It couldn’t be prettier, this mountain. For the longest time you half expect Heidi and her grandfather and oxen to cross the road in a straw-covered wagon. It’s that pretty, that storybook-like, so completely untouched by man. The only way to know which millennium you’re in as that every so often you pass what looks like someone having thrown a bunch of shoe boxes down into a ravine.
But look a little closer and you’ll see that all the shoe boxes are actually perfect little houses with perfect little curtains, perfect little flower pots and dreamy, blue-gray curly-Qs of smoke rising from their perfect little chimney. A distant, tiny little woman in an cobalt apron will be sweeping the street, the wispy-wisp of her thatch broom audible from halfway up the valley.
I’ve visited l’azienda agricola Paternoster every year for the last 5 years during my Southern Italian bicycle trips, so important they are to the wine of Basilicata. They have been the big boys since the 192o’s, when this part of Italy still housed real live cavemen, not far from here, at Matera (still the longest-inhabited site in all of Europe, and well into the 1940’s, had entire families still living in Malarial caves, sleeping on top of their diseased livestock, as their only means for heat. For more on Matera – Mel Gibson’s ‘Jersalem’ in The Passion of the Christ- pick up a copy of Christ Stopped at Eboli.) And while there have been some new start ups around here winning a lot of awards (see my article on Elena Fucci), Paternoster has done something interesting: They’ve become all things to all people when they launched Rotondo, an Aglicanico Del Vulture just like their flagship wine, Don Aselmo. What’s the difference? One’s made in a New World Style, one in the Old.
It’s a fascinating proposal, this distinction, especially when it’s just one wine maker producing both, eliminating personality and terrior from the equation. It’s odd state of affairs, but chances are, your preference for Old or New affects your appreciation of wine more than any other single factor.
I had called ahead and was surprised to hear Vito himself answer the phone, as we’ve never spoken in person before, his voice eager to please, his accent Southern but completely free of the clinging mud of the Lucanian dialect. I mentioned a few questions I had had, never dreaming that he’d end up giving me 4 hours of his time, and an invitation to lunch afterward.
As we walked his estate together– a walk slow enough to underline that the walk was more a talk– our conversations roamed all over the wine-making world, the current economic crisis and whether or not it will be good for quality wine-making, years on down the line. Vito, unlike 95% of the Southern Italian winemakers I know, embraces the process of working with other local producers towards promoting the region, its cuisine and tourism in general, in this case, the stunning natural beauty of the region, a rich tradition of una cucina montagnola and the world-class varietal, Aglianico, big and impressive enough itself to foster an entire tourism industry. As we walked, the Titolo valley sprawled beneath us, a mosaic of rich colours, a distant farmer chopped wood, the delayed thwack of his ax arriving after it had already split the wood’s fleshy interior.
‘How do you best like to explain the difference between Don Aselmo and Rotondo’, I ask, the question that I’ve come to pose.
‘Well, Don Aselmo is more of a classic wine, while Rotondo is a more modern style’, he says. We enter his new cellar, decidedly in a modern style itself.
‘Do you mean, ‘Old World, New World’ or ‘Modern versus Classic’, I ask. A shy, awkward smile spreads across his face. ‘Isn’t that the same question’, he asks me back. I give him a hand moving a few pallets for an order that just came in. As we move cardboard boxes, I think about his stance, exactly the opposite of what I had expected to find.
I don’t drink as much New World wine as I would like, mostly because it’s not available where I live but on a recent visit to Napa, it was surprising how different those flavours are. Talking with friends while tasting many of America’s most famous wines, I could come up with only truisms, metaphors and sound effects to explain the differences between the two.
Still, some tendencies tend to be fixed. New World tends to have more acid, as if you turned up one aspect of the music on a graphic equalizer. New World wines tend be really extracted, higher in alcohol, with the presence of a lot of new oak. Old World tends to have more harmonious complexity, but I don’t mean to say more complex, and certainly don’t mean to say ‘better’. That’s where provincialism lives. And if you want to complicate things a bit more, New Worlds don’t have to come from the New World. especially when you consider a country like Spain, whose wine industry has changed so much in the last 15 years that discussing its ‘birth’ is not hyperbole.
But over several bottles of wine, both Old and New, side by side, I finally came up with this: Imagine several handfuls of dropped pocket change hitting the floor at once. Few of us even need to look at the value of a dropped coin, just being alive we recognize the different sounds, regardless of in which countries we live or how our national mints choose and size the different metals. They just respond differently when hitting a marble floor. ‘That one is a fiver, that one a tenner and I heard several larger ones too’.
Now, mentally take those same coins and put them in a wooden cigar box and drop it at the same marble floor. Rather than jaggling, individual metals, there will be a principle sound, composed OF those different metals. The free coins are the New World, the box, the Old.
Saying goodbye he loads up my arms with more wine that I can carry, with several of the bottles on him, just to try (two haven’t even been marketed or released yet). Within seconds, he’s on the phone with someone, just as intensely as he was with me.
Back in the hotel room I open a bottle of each, a light rain pattering on large palm leaves just outside the window. I pour each into my hideously-expensive, French tasting glasses and turn off Carlo Conti’s game show, his announcer’s voice overpolished and overbearing .
Both wines have the ‘tell’ of an Aglianico del Vulture: the chocolate, the plums, the fine tannins, both make my mouth water, both make me want to drink more. Beyond that, the differences become more pronounced. One is tighter, rounder, less flashy. One is more acidic, more zippy. In one the plums taste ice cold, in the other warm, as if sitting on the window sill in noonday sun.
In my mind’s eye, I can see you, reader, at the table in your home, the two bottles in front of you the Don Aselmo and Rotondo. I see the two fingers of wine in glass, side by side. I can see the concentration on your face, the subtle squinting, the fact that you turned down the stereo in order to better taste. I can see you chew the wine, slowly rolling it around your mouth.
I can see you make a fist, with an index finger emerging and fixing itself at one bottle. Why is that? Why?