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It's time to celebrate

Published:  18 January, 2007

Two anniversaries are celebrated in the Italian wine world in 2006. Did we say celebrated'? One is the 20th anniversary of the methanol scandal - hardly a pretext for dancing in the streets, since 19 people died from contaminated wine, and several others suffered permanent injury, including blindness.
The other, which ought to be more of a cause for joy, is the 40th anniversary of the introduction of the first DOC wines - as distinct from the passing of the law, which laid down the theory in 1963.

But was the one as destructive as it appeared at the time? And was the other such a positive step forward?

There is a theory abroad that, annus horribilis though it undoubtedly was, 1986 was the turning point for modern Italian wine - the moment from which the quality-versus-quantity ethos, which had begun in the 1960s and inched forward in the '70s and early '80s, really took

off. In the 20 years following the methanol disaster, Italian wine turnover has risen from e2.5bn to e9bn; exports

have gone from e0.8bn to e2.8 bn; and, at the same time, production - mainly superfluous production - has fallen by more than 37%, with DOC/Gs up by 92% and consumption - mainly excessive consumption - down by over 28%. From an ecological angle, the use of chemicals in viticulture has dropped by 68%. In other words, Italian wines have increased dramatically in quality and purity. The aforementioned theorists ascribe this very positive advance, in part at least, to the psychological reaction of the Italian wine industry to the collapse of sales and image that followed hard on the revelation of the scandal. The methanol scandal was a veritable Copernican revolution,' says Jos Rallo of Donnafugata. The focus of people's attention was switched away from quantity and low cost to quality and consumer satisfaction.'

True enough, although it is debatable whether all of the changes that have occurred in the Italian wine industry in the past 20 years have been so desirable. In that time, we have seen wine partially lose its image as an agreeable drink to become a status symbol whose merit is to be measured not according to the pleasure it brings but rather by its price, and by the number of points, or glasses, or bunches, or stars it is able, by its colour, its oakiness and its extract, to elicit from dubious experts' who manage to persuade the ever-gullible public that their individual or collective palate should be regarded as being endowed with quasi-papal infallibility. Perhaps wine, in the meantime, has strayed too far from the simplicity and straightforwardness of those pre-methanol days. Perhaps the current crisis' at the top end of the Italian wine industry is serving as another corrective to the reaction to the corrective that methanol represented 20 years ago.

As for DOC, we are inclined to agree with those who regard the system, flawed as it is, as the cornerstone of Italian wine production. What, other than the fear that producers may have

been caught breaking the law, prevents even more of them than at present from overproducing or, for example, from spicing up their Brunello di Montalcino with a dollop of Montepulciano or Nero d'Avola, thereby creating in the mind of consumers the kind of confusion regarding identity that currently afflicts Chianti Classico, with its permitted 20% of other authorised' grapes (Cabernet, Merlot, whatever)? On the other hand, those same laws, manipulated by the powerful, can protect those who would undermine zonal authenticity, those who would perpetuate wine names that have hardly any substance to them in terms of actual product, and those - mainly bureaucrats and politicians - who will do anything to get their obscure local name on to the statute books with no thought for marketing or international public recognition or awareness.

Yes, there are far too many DOCs; they work against their own long-term interest in too many cases; and they are too inclined to perpetuate practices that ought to be discouraged or discontinued. They are, in other words, in need of a major overhaul, one that - alas! - they are not likely to get any time soon. But let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater and conclude that DOC is nonsensical and useless. Without it as a basis, the Italian propensity towards proliferation and confusion would take over completely; there would be total chaos and, probably, more scandals of the methanol type. No, let's be thankful for small mercies and celebrate at least the 40th, if not the 20th.