The Decanter interview: Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini

The Decanter interview: Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini

The pioneer of the Slow Food and Slow Wine movement is buoyed by the renaissance of Italy’s native varieties, as Carla Capalbo explains…

Interview: Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini

‘When we launched the first Salone del Gusto in Turin 22 years ago, attitudes to food and wine were very different.’

Against a backdrop of alarm and increasing global urgency over climate change, Carlo Petrini, the pioneering founder of Slow Food, is determined that each of us can still make a difference.

Petrini is uniquely placed to hold such an opinion: his movement – for that’s what it is – has spread from being an all-Italian association of regional food and wine lovers in the 1980s and ’90s to its current position as a global hub for food enthusiasts, activists and farmers in more than 160 countries. His grassroots Terra Madre network, started in 2004, is at the centre of this support for sustainable indigenous agriculture.

Community champion

Slow Food-Terra Madre today lobbies against transgenic crops and monoculture, fights for the rights of small-scale farmers, food communities and fishing people, and helps save plants and animals from extinction. Its ongoing projects include establishing thousands of vegetable gardens across Africa, fighting for better animal husbandry and highlighting issues such as climate change, land- and ocean-grabbing and the right to food that is good, clean and fair.

‘When we launched the first Salone del Gusto in Turin 22 years ago, attitudes to food and wine were very different,’ Petrini explained at the opening of the biennial event’s twelfth edition in 2018.

‘I said then that the day food received as much media coverage as fashion we might have resolved the problem of food’s lack of dignity. That day has come, maybe more than we bargained for… Now it’s time to look beyond the mostly male chefs who endlessly adorn our TV screens to the people who work the land and produce the world’s food – millions of whom are women.’

Slow Food has always devoted part of its energy to wine. Petrini, born in the Langhe, Piedmont’s viticultural epicentre, has published many books and guides, including (jointly with Gambero Rosso up to 2010) Vini d’Italia, which helped lift Italian wine out of its slumbers in the 1990s and onto the global stage. Now, the annual Slow Wine guide focuses on the stories and people behind Italy’s wine, and doesn’t give numerical scores.

Early improvements

‘When we published our first guide in 1987 and started awarding the Tre Bicchieri [‘three glasses’, the highest accolade], it was a way of stimulating the winemakers to improve their quality, and it helped to bring about a renaissance in Italian wine,’ says Petrini when I meet him at Pollenzo, Slow Food’s University of Gastronomic Sciences.

‘At that time, Barolo didn’t sell: you bought three cartons of Dolcetto and they gave you one of Barolo for free! It took four years to make, but nobody wanted it because it was too heavy. The young pioneers of the time transformed all that.’

Grape renaissance

Today’s young wine producers are again challenging the status quo. ‘In what I consider the two most important changes in Italian wine in the last five or six years, young people are playing an important part. The first is the repositioning of indigenous grape varieties.’ Italy is credited with having close to 2,000 of these, of which around 400 are currently being used for winemaking.

‘That’s what I’d call a beautiful problem, because until recently many of these local varieties were conceding defeat. But this revival movement, particularly when the young lead it, is providing great results – and delicious wines. The most successful, and one of the first, was Timorasso. If I’d been told 10 years ago that Timorasso would become Piedmont’s top white grape variety, I wouldn’t have believed it. After all we have Gavi, Arneis and Erbaluce di Caluso. But today’s Timorasso offers better structure, complexity and length, and has great ageing potential.

‘This has also enabled us to move beyond the classic areas for great wines such as Chianti, Friuli and the Langhe to a far more varied landscape. It’s like returning to the idea of Enotria, when wine was made in every corner of Italy.’

Petrini also highlights an increasing respect for the health of the vineyard, with fewer chemical inputs in both the field and winery. ‘Our young growers are aware of the public’s increasing demands for food and wine that respects the environment and the soil, and they are enthusiastic about the vini naturali that until a few years ago were the domain of only a limited number of drinkers.’

One other important theme may seem to be about marketing, but goes right to the very essence of Italian wine. ‘We can’t keep just talking about what we smell in a glass or obsessing over scores,’ says Petrini. ‘We need to underline the relationship with our cultural roots that distinguishes Italian wines from so many others and that positively enriches the complex world of Italian viticulture.’

‘So if you ask me how healthy the Italian wine world is at the moment, I’d say very!’

Capalbo’s stars of the renaissance

Three producers breathing new life into forgotten varieties and regions

Francesco Cirelli, Cirelli, Abruzzo

Francesco Cirelli bought this estate in 2003, high in the hills of Abruzzo. From the outset he envisioned an organic, multi-crop farm in which wine was just one element. Today, he makes non-interventionist wines in large clay jars from Montepulciano, Trebbiano and the local variety Pecorino.

Giovanni Scarfone, Bonavita, Sicily

From his terraced vineyards in the northeast corner of Sicily, Scarfone crafts a low-intervention red and rosato from local varieties. ‘We are renewing a tradition that began here with the ancient Greeks in what had become a semi-abandoned part of the countryside,’ says Scarfone.

Luca Faccenda, Valfaccenda, Piedmont

Producing wine in Piedmont’s less famous Roero hills, Faccenda focuses on two local varieties: Arneis and Nebbiolo. His fermentations are as wild as his mass of brown curly hair, and his approach is as refreshing as his Vindabeive – a juicy glass of Nebbiolo joy.

Carla Capalbo is an award-winning wine and food writer, photographer and consultant who has been based in Italy for many years. Her latest book Tasting Georgia (Pallas Athene, June 2017) won the Guild of Food Writers’ Food and Travel book prize.

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