Are 'traditional' and 'modern' useful wine terms? - Jason Millar

If you’re a lover of the wines of Barolo, as I am, the two words you learn after Nebbiolo are traditionalist and modernist.

Yet, if asked to compile a list of the specific qualities that make a producer traditional or modern, most Langhe lovers would struggle beyond dividing some big names into two camps that wouldn’t stand up well to close examination.

What started in the Langhe has become ubiquitous, and now the word “tradition” is thrown about as a positive enhancer of anything it’s attached to without much need to be specific. We have traditional Bordeaux, traditional Burgundy and traditional Côte-Rôtie, as though these are well-understood and unanimously agreed styles.

Traditional, used with this sweeping vagueness, has come to stand for so many things it now means nothing without a great deal of qualifying contextual information alongside. However, what’s more interesting than the sloppy use of the language is quite how unanimously tradition has triumphed over modernity, its polar opposite, in the world of wine.

For example, when we look at the arts and compare the aesthetic value judgements there to the ones we make in the wine world, it can feel like our critical appreciation for wine is stuck in the 19th century, generally limited to saying that such and such wine is a good example of its type, showing typicity and everything you’d expect, with no surprises. In some uncomfortable senses, the typical appreciation of wine, especially so-called traditional wine, has uncomfortable similarities to, say, Prince Charles’s views on architecture.

Protect and preserve

Perhaps that is because tradition is bound up with protecting and preserving, something close to the hearts of many wine estates and, by extension, their followers. In this sense, Burgundy is considerably more conservative than Bordeaux, because it is based on a medieval system of land, property and hierarchy, as opposed to the more mercantile classifications of Bordeaux, whether the 1855 merchants’ ranking or the more recent scores out of 100 methodology for rating the wines by Robert Parker.

One might well say that if the alternative to tradition is machines and pesticides and so on, then we’ll stick with the old ways, not least because they produce demonstrably better wines. That makes a lot of sense, and I’m very sympathetic, although I’d argue that it should be seen less as traditionalism and more as conservatism, right down to protecting and encouraging the establishment interest in any given wine region and therefore opposing change, such as land changing hands from locals to outsiders.

Questioning assumptions

But maybe if we’re going to stake a claim for wine as being somehow worthy of the status of great craft or even art, we should also allow it to be more pluralistic and less defined by conservatism. In the end, even the binary opposition of tradition and modernity is limiting.

So what is the alternative to tradition, if it is not modernity? I think my answer to that would be creativity. Creativity opposes tradition, and although it cannot ignore it, it actively seeks to question and interrogate traditional assumptions.

Creativity in wine manifests as prospecting vineyards outside the established areas, new blends, hybrid wine styles, innovative winemaking techniques (whether micro-oxygenation or concrete eggs) and fresh packaging and labelling. Natural wine is the most creative wine movement of our time, although it sometimes chooses to talk about itself in pseudo-historical terms that overlap with twee ideas of tradition.

My suggestion would be to swap the word traditional for conservative and modernist for creative. Here we can still understand the conservative methods of some Barolo producers,

as well as the creative methods of others. For when it comes to the Langhe – whatever you think of the wines – if it wasn’t for the creativity of the so-called modernists in Barolo, “tradition” might not have survived.

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