Be Wary Of The Oak Police
Comic Book Guy: Last night’s Itchy & Scratchy was, without a doubt, the worst episode ever. Rest assured that I was on internet within minutes registering my disgust throughout the world.
What does Comic Book Guy have to do with Italian wine you ask? No it’s not the red trousers – Comic Book Guy wears shorts after all. Instead Comic Book Guy reminds me of many of the Italian wine commentators I refer to as “the oak police”, who upon learning that their Sangiovese or Nebbiolo may have seen some new oak or is blended with another grape, take to the blogosphere to repeat their now ubiquitous diatribe about modern vs. traditional winemaking. Actually, maybe I should be careful with my complaints since I frequently go on about that topic in these pages too.
As I have mentioned previously, the battleground in Italian wine discourse frequently centers on the idea of modern vs. traditional winemaking. I find this to be a particularly crude approach, not least because I believe such preconceptions hinder the assessment and appreciation of the wine itself, but also because the debate frequently doesn’t extend past the issue of indigenous grapes and barriques and certainly doesn’t consider the multitude of other factors and winemaking decisions that have an effect on the style of wine produced.
Perhaps most importantly though the argument leaves no room for a middle ground – a middle ground that I believe exists because, more and more, I’m finding that I’m standing in it, albeit reluctantly.
Ideologically, despite my posts about what many would call modern wines, I’m firmly aligned with the traditionalists. In general, I prefer Italian wines made from indigenous grape varieties. But then someone comes along and tells me that while Lucca was being conquered, and presumably plundered, by Napoleon, he also let a few Merlot grapes slip from the pocket of his tunic. Surely this should also qualify as sufficient tradition? Then I taste the wines and think they are delicious. Suddenly, I’m more worried than a Luchesse soldier standing on the battlements sighting the French canons over the horizon; is my palate deficient? Have I turned into one of those lovers of big, burly new world wine? The mental turmoil is only further amplified when I pull the cork of the 100% Sangiovese Super Tuscans like Flaccianello, Fontalloro, Percarlo and Cepparello. Damn you France – first you inflict Merlot on the Italians and now small oak barrels. These wines are more rich and generous than Chianti of old but, to my mind at least, still manage to retain a sense of place. Perhaps more importantly, despite their exposure to all this new oak, they also retain far more elegance and class than some of the crass and jammy Brunello and Barolo that has become en vogue of late.
They key as always is balance and terroir. For every balanced barriqued Italian wine I find, I might come across nine awful ones, but if I was a badge carrying member of the oak police, I’d probably never even let any of the ten pass my lips, let alone acknowledge that one of them was very enjoyable, whether it was made from 100% Sangiovese or not. Some of my favourite Italian wine bloggers and journalists are firmly entrenched in the traditional camp and are outspoken on the use of barriques but they never stray into the precinct of the oak police because they are also willing to acknowledge decent winemaking when they see it. This doesn’t mean they are shouting from the rooftops about their love of Sassicaia, but they aren’t saying that it’s crap either. (Incidentally, I recently drank a bottle of 2003 Sassicaia which bore out my own fence sitting – very well made, velvety and certainly very Tuscan, but it didn’t thrill me the way a €130 wine should even in a sub par vintage).
So where is all this leading? I recently read an article about Rioja (another hotbed of modern vs. traditional styles) by Victor de la Serna. The article suggested the existence of a third cohort – producers who value terroir over tradition or innovation. I quite like this approach, not least because I favour wines that attempt to express their origin but I also think there is merit in grouping Italian producers by a similar methodology. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll share some of the resources I’ve found for finding such producers.
(Comic Book Guy Image from Fox via Wikipedia)