As I write this article, I am sitting at a restaurant table in Logroño, Spain, in the heart of the Rioja wine country. The winery visits on this trip have all been to wineries that are modern architectural masterpieces. They often also have displays of old winemaking equipment and historical relics, to let you know there were once wonderful wine traditions in the regions. The wines are modern now, for the most part — rich, red and bathed in the scent of new French oak barrels. These are wonderful, modern-styled wines that are surely not what I remember as traditionally ultra-smooth and distinctly Spanish wines, aged in relatively neutral American oak barrels. It is ironic to learn that the most popular drink for the young Basque people is the kalimotxo, a 50/50 blend of red wine and cola. And this is not in China — it is red wine mixed with Coke in the heart of the European wine country. It is actually a new turn on a lost tradition in Spain, called sangria.
That got me thinking, for this issue of in the Mix, of the many other lost wine traditions elsewhere in Europe, and especially in Italy. By sheer coincidence, it turns out that I am sharing a table here at the Rioja Forum for the Digital Wine Communicators Conference with my dear friends, Laurie and Andrew Quady. The Quadys are making wonderful wines, which in many ways represent the preservation of Italian-styled wine traditions that are being lost. In particular, they are making high-end, low-alcohol Moscato, as well as aromatic sweet and extra-dry Vermouth wines, under the Vya label. The wines are delicious, and I am so glad the Quady family is keeping these old traditions alive in their wines!
The mixing and blending of wines in Europe is as old as wine itself. Vermouth is an aromatized and fortified wine said to have originated in Turin, Italy in the 1750s and represents one of the many “lost traditions.” My first encounter with Vermouth wines came in 1969, when I went with my family to see the movie, “The Secret of Santa Vittoria.”
Based on a best-selling novel written by Robert Crichton in 1966, the movie debuted in 1969, starring Anthony Quinn. It is a fictional story about a real town in Italy during the German occupation in World War II. The fictional part of the story has it that the impoverished townspeople cleverly hid a million bottles of wine from the Nazis and endured occupation and torture, never disclosing the whereabouts of the wine to their tormentors. A point was made that their stocks of red wine were from a vintage of exceptional quality in terms of the intensity and alcoholic strength. Reading the book some years after seeing the movie, I was surprised to learn that the wines in the story were not drunk in a pure form but were wines destined to be made into sweet Vermouth.
Here in Logroño, the Rioja wines I knew for decades are being replaced with modern wines, just as traditional Italian wines like Chianti, Lambrusco and Amarone are falling by the wayside.
The fine Chiantis of old were required to contain a significant percentage of Malvasia Bianca and Trebbiano, both white grapes that gave the wines charm and a smooth character rarely encountered in the wines of Chianti today. Sure, the cheap wines were just that, but the good wines from traditional producers were aromatic and wonderful. In the 1980s, the laws were changed to allow 100 percent Sangiovese wines and then later allowed the addition of invasive species such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. Of course, the “Super Tuscan” wines, higher in percentages of Cabernet and other invasive species, were introduced to compete with the intense, French-oaked modern wines coveting the magical and elusive 100 point score!
Many of us also fondly remember a wine called Lambrusco. A fizzy, semi-sweet wine, it was actually quite prized and commercial versions made it one of the best-selling wines in the United States during the 1970s. I am really happy to see some of the smaller producers still making and selling this delicious, fun wine.
Another in the long list of endangered Italian wine species are traditional Amarone wines from the Veneto region. Few people know that until the early 1950s, there was no such thing as a dry Amarone; yet, that is about the only style that can be found today. These wines were made and enjoyed as sweet, intense red wines. The famous Recioto della Valpolicella is made from the “ears,” or small top parts, of the clusters, which are harvested and dried on straw mats to increase their natural sugar and intensity of flavor. In Rioja, I met a passionate producer from the Veneto region who is making no less than eight types of Amarone wines, including a traditional sparkling Amarone! But they are unable to find a cooperative distributor in the United States; it seems that people are unwilling to try to sell these very traditional wines. Sure, there are many really great, dry Amarone wines distributed in the States; but, in many ways, these are atypical and do not represent the traditional styles made in the region not long ago.
The point of this article is to create an understanding, and perhaps even a demand, for the wines that are on the verge of extinction. They are still out there, but the über-intense, dark and heavily-oaked modern wines are so prevalent it seems as if there is little use for the distinctive character of traditionally-styled wines. Many producers are working to save these endangered species; however, we need passionate people in the chain of distribution and selling the wines to get involved and participate. We also need some revision to our wine education programs to help people understand that once upon a time, it was okay for a wine to be lighter in style, delicate and, dare I say, even sweet. I truly believe there is a market for these wines, but it will take an extra bit of effort to connect these wines to the consumers who will appreciate their quirky styles.
Are you tired of the dominance of modern, cookie-cutter fruit and oak wines of today? Save a traditional wine and help preserve the diversity of traditional styles that make wine so fun, exciting and enjoyable!
Tim Hanni is one of the first two Americans to earn the title of Master of Wine. He is an industry consultant and educator, hailed by The Wall Street Journal as “The Wine Anti-Snob” and is on faculty at Sonoma State University’s Wine Business Institute. Hanni is a widely-recognized leader in developing wine marketing and education programs around the world, and is involved in sensory and behavioral research projects to foster a better understanding of consumer wine preferences.
Author of “Why You Like the Wines You Like,” available from Amazon.com.
Visit his website at TimHanni.com.