Monday, January 20, 2014

How Italian wine labels remind me of S.P.E.C.T.R.E., or -- 2004 Poggio alla Badiola, Toscana I.G.T.

The label says Poggio alla Badiola (knoll of Badiola), but once again, satisfactorily identifying Italian wines is a little like satisfactorily identifying everybody associated with S.P.E.C.T.R.E. in the old James Bond movies. Above the name Poggio alla Badiola stands the crest of Castello di Fonterutoli, which in turn is part of the estates belonging to the Mazzei family, whose name you see at the bottom of the label. They have been in business since 1435, at least.

Venture to Mazzei's website and find more. One of the family's great patriarchs was a certain Ser Lapo Mazzei, who lived, made wine, and conducted business in the late 1300s. The first known use of the term "chianti" dates, it seems, from a contract signed by him in 1398. Among his correspondence, he leaves to posterity also this excellent advice: " 'don't concern yourself about the cost of the wine, though it be high; its goodness is restorative.' " (It's almost as if he is saying you may have to spend some money.)

Four hundred years later, the family gave us another superstar in their Filippo, who planted vineyards at Monticello at his friend Thomas Jefferson's request, and incidentally put into Jefferson's head the idea that "all men are created equal." The founding father was much struck, and added the thought in turn to the Declaration of Independence. Mazzei assures us it is so, while Italian-American boosterism sites and blogs agree. This gem of a story appears to have its origins in a paper written by a scholarly nun, Dr. Margherita Marchione, who purposely researched the matter in 1976 so that Mazzei's contributions to the republic could be honored in time for the Bicentennial. It's not that he was unknown before that; the rather clumsily named blog Librizzi Ancestors in my Heart  lists other occasions when he was similarly honored, usually by politicians who, I daresay, had reasons of their own for praising Italian heroes. Presidents Kennedy and (Franklin) Roosevelt, for example, both acknowledged his influence on his friend Jefferson, and thus on America. In 1980 the U.S. Post Office issued an airmail stamp marking the 250th anniversary of Mazzei's birth, on Christmas Day, in Poggio-a-Caiano, Tuscany. In 1984 "the Hon. Mario Biaggi of New York had inserted into the Congressional Record" Sister Margherita's essay, nearly twenty years after its composition. Philip Mazzei also shows up in biographies of Jefferson that carry no hint of ethnic cheerleading -- the men really were good friends, and Mazzei seems to have led an extraordinary and peripatetic life -- Fawn Brodie's Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History (1974) being a once-popular example.

For my part I have the tiniest suspicion that Mazzei's words, "tutti gli uomini sono per natura egualmente liberi e indipendenti," which Jefferson -- we are told -- translated and published in the Virginia Gazette as signed by "Furioso," may have set forth ideas which were percolating in many sharp minds at that exciting time. Besides, take a look at the Italian grammatical structure of the phrase. "Egualmente" is an adverb, isn't it? The words read, "all men by their nature are equally free and independent," not "all men are created equal." Anyway the boosterist hint that, a few years later and all grammar aside, the Declaration of Independence would never have said "all men are created equal" were it not for Filippo strikes me as a bit of a stretch. Un' " 'po' " esagerazione, as Lucia might say.

But to return to Tuscany, and the present day, and the wine of Filippo's and Ser Lapo's remote descendants.

My notes say --

barbecued tomato soup --
thick, smoky, inky-purple -- 75% sangiovese, 25% merlot.

Good, but in need of a hearty meal alongside it. Of which, more later. First, this. On that simple but already surprisingly informative label, the words Toscana I.G.T., Indicazione Geografica Tipica, tell us that Badiola was made in Tuscany but that it may not call itself a Chianti, which is of course a subregion of Tuscany. A Toscana I.G.T. wine may not do this either because it has been made of an unapproved combination of "Chianti" grapes including not enough sangiovese, or because it was made chianti-like (plenty of sangiovese), but outside Chianti's legal borders. Or both.

A Wine 101 digression: we remember that any Italian wine proclaiming "Blankety-blank I.G.T." is saying something similar about itself: that it is from a general area whose wines legally meet certain rough criteria, but do not meet more specific ones laid down for a Denominazione di Origine Controllata or an even more specific Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita. The same legal pattern applies to Spanish wines, with their status as simple "Vino de la tierra" progressing on to Denominacion de Origen and Denominacion de Origen Calificada, and to French wines progressing from "vin de pays" to the many specificities of A.O.C. -- Appellation d'Origine Controllee -- status. We recall as well that this European Union legal scaffolding regarding wine changed slightly two years ago. French wines, for example, may now carry the term Appellation d'Origine Protegee [Protected], or A.O.P., bestowing roughly the equivalent of A.O.C. status, and what used to be more ordinary "vins de pays" or country wines may now be labelled, confusingly, I.G.P. -- of "Indication Geographique Protegee." A more noticeable change will be that any European wine may now display a grape variety and a vintage year on the label. This naming of a variety is very much a la the New World mode. We comparative newbies like to know what grape we are drinking, whereas the European way has always been to categorize in terms of where the wine was made. But if I were the European Union in the aggregate, and I saw that the New World's share of global wine sales -- repeat, global wine sales -- had shot from 3% to 30% in eighteen years, 1990 to 2008, I too might think of doing business and marking wines the New World way.

We end our digression, and return to sip some more Badiola. About the barbecued tomato soup effect: please don't drink this either on its own or with some vapid little snack. It will leave you thinking of Andy Warhol's Campbell's soup cans, or wishing you had a spoon, or both. Offer it a meal worthy of its flavors. We had it with another serving of Gourmet's "island" pork tenderloin, all coated in cinnamon, salt, merquen, brown sugar, and Tabasco,

... and with that it seemed to remember its manners and become a wine again, rather than something you want in a thermos on a cold day. Perhaps you could open up a bottle to pair with a rich Tuscan meal this Christmas. If you do, do also raise a glass to Filippo and his birthday, and to tutti gli uomini being by their nature egualmente liberi e indipendenti.

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