Critical Wine is a network of wine producers and consumers which seeks to interrogate and critique the industrial-production model increasingly dominant in the wine world. the commercial forces behind the homogenization of global taste have received increasing attention in the media, exemplified by the success of Jonathan Nossiter’s excellent film ‘Mondovino‘, but Critical Wine t/ERRA e l/IBERTA is an attempt to construct an alternative circuit of production in the material world: a site of disintermediated connection and transaction between users and producers. The initiative was launched in 2002 by Luigi Veronelli, father of Italian wine journalism, together with individuals associated with the social centres Magazzino 47 (Brescia) and La Chimica (Verona), and despite the death of its charismatic founder in 2005 it continues to prosper.
Last weekend two events tied to this circuit took place in Milan and Genoa, and I managed to get along to both. Whilst not shy in confessing to my passion for drinking, the truth is that my reasons were more practical; disappointed by the quality of Italian wines found abroad, I’m putting together a catalogue of quality wines from small scale producers. In Milan around fifty producers presented their wares alongside perhaps fifteen publishing houses, and the meeting inaugurated a more long term project to develop commercial ‘dis-intermediation’ strategies with an ethical compass in both fields. Alongside the tastings there were a large number of presentations, round-tables and debates, almost exclusively of a literary or political character. There was also significant revelry and joie de vivre, as can be grasped from this little clip – not your parents’ wine tasting! In Genoa, on the other other hand, debates remain focussed on matters enological, first of all on the continuing threat posed by GM. Also under the knife was the new EU Regulation 1507/2006 which permits the use of oak chips during the production process (yuk!).
The use of oak has long been a source of polemic in Italy where it is widely considered anathema to tradition and an abandonment of terroir, or the unique personality inhering to a wine due to its climatic, biological and socio-cultural specificity (phew!). The addition of oak usually occurs through the employment of small oak barrels called Barriques, and is a well established practice in countries such as France. Controversy has arisen however because oak is now commonly used so as to simulate a taste otherwise achieved through aging, and is also considered key to the global palate being pushed by an increasingly concentrated industry. One factor impeding the wider use of barriques however is their cost, around 800 euros a piece, which increases the production costs while the new wood drinks its own content at a rate of half a litre a week!
The use of oak chips is essentially a cheap short-cut to a ‘similar’ result, and is hated by independent producers who see it as yet another act of barbarism against their culture and are running a campaign to stigmatise the practice called Chips Free.
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