Louis Oudart, the French oenologist who invented Barolo. Or did he?

The “Oudart thesis”

There is a widespread belief that Barolo (by which term I mean the modern style, a red dry wine made from Nebbiolo grape in the surroundings of the town bearing the same name) has been invented by a French oenologist from Champagne, Louis Oudart. The story is reported by many reliable sites like Diwine Taste (here in English) or AIS Lombardia (the Lombard division of the Italian Sommelier Association) and even the recent “History of Wine in 100 Bottles” by Oz Clarke crowns Oudart as the inventor of this iconic wine (I still don’t understand how it is possible to write a book on wine history without any bibliography or references, but that’s another story).

This theory, taken as fact by many, was popularized by Manescalchi and Dalmasso’s “Storia della vite e del vino in Italia” (History of the vine and the wine in Italy), first published in 1937. I could not examine the original book or one of its later editions, but the story goes more or less like this.

Just before the half of the XIX century (around 1843) the famous Camillo Benso Count of Cavour, aiming to improve the quality of his wines, called Oudart to his estate in Grinzane. The count had a deep interest in agricolture and saw the technical improvement in this field as functional to support the kingdom’s finances. He was also Minister of Agriculture and Commerce for the Kingdom of Sardinia from 1850 to 1852.

Camillo Benso, count of Cavour

Camillo Benso, count of Cavour

Juliette Colbert of Maulévrier was one of his acquaintance: a noble woman born not far from Nantes, she was married to Carlo Ippolito Ernesto Tancredi Maria Falletti di Barolo (also known as Tancredi Falletti, marquis of Barolo). The two were a very good couple and though they never had any child they loved each other dearly. Juliette (Giulia Falletti di Barolo after marriage) also liked a good glass of wine, but the one produced in the Barolo area had too much residual sugar and was probably fizzy: Nebbiolo is a late ripening grape and the must fermentation probably stopped in winter to restart in spring, rarely coming to its end. Italy had still to achieve greatness in this field and its wines could not rival the french nectar that Juliette longed for.
She then consulted with his friend Camillo Benso asking for advice and the count introduced her to Louis Oudart, his french enologist. Louis Oudart examined the Falletti estates (in the area of Barolo) and corrected the wine making process by giving a number of advices, recommending to control the fermentation temperature in order to avoid residual sugar in the final wine. The Marquise was so satisfied by the result that she started promoting it passionately. Thanks to her the wine entered the court of Carlo Alberto of Savoy, king of Sardinia and prince of Piedmont, conquering the monarch and pushing him to acquire an estate in Verduno to start his own production.

When I first read this story I was very intrigued: as I wrote in the first post of this blog, many people wrongly perceive the history of italian wine as a long and uninterrupted line linking the Roman Empire with what we drink today. Too many Italians ignore the debit our wine has towards France. What would have been better to highlight this than crediting two French, Oudart and Juliette, for the invention of Barolo itself?
I started searching for sources and found a fantastic book from Anna Riccardi Candiani, “Louis Oudart e vini nobili del Piemonte” (Louis Oudart and the noble wines of Piedmont). My intention was too write a simple post re-telling the story and presenting some evidence, but the reality was a bit more complicated.

To tell the life of Louis Oudart the author has made deep researches, consulting archives and original documents from the civil registry of Reims, Bordeaux, Genova, the archives of the Royal Academy of Agricolture of Turin and others.
Louis Oudart was not just an enologist moved by academic interest, he was a wine merchant based in Genova leading the Maison Oudart et Bruché. In Burgundy we would call him a négociant, buying grapes or wine in the Ligurian and Piedmontese backcountry, bottling it and selling the final product. He had came to Italy with his cousin Jacques Philippe Bruché and had started his activity in Genova because of its healthy and flourishing french community. He was of course competent in his job and knew much about grape growing, but did not receive any special call by Cavour or Juliette Colbert.

At page 47 Candiani presents her shocking revelation (my translation):

Since many years the vox populi identifies Oudart as the inventor of Barolo wine. He would have been supposedly called by Giulia Colbert in Falletti, french like him, to work in the cellars of Barolo. Even though I made extensive research in archives and libraries, I did not find any document crediting a link between the enologist and Barolo. I am sorry to disappoint the supporters of this rumor and I must declare that the story has no basis.

The book is short (126 pages), but very informative and entertaining. If you can read italian I heartily recommend it.
Candiani tells us that Louis Oudart corresponded for some time with the Royal House and negotiated for the grapes produced in the estate of Pollenzo (personal resort of king Carlo Alberto). His 1844 Pollenzo featured in an international fair of London in 1862 with excellent results, but the parts could not reach an agreement over the price of grapes and the collaboration didn’t go further.
The enologist seems much more involved in the production of  Nebbiolo from Neive, today in the Barbaresco area, where he worked as an advisor for the count Camillo Bongiovanni di Castelborgo. The dry 1858 Nebbiolo from the maison Oudart and Bruché was particularly appreciated at the 1861 national exposition of Firenze and at the London International Exhibition of 1862: it had been made from grapes made into must and fermented until completion. An innovative technique, though it is difficult to establish if Louis Oudart has been the first to introduce it.

The “Staglieno thesis”

So if Oudart is not the inventor of Barolo, who is the father of this wine? One of the main suspects is Paolo Francesco Staglieno, a retired general who worked as enologist in the Pollenzo estate (the same with which Oudart had negotiated unsuccessfully the price of the grapes) and Grinzane, where he was called by Camillo Benso of Cavour in 1836 (and stayed until 1840). (1)

Supporters of the “Oudart thesis” often cite Staglieno by claiming that, although he was active in the same period in the area, his style of Barolo was “abboccato” (medium sweet), as opposed to the alleged dry Barolo of Oudart. This is much strange (and probably wrong) because Staglieno in his “Istruzione intorno al miglior modo di fare e conservare i vini in Piemonte” (Instructions on the best way to make and preserve wines in Piedmont, 1837) clearly states at page 68 that the best wine is made by fermenting the must to completion, without leaving any residual sugar. If he put, as it is very likely, his theories into practice and provided that he used 100% Nebbiolo, he could legitimately be called the inventor or at least one of the earliest vintners of modern Barolo. (2)
I could not find any documentation attesting the use of Nebbiolo in Grinzane, but writing about the estate of Pollenzo Staglieno confirms that the majority of the grapes grown there were in fact Nebbiolo and adds that wines made from this variety must age at least for four years before becoming enjoyable to the palate. (3) Pollenzo is in Bra, outside the area of modern Barolo production, but Staglieno shows appreciation for the grape and he may have employed it in Grinzane.

Conclusion

I started my research with the intention of making a simple post on Oudart, Juliette Colbert and Barolo, but in the end I could not find an answer to the question “Who invented Barolo?”.
Was it Staglieno? Maybe, though we cannot exclude the presence of someone else, unrecorded by history, making a dry red wine from Nebbiolo in the Langhe before him. Probably it is like trying to find the inventor of the méthode champenois: was he an english merchant, a monk from Limoux or what else? Impossible to say.
What we can say is that the XIX century was a very exciting period, one which really shaped the wine we drink today. Knowledge on how to make good wine was being passed all over Europe (and beyond), reaching the rolling hills of central Piedmont where people slowly started to improve their product by lengthening fermentations, giving more care to winery hygiene and choosing more suitable grape varieties. The disaster (oidium, phylloxera, peronospora) was behind the corner, but the seeds were being planted and the fruit is inside our glasses every day.

(1) Here a fantastic source on Staglieno. His presence in Grinzane is attested in a letter by the count of Cavour from September 22nd, 1836.

(2) Notice that today Grinzane is legally inside the Barolo wine area.

(3) The aforementioned resource on Staglieno at page 130 reports the extract, sourcing it from the Archivio di Stato di Torino (AST, Casa di S.M., M. 2591/1. Verduno 16 december 1839).

 

Annunci

1652-1781: The Champagne-Burgundy war

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The “querelle des vins” as it is called, was an “unarmed war” fought in France between mid-1600s and late 1700s. Two factions of doctors, literates and poets battled each other with thesis, verses and rhymes to decide which was the healthiest and most delicious wine of France: that from Champagne or that from Burgundy.

In the early XVII century the two region’s wine were already competing at the table of the french aristocrats and nobles: Burgundy had been the favourite since the middle ages, thanks to its success at the papal siege of Avignone and to the dukes of Bourgogne, who actively promoted it. It was so esteemed that until 1500 in France there were only “wines of Bourgogne” or “wines of France”. No other region deserved mention.

Champagne, for its part, began slowly improving from the XV century : its strengths were the proximity to the thirsty markets of central Europe (particularly the Flanders) and its ties with the capital and the court. At the time the region made mainly red and, possibly, still wine, with Burgundy its greatest rival on nobles’ tables.
Nicolas Brûlart de Sillery was one of its most important supporters. Brûlart, heir of an important champenois family, had a brilliant career at the court of Henri III and Henri IV, rising to the position of Lord Chancellor of France, one of the most powerful roles in french ancien régime. He also owned Sillery Castle and the surrounding vineyards, contributing to the introduction of champagne wine at the king’s cohort.

But the first shot of the war came from a burgundian: in 1652 Daniel Arbinet published a thesis (“Ergo vinum Belnense potuum ut suavissimus sic saluberrimus “) which claimed the superiority of Burgundy wines over all other, including of course the ones from Champagne. The reply took over 25 years to come, but finally at April 8th, 1677 De Revelois, before the same faculty of medicine where Arbinet had discussed his writing, affirmed that the crown of healthiest wines should be appointed to the ones from Rheims.

The querelle went dormant for another 2o years, exploding blatantly in 1693, with the words of Guy-Crescent Fagon, royal physician responsible for the health of His Majesty Louis XIV.

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The late Sun King’s health was troubled by gout and fever, probably caused by his alimentation, but Fagon blamed also Champagne of hindering the king’s recovery, further complicating the situation.

Le mélange de vin de Champagne, que le roi buvait à ses heures de repas, en prenant le quinquina dans celui de Bourgogne, ont beaucoup contribué aux fréquents retours de la fièvre, aux chaleurs, aux démangeaisons et aux inquiétudes qui incommodaient S.M. pendant l’usage réitéré du quinquina en infusion dans le vin, et particulièrement dans le vin de Champagne, qu’elle buvait aux petits repas de biscuits qu’elle faisait le matin et après dîner, après les prises de quinquina, au lieu de l’eau pannée que le roi a bien voulu boire par mon conseil, dans ces occasions, depuis que j’ai l’honneur d’être son premier médecin.

Fagon had just replaced Antoine d’Aquin, who had been a big supporter of the wine of Reims. In 1694 he asked the king to ban from his table any wine save the ones from Burgundy. Louis XIV reluctantly accepted.

Sur la fin de ce mouvement de goutte, dont la douleur et l’incommodité avaient mieux persuadé le roi que toutes les raisons que j’avais souvent eû l’honneur de lui représenter pour l’engager à quitter le vin de Champagne et à boire du vin vieux de Bourgogne, il se résolut à vaincre la peine qu’il lui faisait au goût, et d’essayer s’il s’y pourrait accoutumer.

Today his motivations seems questionable at least: Champagne, even though pleasant to the taste, would have been very dangerous to the nerves, being lean, sharp and, especially, rich in tartar. Fagon’s words, coming from a reknown doctor, had a strong impact on the battle, helping Bourgogne in gaining fame.
Others shared his ideas, namely Mathieu Denys Fournir, who underlined again the danger Champagne would have on the nerves and the predisposition it would cause to “catarrh, gout and other diseases”.
In 1700 finally comes the reply: Gilles Culotteau and the entire Faculty of Medecine of Reims deny these accusations, mantaining that their wines are not only perfectly wholesome, but also that it is far better than the “dull and unbalanced” juice of Bourgogne:

A l’egard de l’odeur il n’en a point du tout, ou ce n’est qu’une exhalaison brûlée, qui blesse l’organe & qui ressent de la terre rougeâtre & minerale du Païs ou des ses pierres adustes. […]
Je dis que le vin de Bourgogne est toujours trop dur ou trop mou, il n’y a point de milieu.

Notice that the term “blesse” is completely different from the English “to bless”, meaning here “wound” or “harm”. Burgundy would be harmful to the organism, other than poor in aroma, while in Hautvillers, thanks to the local wine, a vigneron is said to having married at 110 and died at the age of 118 (from which we can deduce how bad for health is marriage).

Such words could not remain without reply. The task is entrusted to Jean-Baptiste de Salins in its “Défense du vin de Bourgogne contre le vin de Champagne”. The author strongly praise burgundian wine, for in no other place we can find a better one than that of Beaune, Pommard e Volenet (Volnay). Champagne is too far in the north and the climate too cool for quality winemaking.

Le vin de Reims est seulement menu, ou peu vineux, & acide, ayant comme la plûpart des autres vins blancs, la force de faire rendre des urines, mais tres peu pour nourrir & pour échaufer.

In other words, a wine “too thin and good only to stimulate pissing”. And, he continues, even if Coulotte takes pride of his 118 years old centenarian, in Burgundy you will find plenty of seventy, eighty and ninety years old farmers.
A reaction ensues again from Reims side, this time by Pierre Le Pescheur in 1706, to whom Salins answers again. Another reply follows, but the discussion seems more or less stuck on the same issues: one side accuses the other’s wine of being unhealthy and poteantially dangerous for human body, while the contender replies praising  its durability and flavour and ridiculing the rival. When De Salins reports Mathieu Fournier’s conclusions on Champagne, the belief that it would cause gout, a Reims physician replies that “Fournier can say everything he wants – luckily his words do not cause gout -“.

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In 1711 new challengers enter the arena: up to this point the quarrel has being mainly a medical one, but finally poets and troubadours starts taking one side ot another, singing the praise of this or that wine. The first to embrace the pen is Bénigne Grenan, professor at the university of Paris, but born in Noyers, between Auxerre and Dijon. The following english translation (and all the other english quotes I will report) is taken from “A history of Champagne”, by Henry Vizetelly.

‘ Lift to the skies thy foaming wine,

That cheers the heart, that charms the eye ;
Exalt its fragrance, gift divine,

Champagne, from thee the wise must fly !

A poison lurks those charms below,
An asp beneath the flowers is hid ;

In vain thy sparkling fountains flow
When wisdom has their lymph forbid.

‘Tis hut when cloyed with purer fair
We can with such a traitress flirt ;

So following Beaune with reverent air,
Let Reims appear but at dessert.’

It is interesting to notice that here Champagne is described as sparkling and clear, as it was already starting to become similar to what we drink today. But the author calls it “a poison”, praising Burgundy instead, which he considers a modern Hippocrene, the holy fountain of the greek legends.
Champagne reacts once again: its new champion is Charles Coffin, professor at the College de Beauvais in Paris, but born in Buzancy, near Reims. The following verses are taken from its Campania Vindicata, published in 1712.

The Massica, erst sang by Horace of old,
To Sillery now must abandon the field;
Falernian, nor Chian, could ne’er be so bold
To rival the nectar Ay’s sunny slopes yield.
As bright as the goblet it sparklingly fills
With diamonds in fusion, it foaming exhales
An odour ambrosial, the nostril that thrills,
Foretelling the flavour delicious it veils.

Champagne surpasses even the semi-mythical falernian and chian wine. But what about the burgundian charges about it causing gout or being unhealthy?

Despite the tongue of malice,
No poison in thy chalice
Was ever found, Champagne!
Simplicity most loyal
Was e’er thy boast right royal,
And this thy wines retain.
No harm lurks in the fire
That helps thee to inspire
The heart and spur the brain.

What does Coffin thinks about Bourgogne? Well, Beaune does not make bad wines, but, let’s face it, they cannot be compared to Champagne. In french:

Mère des vins moëlleux, c’est toi, je le confesse,
Qui d’un teint languissant corrige la pâleur,
Qui versant dans les corps une douce chaleur,
Sait égayer ensemble, et nourrir la vieillesse.
Mais ne crois pas te faire un mérite éclatant
D’ôter au laboureur le souci de sa taille,
D’animer le soldat dans le champ de bataille;
Un simple vin de Brie en ferait bien autant.

Grénan had attributed to burgundy wines the power of giving courage to soldiers (Mieux que trompettes et tambours/Tu ferais au soldat affronter les alarmes/Lui qui languit à jeun sous le poids de ses armes/Ne le sentirait pas aidé de ton secours), but Coffin seems sure: any wine, even a simple one from Brie, could do the same. It’s a pleasant drink, even “the mother of mellow wines” (burgundy wines were probably lightly sweet at the time), and good to comfort and warm the old age. However, the gaiety and the glory its rival can bring to any répas are unmatched.
Campania vindicata had a huge success: source of inspiration for many of the following champagne supporters, it gained to the author four cases of Champagne.
But the quarrel is far from being settled. Grénan, taking offense, answers again. This time he addresses to Fagon, the royal physician we’ve already talked about, hoping to find a powerful ally to his cause. He personifies burgundian wine and makes it lament the arrogance of the enemies. Then he shows again its virtues and accuses once more the detestable champagne poison.

Ainsi, docte Fagon, il s’agit de ma gloire
Contre ce faux censeur qui ternit ma mémoire.
Daigne me secourir de ton autorité.

But this call for help turns out to be a double edged blade. After its publication two anonymous epigrams reply, with sharp irony and notable wit.

“To the doctor to go
On behalf of your wine
Is, as far as I know,
Of its sickness a sign.”

“Your cause and your wine
Must be equally weak,
Since to check their decline
A prescription you seek.’”

Another longer composition takes the form of a decree issued by the faculty of the island of Cos. Bourgogne is deemed superior than its rival , but the tone is again ironic and between the lines Champagne comes out as the real winner.
The battle starts losing momentum: between the two factions’, “moderate exponents” appears. An anonymous letter addressed to Monsieur Grénan in 1712 declares the futility of the conflict.

‘Bold Burgundian ever glories
With stout Remois to get mellow;
Each well filled with vinous lore is
Each a jolly tippling fellow.’

De Bellechaume invites the two sides to join forces: enjoying the two wines together can only have beneficial effect to their poetry.

Joignez ces liqueurs ravissantes,
Vous ferez des vers plus charmants,
Laissez aux Muses languissantes
Boire la liqueur des Normands.

Probably the two wines were already starting to cut their own different market and saw each other more as partner than rivals. However, if poets were sheathing their pens, doctors were still very much into the fight.
Champagne charges again in 1729, with Jean-Paul Bignon, abbey of St. Quentin and Philippe-Valentin Bertin du Rocheret, physician from the faculty of Paris, and in 1730 with Jacques de Reims, the doctor responsible for king’s health when His Majesty was in Epernay. It’s interesting to notice that while they all praise it and its supposed healing virtue, they also recommend to not overindulge in it and to mix it with water. Jacques de Reims makes a surprising remark.

[…] j’ose même ajouter que la chaleur tempérée de ce vin blanc ou gris non mousseux, et sa grande légèreté, sont les deux moyens les plus spécifiques pour conserver la fluidité des vertus et la vertu motrice des fibres dont nos corps sont composés.

In other words to be healthy a champagne must be “white or gray and not sparkling”: this drink, for its “temperate warmth and lightness”, is ideal for maintaining our fluids well oiled and our body in shape, red wine being too heavy and rich in tartar to benefit human health (I must confess I don’t understand medical explanations from the 18th century, but I would never entrust myself to a physician of that age). He also refuses, once again, the gout accusations suspecting the rumor to have been spread by someone who had economic interest in favoring burgundian wine: les champenois maybe drink a little bit too much, but those illnesses are hard to find in the region.
In 1777 Navier, rector at the university of Reims, praises Champagne low tartar content and low alcohol (la partie spiritueuse), extending its beneficial properties also to sparkling wines: they are not only delicious, but also formidable allies in fighting malaria, a serious problem in Reims at the time. The following year the medical faculty of Paris, always more leaning on the burgundian side, gives a remarkable verdict, asserting Champagne superiority over Bourgogne, particularly in the light of its diuretic virtues. In 1781 another physician, Robert Linguet, discusses his preference for Champagne before the same chairs.
Linguet’s thesis seems to put an end to the centuries-old debate. The country has most pressing problem to face, a revolution is at the door and with it the Terror and the Napoleonic Empire. In the 19th century french wine will finally start to take its modern shape: Charles-Henri Heidsieck, Widow Cliquot, the Dubois family and others will give Champagne the form it has today and competition with Bourgogne will be more or less forgotten. In 1830 a late voice in Dijon will rise, taking inspiration from Coffin’s Campania Vindicata, once again in Champagne favor. But the struggle has lost its energy, no one cares to answer: the French and the World have understood the futility of this quarrel and just enjoy the two wines together, their alliance to benefit our tables, our hearts and our throats.

1890: “Beware the newsletters!”

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Ottavio Ottavi

“Giornale Vinicolo” (“Wine journal”) was an italian pioneeristic pubblication started by the enologist Ottavio Ottavi in 1875 and lasted for 57 years. The journal was an invaluable tool for vine growers, winemakers and winesellers, offering advices on how to grow grapes, how to treat illnesses and pests and how to avoid wine faults. Every issue examined the state of italian and foreign wine markets (sometimes focusing on specific countries) and featured reports on conventions and seminars. Its critical and scientific approach makes it a very interesting reading (the famous Antonio Carpene, founder of Carpene-Malvolti, is one of the contributors), even though some technical aspects are by now outdated.

In 1890 phylloxera was ravaging France, but north Italy too was experiencing the first outbreaks of this plague, with downy and powdery mildew posing other problems in the vineyards. The journal warned its readers by giving advice on good grapegrowing practices and reporting researches, surveys and projects aiming to stop the lethal insect. Between these I found an entertaining article titled “The 11th commandment” (N.8-23 February, Year XVI), a good insight on grape growing in the 1800s, but also a way to understand that centuries may pass, but human nature does not change. Here are some extracts I translated. My comments are marked in bold characters.

“[…] Here it is (the 11th commandment): BEWARE THE NEWSLETTERS.
Farmers receive little correspondence and so they will likely read a newsletter: they will refuse an agrarian journal, because there is too much to read; but they will pocket a newsletter, which they will then read after dinner, at the beginning of a regular digestion, in that physical and mental state when even the most unfriendly and suspicious bear becomes, without knowing it, tamer and more open to other people’s thoughts.
The newsletter is always very well made. The author, normally a big shot, completely unheard-of, but full of academic and honorary titles, starts saying that he worked and studied all of his life to relieve the poor farmers’ life. The reader already feels sympathy for this eminent stranger.
He then pities the poor farmer, forced to buy every year sulphur, strange devices, and, God forbid, the copper sulfate, which is – he states – just a palliative treatment. In fact, he continues, “copper sulfate is a slow poison that accelerate the decomposition of the vines.”
At the thought of his vines horribly decomposing, the farmer is terrified. What an horrible sight should be that of your own vines rotting! This benefactor who warned him in time deserves all his gratitude. The grape grower forgets that copper is widely used in Italy, France, Austria, America etc etc. He sees only his decomposing vines. He smells their corpse.
Finally, after having cleared the ground, gained his reader confidence and discredited the copper sulfate, the unknown but illustrious author knows that the time has come to teach his moral lesson.
Last year the moral was the Germinator (remember?), than came the Regenerator, the Duparc liquid, the phyto-pesticide fertilizer, the mineral guano (the author of the article cites various scams of his days, I am not sure of the translation, but it should give an idea of the bizarre expedients devised to make money out of the farmer naivety) and other mysterious mixtures. What is inside? Nobody knows and nobody can look into it because the disciples of the famous Descalonne would give no credit to laboratory results. (I don’t know and couldn’t find anything about this Descalonne, but the skepticism towards official science reminds me of today’s conspirationists). Buy, pay, do not question. Sola fides sufficit (in latin in the original text, “faith alone suffices” or “believing it is enough”).
The most clever ones in this exploitation of credulity (“exploitation” is in english in the original text) stolidly write that their cure will heal vine’s illness . But what illness? The one in the roots, the terrible phylloxera? The one in the leaves? The grape rot? The answer is shrouded in mistery, a cunning mystery. Every farmer uses the remedy in his own case, he buys, he pays.
Dear readers, what about a tonic to heal that disease we commonly call “man”?
So, be kind, add to your decalogue the eleventh commandment: Beware the newsletters, because this is the advice of you friend

ITALO ENOTRIO.”

I translated the original term “circolare” with “newsletter”, but really that was no more than XIX century spam. The author wits is remarkable and the article hilarious, think about the image of the farmer liken to a bear or the irony describing the scammer. The signature in the end, “Italo Enotrio”, is a pen name and a pun: both words means “Italy”, as Enotria was the country ancient name. It could also refer to Italo, ancient King of the Enotri, a pre-roman people who inhabited today’s Calabria (the tip of the “italian boot”).

I will present other articles from “Giornale Vinicolo” in the future. In the last post we saw the poor state of italian winemaking in the 1800s, but the simple fact that this journal existed means either that the situation had greatly improved in the second half of the century or that  Redding and the others were a little bit too rough in their description of italian wines.
We will see.

Reading Redding: the state of Italian wine in XIX century

There’s a popular belief in Italy that Italians basically have thought the world, and especially the French, how to really make wine. This belief is based upon what the Romans did for the spread of grapegrowing and winemaking in all Europe around 2000 years ago.
I am sure that Caesar and Probus had a great influence on ancient people drinking customs, however the wine they drank was much different from ours, sweeter, denser and often mixed with resin, honey or even salt water. Modern wine was born around XVIII century and italians played a very little part in it, at least until the late 1800s.

One of the best insight on the state of italian (and world) wine of this period was given by Redding in his “A History and Description of Modern Wines” (first published in 1833). The tenth chapter, “The wines of Italy and islands”, is a valuable source of informations on the issue.

Schermata 2014-11-02 alle 21.17.31

Italy, at the time still a divided country, has a great potential, but lacks of motivation and care.

That Italy does produce good wine is undeniable, as well as that she grows a vast deal of what is bad.

This is mainly caused by the commercial barriers between all the tiny states in the peninsula, which leaves no stimulus towards improvement.

The petty sovereignties of Italy are a blight upon her manufactures no less than upon her civilization. Many of these are shut up to themselves, as regards their production and cannot interchange with the neighboring states without a great disadvantage, owing to pernicious duties, high beyond all reasonable limit compared to the value of the article.

Thus consumption remains local and the farmer, focused on quantity over quality, has no reason the change the way he grows his grapes  or makes his wine.
The vine is trained in the high method (the so called “vite alberata” or “maritata”), letting the plant grow with far too much vigor. But there are other problems too: corn, grain and other vegetables are grown between the vines, planted on fertile low plains and never pruned. Today we will consider such vineyards a complete mess.
In the cellar the situation is even worse: the grapes are not sorted and thrown in vats till dirty from the year before, while new harvested fruit is added in the must day after day.

There are some decent wines in the country, but they are not up to their potential. Redding especially praises Naples and Tuscan wines.
Talking about the former he cites the Vino Graeco and Lacryma Christi, both sweet and rich in perfume and flavour (Lacryma Christi is described as a vin de liqueur, probably very different from the one that brings the same name today). The only wine which seems clearly recognizable is somehow unexpected.

A white mousseux wine, having a pleasant sharpness, is made on the Campagna, called Asprino (sic).

We cannot be sure, but Redding is probably talking about the Asprinio di Aversa.
As for Tuscany, its fame is already well established, a legacy that lasts until today. The relatively liberal government stimulated the landowners in improving the land and emulation spread good grape growing practices through all the region. Chianti wine is cited: Bettino Ricasoli had still to invent his famous recipe, but there seemed to be very good examples produced not far from Florence. Other interesting wines can be found in Orvieto, Monte Fiascone (“Est est est”, here called “Est est”), some parts of Sardinia and Elba.

There are very notable absentees in this list.
Sicily, today’s most dynamic wine region in south Italy, sums up well all the problems of italian wines, with just a few decent examples produced near the Etna.

Sicily produces wine in great abundance; but the same remarks which apply to the bad husbandry and vintage of Italy will apply to this island.

Marsala is  quickly dismissed as a second class Madeira at best.

Marsala, when obtained without the admixture of execrable Sicilian brandy, is an agreeable wine, something like Madeira of second class.

But the greatest surprise comes from Piedmont: in the first half of the XIX century there is still nothing comparable to modern Barolo. Juliette Colbert is already living in Piedmont and probably promoting the Langhe Nebbiolo at the Savoy court, but the wine has still to attain the fame it has today. Some decent examples are made in the part of the kingdom which today today belonging France.

Savoy and Piedmont produce red wines of tolerable quality; those of Montmelian and St. Albero, in Savoy, are among the best in the country and come from the slopes of Mont Termino and St. John de la Porte. […] The best vin de liqueur is made upon the Rhone, near Chamberry, from a Cyprus species of vine. An effervescing wine is made at Lasseraz from malvasia grape. Asti, near Marengo, and Biella, produce red wines of tolerable flavour.

No mentions of nebbiolo, barbera or moscato: the success of Piedmont wines will have to wait some decades.

Of course it would be an error to only refer to Redding on the matter: he may had a personal distaste for Italian wines or just a negative experience. But his judgement is preceded by the one from Alexander Henderson in “The history of Ancient and modern wines” (1824) (whom Redding probably used as one of his sources) and confirmed by Thomas George Shaw in “Wine, the vine, and the cellar” (1864). Shaw is a little bit more benevolent towards Marsala wines and his hopes for the future are somewhat brighter: in 1861 Italy had finally become a unite country, commercial barriers were being abolished and italian winemaking was finally waking up from its long sleep.

Conclusion
This brief post was not written to bash italian wines or Italy. On the contrary I think it offers a different perspective on today’s italian excellence in winemaking. What would Redding say now? He would surely be surprised – and pleased -.
Barolo, Barbaresco, Super Tuscans, Amarone, to name the most famous “brands”, the whites from Friuli, Taurasi, the fine sparklers from Franciacorta and Trento, Prosecco, to list another few: even though the grapes they are made of may have roots in ancient times, the form we drink them today was shaped in the second half of the XIX century or later. Chianti may fare back to the XVII or XVIII century, when Cosimo III de’ Medici delimited its production area in 1716, but its composition is unknown and was probably different from today.

Italians don’t need to look back to 2000 years ago to find glory for their wines, they don’t need to recall legends or myths from the classical age.
As Redding states:

The Falernian of Horace and the Shiraz of Hafiz are, it is too truly to be apprehended, both exaggerations (sic), if they could be placed in comparison with the delicate flavour of modern French growths of prime character; besides, who constituted them connoisseurs in wine for any but their own palates? Both wines would no doubt intoxicate and both wines were delicious to the taste of the poets and their friends; but in times when plain truth is most valuable, the probability, however much it may injure early and agreeable associations, is always to be strictly preferred. Writers who follow their predilections are apt, with little regard for other considerations, to imagine modern things deteriorated from those existing in past time. Thus some assert that the wine of the ancients was best, though they are incapable of deciding the question one way or the other. No one is justified in accrediting a fact that rests upon varying and worthless conjecture.

But Italians could at least thank their fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers, who experimented, corrected and improved the poor winemaking and grape growing methods of their ancestors. Of course, to do this they had to learn from who, at the time, knew better than them, that is the French, towards which they have a big debt.

In this troubled times for Italy, in the economic and political uncertainty, the quality of italian wine is one of the few bright lights and one of the greatest hopes for the future. As an italian I want to hope – and I want to drink -.