If traditional Italian food can do it, why can’t traditional Italian wine?

Above, from left: Professor Vincenzo Gerbi (enologist, U. of Turin), me, winemaker Michele Chiarlo, and unidentified woman, March 9, 2010, Tuesday morning in Canelli. Alfonso provided a caption and thought bubbles for the photograph, which he lifted from the Barbera Meeting Flickr feed. Alfonso’s captions are humorous, of course, but the tension was as thick as Australian Shiraz with added tannin extract. It’s never an easy to task to interpret in those situations. I was using a technique called chuchotage or whispered translation, where I would whisper translations of the questions into Professor Gerbi’s ear. Then I used consecutive translation to translate his answers. Ne nuntium necare!

The events of Tuesday, March 9, 2010, at the Barbera conference in Canelli and the heated debate that ensued have been the subject of much discussion. Perhaps the best account of the ideological arm wresting was rendered by fellow member of the Barbera 7 Cory here. (Leading Italian wine writer Franco Ziliani had high praise for Cory’s observations. And fellow Barbera 7 member Fredric chronicled the excellent luncheon here.)

Here’s what Cory had to say:

    The first event was a presentation on new research being done on pruning by a group funded by some of the bigger names that produce barbera. For those of you don’t know much about the farming of wine (i’m no expert myself) the way vines are pruned are central to the way grapes ripen, how much they produce, and how the wine comes out. Traditionally barbera has been pruned using the guyot system, (which i won’t get into in detail here). The research being done is on the spur cordon system. It’s one of those things that sounds innocuous to the outsider, but the effects on the wine were profound.

    We were told about the effects of the pruning on the acids, the tannins, the color of the wine.

    It was around this point that things began to become heated.
    Questions were asked as to why this was necessary. Do you really need to keep messing with the grape? Why would you need to control the acid in barbera?

    Isn’t acid essential to barbera?

    The answer we got was that they were making barbera… important.

Read the entire post here.

Above: During the morning and afternoon sessions, my good friend and blogger colleague Charles Scicolone challenged the winemakers directly, asking “Why don’t you make the same great, food-friendly wines you made 20 years ago?”

As the interpreter, I couldn’t jump into the debate. But as I listened and interpreted, interpreted and listened, the same thought kept rolling around my head: traditional Italian cuisine has conquered the world over; so why is it that Italians want to send modern-, international- (i.e., homogeneous-) style wine abroad? In other words, if traditional Italian cuisine can do it, why can’t traditional Italian wine?

After all, the thing that Tracie P and I love the most about real Italian wine is its food-friendliness. Whether old, regal Nebbiolo or young, bright Barbera, we look for three basic elements in the wines we like, the same three elements that make wine friendly to food: high acidity, low alcohol, and honest fruit aromas and flavors. At our house, we never serve food without wine and never serve wine without food (well, to be honest, we only rarely serve Champagne at breakfast!). Joking and clichés aside, our approach to wine can be distilled in the following chiastic aphorism (do you like that one, Thor?): never wine without food, never food without wine.

And what could go better with traditional Italian cuisine than traditional Italian wine?

In other food-friendly news…

Tracie P and I FINALLY got to spend a quiet night at home alone last night. She treated me to Salisbury steak and mashed potatoes…

Did I mention that besides being jaw-droppingly gorgeous, the girl CAN COOK? ;-)

In other news…

Yesterday, I had the great pleasure of doing an online interview with Grappolo Rosso. I particularly enjoyed his request that I pair wines with songs. I really liked, if I do say so myself, my pairing for Australian Shiraz: a little Judas Priest, anyone? Thanks again, Jury! And complimenti per il tuo nuovo blog!

The Barbera affair: what really happened that snowy night in Nizza

The following is my account of the events that took place on Tuesday, March 9, 2010, during Barbera Meeting 2010. The facts, ma’am, just the facts. See also the account published by Tom’s Wine Line.

Bernard Arnould

Above: Even after they traded words more acidic than an unoaked Barbera, Belgian wine writer Bernard Arnould (left) and winemaker Ludovico Isolabella shared pleasantries during the aperitivo after the conference on the wines of Nizza last Wednesday.

The controversy really began before lunch, when Italian wine writer Carlo Macchi, Austrian Helmut Knall, and Americans Charles Scicolone and Tom Maresca asked some pointed questions during the Q&A following a presentation by professor of enology Vincenzo Gerbi (University of Turin) and legendary winemaker Michele Chiarlo in Canelli before lunch. The speakers had presented the results of the Hastae experimental laboratory project. Researchers were able to reduce levels of acidity by employing non-traditional vine-training methods they said. I had been asked to interpret.

Why, asked the attendees, would you want to reduce the acidity levels of Barbera when its bright acidity is it’s defining characteristic? The answer, said the presenters, lies in a desire to make a wine more palatable to a wider market. The same held for judicious oak aging, they said. A heated argument on what defines “recognizability” and “typicity” ensued. Frankly, I had an easier time interpreting for the Italian foreign minister’s delegation and a hostile group of Chinese officials when I worked at the United Nations some years ago.

Above: Charles Scicolone addressed Michele Chiarlo directly during the afternoon session.

But things really heated up after we had tasted roughly 50 wines in the afternoon session in Nizza and Belgian wine writer Bernard Arnould took the floor and openly challenged the winemakers present: the wines we had tasted, he told them, were so oaky and concentrated that they were barely drinkable. They did not resemble Barbera, he said, and he couldn’t help but wonder out loud where they expected to sell these wines.

To this, winemaker (and one of Piedmont’s foremost lawyers) Ludovico Isolabella, owner of the Isolabella winery, responded by asking: “Do you know anything, anything at all, about wine?”

Following this, Charles Scicolone addressed the winemakers, and Michele Chiarlo in particular. He asked them for whom these wines were intended. They did not taste like the wines he had tasted 20 years prior, he said. Why, he asked, did they change their winemaking style? Were they making one wine for their own consumption and another to sell to America? The Barberas he had tasted, he explained, were no longer the high-acidity, bright fruit, low-tannin, food-friendly wines of two decades ago.

Above: The Barbera 7 watched on as the volatile acidity flew. You can see Polish colleague Andrzej Daszkiewicz in the background with Charles and Tom Maresca to his left.

That’s all I have time for today. I’ll have more to report tomorrow and I know that my colleagues are also scribing posts on the fateful events of that day.

In the meantime, I’ve spent the whole day (and last night) stuck at JFK. I kinda feel like the Tom Hanks character in Spielberg’s Terminal. Ugh… Hopefully, I’ll make it back to that beautiful lady of mine tonight. I don’t think I can stand another day without her…