When Sangiovese Meets The Snail – Slow Wine Italy

So after having a bit of a rant about terroir, oak and sense of place in wines last week, how am I going to help you find artisan producers who strive to also consider such ‘trivial’ notions in their wines? First up is the Slow Wine Guide.

I’ll be honest; I always figured the “slow movement” was driven by lazy krusties and hippies. I attribute this almost entirely to an interview I heard on a radio station with some guy advocating how he spent 15 minutes washing his hands because he liked to cherish and think deeply about every simple action of modern daily life. Although I now know this to be a bastardisation of the slow movement and its values, I often wonder how many other people share my misconceptions because of kooks like that. Although maybe a more common complaint about krusties and hippies is that they spend too little time washing their hands and this time consuming cleaning regime should in fact be encouraged?

Slow Wine 2013 It was with only passing interest therefore that a few years ago I noted that Slow Food Editore would no longer be working in tandem with Gambero Rosso to produce the annual Italian Wine Guide but instead would be publishing their own annual tome. 2012 brought the first English language version of the Slow Wine guide and it’s now accompanied by an excellent iPhone App too. The 2013 English language guide has just been released.

One thing that makes this guide different from other wine publications is that there are no ratings or points awarded to the wines. The Slow Wine Guide seeks out wines that show fine aromas and tastes, a sense of terroir and value for money and categorises them accordingly as great wines, slow wines and everyday wines but since there are no points or stars awarded, the insatiable 21st century need for competition is gone. If you have a copy of the book and this approach doesn’t float your boat, Parker and Suckling assure me it makes great kindling.

By freeing up the space that other guides devote to points and ratings, the Slow Wine Guide provides loads of information on vineyards and vinification methods used by each producer. This is where the guide really excels – the focus on the producers. Want to know what kind of yeasts, fertilisers, plant protection or weed controls that are used by a particular producer? Well, it’s all there.

In my last post I made reference to Victor de la Serna’s classification of Rioja producers as modern, traditional and terroir focussed; I wondered whether this could be applied to Italy. This is where the most coveted symbol in the guide comes in – the snail – awarded to wineries that are commended for the way they interpret Slow Food values (sensory perceptions, territory, environment and identity) and who champion environmental sensitivity and eco-sustainable practices.

So who are the terroirists of Tuscany (beware of the spellcheck on that one!)? Of the 29 wineries in Tuscany awarded a snail in 2012*, some of the more notable inclusions were: Boscarelli, Castello dei Rampolla, Fattoria di Felsina, Fattoria Selvapiana, Fontodi, Le Macchiole, Montevertine, Querciabella, Riecine and Tenuta di Valgiano.

Pian Del Ciampolo

The first thing that pops out at you is that the list includes so-called both modern and traditional producers, varieties of approaches to oak (even within producer portfolios) and a mix of indigenous and non-native grape variety cultivation. I’m not sure you could classify all, or even most, of these producers as minimal interventionists either. However, all 10 producers listed above employ native yeasts; five have formal organic certification (Selvapiana, Fontodi, Le Macchiole, Querciabella and Tenuta di Valgiano) and although Tenuta di Valgiano is listed as the only certified biodynamic producer of that bunch, four of the others are listed as employing biodynamic preparations (Castello dei Rampolla, Felsina, Querciabella and Riecine). This isn’t an advocacy piece for organics or biodymanics but it is interesting to note that these factors seem to be prevalent in the wineries listed.

“At last, producers appear intent on recovering that countryman’s knowledge based on observation of the vineyard.” – Slow Wine Guide 2012 on Tuscany

I’ve enjoyed wines from most of the estates listed above – I value some for their power and richness, others for their austerity and elegance, but all for their balance and sense of place. Sure there have been some bumps along the way and a few overblown “crowd pleasers”, but since I’ve been reading the Slow Wine Guide, I’ve lost count of the number of excellent wines,  from all over Italy, that I’ve encountered for the first time only to later find that the producer has been featured in the guide – surely a good sign. The focus on producers is important because, in my opinion, a winemaker plays a vital role in the expression of terroir, even if this is simply in the decision to minimise their level of intervention in the winemaking process. On the evidence so far, the Slow Wine Guide is a good starting point in the search for the terroir driven producers of Italy.

*Some of these wineries weren’t awarded a snail in the 2013 version of the guide but as I’ve tasted very few of the vintages under consideration in the 2013 guide, I’ve deferred to the 2012 version for the purposes of this post.