Those who know me and read my blog are well aware of my distaste for “barriqued” wines, wines aged in small new oak barrels. And while there’s nothing worse to my palate than a barriqued Nebbiolo (a grape always ruined by barriques in my opinion), there are many wines — I must concede — where the use of barriques is a positive element.
Some of the famous reds of Burgundy, for example, benefit from barrique aging (oak, when used judiciously, allows gentle oxidation through the pores of the wood). Eric Asimov was 100% correct to point out, as he did in last week’s The New York Times, that “Oaky may be bad, but oak is good.” (Click here to read what Eric had to say about this post.)
When it comes to Italian wines, however, there is no doubt in my mind that Italy’s three greatest grapes — Nebbiolo, Aglianico, and Sangiovese — show much better when aged exclusively in large old oak traditional barrels, botti [BOHT-tee]. The question of barrique in Italy is a thorny one and generally inspires heated debate among Italian wine connoisseurs, lovers, and enthusiasts. Some of us begrudge Italian winemakers for abandoning traditional winemaking techniques. Many point to the popularity of the Californian winemaking style (which favors barrique aging) as their source for inspiration (and marketability), others cast their stones at Parker, The Wine Spectator, et alia, deriding them for favoring barriqued wines.
I recently came accross an original edition of Catalogo dei vini d’Italia (Catalog of the Wines of Italy, 1983), one of the first great modern encyclopedias of Italian wine, edited by the beloved Luigi Veronelli (1926-2004), enogastronome, publisher, and one of the architects of Italy’s current food and wine renaissance (it’s not its first, btw). I was stunned by what I read in the preface and the characters who appeared there. I believe the passage below (translation mine) to be an important document of the history and development of barrique in Italy. Read on and you might be surprised.
Veronelli writes in the preface:
In 1982, just over a year ago, I made a trip to California for the purpose of “study” with Mario Schiopetto, Giacomo Bologna, and Maurizio Zanella – three names mandatory for those who love wine. We left on Friday May 20 and we returned June 6. As far as wine tasting was concerned, the trip was a pleasurable yet painful Way of the Cross. At every tasting (and I mean every one and there were many), we looked at each other in disbelief.
It’s not easy to express the flood of emotion that engulfed us. We were bewildered by a reality very different from that we had imagined. We were surprised by the excellence of nearly every wine poured for us. We were embarrassed by the fact that we had to rein in and conceal our shared enthusiasm (in part, I must admit, in order to defend our own “interests”). But, above all, we were enraged: why did Italian winemaking lack (and where would it find) such young, bright, informed, and commercially minded enotechnicians with university degrees in enology?
I had to force myself not to lash out and offend. But I did tell the three winemakers that they must take note (and documented my declaration by putting it to paper): “If we do not immediately change course, we will be ousted – in another ten years or less – from the fine wine market.”
How should we change? The answer is sure to be long and is of extreme importance. I call upon all well-intentioned persons to partake in this dialogue. But I will limit my response by laying forth certain “provisions” that must not be delayed: first, serious study of enology; second, meticulous varietal selection (both in the selection of clones and their uses on a subzone by subzone basis); third, yields need to be cut in half; fourth, eradication of vines grown in the lowlands (excluding, it goes without saying, the so-called grave [gravelly or pebbly] plains and a few other suitable plains); fifth, vinification in barriques (small oak barrels). [boldface mine]
Another result of the trip was a “moral conversation” – which I published in L’Espresso – between an enotheic [wine-worshiping] journalist and Piero Selvaggio, owner of Valentino restaurant in Los Angeles.
“After my stay in California and my visits to vineyards and cellars, thanks to you Piero, I would like to be not enotheic but rather Ennosigaios [“Earth Shaker,” byname of Poseidon, Gr., enosis “shaker,” gaïos “land”]. If I had Poseidon’s trident, I’d shake the earth.”* [boldface mine]
“Don’t be silly: I receive excellent wines even from Italy.”
“But they are too few: our history stretches back 2,000 years and these [Californians] have already outpaced us in ten short years. It goes without saying: I’m furious. If I had my way, I’d drown all those guilty of this crime, the authorities and the enotechnicians.”
“Isn’t there a saying in the Veneto, Veronelli? Co l’acqua toca ‘l cul tutti impara a nodàr [“When the water touches one’s ass, one learns to swim.”] We [Italians] will learn to swim.”
“If I had my way, I’d drown them all in their wines. They taste worse than water.”
How is it possible – I ask referring back to the first and last “provisions” above – that after all these years our enotechnicians don’t know about the use of barriques? [boldface mine]
(Catalogo dei vini d’Italia, ed. Luigi Veronelli, Milan, Mondadori, 1983, pp. 8-9, translation mine.)
On May 20, 1983, he recounts in the following pages, Veronelli organized a seminar for winemakers and journalists at Palazzo Antinori in Florence: the featured speaker was the “dean” of Californian winemaking, Russian-born and French-trained, André Tchelistcheff, who introduced the use of barrique aging and modern winemaking techniques to Californian winemakers beginning in the late 1930s. In the final passage, he stridently declares that barrique aging is a “sine qua non” for long-lived wines and he notes, such wines will live side-by-side with Italy’s younger wines (and he makes a highly important distinction: wines intended to be consumed young should not be barriqued, while age-worth wines should be). He points to the following Italian winemakers who have already achieved success in their experimention with barrique aging: Incisa della Rocchetta, Antinori, Gaja, Ca’ del Bosco, Maculan, Ronchi di Cialla, Castelluccio, Abbazia di Rosazzo, Castello di Volpaia, and Podere Castellare. It’s interesting to note that he does not include his fellow traveler Giacomo Bologna in this list (since many believe that Bologna, with the famed Bricco dell’Uccellone, was the first to produce a barriqued wine in Piedmont).
In my time, I’ve drunk some great Super Tuscans, wines, which, by definition, have been aged in barriques.** I remember well my early years in Italy (1989-92) when I drank some famous vintages (notably 1985) of Sassicaia, Ornellaia, and Pergole Torte etc., thanks to my friends the Marcucci brothers in Bagno Vignoni near Montalcino. Over the last few years, I’ve also had the chance to taste some of these wines again in NYC — now among Italy’s most collected and coveted. Although I don’t care for these wines, I believe that they paved the way for other Italian wines to make it to this country by showing the world that Italy could produce world-class Bordeaux-style wines. Is barrique so bad? The answer is no: historically, oak can be good when it is used judiciously, with the right grapes. Veronelli certainly saw the future of Italian wine and we certainly shouldn’t begrudge him for that.
Above: the beloved Luigi Veronelli, food and wine writer and historian, publisher, and a guiding light in the Italian renaissance of gastronomy and enology.
* Veronelli uses Nettuno or Neptune, the Latin name for Poseidon, in the original. I’ve translated it as Poseidon because the Greek name is more commonly used in English, especially when accompanied by the deity’s pseudonym, Ennosigaios.
** At least one Italian wine authority, Franco Ziliani, indicates that Nicolas Belfrage coined the term Super Tuscan (to denote fine Tuscan wines classified as vino da tavola or table wines) and was the first to use it in 1985.
Veronelli “subversive” editor and activist (just the facts)
Above: the jacket for one of the few extant exemplars of Pino Bava’s Italian translation of De Sade’s Historiettes, contes, et fabliaux with illustrations by Italian artist Alberto Manfredi, published by Veronelli in 1957. Veronelli was sentenced to prison for obscenity that same year but never served time. The book was one of the last burned publically in Italy (image courtesy of Veronelli Editore, Bergamo).
Later in the year, when I met my dissertation adviser and sometimes collaborator professor Luigi Ballerini for a holiday drink, he reminded me that he was working at Rizzoli Editor in Milan in 1964 when Rizzoli published Veronelli’s now required-reading Cocktails. Luigi (Ballerini) has many fond memories of the congenial Veronelli, including a dinner hosted by Veronelli at his home in San Siro (Milan) to thank his editorial staff. “It was the first time I tasted Château d’Yquem,” said Luigi (Ballerini), who was 24 years-old at the time of their meeting, “Veronelli held it up to the light and showed us how it turned emerald in color.”
After Veronelli’s passing in 2004, many apocryphal anecdotes regarding his life have been published on the internet. Curious to find out more about his activism and his controversial publishing career, I recently contacted Gian Arturo Rota, president of Veronelli Editore in Bergamo, and submitted the following questions (in italics). I have translated Rota’s answers below.
Beyond being the architect of the Italian food and wine renaissance, Veronelli was also an editor who published poetry and literary works. What were his principle literary interests?
He began in the 1950s publishing works by De Sade, Anatole France, philosophical works (like Giovanni Emanuele Bariè’s concept of neo-trascendentalism) and political works (like Pierre-Joseph Proudhon), and books on gastronomy (like Le ghiottornie di Gabriele d’Annunzio* and Apicius). He also published books on sports.
He published magazines as well: I problemi del socialismo (Problems of Socialism and Il gastronomo (The Gastronome).
Veronelli closed the doors of Veronelli Editore [his publishing company] in the 1960s because he wanted to devote himself exclusively to his work as a journalist and writer. His literary interests? A bit of everything, I would say, with a predilection for classical authors and for eighteenth-century France. He was a highly erudite man.
Veronelli was also politically engaged: what were the defining moments of his political life?
Inasmuch as he actively worked for a political party, his interest in politics didn’t last long. He worked for the Italian Socialist Party when – as he liked to say after the Tangentopoli scandal** – socialists were still serious. Keep in mind that he was a friend of Lelio Basso, one of the party’s founders and one of its most illustrious theoreticians, and a contributer to his magazine I problemi del socialismo.
Veronelli’s “occupation” of the train station at Santo Stefano Belbo and the translation of De Sade: on the internet, there are contradictory, apocryphal accounts. What were the facts?
September 19, 1980: Veronelli attended a rally in Asti (and not in Santo Stefano Belbo) where grape-growers and winemakers had gathered to discuss the then serious problems faced by Asti’s viticultural community. He had promised that he would speak on behalf of grape-growers only if those politicians responsible – in his view – for the situation would also attend. The politicians did attend and gave their patent answers without assuming any responsibility. The thousands of grape-growers who had gathered in the square begged him to speak. He did. In his harsh speech, he emphasized the fact that the grape-growers needed help and that their rights needed to be defended. Spurred by the crowd’s enthusiasm, the grape-growers took the stage and asked their colleagues to block the streets and occupy the Asti train station. Veronelli encouraged them to do so and he was later accused and convicted for aggravated obstruction of a public thoroughfare. He was granted amnesty four years later [and did not serve time in prison].
Regarding De Sade’s Storie, storielle, e raccontini),*** I know that it was one of the last – if not the last – books burned in a public square in Italy. The court of Varese [a town north of Milan] ordered it burned because the book contained texts and images that had been deemed obscene. Veronelli attended the bonfire and to protest his sentence, he applauded and laughed the entire time. He sentence to jail-time was however commuted and he was never imprisoned.
* Gabriele d’Annunzio (1863 – 1938) was one of Italy’s greatest poets, dramatists, and novelists. Known for his insatiable appetites (for food, women, and adventure), he often wrote about his culinary exploits and feats. Ghiottornie (from the Italian ghiotto or “insatiably hungry for”) can be loosely translated as “the oversized appetites” of Gabriele d’Annunzio.
** Tangentopoli or “bribesville,” the widespread political corruption scandal, unraveled by the Italian authorities’ Mani pulite or “clean hands” campaign in 1992.
*** Historiettes, contes, et fabliaux or “Stories, Tales, and Fables,” published in Paris as early as 1800 in Les crimes de l’amour or “Crimes of Love.”
See this informative obituary published in The Independent.