Natural Wine Magic in Italy: Etruscan Not Roman

In ancient times, spontaneous grape fermentation and the effects of drinking wine were believed to be magic from the gods. Wine is even at the root of the word “divine”. Its Latin precursor, divinius, meaning “of the gods” is the combination of two other Latin words: di (gods) and vini (wines). In modern Italian, divino means “divine” and di vino means “of wine”.

Natural Italian wine still has this magic and mystery in it. As Elena Pantaleoni of La Stoppa explains in this video, there is no specific formula for this kind of wine. It is born of an approach that is fundamentally like that of the ancient Etruscans, one that values uniqueness, diversity, pleasure and even paradox.

Who were the Etruscans? An ancient people, whose civilization stretched Florence and Rome for over a thousand years between 1200 and 100 BCE. With origins dating back to prehistoric times, they had their own language and customs, distinctly different from the Greeks, who arrived on the peninsula in the 8th century BCE. They were makers, traders and lovers of wine. I took this photo while pressing grapes in an Etruscan wine basin made of volcanic rock.

The Etruscans were the only ancient culture that passed property through the mother and allowed wives (as opposed to courtesans) to participate in banquets. They believed that their gods inhabited this now extinct volcano, Monte Amiata, in southern Tuscany.

After D.H. Lawrence was denied publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in England in the late 1920s, he went to Italy and wrote Etruscan Places, journaling his travels through Etruscan ruins and tombs. “There is simplicity,” he wrote, “combined with a most peculiar, free-breasted naturalness and spontaneity, in the shapes and movements of the underworld walls and spaces…The Greeks sought to make an impression, and Gothic still more seeks to impress the mind. The Etruscans, no.”

Referring to the erotic paintings of feasts and dancing in the tombs, he went on to say, “[The Romans] hated the phallus and the ark, because they wanted empire and dominion and, above all riches: social gain. You cannot dance agile to the double flute and at the same time conquer nations or rake in large sums of money.”

After World War II, modern agricultural techniques (e.g. fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides, pruning, etc.) along with modern methods in the cellar began a trend toward industrialization of winemaking along with a standardization and homogenization of taste. Like the Romans, who commercialized wine in a way that no other ancient civilization did, most modern winemakers view it solely as a business.

And, as most people know, at the end of the Roman Republic, the Etruscans were killed, cowed or forced into submission under the Roman Empire. They became a “lost civilization” within the Empire. But over the last forty years, the Etruscan spirit in favor of diversity, uniqueness, spontaneity and simplicity is flourishing among Italian artisan winegrowers making wine with natural methods.

Their vineyards are healthy and characterized by wild, biodiversity…

Soft havens of spontaneous growth..

With each vine finding its own equilibrium..

Many of their vines are old…

Grown in traditional ways without mechanization…

In hard to reach spots, on steep slopes..

Completely different from a “modern” vineyard.

So here, on the winter solstice, when darkness crowds in, I raise a glass to the light and the Etruscan spirit that characterizes Italian winegrowers making artisan wine with natural methods. As hard as the Romans tried, they never really stamped out the essence of the Etruscans.

And against all odds, these winegrowers stand firm against bureaucratic and financial pressure that is “Roman”. Even though less than 5% of Italian wine is natural wine, its role is critically important. Buying and drinking this wine is not only a pleasure, it preserves land, vines, culture and values in priceless ways.

December, 2016

The Etruscan Language: An Introduction (Giuliano and Larissa Bonfante, Manchester University Press, UK, Revised Edition, 2002)

Etruscan Places (D.H. Lawerence, 1932)

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