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Slow Wine in Breakneck Times
As Italy's politics swings hard to the right, Slow Food in its own complicated, contradictory way, still fights the good fight.
It was strange to attend a Slow Food conference in Turin on the same weekend as Italian voters went to the polls to elect a “right-wing coalition led by a party descended from the remnants of fascism.” But here we were.
This was the first time that Terra Madre Salone del Gusto (as Slow Food’s biennial event is called) was held since before the pandemic. Over five days, 350,000 visitors ate and drank their way through hundreds of gastronomic exhibitions, taste workshops, and seminars. Farmers, bakers, butchers, cheesemongers, pasta makers, beekeepers, chocolatiers, brewers, distillers, winemakers, and more—from all over Italy and the world—set up in Parco Dora, a post-industrial area in Turin that, until the 1990s had been home to auto factories. Or as the Slow Food grandly put it: “In a space which once hosted factory smoke and the noise of industry, we will hold the world’s largest international event dedicated to sustainable agriculture, environmental politics, and the future of food.”
At Terra Madre, you can be listening to a lecture about the Ukraine grain crisis or de-colonizing your diet or the Norwegian “mackerel paradox,” and then minutes later be grazing through decadent sweets, pungent cheeses, and all manner of cured meats, only to follow that up with a tasting of artisan chocolate or sparkling wine or a boozy seminar called “Vinegar and mixology: a new taste of health.”
Slow Food always has a grand theme/manifesto on top of all the eating and drinking and this year that theme was regeneration. With talk of “radical renewal,” we were implored to “see our human community as a plant which, recovering from trauma, must grow new branches. New life. New enthusiasm.” Still, this messaging seemed in stark contrast to the backward-looking politics that a majority of Italians voted for last week.
I am a veteran of several Slow Food conferences, and I had come to Turin to taste and talk about Slow Wine, the annual wine guide that has spurred a Slow Wine Coalition. I wandered and grazed widely: A tasting of aged balsamic vinegar paired with lambrusco, Vermouth di Torino paired with aged Parmigiano-Reggiano, artisan panettone that actually wasn’t stale, and other topics you’ll read about in this newsletter over the next few weeks.
One evening, I joined a group of journalists for a dinner at Ristorante Giudice, on a hill overlooking Turin. Dinner itself was lovely, and the group chatty and jovial. But the vibe had an edge. One British journalist showed up late, having just arrived from the U.S., and declared that “the food in America is just dreadful, really.” Which is how I found myself defending Philly cheesesteaks and Detroit-style pizzas to a group of skeptical European journalists. That conversation soon led to the slippery notion of “authenticity,” which led to a discussion of my 2019 essay on inauthentic pesto (“God and Pesto are Dead”). When I mentioned a pesto made of arugula, pumpkin seeds, and Gouda, one Slow Food staffer groaned, painfully, “Ah, mamma!”
Later, the server poured a delicious Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato—made from a obscure red grape called ruchè in a little-known Piedmont appellation. When I held forth on how much I love the obscure red grapes of Piedmont (ruchè, freisa, grignolino) Slow Food’s communications director, who is from Monferrato, gently scolded me for not mentioning grignolino (her favorite) in Godforsaken Grapes. Tough crowd, but she’s 1000% correct! Both ruchè and grignolino should have been in the book.
During my days at Terra Madre, I made a few noteworthy personal discoveries that opened my mind to a wider world of wine. For instance, I sampled some fascinating bottles from Bolivia’s high-altitude Cinti Valley by a winery called Jardín Oculto, made from 200-year-old vines of negra criolla (aka país in Chile), muscat of Alexandria, and a rare grape called vischoqueña. The vischoqueña, in particular, a light-skinned red grape similar to pinot noir that Jardín Oculto produces as a white (“blanc de noir”) was eye-opening.
Meanwhile, though I feel I am always being poured a new (and usually mediocre) dessert wine, I did taste one that totally scrambled my head: a smoked vin santo from Umbria, an obsure traditional method protected by a Slow Food Presidio.
In Umbria’s Upper Tiber Valley, in late fall, farmers bring healthy bunches of grapes into the warm farmhouse, to hang from the rafters until February, drying them similarly to Tuscan vin santo. But with one twist: As they dry, the grapes indirectly absorb smoke coming from stoves or fireplaces. The wine made from these dried, smoked grapes is then aged in small barrels for a decade or more, and bottled as Vinosanto da uve affumicate dell’Alta Valle del Tevere.
The name is a mouthful, but the wines poured by La Miniera di Galparino were unreal: Deep, dark, nutty, concentrated, like nothing I’ve ever tried. Lucia Ceccarelli, who poured the 2009 and 2006 vintages of Cesare di Galparino said the small barrels are never opened for at least ten years. After a decade, there’s often only about five percent of the liquid remaining. “It’s the beauty and the pity of the wine,” she said.
Unsurprisingly, much of my Terra Madre experience revolved around the Enoteca pavillion, tasting from among hundreds of Italian wines, Slow Wines selected from the Wine Bank of Pollenzo.
I first wrote about Slow Wine back when the first English edition was published in 2012. I’d met and interviewed one of the original editors of the Slow Wine guide, Fabio Giavedoni. At the time I was skeptical:
“We have abandoned the very easy-to-understand, but ultimately also trivializing, method of awarding points and sought to look beyond the glass,” write Giancarlo Gariglio and Fabio Giavedoni, the editors, in their introduction to the “Slow Wine 2012” guide. “What matters is wine’s soul.”
So what is “Slow Wine’s” revolutionary methodology? Wineries are rated with a rather confusing array of symbols: snails (for exemplifying Slow Food values), bottles (for excellent quality) and coins (for good value). And then there is a short narrative broken into three sections: People, Vineyards and Wines. “Story-telling is the key concept underpinning our approach,” write Gariglio and Giavedoni….
So what is a slow wine? That’s a little hard to pin down. I met Giavedoni at Slow Food’s biennial Salone del Gusto in fall 2010 when the Italian edition was launched, and he told me then: “For a wine to be a slow wine, it doesn’t just transmit taste. It must also transmit values. They have two kinds of complexity, both in the glass and outside the glass.”
This time around, I spoke with Giancarlo Gariglio, who is the coordinator of the Slow Food Coalition. A decade later, Slow Wine as a concept still seems difficult to pin down. “We decided to make a different guide based not only on the taste of the wines, not only what’s inside the glass, but also outside the glass,” Gariglio. “We judge not only the wines, but also the wineries. The most important thing is we visit all the wineries.”
I asked how Slow Wine engages with or fits into the context of the natural wine movement, which has risen in popularity and importance since the first Slow Wine guide was published. “Natural wines have no protocol or rules. So it’s not easy to understand who is just ‘blah-blah-blah’ and who is serious,” Gariglio said, with a shrug.
With all the heated talk these days around wine media and natural wines, maybe a somewhat confusing, but ultimately sincere and well-meaning guide like Slow Wine—one that focuses on Italy’s classic winemakers—is a nice antidote to all the rancor. Why argue about wine critics or points-scoring or whether natural wine is better or “healthy” when the world is aflame with chaos anyway?
I attended a tasting workshop that Gariglio ran, called “The Diversity of Italian White Grape Varieties.” This was a sort of “greatest hits” of Italian whites: pours from Planeta in Etna, Pieropan in Soave Classico, Edi Keber’s Collio Bianco from Friuli, Vernaccia di San Gimignano from Montendioli, reserve verdicchio from Villa Bucchi in Le Marche. All wonderful wines, but the emphasis here was clearly on the iconic, the benchmark, the safe.
A tasting like this, for better or worse, reinforces the established canon, and not new ideas about what Italian wine will be, or could be, in the future—a future of changing climate, tastes, and geopolitics. There is a danger in sitting out these larger conversations—and the same could be said of Slow Food in general, and of Italy, and of all of us.
Slow Food, is now a vast organization made up of more than a thousand chapters worldwide, mostly of well-meaning people who love food and wine. But at its heart, in its radical inception by activist Carlo Petrini in the late 1980s, it was an enraged response to the opening of a McDonald’s near the Spanish Steps in Rome. Since 1989, its mission has been “to prevent the disappearance of local food cultures and traditions, counteract the rise of fast life and combat people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from and how our food choices affect the world around us.”
Of course, there’s always a tightrope to walk between “preventing the disappearance of local cultures and traditions” and creating a grand—but toxic— mythic past. That mythic past may be humorous when it’s about, say, inauthentic pesto. It’s not when when it’s about other things. “If this is to end in fire, then we should all burn together,” wrote Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the far-right Brothers of Italy poised to lead the country.
If Slow Wine is to be truly meaningful, its well-meaning outlook needs to be both forward and backward, and to engage with the various discourses happening in wine and the world.
Six Picks: Classic Italian Hits from Slow Wine
Beautiful, gulpable a bottle for anyone who loves…um, drinking wine? Ruby, light-bodied, with aromas of purple flowers and herbs, bright, juicy red fruit, and an underlying stony character that gives structure. Complex and drinkable.
Let is be said that I love grignolino, and this was a favorite I tasted last week. Nose full of fresh herbs, cut flowers, warm citrus, and hints of amaro. Bright and fruity on the palate—fresh cherry, underripe berry—that’s enveloped by a swirl of peppery and savory notes.
This is a benchmark Alpine wine, and one of the finest Müller-Thurgau, from a beloved small producer in Trentino. Subtle and strange (in a very good way) with fleshy, spicy aromas and a briny, saline core that’s herbal at the edges, the wine equivalent of a fresh mountain breeze.
The wines of Liguria are still among Italy’s great undiscovered gems, and rossese (called tibouren in France) is a favorite to pair with the cuisine of Genoa. This one is a light, spicy red, full of pepper, anise, that’s full of fresh blueberry, blackberry, and spiced plum. A wine to pair with pesto, chickpea pancakes, or grilled squid.
The name is a chaotic mouthful, but Castelli di Jesi, in Le Marche, is where the best verdicchio comes from. Villa Bucci is always one of Italy’s iconic whites, but the 2016 I tasted last week was a masterpiece. A complex mix of elegance, freshness, and age, with a beautiful nose of herbs, anise, beeswax, and forest aromas, explosive flavors of grapefruit and apricot, and a gorgeous texture that’s at turns waxy, mineral, and creamy. Worth the splurge.