» Airone Magazine - April 2014
The A to Z of wine
The winemaker Donato Lanati talks about Italian enology
» Airone Magazine - April 2014
The A to Z of wine
The winemaker Donato Lanati talks about Italian enology
His passion and desire to research the world of enology manifested itself very early on in the life of Donato Lanati. At the age of eight, his father took him to Monferrato, in Cuccaro to scamper among the vines. Confronted with the blue clusters of grapes that to him appeared like
He decided to dedicate his life to wine by becoming an onologist, thus enabling him to study that extraordinary fruit. And over the years he has refined his knowledge and expertise becoming an advisor and consultant to some of the most important wine growing enterprises in Italy and abroad, moving among the Olympians of the top winemakers in the world and realizing at Enosis in Piedmont the dream of a lifetime: a state-of-the-art technological center dedicated to the study of wine which involves daily research activities. In the month of Vinitaly, when the eyes of half the planet are focused on Italian wines, we asked our onologist-scientist on whom several prestigious honorary degrees have recently been bestowed, to enlighten us with some reflections on Italian wine, past, present and future; and to reveal the strategies that will allow the Italian tricolour to fly proudly in the global wine economy.
As far as I can see, the future of Italian wines lies in a comprehensive development and promotion of the indigenous grape varieties. The challenge will be for growers to tie specific grape varieties to the wine-growing areas in which they are best cultivated; those grape varieties which have been selected according to tradition, with knowledge that has been handed down over time. Our true treasure is the land, its winegrowing areas and terroir, because, besides soil characteristics and typography, it represents the history, culture and knowhow acquired throughout the centuries.
The objective of the more attentive producers, beyond that of maintaining the land, is to express – to the highest level – the grape variety and to satisfy the expectations of the consumer. In addition to safety and quality control, the consumer demands, irrespective of the price category, transparency and traceability. Therefore it will be necessary, in terms of the world market, to present our wines with a label of guarantee that promises: a high level of organoleptic quality; precise guarantee of origin; product health and safety control; and eco-sustainability of production. Moreover, the label must inform and educate the consumer. The markets today require quarantees of origin, yet we still have not implemented a country-wide system of labeling that gives the product a universally-recognized identity – thereby protecting it from counterfeit, bearing in mind that our brands are the most counterfeited in the world. We must find a way to highlight our micro-territoriality. Rather than have thirty individuals pitch their products, one against the other, in fierce competition, let them present their products as thirty variations on a single harmonious theme: the area of production, in which each variation is as original as the others.
There is a certain difficulty in explaining to people outside of our country what Italian wine and Italian viticulture actually is. Certainly, in America, the brand ‘Made in Italy’ has blazed a trail for Italian products - thanks also, in part, to the flow of American tourists that return to America with tales of our wonderful culture and approach to life. It is different, though, in emerging countries. In China for example, there is a widespread ignorance of the many varieties and varietals of Italian wine that, unlike its French counterparts, is not a system based on grape varieties or wine varietals That is, we do not sell our wines with only the name of the grape variety such as Chardonnay, Cabernet or Merlot, rather we are a multitude of small denominations in which the name of the variety itself is closely tied to a well defined area or region. The Chinese cannot possibly, upon first contact with our wines, appreciate our Barbara or our Montepulciano unless we educate them in the wine culture that lies behind the product. Communication and information must absolutely precede the tasting of our wines. Then again, Italy has an advantage in having a successful restaurant culture abroad. Italian cuisine is historically tied to the culture of drinking well. From this perspective, restaurants can become an important vehicle for the commercial dissemination and growth of our wines.
Above all, we have to be exciting. Great emotions have one defect – they finish in the exact same moment in which they are felt. Not so with wine. We can relive that emotional experience. What is the nature of a wine that provokes such thrills? That nature is one, which when tasted, immediately enchants you. In a fraction of a second you are transported to the place where the wine was produced, among its vines and its people. Everyone in the world has an innate disposition towards harmony. For this reason, a product will give you pleasure when all its various parts are in balance. Obviously this is true for art and for music – to this list we also can add wine.
What must the wine of the future be like? The answer is simple – it will have to please the youth of today. Easy to say, but difficult to do, because it is not so simple to predict how tastes will evolve. Wine which is able to convey the allure of Italy, its history and its way of life – if this is the wine of the future, then its future is already assured. The product destined for success will be that which provokes excitement – that is direct and immediate, that has a quality that is perceivable and identifiable with the area from which it comes. Wine must also have a fair correlation between quality and price.
Taste arises from different factors such upbringing, place and time – from these factors emerge the ability to fully appreciate things as there are, to reward what is good and to disdain what is not. Because tastes are acquired in different ways in different cultures, we cannot delude ourselves into thinking that everyone will appreciate our wine.
Italian creativity plus Italian knowhow, allied to a favorable climate and a suitable environment, have made Italy unique in the world with regards to its diversity, qualities, tastes and fragrances in wines and food. Great chefs value products that are tied to the land, to the peasant tradition and the famous Mediterranean diet. In the world of Italian wine, we must also rejoice in the innate Italian character of our products.
At the high end of the market, there is still the possibility of market penetration, but the number of brands is shrinking. In presenting oneself to the global market, a producer must aim for excellence and always be measuring oneself against competition from other countries, paying particular attention to quality comparisons, volumes and price. In addition, the powers-that-be should be developing long-term policies allowing small producers, for example, to sell directly to the private sector, given the fact that it is difficult for the big distributors to enter into contractual agreements with wineries that are little known or have limited production capacity. Narrow margins and low volume weigh heavily on the network of distribution. The small producers must improve their approach to the market place, presenting their wines as if they were precious stones and making their customers feel valued. The more successful of our entrepreneurs – for example, Oscar Farinetti with his Eataly – have become champions of the Italian brand by concentrating the best agricultural products under one roof, available to all.
Our winning card, however, remains the concept of origin, understood as the cultivation of grape varieties in specific zones within the terroir and the wine-producing area. Sangiovese is the most striking example, which highlights how the land imbues the product with particular characteristics and just how decisive and critical are anthropology, along with social, economic and community ties. Italian winegrowers should work in a coordinated and integrated way, aiming even more towards the biodiversity they have at their disposal, because added value is found in diversity.
Quality wine can only come from a territory that is also rich in quality. Of course, human skills and sensibilities must also play their part. Quality is not an abstract value that one understands simply by the tasting of the wine. It is the result of a successful fusion, made of compounds produced under the control of the DNA of the grape variety. DNA is responsible for the variations of the molecule, for the color and the taste all of which attain many different levels, depending on the winemaking area and the vintage. All of this, together with the skill and intuition of the winemaker, lifts it to a perceptively different level of quality.
Every time we produce a wine, we must realize that the market is international and that it is not only the ‘New World' that is planting many hectares of new vines – this is also taking place in China, Russia, India and Japan. That means there will be ever-increasing competition. In order to play an important role in the market, winemakers must produce wines that express a quality that is exclusive and recognizable – pleasing not only to them, but to the entire world. In this case, it is necessary to give a sensory or taste profile, which meets with international approval, to our native wines.
The winemaking area - Terroir
The differing winemaking areas are our true strong point. Terroir is the most important treasure we have. More importantly, it is not exportable. Because of the way our viticulture is carried out, we cannot make great economies of scale in the ‘varietal system’. Rather, our force lies in our traditional vineyards, which have accompanied advancements in rural development throughout our history in the entire Italian peninsula, and which have been the result of a true socio-historical selection.
In every Italian region we find cultivation of indigenous wines in zones that have characteristics that are unique in the world. The Sicilian island of Pantelleria, whose origins are completely volcanic, rewards us with a Passito, of inimitable flavors of dried figs and peaches, obtained from the noble grape Zibbibo. Or Etna, with all the vitality and verve of its Nerello Mascalese. Not to mention the region of Friuli with its excellent whites and the Alto Adige with its great Pinot Noirs. These varieties, during the course of time, have been integrated into the fabric of the rural culture and the winegrowers have understood that it is this biodiversity allied with the area itself that produces a quality that cannot be replicated in any other part of the world. Take the case of the Nebbiolo grape – cultivated, it is true, in California; but it is in the Langhe region that it reaches its maximum expression in the form of Barolo.
Nebbiolo and Barbera in Piedmont and Lombardy, Lambrusco in Emilia, Prosecco in Veneto, Sangiovese and Trebbianio in Tuscany; Montepulciano, Pecorino and Passerina in Abruzzo, Aglianico in Basilicata, Primitivo and Negroamaro in Puglia, Gaglioppo in Calabria, Nero Cappuccio and Nero d'Avola and Nerollo Mascalese in Sicily, Vermentino in Sardegna: from these single grape varieties we produce wines of such quality that are so unique because they are the product of their cultures and thousands of years of history. Our single grape varietals are not as ubiquitous as the French grape varieties. The school of French wine has imposed, at an international level, varieties such as Merlot, Cabaret Sauvignon, Syrah and Chardonnay that have been genetically improved to produce good wines in all parts of the world. In contrast, an advantage that we have lies in the fact that our varieties cannot be reproduced, because in no other part of the world do our grape varieties attain the level of quality obtainable here in Italy, thanks to that particular and unrepeatable synergy that is established between the single grape variety and the terroir where it is cultivated.
This single grape variety has a particular history in and is an emblematic example of a tradition that can succeed as long as it is handed down and renewed in the course of time. The grape from Pantelleria – that is, the Moscato d'Alessandria (from Eygpt), called Zibibbo from Cap Zebib in Tunisia or from the Arabic ‘zabib’ which means ‘dry fruit' – used to be sold as a lowly table wine. This was a wine that could not be sold on the market because the grapes were not perfect. They were pressed and fermented to produce the wine. The superior grapes (of those left unsold) were then dried out and left to shrivel up on the volcanic stone walls that are typical of the island. This process resulted in raisins (dried grapes) – an important source of revenue. During the spring season that would follow, when the temperature begin to warm up, the raisins tended to spoil because, at such temperatures sugar crystals would form that would lacerate the skin of the product rendering it not fit for sale. This residue, however, was not thrown away, but was left to soak in wine for several weeks. This then underwent a gentle pressing and at this point the miracle occurred: the raisins by dissolving all of their concentrated perfume into the wine gave it an extraordinary sweetness, and infused it with a unique perfume of dried figs and peaches – characteristics that make this Passito wine the richest and most important in the Mediterranean.