Part of my summer reading this year is a great fat slab of a new book, The Modern History of Italian Wine (£42, published by Skira). Edited by Italian food and wine writer Walter Filiputti, it’s a somewhat dense affair, with disquisitions on entrepreneurship, marketing, and something called “neuromarketing” (me neither); a generous sprinkling of sales and production data; and such unappetising sub-headings as “A New Model Between Research and Production, Universities and Businesses for the ‘M’ Rootstocks”.
Not exactly beach reading, then. But if you can get through the rather off-putting jargon and occasionally less than graceful translation, there’s a fascinating tale being told, much of it in the words of the many grandi formaggi of Italian wine that Filiputti has tracked down for interview.
Its central premise, in the words of Filiputti, is that “the modern history of Italian wine, which began to take shape in the late 1960s and early 1970s, is the finest page ever written by our agriculture”.
Even taking into account Filiputti’s tendency towards hyperbole, that’s some claim for a land that has so effectively colonized the world’s dining tables with pasta, pizza, and pesto in roughly the same period, not to mention established the grape vine throughout Western Europe more than two millennia ago.
But, over its 400-plus pages, the book makes a more than reasonable case for the proposition. At the very least, it does a fine job in showing just how much Italian wine has been transformed in the past half century, reminding us that the very concept of fine Italian wine is, with one or two exceptions, a very recent development – a change summed up very well by Filiputti’s description of how the word contandino has gone from “derogatory, sometimes offensive term” for peasant or labourer to being “re-evaluated to such an extent that it can be used with pride, even privilege.”
Much of the book is given over to celebrating the various contadini (and contandine) – as well as sommeliers, academics and importers– that have made Italian wine France’s closest fine wine competitor, to the point that top wines from Barolo, Barbaresco and Brunello, among others, now commanding similar prices to the very best of Burgundy and Bordeaux.
These individuals – or rather the wines and estates they’ve created – are profiled in a novel form, with the most notable producers arranged by the decade in which they first came to prominence. That means Barolo’s Pio Cesare (founded in the 1880s) appears in the 1960s, and Sicilian natural gurus COS, founded in 1980, has to wait until the 1990s to get its due.
All of which makes for a fascinating historical perspective on some of Italy’s greatest wines, if not it has to be said, a book to challenge Paula Hawkins or John Le Carré in airport branches of WH Smith.