what you start with) to the more traditional style: there's more to discover in the traditional wines, where the grapes are going it solo, and in doing so revealing aspects of their varietal character and the terroir that produced them, rather than performing a duet with oak. In short, though there are some notable exceptions to this generalization, traditional wines tend to have more character. Because of this, though there are international style wines I greatly enjoy drinking, I tend to prefer the traditional style, and have more traditional than international bottles in my cellar.

1 comment:

Giacomo said...

Good summary of the situation.

I think barrique works okay with certain varieties. Sangivoese and Barbera can integrate quite well with them. But nebbiolo, whose essence are its delicate aromas, are utterly destroyed by barrique.

I don't quite understand why a winemaker would go to the trouble of making single cru nebbiolo if it's going to be vinified in barrique. Seems like a contradiction?