is it an art form or are you just a technician?
Tony Wilson was a Mancunian journalist, TV presenter, and entrepreneur who, in the late 1970s, founded Factory Records which nurtured seminal bands such as Joy Division, New Order, and The Happy Mondays. The epicentre of the Manchester scene in the 1980s was the Haçienda nightclub, another brainchild of Tony Wilson’s.
One of his favorite though lesser known artists in the Factory line-up was Vini Reilly, a shy, inward-looking, but visionary guitarist. He was uncomfortable performing under his own name, so Tony Wilson, ever the provocateur, gave him a band name, The Durutti Column, named after an anarcho-syndicalist general in the Spanish Revolution in the 1930s.
Three years after Tony Wilson’s untimely death in 2007, Vini Reilly released one of his finest albums, A Peaen to Wilson. It begins with a line from Tony Wilson, “is it an art form or are you just a technician?” The fusion between art and technology was something that fascinated Tony Wilson. Machines enabled new musical ideas, but did they also stop music from being an art form?
This is a question often echoed in the wine industry. All sorts of manipulation in the vineyard and winery are now possible to create a faultless wine. But does that stop wine from being a form of art? How much of wine is a natural, soulful expression of the land and the winemaker’s personality? How much is simply down to interventionist farming and winemaking?
Debates about sustainable, organic, and biodynamic winemaking revolve around these questions. Is someone who eschews modern practices an artist in the purest form? Does someone who uses cultured yeasts cease to be an artist, akin to a musician using a mixing desk to create stylised effects?
I was reflecting on these questions while listening to The Durutti Column’s meditative music which can be both bright and moody, after tasting two extraordinary wines from Sardinia. These wines were aged for years under a layer of flor, although, unlike a fino sherry, they weren’t fortified. In many ways, these wines are as traditional an expression of Sardinia’s rustic culture as could be; at the same time, they wouldn’t taste like they do without the conscious decision to create conditions to allow the flor to develop and influence the wine’s structure and taste. Are these wines a form of art? Absolutely. Are they the works of a technician? No, but they need human know-how to taste like they do.
After tasting the wines, I interviewed Mark Middlebrook who works for their importer, PortoVino. In his tasting notes—which, as I prefer, were more observational than aroma-driven—he described the Malvasia di Bosa as a vino di meditazione, an evocative phrase coined by an Italian writer, Luigi Veronelli, to describe a sweet or old wine best drunk on its own while reflecting, reading, or listening to music. And it confirmed the answer to my question: yes, wines like these are a form of art which should be appreciated not in silence but with music.
Silvio Carta Vernaccia di Oristano Riserva 2005
Vernaccia isn’t one specific grape variety, as it simply means “local grape.” The fact it doesn’t have an individualised name indicates Italians’ rather loose attitude to naming grape varieties, but it also points to its neutral character. But, like Palomino for sherry or Chardonnay for champagne, that makes it ideal for long ageing, allowing the complexity to develop from the winemaking method.
The wine is aged in 800l barrels, but only filled to around 600l. The level of alcohol, humidity in the coastal cellars, and the exposure to oxygen cause a layer of yeast deposit—called flor in Spanish—to form on top of the wine. This creates a complex series of developments: sugar, glycerol, and alcohol are eaten by the flor; long ageing allows some oxygen to interact with the wine, affecting aromas and colour; evaporation also condenses the level of alcohol, the bottled wine being 16.5%. The absence of fortification seems to change the influence of the flor, and the wine is perhaps less stable, undergoing more changes with time than a fino sherry. To summarise: it tastes like an amontillado but with less heat. Or to quote Ian d'Agata, the foremost expert on Italian wine: "a good Vernaccia di Oristano can be a thing of beauty, exuding aromas and flavours of dried apricots, hazelnut, almond paste, orange rind, fresh aromatic herbs, white chocolate, and faded flowers ... right up there with the best in their category worldwide."
G. Battista Malvasia di Bosa Riserva 2011
The name Malvasia is more specific than Vernaccia but it still refers to a family of grape varieties rather than one specific variety; in fact, there are an estimated 17 different versions. The version grown for this wine is locally called Malvasia di Sardegna; it's widely considered to be the same as Malvasia di Lipari, named after a small island off the coast of Sicily. Once one gets into the world of Mediterranean varieties, there's never one settled explanation due to the long, disputed history of its people and islands.
As all these names suggest, the various forms of Malvasia have a strong historic presence across the Mediterranean. All of them are also much higher quality than the different grapes called Vernaccia, more aromatic. This means that the character of the grape variety has a much more apparent role in the style of the wine. The barrels are also a little smaller, though the wines are still aged under flor, with alcohol of 16%. Giovanni Battista Columbu founded the winery in 1950, and was instrumental in creating the Malvasia di Bosa DOC in 1972. The winery is now run by his son Gian Michele and daughter-in-law Vanna.
A wine such as this is emblematic of vino da meditazione: reflective, powerful, evocative, not just evoking place, but the people who make it: the quiet technicians making a unique form of art.
In essence, the perfect pairing with The Durutti Column.
listen to the full interview on Sardinian wine with Mark Middlebrook of PortoVino