Wine is Not That Simple (2): Rustic Wine

by Daniele Cernilli 10/16/12
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Si fa presto a dire vino (2): Il vino contadino

Wine is an agricultural product. It is created by men who select the grapes they grow to make wine. Without the farmer there could not be wine and anyone who thinks it is just some natural product is totally off base. That is of course unless you maintain that human culture is the result of a natural process. Wine is a agricultural product because since ancient times it could not be otherwise. Initially, wine was produced and consumed for the most part in the areas it was made. There was, of course, some trade in wine but this was more the exception than the rule. It was young, bulk wine made throughout Mediterranean area by farmers who harvested their grapes from wild vines, not select ones, that grew up on berry or olive trees, sometimes many meters apart. There were also the vines of Greek origin that were more tree-like and that still exist in areas in Sicily, France, Catalonia and Andalusia. There were also some quality wines, those initially traded by the Romans. In Medieval times these wines were for the most part made by monks in monasteries and used in the celebration of mass and to add a few calories to the poor diet they were forced to consume. If we were to name an area where the best 'modern' rustic wines are produced then probably Burgundy would first come to mind. Fine, most of the wines in Burgundy were originally produced in that area because it was full of famous monasteries, Cluny first among them. The monks were responsible for not only saving books and manuscripts but also wine-making traditions that today perhaps represent the region's greatest cultural heritage. In more recent times, Burgundy was in the forefront of agricultural reform that allowed many wine-makers to own their own vineyards to produce wines prized by wine-lovers of the time, between the end of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century. The 'vignerons' of Burgundy produced their wines using only grapes from their own vineyards: Pinot Noir and Gamay for the reds and Chardonnay and Aligoté for the whites. They used small barrels of Vosges oak not because they wanted to flavor their wine with wood but because the bigger vats were too large to hold the limited amount of wine they made and, also, the 225-liter 'pieces' did not have to be replaced as frequently. Thus it can easily be argued that the first 'modern' rustic wines came from those small producers in Burgundy. They were then imitated by those in other areas of France, in the Langhe zone of northwest Italy, in the Moselle area of Germany and a few other places. For sure Edoardo Valentini was, and his son Francesco Paolo continues to be, a producer of rustic wine. The salient elements of rustic wine include its extreme territoriality, the fact that they are made from traditional local grapes grown by the farmers themselves and using non-invasive methods. There have also been, for better or worse, other evolutions. The productive structure of rustic wines is fragile and exposed to many risks. Rustic wines were initially not expensive and drunk by those who could not afford to spend a fortune and thus it was difficult to break even. A hail storm or a poor season could have disastrous results. Furthermore, farmers often became the victims of buyers, middle men and traders, who imposed their prices and bought up the best wines. The truth be said, these farmer/wine-makers always sold their best wine and kept the wost for themselves. In Italy, almost all wine was rustic wine until the 1960s, after which it began to diversify. The equivalent of Burgundy in Italy is the Langhe, the home of the best domestic 'vignerons' . This is especially true for the area of Barolo where great wine-makers began to emerge already at the start of the 20th century. The dynasties of the Mascarello, Pira, Conterno and Rinaldi families represent the farmer aristocracy in the Langhe. But there is also a new generation of wine-makers, the ones who in America are called the 'Barolo Boys', who have sought to renew the style of Barolo and break from the grips of the area's all-powerful wine merchants. These include Elio Altare, Domenico Clerico, Renato Cigliuti and Roberto Voerzio just to name a few. For sure they all started off as farmers and some remain so, while others have taken different paths that have led them to produce wines that are more in line with the demands of the market. But we can get into that later. More recently, some wine-makers, those more sensitive to environmental issues and reviving old wine-making techniques, have created a new movement. Wine-making has become 'organic' and 'bio-dynamic' and a growing number of producers and the consuming public have become passionate and supportive of what they see as a natural evolution, a recovery of a deep sense of territoriality and the use of non-invasive methods. This appears to be a path that may lead to the next incarnation of rustic wine. Stefano Bellotti in Gavi, Josko Gravner in Collio and Angiolino Laule in Veneto are probably the leading pioneers in this direction.

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