From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Brian Naylor.

It's harvest time in Europe's vineyards. Carefully picked grapes are sent to sellers to slowly be turned into wine. But the bouquet is off for many European winemakers. A sluggish international economy and growing competition from Australia, Latin America and the United States is forcing Europeans to try to reassert themselves on the worldwide market, and nowhere more so than in Italy, where the new trend is a return to tradition. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports.


For more than 500 years, the town of Marino, south of Rome, has been known for its grape harvest festival.

(Soundbite of people singing in Italian)

POGGIOLI: Everyone is encouraged to drink, and for one day Marino's fountains spout wine, not water. They've been making wine here since Roman times. Marino even has a wine museum.

(Soundbite of grapes being stomped on)

Unidentified Man: (Italian spoken)

POGGIOLI: A man wearing rubber boots stomps on grapes inside a big barrel. A guide explains this is the way wine was made here as recently as 40 years ago. In the '70s, Italian winemaking underwent a revolution, with quality prevailing over quantity. Burton Anderson, one of the top experts on Italian wine, says that by 1990, Italy had reached world standards in wine technology.

Mr. BURTON ANDERSON (Wine Expert): But I really think that the key has been in the vineyards, in not only introducing new varieties to Italy, such as Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay, but in upgrading native varieties.

POGGIOLI: The heartland of innovation and experimentation was Tuscany. Many of the region's best vineyards had long been owned by aristocratic families--Ricasoli, Frescobaldi and Antinori--then came foreign expatriates, Germans, Americans and the Brits, who cherished what they called Chiantishire. This large foreign presence helps explain why a region with a winemaking tradition dating back 3,000 years to the Etruscans became the pace-setter in creating new wines. Farmers turned their backs on the traditional Sangiovese grape, the essence of Chianti, and began planting non-regional and trendy varieties like Cabernet and Merlot. They replaced their old casks with gleaming new oak barrels known as barriks(ph). They hired wine consultants and started blending grapes, producing heavy-oaked, full-bodied and fruity flavors. The result, Burton Anderson says, was designer wines like Sassicaia and Tignanello.

Mr. ANDERSON: Really, those two wines were so influential that they set off a whole trend of making these wines that were sort of individual works of art. In other words, they were the pride of the winemaker. Instead of his top Chianti Classico or top Vino Nobile, he would make a super Tuscan with a name that he would invent.

POGGIOLI: Super Tuscan is an expression that exists only in English. In fact, these new oaky, vanilla-ish wines were designed precisely for the international market and especially for the American palate. As Anderson explains, the value of a wine today is pretty much determined by American wine critics.

Mr. ANDERSON: It's gone too far because now winemakers make their wines according to what they think the critic wants. Wines of bigger body, alcohol contents often up to 14 1/2, 15 percent. The wine loses its identity. And this to me is tragic.

(Soundbite of voices)

POGGIOLI: Il Goccetto, one of Rome's best wine bars, is a showcase of Italy's small producers of quality wine, but owner Sergio Ceccarelli says it's harder and harder to find good genuine products of Italian territory or, as the French say, terroise(ph).

Mr. SERGIO CECCARELLI (Il Goccetto): (Through Translator) Italy has the largest number of native grape varieties, but many have been abandoned. Italy now grows acres and acres of non-native grapes--Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay, Shiraz--that help sell Italian wine abroad. It is absurd. We should be marketing wines made from grapes that are unique to Italy.

POGGIOLI: When a customer asks for a wine from the Lazio region around Rome, Ceccarelli says, all he can offer is a locally made Cabernet or Shiraz, which tastes just like international wines produced more cheaply in Australia, Chile and even California. With the global economic slump and Italy's high labor costs, many Italian producers of international wines are being priced out of the market. But some wine producers are now reviving the concept of territory, a wine that comes from a specific vineyard made year after year from native grapes grown there, a synthesis of the soil, the climate and the farmer.

(Soundbite of bell)

POGGIOLI: Le Bonice is a small vineyard at Castelnuovo Berardenga in the heart of Chianti. The valley is covered with rows and rows of vines, the region's traditional Sangiovese, flanked by other native grapes like Fullyatunda(ph), Colorido(ph) and Mumbollo(ph), varieties that had almost disappeared. Only one wine is made here, a Chianti Classico called Le Trame. It's produced by a woman. Giovanna Morganti comes from a family of winemakers, and her passion for traditional methods has earned her the nickname the Joan of Arc of Wine.

Ms. GIOVANNA MORGANTI (Vintner): (Through Translator) I follow the four basic rules of classic winemaking: Taste the wine often, decant only when necessary, keep the cellar very clean and, most important, start with beautiful grapes. There's not much else to do.

POGGIOLI: Morganti is not making huge profits, but her wine is starting to make inroads in the Dutch, Austrian, Swiss and even Japanese markets. Her attitude toward the US market is, `I don't send my wine to the big American critics. I don't care about their ratings. I don't want them to write about my wine.' Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News.

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