An obscure history of modernism vs. traditionalism in Piedmont

So I finally made it to the original Terroir wine bar on East 12th on Saturday, having become something of a regular at the sister location in Tribeca this spring. What did I find there on the bathroom wall – alongside photos of Roberto and Giacomo Conterno – but a framed copy of “Research Paper No. 1972 from the Stanford Graduate School of Business.”

That seemed like a decidedly strange piece of decor in a hipster East Village joint… until I read the title: “No Barrique, No Berlusconi: Collective Identity, Contention, and Authenticity in the Making of Barolo and Barbaresco Wines” (2007).

I made a note of it and found it on the web when I got home. It turned out to be intriguing: an extended history of the growth of the modernist movement in the Langhe and the counter-movement by the traditionalists, with statistics, no less, on the surging and waning of the modernists.

For me the best parts are the history, based on extensive interviews with winemakers (Gaja, Altare, Sandrone, Giuseppe Rinaldi, Aldo Vacco, and more) and others in the trade, plus earlier research.

That’s dressed up with some turgid, canned sociological theory. However, the authors have one sociological insight I found interesting. They frame the debate as one over the meaning of “authenticity.” To the upstarts, “authenticity” was rooted in creativity and experimentation. To the traditionalists, “authenticity” meant working within the regional traditions.

Here’s what I learned:

–In 1982, Elio Altare, inspired by Angelo Gaja, took a chainsaw to his father’s dirty old botti. I guess you could say that announced the movement’s arrival. It may also explain why so many of the high modernists are based nearby in La Morra, or across the La Morra/Barolo gulch in Castiglione: A guy with a chainsaw can be pretty persuasive.
–Cellar cleanliness was as big reason a factor in the shift to barrique as its softening impact on the wine, at least initially.
–In 1987, before the 1984 vintage was released, some 20 producers and others, including Marco de Grazia, convened to taste each other’s wines blindly and to discuss techniques. This was a turning point, as they exchanged information that sparked them to new experimentation and gave each other moral support.
–For this group, the emphasis was explicitly on producing wines that could be drunk now, not just sooner (e.g., 10 years instead of 20).
–The interviews document the indisputable impact that critics had in reinforcing the shift toward modern techniques, though it was Gambero Rosso and Veronelli that had the biggest impact, and not Parker. Altare’s daughter says, in effect, that her father lived for recognition.
–The paper includes stats on the “defection rate” (p. 46): the portion of traditional producers who adopted “modern” (i.e., barrique for this purpose) techniques each year from 1978-2000. The big peaks were in 1990 (over 8%) and 1996 (10%), bearing out the anecdotal sense of many of us that 1996-97 was the high water mark. (The researchers use barriques as the main criteria because that was perceived as the dividing line, though they mention maceration times and temperature control. Oddly, rotofermentation doesn’t come up.)
–The “defection” rate drops off sharply after 1997 (to the 2%-2.5% range). This corresponds to the time when many of the barrique makers (e.g., Scavino) shifted back partly to botti and longer macerations.

There are other tables with statistical correlations between different factors (vintage, traditional style, cru, and so on) and critical acclaim, but I haven’t taken the time to wade through the statistical methodology to decipher those. I think the point is that modern wines got higher points up to 2000. To anyone who had followed the Tre Bicchieri awards this is no surprise.

In sum, for serious Barolo/Barbaresco-heads with a tolerance of academic prose, it’s a must read.

How cool! Thanks for posting this and for linking the paper. Geeky academic stuff about one of my fave regions… can’t go wrong on that.

Tremendous stuff, John. Thanks for the link and summary. Perfect timing as I plan my trip to Piedmont.

That’s great, It’s amazing the things you can find on a wall in a NYC bar. Obviously, a wine bar for this instance makes sense. Thanks for the insights and the link.

I didn’t realize you were in NYC. You should join us for one of our Barolo dinners. We’re on hiatus with the warm weather, but come the fall, we’ll start to organize some more events.

I remember reading this a few years ago. I ran across when developing my site for Bartolo Mascarello. It does seem an odd juxtaposition.


Interesting little snippet:

Elio Altare’s characterization of his father’s wine
“[M]y father…used a long maceration—2 to 3 months. It was not for making good wine.
He was making it in that way because it was easy. The second problem was the use of
big barrels… When my father made great wines, it was not because he was a good
producer; it was just because he was lucky… I would like to make wine that is good to
taste, that can be good for most people. The way that traditionalists make wine is old,
outdated. It could be a good wine; but often it has a lot of defects…”

The article made me more sympathetic to the modernists by emphasizing the often dismal winemaking they saw around them much of the time.

It’s interesting, though, that the younger generation didn’t acknowledge that Giacosa, the Conternos, Marcarini, the Mascarellos and others were producing excellent wines within the traditions of the region.

In the end, the modernists seem to be partly about youthful rebellion, partly about creativity and partly about ego, but also about a genuine desire to improve the quality of the wine and to make Barolo more approachable for more people.

It’s the baby/bathwater thing. Altare’s observations ring true; in Piemont and elsewhere, so much of what passes for tradition came to be not because it makes better wine but because it can lower the costs of production and make wine as easy to produce as possible. Filthy conditions aren’t a valuable tradition; they are simply lazy (Henri Bonneau, are you listening?)

But the notion that wine-making needed to change in order to make a product that can be pulled off the retailer’s shelf and drunk immediately is destructive.

Thanks for posting John. Very enlightening.

Yeah…interesting link, John. I’ll have to read more of it.

I do think the labels on the spectrum are very unfortunate. Most people, when I visited in 2004, seemed to be in the middle somewhere. For me, it’s all about hygeine in the wines and winemaking. Just like the “young’ uns” in Burgundy realized that “barnyard” was a desired aspect, though people obviously flocked to it, those in the Langhe thought that their fathers’ methods wouldn’t show the great potential of the wines there in a more modern world, where people expected “better” methods and cleaner wines. The new oak part, of course, was radical…and seems to be where most of the experimenting focused, just as the Mortets of Burgundy did, to find their “groove”.

I think those who held on to the “traditional” label most strongly…were already in the hygeine forefront, as they had the mean$ and the awareness, and were highly reputed as a result, so they saw/see nothing to change (though Aldo Conterno, for one, seemed quite a mix of the two “schools”).

Just like TV and the internet have made the world “smaller”, I think the younger generation wanted to join the modern world, and realized that it required great steps forward re: hygeine. I don’t think it was much about ego…or even pleasing the critics, but self-awareness and some vision of what it took and the quality potential they had that was, in many cases, being obliterated by rustic/rudimentary/inexpensive winemaking.

Thank you very much for the link John, interesting stuff for sure. The premise is a bit of a stretch in terms of defining the word authenticity but the history is priceless.

I struggle with the idea of extended maceration being “correct” in the case of Nebbiolo. Why would one take a particularly tannic grape, then let it sit on the must for months after it finished alcoholic fermentation when extraction will be harsher with ethanol acting as a solvent? OK, it makes an impenetrable wine that will age for 50 years. But in 50 years I may not be alive, and my nose and palate will be shot at the very least. (Or perhaps the key is the taster evolving faster than the wine [cheers.gif] .)

I’m not in agreement with all the modern tools that can be used to make a Nebbiolo dark colored and oak flavored like every other aspirational wine. Nor would it make sense to neuter it so it is a soft wine. But until maybe a hundred years ago Nebbiolo was often made as a sweet wine, until French influence assisted in fermentation until dryness in Piedmont. Some evolution away from walls of tannin seems reasonable, as reasonable as making dry wine instead of sweet wine.

Is this a typo, Stuart, or is it what you meant (“was” not “wasn’t”?

By this decade there were a lot of people in the middle, which the research doesn’t really capture.

Aldo Conterno is typically put under the traditional heading, but many people feel they’ve moved pretty far away from that.

O yeah! [cheers.gif]

The long macerations don’t always yield overly tannic wines (e.g., 60 days for Burlotto’s very elegant Monvigliero and 40+ days, as I recall, at Marcarini). At the height of the modern craze, people were doing three and four day macerations, which I’ve been told doesn’t extract enough to give real complexity.

It does if you put it in one of these:


This is great. A lot of the discussion about “authenticity” etc. could be ripped straight from discussions on this board. E.g.:

crusaders like Altare, Clerico, Sandrone, and Scavino…crusaded for the identity of a winemaker as a creative interventionist or engineer rather than as a passive spectator of nature. In other words, they emphasized authenticity as creativity and originality…Clerico drew on film-making as an analogy and implied that: “Winemaking is like filmmaking and the difference between being an actor and being a director. In the cellar we don’t sell wine, we just make it” (emphasis his). Luciano Sandrone explained that, instead of making wines from specific vineyards, he “makes vineyards from wines” by creating “vintages” for each parcel and date of harvesting.

Sounds like a familiar dispute.

Or this one could come from any number of threads by Euro-phobes around here:

This is the typicality that is not good, that it is not quality, it’s only dirt. It was the typical
bad smell that you could find in 95 percent of Barolo.

Yes…thanks, Frank, for reading and finding. I wrote a post and it never posted, and I lost it. So, I scribbled another in a rush…and…

It’s funny, but now that I think about it the fault’s I’ve encountered in old Barolo were VA and too little fruit. I can’t think of one that was dirty, apart from VA.

John, can’t tell if you’re being facetious or not. But, my understanding is that VA is almost always a product of poor hygeine in the winery, and can be prevented. Old, overused wood is a prime culprit. And, many places there seem to have had their share.

I haven’t done a ton of “research” on the subject, but the above book, at p. 119, seems to suggest that.