Addition by subtraction: One of world’s largest wine expos dedicated ot libations without additives
VERONA, Italy — ”É primavera. Beh!” a disgruntled voice came from the queue behind me. “It’s spring. Ugh!”
No surprise at the lack of enthusiasm, barely 60 degrees and rain drips steadily, dripping off your hat and coat, into puddles around your shoes.
Spring in northern Italy often means rain, and this day, contrapuntal to the week of fair and dry days marking the start of April, was a mess of strong southerly winds lifting warm moist air off the Adriatic Sea and piling it like rumpled bedsheets against the Italian Alps, with the expected result.
Spring also means wine expos, which bring us again to northern Italy for a week devoted to wine expos large and small.
The largest on our schedule, and indeed the second-largest wine expo in the world (Germany’s ProWein is the largest) is VinItaly, held each spring in Verona, famed as much for this vinous expo as for its link to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Not to be ignored are the much smaller but no less enthusiastic ViniVeri, the natural wine fair we discussed in our last column, and Summa, smaller still and focusing on wines made with a “respect for nature” as it says in a release, which means a focus on minimum-intervention wines.
These events are winemaking yin and yang. VinItaly, spread across four days at the expansive grounds of Verona Fiera in Verona’s industrial district, corrals roughly 6,000 wineries and 30 times that many visitors while the smaller (almost quaint) VinVeri this year featured a little more than 100 or so producers and maybe 1,000 visitors over three days.
Smaller yet is Summa, presented each by winemaker Alois Lageder. Held at the historical venues Casòn Hirschprunn and Tòr Löwengang in Magrè in the SudTirol, this single-day event features 70 carefully selected winemakers (most from northern Italy, Germany and Austria) showcasing their devotion to sustainable and ethical use of natural products.
VinItaly, given its breadth of Italian and international wines (this year there is a seminar on Tennessee wines), opens its doors to winemakers of all conventions.
Most are commercial wineries and with all the modern techniques (mechanical, chemical and otherwise) involved in putting fermented grape juice in a bottle or bag.
However, with interest in natural wines on the rise, since 2012 VinItaly has devoted a small-but-expanding pavilion to natural wines, a term generally accepted to mean those grown organically and made with minimal intervention or chemical additives.
“There are a growing number of producers of this wine, the market is there now, especially among the millennial generation,” explains Stevie Kim, managing director of VinItaly International. “It was time we embraced it because we need to create additional ways to engage that market. It was time to create a completely different competition.”
Natural wines survive at the busy intersection of commercial winemaking and your uncle’s garagiste beverage. While you might find many of the modern conventions of winemaking, there are enough diversions that Kim said a different level of judging was necessary.
Rather than award the wines points, judge evaluated on whether the natural wines expressed eight characteristics: liveliness, evolution in the glass, balance, drinkability, emotional impact, savoriness, transparency, and sense of place. Last week I talked about those very qualities and how often they (or the lack thereof) are what separates “natural” wines from conventional wines.
Perhaps the leading proponent of natural wine is author and blogger Alice Feiring (say “firing”) of New York, who designed the judging criteria and who has held steadfast in her belief that natural wines “are now taking the New York wine world by storm.”
“I wanted to create a totally new way of awarding wines for their virtue; one that went back to the reason we all drink,” Feiring explains. “It’s all subjective, but there are qualifiers that make us respond to this kind of wine,” notably “drinkability and emotional impact.”
But once any wine is in the hands of consumers, a winemaker has no control over “drinkability and emotional impact,” particularly wines without the additives often used to ensure a wine is approachable years after its bottled and sold.
Slovenian winemaker Klemen Mlecnik says the proven way to ensure a consumer sees a wine at its optimum is for the winemaker to hold it until it’s ready to drink, since most wines are consumed shortly after purchase.
Which is why he was pouring a 2009 merlot, unfiltered and without additives, yet at 7 years old still lively and berry-fresh.
Yes, he agreed, it’s expensive to hold a wine for 7 years “but that’s what we do,” Mlecnik said. “We want our customers to see the full potential of our wines. There are a lot of producers here who feel the same way and if it works for us, why not for everyone?”