No Berlusconi but sadly still Barrique

Bartolo Mascarello’s famous label, “No Barrique, No Berlusconi,” a now iconic image that empowered wine as an ideological expression. Photo via Spume.

The great 20th-century novelist, poet, essayist, and politician Leonardo Sciascia employed Sicily as synecdoche for Italy in his novels Il giorno della civetta (The Day of the Owl, 1961) and A ciascuno il suo (To Each His Own, 1966). The works were parables of what he would later call the “Sicilianization” of Italy: a phenomenon whereby the Sicilian model of bureaucratic and political bankruptcy and clannish self-interest had contaminated the entire Italic peninsula as the nation first tasted the sweetness of prosperity thanks to the “economic miracle” of that decade.

Today, as I joyously read the news that Berlusconi has pledged to resign, I am reminded of Sciascia’s parables. In many ways, Berlusconi’s 17-year tenure as Italy’s leading politician is a parable of the Italian nation’s overarching abandonment of the social ideals that emerged in the period immediately after the second world war, when social and economic equality, dignity, and liberty were paramount in the hearts and minds of Italians who had suffered through the tragedy of fascist and Nazi domination. The memory of those wounds was still vibrant in 1994 when Berlusconi first took power. Today, the generation that embraced the humanist ideals of Italian post-war communism has greyed. And the greed and moral bankruptcy embodied by Berlusconi will remain as the legacy that has reshaped Italy and swept away the renaissance of Italian greatness — in design, technology, fashion, cuisine, etc. — of the decade that preceded his reign.

His tenure corresponds neatly to the tragic Californianization of the Italian wine industry that took shape in the 1990s when scores of Italian producers abandoned the values of the generation that had made wine before them.

Berlusconi may be on his way out. But, sadly, barriques are here to stay.

In the face of the European debt crisis and the social and economic turmoil that has gripped Italy (my first love) and Greece (my new love) — “Crisis in Italy Deepens, as Bond Yields Hit Record Highs,” New York Times — it’s been difficult to write about wine here on the blog.

Tonight Tracie P and I will raise a glass of traditionally vinified Nebbiolo to Italy’s future… and tomorrow I’ll pick it up again…

Life after barrique: “I started to love my wines again”

Here’s what winemaker Gianpaolo Paglia (below) had to say about my post on his decision not to age his wines in barriques anymore.

Thank you very much Jeremy for translating part of Ziliani’s post on my decision. I’m very glad to see that this has stirred an interesting conversation on Italian blogs about the current state of the art of Italian wines and their future. I think that we are now in the position to devote our efforts to a better knowledge of our land, our vineyards, our techniques of production, or in other words, our terroir. For the last decade I’ve been on a learning curve, of which barriques and a certain style of wine were part, now I feel I have to move further to find the true expression of my land in my wines.

It’s going to take time, because nothing is fast when it comes to agriculture, but I’m sure I’m on the right path. How do I know it? Simply because I started to love my wines again.

Basta barriques: a conversion of Constantine?

Earlier this month, Maremma producer of Morellino di Scansano and Syrah Gianpaolo Paglia (above, winemaker and owner of Poggio Argentiera, with his family) authored a short post on his blog entitled simply Basta barrqiues, enough with barriques.

In the post he informs his readers that he no longer intends to age his Sangiovese and Ciliegiolo in barriques, small new oak French barrels.

He explains: “In the last 10-15 years, the world of wine has changed. And, above all, my (and our) tastes have changed. This is no disavowal of the past, no repudiation. It’s very simple: one evolves, as a person and as a company.” (translation mine)

Yesterday, Italian wine blogger extraordinaire Mr. Franco Ziliani, who has long exhorted a more moderate use of barrique aging among Italian winemakers, posted an interview with Giampaolo.

Here are a few passages I found interesting and have translated from Gianpaolo’s answers:

    In certain wines produced with barriques, there is an excessive sweetness. However much this can be viewed in positive light, I find that it tires the palates. Complexity and nuance tend to be lost, trumped by a certain creaminess in the taste of the wine. Generally, I believe that it is more difficult draw out the character of grapes like Sangiovese and Ciliegiolo, where a certain angularity and backbone form the basis of their identity. And then there’s also the drinkability factor: I’m tired of drinking overly invasive wines.

    I can tell you that making wines that will be enjoyed by people who make wine makes much more commercial sense than trying to interpret the tastes of the market. My impression is that we tend not to fully appreciate people who buy wines and drink them. This is probably due partly to a lack of awareness and partly — and perhaps mostly — due to our lack of courage.

    There are wines that seem excellent to us but we consider them “difficult” for the market. But, then again, we discover that the market is very open to good wines, real wines, expressive wines. I see this every day, especially since I began to sell wines beyond the wines I produce.

I’m excited to taste the new vintages of Poggio Argentiera and I really admire Gianpaolo for the honesty and forthrightness of his blog and his words (he is, btw, probably the top Italian winemaker/blogger and his use of social media as a tool to promote his wines is world-class).

One of the most vocal opponents of barrique aging of Sangiovese I know is my friend Charles Scicolone, who began drinking Nebbiolo and Sangiovese in the 1970s. “They’ll crucify me on a cross made of barrique,” he likes to say humorously.

It’s too early to tell but could Gianpaolo’s declaration be an early sign of a conversion of Constantine? Let’s hope so… Chapeau bas, Gianpaolo!

In other good news…

It seems that Mr. Ziliani has returned from his blogging hiatus.

Slovenia Day 1: Movia (my barrique epiphany)

Just added…

Taste and chat at Jaynes: Thursday I’ll be pouring wine all night at Jaynes Gastropub in University Hts. (San Diego). Please stop by. Hopefully Chef Daniel will be serving his Alaskan halibut special…

Above: Aleš Kristančič draws off a barrel sample of his 2005 Pinot Noir. Note the size of the barrels. Aleš ages his wine exclusively in barrique.

My once immovable feelings about barrique (small, new oak barrels — French or Slavonian — used for aging wine) began to change last year when I read this article by Eric Asimov. With Socratic nuance, Eric pointed out that “Oaky may be bad, but oak is good.” Later that month, in response to a post I did on Luigi Veronelli and Italy’s historic relationship to new oak aging of wine, Eric authored a post in which he cast the use of barrique in judicious perspective. (If the wine blogosphere were a Renaissance court, Eric would be its wise and just prince: he brings an even-handed tone to a world prone to rants and extreme points of view. He was recently nominated for the Veronelli Prize for “best food and wine writing in a foreign language.”)

When my band Nous Non Plus arrived at the Movia winery in Brda, Slovenia on Monday, April 7, 2008, where we played a private party that evening, I had an epiphany of sorts: I discovered — to my surprise — that my friend Aleš Kristančič, whose wines I love and have enjoyed on many occasions, ages all of his wines in barrique.

Frankly, I was blown away. My friend and collaborator Franco Ziliani (known for his tell-like-it-is style) often points out that rules are rules: I have to confess that I had never detected oakyness in Aleš’ wines and Aleš gave me a proper schooling in situ as to how new oak can be used with the context of radically natural and undeniably biodynamic wines like his own. Ignoscetis mihi: as Franco says, if you taste something blind and you like it, you have to admit it.

Above: Aleš rocks out with his Soviet-era Tajfun bass (see headstock below). He played bass in the Yugoslav military band. Aleš became a fan of Nous Non Plus after he saw our Mobitel commercial and he invited the band to play a gig at his winery and later that week in Ljubljana.

“Oak is like the sheets of a bed,” said Aleš using a politically incorrect but apt simile, “when you break up with a girlfriend, you need to throw away the sheets and put new ones on the bed.” In his view, the yeasts and bacteria that grow on old oak barrels (and in particular, large oak barrels) can give unwanted flavors to the wine (other winemakers would argue that those flavors are elements in terroir expression).

One important element is the toasting of the oak. Aleš uses only gently toasted oak: “the staves are toasted by the cooper to shape the barrel,” he said, “not to give flavor to the wine.” (Many modern-style winemakers use heavily toasted oak to impart vanilla, chocolate, and tobacco and similar notes to their wines.)

But, most important, he explained, is the amount of time the wine spends in cask. “Many winemakers want to accelerate the aging process by using new oak for aging,” he said. “I’m not using the oak to soften the tannin. I am using it to oxygenate the wine slowly and gently.” (The pores in the new wood allow small amounts of oxygen to come into contact with the wine.) Where other producers age for 12 or even 18 months, Aleš often ages for up to 5 years in cask before bottling.

The other important element, he told me, is that he adds no sulfur whatsoever to his wine. “Even fine winemakers add very small amounts of sulfur in order to stabilize the wine more quickly. I don’t need to do that: I let time stabilize my wines. I’m not in a hurry,” Aleš said. The addition of sulfur, he explained, can cause the oak to impart some of its flavor to the wine.

Alder Yarrow just did a great post on Slovenia and Movia’s current releases over at his excellent blog Vinography.

I’ll be posting more on my stay and our shows in Slovenia and the wines we tasted and food we ate over the next few weeks. Look for my post on Movia’s Lunar: during my stay, Aleš revealed the secret of this 100% Ribolla Gialla that he makes from the free-run juice of whole bunches. He essentially fills a barrel with the grapes — stems and all — and lets the wine make itself. But there’s a trick to it: Aleš learned it all from a grape…

Slovenia is not as as developed as neighboring Friuli and its beauty is literally breath-taking. This shot — believe it or not — was taken from the toilet at the Movia guest house.