MW Sarah Heller’s paean to the distinctiveness of Italian wines in Club Oenologique gets at an important point about what I call “wine royalty” in Beauty and the Yeast—the storied vineyards of Bordeaux and Burgundy that serve as benchmarks of quality wine.
She argues that Italian wines, with the exception of Super Tuscans, should not be judged according to the standards of French wines because they have quite different aesthetic aims.
In Italy, texture often trumps flavour: white wines can be oily and tannic and aren’t often highly aromatic; perfumed, sheer reds resembling Pinot Noir can pack the tannic heft of Cabernet Sauvignon. And virtually everything comes in red: sparkling wine, sweet wine and even aromatic varieties such as Ruchè or Lacrima that have as much aromatic throw-weight as Gewürztraminer or Muscat. A newcomer to Italian wine can feel like they’ve landed in an earlier phase of oenological evolution where all the oddities that died off or never took root elsewhere are still alive and flourishing….To reflect many Italian wines’ savoury mien, our tasting vocabulary emphasises woods, herbs, spices and earthy aromas rather than the usual fruit salad. We recognise that bitterness, a taste traditionally considered a wine fault, actually provides the key to balance in Italian wine (and cuisine and coffee).
The implication of this is that there is no single standard of wine quality that gets all quality wines under its umbrella. And it distorts local wine traditions when we try universalize standards from one region and apply them to all. I think this is exactly right and I devote some attention to defending this view in Beauty and the Yeast.
In the wine world, we love our traditions, and the “tradition” has crowned the products of these French vineyards as wine’s ultimate “stars” with the prices that come with that coronation. No doubt these wines are great but it doesn’t follow that the rest of the wine world should be self-consciously trying to emulate them or that critics must constantly be genuflecting in their direction.
What matters most in the wine world is distinctiveness and variation and it shows a lack of maturity that we still hang on to these benchmarks as exemplars. We can have our coronations without the repetition.
Consider: The world of theatre has long held Shakespeare to be the finest playwright in history. But it is simple false to claim that all great playwrights are imitations of Shakespeare or work within his shadow. The theatre world is properly respectful of Shakespearean comedy and tragedy but then goes about creating what they think is most responsive to current aesthetic conditions.
In the wine world we need to take more seriously the idea that there are multiple standards of greatness and work harder, as Heller has done, to articulate those standards when distinctive expressions warrant it.