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Postmodern Italy – in search of genuine wine

The natural wine debate has flared up again or, perhaps, it never went away. I was pondering this at the Centre Pompidou in Paris a while ago, while looking at Henri Matisse’s Luxe, Calme et Volupté, the neo-Impressionist painting from 1904, of which I took this picture. The short brush strokes with which the vibrant colours are applied to the canvas echoes the pointillism of Seurat’s Un Dimanche Après-midi à l’île de la Grande Jatte,painted 20 years earlier, but Matisse’s work is more radical, breaking away even further from the realism of the classical art canon than Seurat had dared before him.

With a group of like-minded artists Matisse caused more furore at the annual Salon d’Automne in 1905. The Salon d’Automne, organised annually since 1903, was a reaction to the Paris Salon, considered too strict and conservative in its selection of artworks. At the 1905 edition of the Salon d’Automne, works of Matisse, André Derain, Albert Marquet, Maurice de Vlaminck, Kees van Dongen, Charles Camoin, and Jean Puy were juxtaposed with a renaissance-style sculpture in the middle of the room.

The contrast was as crude as it was effective. It led the then-influential art critic Louis Vauxcelles to condemn the artists as ‘fauves’, wild beasts, and accused them of just flinging paint at the canvas. He was unable to recognise their inherent greatness, which was a liberation from classicism. In fact every artist in the group that became known as the Fauves had had an academic art training, which their new work now challenged.

As an art history student manqué I immediately saw a parallel with what are dubbed natural wines. Many producers who have received formal training in winemaking and viticulture have begun to question its validity. Just like the Fauves before them, many of these producers are accused of being dilettantes, evidenced by wine defects allegedly caused by a laissez-faire attitude to winemaking which has as its central tenet the desire to add nothing to the wine during vinification or afterwards.

In my opinion, the critics got it wrong this time too. Although many now see things differently, at first they failed to grasp what these producers were trying to do. They focused on what would be considered defects by the lights of conventional training rather than realising that these producers are making wines they feel are a truer, more faithful expression of origin unadulterated by an increasingly technological, standardised way of tending vines and making wine.

Arguably, nowhere did the craze for ‘progress’ hit harder than in Italy, which in the last 50 years or so has been praised widely for shaking off a history of allegedly mediocre, rustic wines by modernising vineyards and cellars while embracing, with incredible speed, modern technologies. A historic parallel can be found in the Italian Futurism movement at the beginning of the twentieth century, which rejected anything traditional in favour of speed, technology and youth – until it became associated with Fascism, exploiting and distorting much of its original meaning and goals.

From the late 1970s technological innovations in Italy’s vineyards and cellars reflect a similar tendency: a wholesale rejection of the past. Local varieties, ancient vine-training methods and winemaking traditions were all sacrificed on the altar of progress, while many new aspects that strictly speaking were foreign to Italy’s long history and anima were introduced.

Encouraged by a buoyant industry producing and selling the necessary equipment, a success story all of its own, as well as supplying international grape varieties believed to be needed to ameliorate Italy’s indigenous varieties, which were considered mediocre, modernism was applauded widely by the then all-powerful Italian wine guides as well as by the international press. All of this contributed to a wholesale rejection of wines, vines and traditions that did not adhere to this modernist approach. It became so dominant and ruinous, eroding Italy’s ancient wine culture by rejecting it, that a backlash was inevitable.

Natural wine fits in with what has become known as postmodernism, a term that emerged in the 1950s. In an opinion piece in the New York Times last December, Alice Feiring, a staunch proponent of natural wines, asked: ‘Is Natural Wine Dead?’, arguing that  ‘the movement, built on honesty and simplicity, is being corrupted by opportunists'. In the meantime many people have started to use the term ‘low-intervention wine’ rather than natural wine.

When I was an art student in Amsterdam in the mid 1980s reading art history, postmodernisn was at the height of fashion. It most prominently manifested itself in architecture, which in its very diverse forms seemed to reject the idea and concepts of modernism. London is full of postmodern architecture, evidenced by the Isle of Dogs Pumping Station (1986), The Circle in Queen Elizabeth Street in Southwark (1987), The SIS Building, which houses MI6 (1990) and No 1 Poultry in the City (1994), to name just a few.

One of the most influential commentators analysing postmodernism is Fredric Jameson, an American literary critic and Marxist political theorist. In Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (first published 1991), Fredric Jameson describes it as a break with the hundred-year-old movement of modernism, the search for change, triggered by the idea that modernism has nothing more to add.

According to Jameson, what comes next is ‘empirical, chaotic and heterogeneous’, citing Andy Warhol and pop art, photorealism, punk and new-wave rock as phenomena of postmodernism or its beginning. He also asks, ‘Does it imply any more fundamental change or break than the periodic style- and fashion-changes determined by an older, high-modernist imperative of stylistic innovation?’

Although postmodernism as a definition has begun to pop up in wine writing and even cook books, it resists a clear definition, or rather, very few dare to propose one. Gus Gluck, host of and buyer for Quality Wines next to The Quality Chop House is one of the few who is explicit, in their 150th anniversary cookbook, about what postmodernism means to him: ‘progressive but respectful of the skill and knowledge of those who’ve come before'. He even uses it as his wine selection criterion.

In my research for this article I came across what struck me an astonishing book ostensibly entirely devoted to the subject. I should have been warned by the title of Clark Smith’s Postmodern Winemaking, which puts the emphasis on winemaking, which seems as un-postmodern as possible.

According to Smith, postmodernism, at least as seen by him, is ‘to consider art in the winemaking process’, while the central tenet is ‘aromatic integration that good wine structure supplies'. The use of technology is the main tool, which is surely a modernist rather than postmodernist approach. In other words: Clark Smith cannot let go of technology and in the process misinterprets what is known as natural wine.

The book’s greatest weakness is Clark’s suggestion that winemakers do not tell the truth or are dishonest in not admitting to the technologies they use in order to please a public that is increasingly wary of them. This need to blame seems only to emphasise his need to confess and ultimately defend himself, having been inventor and/or vocal protagonist of some of the most manipulative and character-altering techniques (of which at least one is patented by him) used in his winemaking, such as micro-oxygenation, membrane-filtration and reverse osmosis, while adding water to highly concentrated wines with high alcohol in order to achieve balance.

Ultimately, Smith’s wine ambition seems dangerously imitative: making California wine according to European wine principles and styles. He writes, ‘In 1999 I expanded into Pauillac-style Cabernet Sauvignon and in 2001 I began … to make minerally Chardonnay I called Faux Chablis.’ The minerally element of the wine, if it is that, he believes he obtains by reducing the alcohol level by reverse osmosis. It is here that Jameson’s words, quoted above, resonate most forcefully: whether Smith’s concept of postmodernism implies a true break with modernism.

Postmodernism in wine is a reflection on and reaction to modernism. It suggests an alternative reading or understanding, rather than throwing everything out or denouncing everything that mankind has achieved. Producers of natural wines are restlessly searching for genuineness, and looking for inspiration in a past that predates modernism. One of the tools that seems to shape their wines is empiricism, the only method that was available to their grandfathers and grandmothers, but one which embodies a more original approach than a purely technical one that led to standardisation of Italian wine, in concept, production and style.

This re-evaluation is especially noticeable in Italy, but spreads far beyond the natural wine scene, even if it shares many common characteristics with it. This sense of longing for a purer, more original style of wine, amplified by climate change, goes back in Italy to roughly the1960s and this beginning can be traced back to one person who was already then extremely vocal about this issue: Mario Soldati.

Vino al Vino (a title that can be paraphrased as ‘to call a spade a spade’) is a book based on articles published between 1968 and 1975 in several newspapers and is the written account of his travels over many years throughout the peninsula. Soldati describes tradition, local varieties and wines in order to chronicle and rescue the genius loci he felt was disappearing due to the relentless modernism that was taking hold of Italy’s viticulture and winemaking.

Mario Soldati’s Vino al Vino is the unofficial manifesto of Italy’s natural wine movement. Soldati wasn’t looking for famous wines, preferring the obscure and local in which he found the true soul of Italy through its wine.

Natural wines in Italy are a heterogeneous bunch because they can range from ultra hardliners refusing SO2 at any stage while trying to interfere as little as possible in the winemaking process, to wines made by moderates who subscribe to organic viticulture and reduced levels of sulphur – and everything in between. But all groups are searching for the same genius loci, a sense of place, as Soldati did before them.

Tools in this search are local varieties, ambient or indigenous yeast, and inspiration taken from grandparents’ way of working, before technology and agrochemicals took hold.

Postmodernism is not a fashion, as some critics have suggested, because it harks back to ancient times, strikingly visible in the spreading use of amphora, concrete eggs and qvevri for fermentation and ageing. Imitation is not the underlying motive, however, but rather an alternative to the standardisation brought about by the once-ubiquitous French oak barrique.

In my most brazenly generalising moments I feel that the use of barriques is as much a defect as over-concentration, premature oxidation and brettanomyces, all standardising wine’s smell and taste, because it almost always adds the same qualities.

Postmodernism is above all the story of people, people using tradition, indigenous grape varieties and classic training systems that were once marginalised by the false narrative that these were incapable of resulting in good-quality wines. They have resisted. The time has come to set the record straight.

This article was previously published on an republished here with kind permission.


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