“Icon” is a word that gets thrown around rather loosely these days in the world of wine, as it does everywhere else. It has attached itself to everything from vineyards with centuries-old reputations to the golden children of influential critics, or “movements” that will be all but forgotten decades from now. However, most of us would agree that there are a handful of wines that deserve this vaunted label. And figuring out what they have in common might yield some insight into what exactly it is that we oenophiles derive from our most cherished wines.
How does something even get into the running for iconic status? Price is certainly one factor, although that can easily be manipulated by producers who equate expensive with luxury, a classic tactic known as vanity pricing. Ratings and other critical acclaim are also necessary but insufficient on their own. Scarcity helps, as so few people have actually tasted the rarest wines that those who do often feel so fortunate that they either consciously or unconsciously convince themselves of their greatness.
History, and having a good story to tell, seem to be the indispensable X factors in a wine’s ultimate achievement of status. In Europe, where every other family producer can talk long into the night about generations of winemaking, the story needs a little something extra. Italy is an interesting country in that regard, both very old and in some ways very new. Among today’s quality-oriented Italian producers, few were making collectible bottles before the years of post-war prosperity that elevated wine producers from “mere farmers” to auteurs.
What's In A Name
Unlike in France, where Emperor Napoleon III created a fine wine juggernaut when he requested the 1855 classification of Bordeaux to rank its most prominent châteaux, and where Burgundy’s Benedictine and Cistercian monks laid the groundwork for today’s fetishised Grand Crus, Italy has suffered from a relative dearth of classification systems. This seems ironic given that the Chianti region (or technically the portion of it we call Chianti Classico today) was among the first wine regions to be officially delineated in 1716 by Cosimo III de Medici.
And yet, over three centuries, as a brand name Chianti has suffered thanks to a vast expansion of the territory, industrialised farming and rigid (and arguably counterproductive) prescriptions. Many of the region’s most prestigious wines don’t even feature the name Chianti on their label.
The wines we think of today as Italy’s superstars, by contrast, often come from regions that the toga-draped Romans or even the Medici grand dukes would hardly recognise. The town of Montalcino was known throughout the Middle Ages for making a sweet moscatello, rather than its now famous dry red brunello. Piemonte, with its barolo and barbaresco, was not even a spot on the map for fine wine production in Roman times. The Bordeaux grapes cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot have existed in the northeast of Italy for several centuries thanks to Austrian and French influences, but the idea of planting them in Maremma, a swampy area redrained by Mussolini in the 1930s, did not occur until the 20th century.
Staying True To Tradition
Such is the nature of Italian regionalism, or campanilismo, a phenomenon I addressed in last month’s column, that many Italians remain wary of innovation, especially any advance that is perceived as having come from abroad. In today’s climate, the word “modern” is anathema in Italian wine circles, while any linkage that can be drawn to tradition (even somebody else’s tradition, as seen in the open-armed embrace of Georgian-style amphora wines) is considered vital to cementing status as an icon.
Hence, Italy is a place where tradition and novelty coexist, albeit tensely, cheek by jowl. Usually, at the core of any of the most successful wines’ stories are a strong personality that confronts tradition and either boldly chooses to break with it, despite the possibility of ridicule, or adheres to it staunchly when others have blithely given it up. Sometimes success is immediate. Other times validation is a long time coming. Perhaps we only celebrate contrarians because, as in war, it is the victors who write history. Be that as it may, those stories are the ones that stick in our consciousness, elevating wine from a mere beverage to a symbol of belief in the vision of people who believe in themselves.
The following six artworks, called Visual Tasting Notes, and the accompanying texts are my own attempts to examine and explain the greatness of some of Italy’s wine icons. One 28x28 cm giclée print of each edition of 12 was sold along with the accompanying wine at the Gelardini and Romani auction in May. Proceeds from the remaining prints, which are available at Molde Fine Art in Hong Kong and Lullo Pampoulides in London, will go to the Italian Red Cross.