Making Sense of Italian Wine: Discovering Italy’s Greatest Wines and Best Values.
Running Press, Philadelphia, PA, 2006,
ISBN – 13: 978-0-7624-2230-2
Reviewer: Domenic V. Cicchetti
Having had the good fortune and distinct pleasure of reading the original in this latest series, Making Sense of Wine; having become addicted to reading his sage one page column in each issue of the Wine Spectator; and having listened to his riveting wine presentations at the annual meetings of the Wine Spectator sponsored California and New York Wine Experience; I cannot help but be impressed by Matt Kramer’s high level of scholarship, linguistic expertise, thorough knowledge of his subject matter, and literary style.
In setting the stage for what is to follow, Kramer introduces the wine enthusiast to three broad principles that are of particular relevance to the Italian wine industry, and sometimes are applicable more generally. These include the concepts of Bella Figura, Campanilismo, and Mezzadria.
Kramer defines Bella Figura succinctly as “The Italian love of the beautiful gesture”. It is also the title of Beppe Severgnini’s 2006 book subtitled “A field guide to the Italian Mind” (NY: Broadway Books). Bella Figura encompasses some guiding principles that Italians use to make their social and/or business contacts more successful (ones that cut across socioeconomic status); in the context of the Italian Wine Industry, Kramer notes that the famed wine producer Angelo Gaja introduced a very long, non-standard sized cork. Gaja claimed that the new cork was required to insure the “highest quality;” to counteract what Gaja considered to be the lack of attention to quality control of corks produced in Portugal and Sardinia. The approximately 2 and one-half inch cork was a perfect example of the bella figura concept at work. When waiters complained that the corkscrews they employed were not capable of removing the elongated corks, Gaja happily sold the restau- rants that served his wines the special corkscrews that were required. He made additional money over the long haul because the amount of wine needed to accommodate the larger corks was less than the usual 750 milliliters.
Bella Figura is also utilized by Italians who, unlike Angelo Gaja, are anything but wealthy. One example is the person of limited economic means who insists upon paying the restaurant bill for his party of eight so that he would not be viewed as a poor sponger!
Perhaps the most appealing aspect of the bella figura way of life can best be understood in the context of winners and losers in an eventual conflict resolution. There are, of course, three possibilities: both parties lose (Brutta (ugly) Figura); one wins, the other loses (the usual outcome); or both parties win (the Bella Figura outcome).
The second overarching concept is one Kramer refers to as Campanilismo, or the Italian love of location. This can be seen in the pride concerning one’s place of birth, or say the specific location of the vineyards that house the varietals that produce the wines of Italy. One has only to visit Italy once or to watch Mario Batali do a cooking event to know how regional Italian cooking really is. And so the pairing of which food with which wine takes on again the inevitable force and reality of regionality. The term itself has its origins in the word “campanile” that translates as a bell. The concept embodied here resides in the idea of the comfort that the Italian resident takes when she/he is no farther away from home than the sound emanating from the nearest bell tower.
And, finally, there is the concept of the Mezzadria or the Italian sharecropper. The disappearance or demise of sharecropping-beginning in the 1940’s, finally ending in the 1980’s-ushered in the era of the production of great Italian wines. Once land potentially useful for wine growing became available for purchase, it was now possible for the new owners of wineries to have pride, excel, or take capitalist risks. It was now possible, for the first time, to beginning a wide spread establishment of first rate Italian wineries.
Although Kramer modestly claims at the outset that the book is intended only for those who are Italian wine amateurs and aficionados, but not connoisseurs, the creative manner in which he has crafted the book suggests otherwise. No matter the knowledge level of Italian wines of any of the readers of this book, without this comprehensive format, they would not have been able to sensibly organize and store the oenologic information gleaned over the years.
The oenologic glue, then, that forms the binding of the book, follows a specific Kramerian format consisting of the following entities: the type or name of the wine (from “A” as in Aglianico to”V”, as in Vino Nobile di Montepulciano); the Region or Geographical Location of a given wine type (e.g., Lombardy, Tuscany, Sicily); the uva or grape varietal (e.g., arneis, nebbiolo, sangiovese); the tradition (historical roots) of each wine that is described; how it has changed (the current and projected future history of a given wine varietal); noteworthy producers (sub-classified as “the traditionalists” and the “modern- ists”); what the locals eat with a particular wine (e.g., roasts of beef, lamb, and goat for Aglianico; polenta, aged steaks, game, for Barbera; crème caramel for Moscato d’Asti); a section designated as “One Man’s Taste-Whose Wine Would I Buy?” This section embodies Matt Kramer’s comparative rankings of specific vineyard choices – from Allegrini to Zenato; a category that answers the question “Is the Wine Worth Searching For?” This has been cleverly classified into the following distinctive categories: “Don’t die without trying it”; “Absolutely worth an effort; and “If you happen to see it.” The final category describes “Similar Wines from the Same Neighborhood.” For the ancient white wine Orvieto-that consists of the varietals Trebbiano Toscano, Verdello, Grechetto, Drupeggio, and Malvasia Toscana-this would include the much more familiar Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc varietals.
Allow me to close with Kramer’s lucid and scholarly description of what he hails as the best example of Sicily’s red wine:
“The most impressive wine is fancifully called Mille e Una Notte (A Thousand and One Nights), which is 90% Nero d’Avola rounded out with other native red varieties. This is simply gorgeous red wine: intense, rich, polished, and yet absolutely original tasting. It is arguably the finest Nero d’Avola in Sicily-at least it’s the finest that this taster has come upon so far. “Luxurious” might be the best descriptor. (The palace shown on the artisti- cally drawn label is, in fact, the Donnafugata of The Leopard, the one in Santa Margherita di Belice.)
Donnafugata is easily one of the stars of Sicilian wine. And if the wines inspire you to read The Leopard, all the better, as it’s a star of Italian literature in its own right (p. 223).”
Having had the opportunity to buy and taste this wine in Sicily, I can only agree whole-heartedly!
What else need be said? The book is an oenologic treasure and should find a place in every wine lover’s library!
Domenic V. Cicchetti