2019 beckons welcome acclaim and widespread success in Barolo. Amidst an undeniably modern vintage, two important insights define the vintage.
Humans have been farming for at least 12,000 years, advancing from nomadic hunter-gatherers to settled farmers independently in numerous disparate territories. Nomads domesticated animals first, followed by the founder crops…
Today, ‘conventional’ and ‘natural’ wine are more alike than any urbanite millennial or snooty boomer would dare admit, each woefully depriving. Natural wine—atavistic and pure—laments intervention, believing wine to be…
Enticing maxims aside, the best winegrapes are seldom grown in extreme environments. Whereas mild water and nutrient deficiencies can help reduce excessive vegetative growth—which may compete with fruit and buds…
In 1986, Domenico Clerico brought together like-minded growers and sympathetic activists at his home in Monforte d’Alba. After this moment, everything changed.
My grandparents were impoverished; as was commonplace in Northern England, all had pursued physical labour. Aspirations notwithstanding, my parents were working-class too—culturally and economically, my father had been the first from either family to attend university, albeit as an adult. My upbringing was profoundly industrious. Though both my parents valued education, there was no place for romanticism, myth or fanciful thought. Unsurprisingly, I grew to be a fiercely objective adult, a tenacious learner concerned with understanding the physical world. I had not tasted wine until my mid-20s; neither of my parents had any particular interest. First, I had enjoyed simply tasting wine. Then, I became interested in how wine was grown and made, followed by wanting to understand why some wines tasted so much better than others. Despite a ferocious reading of contemporary wine literature, I felt no more learned. Much of what I read struck me as received wisdom; I found magic, myth and pseudoscience littering popular commentary. As Richard Quandt observes, the wine industry clearly ‘lent itself to bullshit’. It quickly became apparent that accepting myth and mysticism were tantamount to baptism, while challenge constituted blasphemy. Author James Wilson laments doubters of terroir, puzzling at their ‘real appreciation of wine’; meanwhile, Alice Feirring coins challengers as ‘reductionist thinkers’. Producers and journalists alike gleefully propagate shibboleth. Wine need not be magical, though. For many, its allure is wholly practical, and this is sufficient. The rest is superfluous. Perhaps—as the industry contends with a ‘communication crisis’—valorising wines practical appeal might open new doors, inviting pluralist thought and ranging personalities.
Revolutions are typically defined by a radical change to an established order. Often born out of shared hunger, they emerge when a disillusioned collective feels their institutions have failed or are failing them. Reactionary by nature they naturally present as theoretically opposed to the established order. Revolutions, true to their stated aim or not, strive for common gain. Their instigators, characterised by passion and pride, seek new heights for their culture. Until the late 1900s, for the most part, awareness of Barolo’s wines stretched little more than a dozen miles from La Morra. The wines were often difficult, giving little pleasure for several decades. Many growers were selling their crop to middlemen and frequently struggled to make a living from winemaking. Following a chance encounter with Philippe Engel in Burgundy, Elio Altare, who had been sleeping in his car, was outraged by a distinct disparity in notoriety and income. And so, began the Barolo Boy’s revolution. Motivated by a desire to see Nebbiolo among the world’s greatest wines, they expanded the region’s bandwidth and brought with them new ideas, practises and attitudes. Almost 40 years on, the aims and motivations of this revolution remain misunderstood by commentators and drinkers alike. In this piece, I encourage readers to dismiss this now unhelpful and outdated binary and to reconsider Barolo in the context of its present reality.
Unlike most other agricultural products, bar the most niche of fruit and vegetable, a wine's origin, in some cases down to a single acre of land, is touted as a semi-mystical source of quality. Although lacking an exact definition, Jancis Robinson notes terroir to be a vines 'total natural growing environment'. While some consider farming practices a function of terroir, for the most part, it is inclusive of the place, not the person. It is said that the soil, subsoil, rocks, exposition, mesoclimate, and microclimate of a particular vine, are amongst that which most influence the grapevines phenotype. Although romanticised by the French, recognition of place precedes them by some time. The Ancient Greeks were known to stamp amphorae with a seal of origin, the result being different regions established varying reputations for the quality of their wine. But one need not look to Ancient Greece to observe the importance of place. Anybody who has planted in their own garden will recognise that particular plots, even within a 30m² site, perform better, yielding more fruitful results, than others. However, both viticulture and wine differ greatly from almost all other farming endeavours. The sheer volume of decisions made by the vigneron and the subsequent scale of their influence is so vast that one must wonder to what extent terroir can really be credited for the style of the finished wine. Amongst natural wine circles 'sense of place' has become a hallmark of authenticity. To 'let the place show' is the mantra of the most zen winos. But when these ‘small’ decisions yield such notably broad variance, is this a plausible proposition? Has fetishising terroir obfuscated and subordinated the role of the farmer? A recent conversation with Wine Advocates, Dr William Kelley, stoked my thoughts.
Though shrouded in overtly-romanticised metaphysical and spiritual notions, biodynamics offers little in the form of practical, measurable benefit. Touted as progressive, tolerant, enlightened and ecologically-sound, its roots can be found in anthroposophy. Second, only to Waldorf schools, biodynamics is the most widespread example of applied anthroposophy. A worldview invoked by Rudolf Steiner in 1912, anthroposophy is patently racist, it’s origins found at the intersection of nationalism, right-wing populism, and esoteric spiritualism. Having found philosophical affinities with National Socialism, the 1930s saw biodynamics, a practical byproduct of Steiner’s karmic racism, exert a powerful influence on the ‘green wing’ of German fascism. Steiner’s racial and ecological concerns, centred around re-energising the mystical connection between soil and man, were arguably a byproduct of his concern with the wellbeing of what he considered to be the superior race. These racial concerns, compounded by his mystical outlook on soil and land, resonated firmly with the Third Reich’s infamous ‘Blood and Soil’ slogan. Facing increasing political polarisation, a resurgence of extreme right-wing populism in Europe, and a heightened need to tackle climate change, the wine industry must acknowledge the perils of pseudoscience and reflect on the political susceptibilities of romanticised esoteric environmentalism and reactionary ecology. In this piece, I explore the need for a move away from mysticism and a shift toward robust and rigorous ecological agricultural practice.
Earlier this year, I featured as a panel member for a Real Business of Wine webinar titled ‘Getting the Horn’. Throughout the webinar, the panel explored biodynamics with Monty Waldin, the world's leading expert on biodynamic wine. Whilst several of my peers did challenge the notion of biodynamics, I was hesitant to do so, feeling the forum was not the most appropriate of places in which to voice my somewhat fierce opposition to Steiner and his quackery. Shortly after the webinar I released an Instagram video briefly summarising my position, admittedly it wasn't terribly succinct, was a little provocative and did little to convince others as to why they should take a more active position against aspects of biodynamics. Here I hope to lay out my position more clearly, explaining why I so vehemently oppose individuals who profiteer from pseudoscience.