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The New Italian Renaissance

Spurred by the Demise of a Feudal Farming System, a New Generation of Italian Winemakers Has Finally Realized Its Potential
Matt Kramer
From the Print Edition:
Orlando Hernandez, Mar/Apr 99

(continued from page 3)

"Look at that," Conterno barks, pointing across the valley at another Barolo vineyard. "You see that?" He likes to make sure that listeners, especially suspected liberals, are not about to miss a profound conservative truth. "That vineyard over there was worked by a mezzadro and his family since the late 1940s. Then it went up for sale. And he was able to buy it by getting one of those loans you were talking about. You know how much he paid for it?" he demands. I have no idea, especially considering how cheap vineyard land in Barolo was then.

"I'll tell you how much: 800,000 lire. For something like 20 acres." It sounds pretty cheap to me. When I say as much, Conterno looks at me with the same despairing forbearance for the perennially weak-minded that P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves had for Bertie Wooster. "Of course it was cheap," Conterno replies with asperity. Having got that clear, he continues, "You know Prunotto, of course?" Prunotto is one of Piedmont's best wine shippers. It was purchased a decade ago by, as it happens, Tuscany's Marchesi L. & P. Antinori.

"You know the Prunotto Barolo, the one they label Bussia Vineyard? Prunotto always bought the grapes for it from that guy down there," Conterno instructs, pointing to the nonexistent guy. "Well, anyway, in 1989 Prunotto bought the vineyard from him. And you know how much they paid?" he demands, his voice reaching a Pavarotti-like pitch of incredulity.

"How much?" I ask, as meekly as possible.

"Eight hundred and twenty million lire," he replies, pronouncing each word slowly, with awe, satisfaction and amazement (it works out to about $500,000). "Without that program, that mezzadro could never have bought that vineyard," Conterno says, noting approvingly, "He worked like a dog."

Today, Italy's wines are the nectar of a social and economic revolution. The potential was there for centuries. After all, everybody knew about Chianti and Barolo. But until recently, the wines simply weren't all that good. Today, cognoscenti clamor for the tiny, expensive production of hundreds of growers in dozens of regions.

Everywhere in Italy--and that includes the beleaguered south, which is rising again--you find winegrowers making extraordinary wines. In the region north of Venice, in the far northeastern corner of Italy on the border of the former Yugoslavia, is the district of Friuli. Its wines have exploded in popularity, and quality, in the last decade.

Indigenous white grapes such as Ribolla Gialla, Picolit and Tocai Friuliano grow alongside better-known varieties such as Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris. Producers such as Jermann, Doro Princic, Schiopetto, Gravner and Edi Kante, among many others, create red and white wines of extreme finesse and flavor purity.

Hard against the Alps in high-elevation Alto Adige-Süd Tirol, the language is as much German as Italian. But the wines are pure Italian renaissance, with producers such as Alois Lageder making delicate whites from a dozen different grapes and the Hofstätter family issuing a thrilling indigenous red from an all-but-forgotten grape called Lagrein.

Just south of Alto Adige is Trentino, where the gentle climate and gravelly soil creates a lush, soft red wine from a highly localized grape called Teroldego Rotaliano. The leading producer is Foradori, run by the talented, hardworking (with calluses to prove it) Elisabetta Foradori.

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