A Visit to Piedmont

La Morra, Barolo

Within the space of a month I was lucky enough to visit the two disparate but equally lovely wine producing areas of the Langhe Valley and the Sherry towns of Jerez and Sanlucar. For quite some time I have maintained that that Sherry is the very pinnacle of oenological creation, and my pilgrimage to its hallowed lands did nothing but bolster and reconfirm my faith. Drinking Sherry is an affirmation of life. Not just a life, not just my life but eternal life through all its vicissitudes. Sherry’s solera is wine’s Bhavacakra; transcending youth, maturity and infirmity by refusing to render them as anything but one and the same thing. One should be humbled when drinking Sherry (but never downhearted) as one is humbled when contemplating the insignificance of self in the face of everlasting life.

Drinking Barolo and Barbaresco, on the other hand, made me feel painfully aware of both my youth and my financial frailty. If I were middle-aged and rich I would not only have the fiscal might required to purchase fine Nebbioli at will, but also the luxury of time flowing in both directions; my past would furnish me with a backlog of venerable vintages of varying maturity while my future (another 40 years or so at least, what with advancements in medical science) would endow more recent purchases with the prospect of developing into fine, well-rounded individuals. As I was reminded after foolishly recommending a bottle of CNDP to particularly aged customer on the strength that it would still be drinking well in thirty years’ time, 2006 Barolo is of limited use to anyone hobbling around on their last legs.

In short, Sherries are bottled at the peak of their perfection (and are cheap), while the best Langhe reds are not (and are not).

However, I exaggerate. There are many Barbarescos’ and Barolos’ are which are eminently enjoyable in their relative youth. Giacoma Anselma’s surprisingly light but intensely pure offerings from Serrelunga (which I praised in a previous post) are an absolute joy in their youth. Also, contrary to my expectations La Spinetta’s Barbarescos’ can display some wonderful savoury secondary aromas long before the fruit lost an inch of its vigour. In general, all of the 2007s seem to be rather lush and immediately enjoyable if a bit lacking in complexity at present.

My friend and travel companion pointed out that the Langhe has the double honour of making both the world’s most difficult and its easiest wines to appreciate in the world – the latter title of course belonging to the immaculately delicious Moscato d’ Asti.

Anyway, on our trip to Piedmont we tried to visit a range of producers in different sub regions making wines of different styles i.e. some modern, some traditional wineries. Anyone with a passing interest in the region will be no doubt bored senseless by the old modern vs. traditional cliché debate, but it was one which cropped up several times in our conversations with our winemaking hosts.

It is the done thing for people working in a particular field to reject the genre coding that outsiders use to classify them. The futility of attempting to do so is best expressed in an interview with metal band Bad News in which friction is caused within the group by Vim Fuego’s attempts to distance himself from what he sees to be their misrepresentative and oppressively confining oeuvre:

Vim Fuego: …It’s a valid question but I think you are starting out from the wrong point of view because we are not basically a heavy metal band. We’re a bit more subtle than that. Aren’t we Colin?

Colin Grigson: Yeah we’re subtle. But basically we are heavy metal, right?

Vim: Well yeah, we are heavy, but all I’m saying is that we are not just simple heavy metal.

Den Dennis (in protest): I thought we were heavy metal!

Vim: I know we do have heavy roots…what I’m trying to say is that we are trying to progress a bit you know? Trying to break a few barriers.

Den: Are we?

Vim: Yeah…There is no point in being shackled to some stupid label.

Colin: C’mon, It’s just a convenient term of reference. What’s wrong with heavy metal? You were the one who put “heavy metal” in the advert, that’s why I joined.

Den: Me too!

Vim Fuego like so many of the world’s great artists does not see himself and his art as being on one or another side of the fence or indeed in the middle ground – “we’re not sitting on the fence, we are trying to burn it down.” In this way artists can use genre as a useful means to assert their identity in a negative fashion. That is, in opposition to perceived (real or imaginary) standard, generally characterized by its adherent’s blind conformity and ultimate banality.

In Piedmont the fence is generally made of oak:

“It took me years to understand what my father’s approach to oak was: When we were 6 or 7 years old we were repeating at school what we had heard at home on every field – politics, economics and even wine. One day some of my friends say, “My father is a modernist – very very proud”. And someone else replied “my uncle is a traditionalist”. But I was speechless, I had no words, I had no identity at that moment, I didn’t know who my father was. So I ran back home that night, and asked Dad, “who are you?” At this time he was a professor of viticulture and all I remember from this time from one of his speeches was that he was somewhere in between. Then I remember when I was 13 or 14 I read something by a journalist saying that he was “the most modernist of traditional producers” and vice versa. Which really doesn’t say anything as an explanation, but when I was maybe 1 or 2 years older and I started to work with him that’s the moment I started to realize what he was doing – that I had got an explanation. But the explanation is not a label. But this is the point: when you already know the way you will treat the fruit or the wine you are giving an answer before you know the question. That’s what we call prejudice or you can also call it ideology – you know how things are without having to look at them. My parents always loved the reverse way – to be the servants of the wine. There are three aspects which may the quality of the wine – the variety, the vineyard and the vintage. You cannot treat 2002 and 2003 vintages in the same way, this is a blind idea. So in the 1990s we were not afraid to show our Slovenian barrels and today we are not afraid to show our barriques.”
(Giuseppe Vajra of G.D. Vajra)

I suspect that the sentiment, if not the story, is quite representative of not only the vast majority of winemakers in the Langhe but also the world over. Everyone we met was, or had been, experimenting with oak big and small, old and new, French and Slovenian. Through trial and error some had decided that a particular system was right for them, while others blended between scores of diverse barrels until the desired wine came together. All, without exception, steered clear of the kind of determinism which would make them appear anything more than the humble “servants” of the vine, and therefore locating them firmly in one of the two camps. The simple opposition is an opportunity to assert identity through denying subservience to it (burning down the fence). Although, it must be said that while Bad News started out with the express intention of becoming a “heavy metal band”, I doubt that many producers owe their existence to erstwhile aspirations to become “modernist” winemakers.

I would also contend that the dismissal of the traditional vs. modern dichotomy is something more than a simple kneejerk against tyrannical pigeonholing on the part of Piedmontese: it is a rejection to a great extend rooted the fierce pride (“He was born in La Morra and will die in La Morra”) and cringe-inducing devotion (“we won’t buy another vineyard unless we fall in love”) in the internal diversity of the land and the distinctness of the wines it affords. Out of the properties we visited only at Roberto Voerzio’s was there a roughly equal emphasis laid upon winery practice and viticulture/terroir. In all other cases the soil and its sympathetic tending was described in the most affectionate terms. And only at Voerzio’s did we hear any real criticism of the oenological techniques of other producers.

This is why Georgio Rivetti of La Spinetta dismisses the traditional/modern distinction as “bullshit” – it diverts attention away from the intricacies of soil, aspect and clime and instead towards a supposed division between producers. Mr. Rivetti is vehemently passionate in his demand for Burgundy like Cru classification/appreciation of the vineyards of Barbaresco and Barolo which he sees as the most appropriate step in awarding the region the recognition it deserves for its internal heterogeneity. It common to hear people talking about how much they like Volnay, but rare to hear the equivalent praise for Monforte. Franco Massolino (whose wines you might have innocently imagined to be the traditionalist antithesis of the bold modernism of La Spinetta) is in total agreement; saying that “everyone in the villages know where the best vineyards are” – rather it is the customers who are in the dark, not being provided with adequate information to distinguish between the wines available.

While I think that the case for a more “terroir focused” classification Lange wines is a persuasive one, one which would partly ensure the integrity/meaningfulness of words on bottles that refer to specific sites, it should not obscure the corresponding diversity in winemakerly technique. A wine is always the nub of an intricate nexus of connections between human (re)action and the corresponding (re)actions of nature in both vineyard, cellar and beyond. To disentangle these fully is an impossible task – the best we can do is paint in very broad stokes the approximate impact that any particular intervention will have on a wine. It is the fashion now to emphasize the impact of “terroir” over and above technique, and this is of course reflected in winemaking practice (unfined, unfiltered etc.). However, as criminal law teaches us – doing nothing can be considered as much as an action as doing something.

Piedmont is an area with a very rich recent history of winemaking practice and this should not be forgotten when stressing the importance of individual macroclimes. Call me old-fashioned but I wouldn’t actually mind seeing a few non-vintage Barolos on the market. I’m sure a decent solera would do a few of those aloof 2006s a world of good.

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