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14 December 2021

A journey through sustainability, climate change, labelling and the soul of wine

Interview with the President of OIV, Luigi Moio. 

"The world of wine must be grateful to Verona and Vinitaly, Italy's most important trade fair in the sector and one of the most authoritative international events. It has given a great deal to Italian wine in helping it spread its wings beyond Italy itself. It is an extremely successful event and must remain in Verona - the par excellence city of love crowned with vineyards completing an ideal landscape for wine lovers and operators."

We start from the end and unashamedly give in to a little self-promotion during much more than just a long and enjoyable chat with Luigi Moio. Professor of Oenology at the University of Naples and the newly-elected President of OIV, the International Vine and Wine Organization. It turned into an authentic lectio magistralis where scientific and political vision, along with the authoritative competence of scientist who at the same time is also a producer (Cantina Quintodecimo based in Mirabella Eclano, province of Avellino). He is a voracious reader of scientific biographies and essays by researchers, a passionate teacher of Oenology ("I studied it to please my father but I'm happy with that choice since I managed to pursue a university career, which was my dream", he reveals) and, for some months, number one at OIV.

It has been 40 years, since the time of Professor Mario Fregoni (1985-1987), that Italy - which is also one of the main contributors to the OIV – last held the presidency. Professor Moio was unanimously elected after the withdrawal of the Australian candidate, who achieved no more than 20% of the votes in the first round.

Over and above an imminent move of the organization's headquarters from Paris to Dijon, are many challenges to be faced today, ranging from climate change to genetic editing, and labelling, which risks penalizing correct consumption of wine and implementing cultural disinformation with extremely negative implications, precisely right now that young people are beginning to approach the world of wine.

A Full Professor of Oenology, wine-maker, member of the Georgofili Academy and President of "OIV, Moio has also written scientific essay which, having sold 40,000 copies, is a best seller: Il Respiro del Vino (The Soul of Wine) opens the doors to a sensory and cultural journey of approach to the nectar of the gods.
He is constantly involved in research activity, driven by a unique passion for wine. "In recent years," Moio told Vinitaly, "I have moved increasingly from the wine cellar into the vineyard. I am genuinely interested in understanding plant physiology, how plants works and how it may be possible to guide them towards grape bunches with a biochemical balance as a function of wine-making objectives and, obviously, in an environmentally friendly context. In other words, how to obtain the perfect grapes for the wine you are thinking about."

What new challenges will you face as President of OIV?
"The OIV has evolved a great deal in recent years, especially with the international transformation of the office; the main objective will be to strengthen the scientific reference role of the organization on a world scale even further and thereby harmonize the wine sector. One of the objectives is to accompany China's entry into the OIV over the next three years from its current role as observer. Another aspect concern strengthening comparisons on the global market to facilitate international trade in wine as far as possible. I would like to point out that OIV is a scientific body and a reality that also moves on the world stage to promote wine as a witness and ambassador of local areas, a paradigm of diversity and "anti-standards" by definition. And at a time when standardization is a widespread risk, we have to communicate and educate consumers as well as protect compliance with rules and regulations.
Another objective is to encourage comparisons between experts and their different skills through a multi-disciplinary debate which must stimulate and raise awareness of dialogue about sustainable development, climate change and wine-making strategies ensuring low environmental impact. We must not forget that the sensitivity of consumers as regards demand for transparency, health safety and respect for the environment is growing and much higher than in the past. Wine-making practices were once at the heart of the debate but today comparisons are wider and multi-disciplinary, while climate change is opening up a new scenario."

The OIV has revised the definitions of IG and DO. What is the goal? Is this a useful direction to settle or prevent issues over the use of names and protections on an international scale?
“We work by consensus and stages, as is natural for any inter-governmental organization, through processes lasting many years, with the intention of achieving harmonious solutions and the approval of resolutions at the AGM. The review of Geographical Indications is an update which does not overturn the previous definition but, as always, aims to respect the traditions, history and culture of every member country."

Which direction is OIV experimentation taking? Are there any differences or special needs between countries?
"Climate change is undoubtedly a very important part of the study, so much so that an ad hoc multi-disciplinary group for sustainable development and climate change named ENVIRO has been set up. It recently approved a solution concerning environmental footprint criteria. This is flanked by activities related to regulations, the development of wine-making practices and efforts in the labelling field, as well as studies concerning new methods of analysis to check and trace production within the scope of food safety. Some issues vary from country to country, depending on sensitivity and involvement. Let me give you an example. A very important problem affecting Australian in recent years concerned forest fires, with the problem of smoke binding with the bloom and thereby transmitting smoky scents to the wine. Studies have therefore concentrated on trying to eliminate sensory contaminants caused by forest fires burning close to wine-growing districts.
Another important aspect at OIV is the development and approval of increasingly precise and sensitive methods of analysis. This is an important issue for checking and tracing the entire supply chain. The application of shared and internationally recognized methods of analysis is vital if we are to harmonize controls, research and analysis and make data comparable."

Organic agriculture is an expanding phenomenon. What direction the research taking in this field?
"The road ahead is towards green wine-growing, respect for the environment and sustainability. We will have to move in that direction. Organic agriculture is an answer warmly welcomed by consumers but we must be careful in stating that using copper and sulphur in organic viticulture does not entail true respect for the environment, since they are both contaminants. Another aspect concerns the varietal, territorial and sensorial expression of wine; copper, in particular, is a strong oxidant that modifies the aromatic profile of wine, and sulphur can also distort the aromatic profile in the opposite direction compared to copper. Inasmuch, we cannot tackle these problems without taking such things into account and without launching specific scientific research programmes to develop and define environment friendly and truly sustainable defence strategies with extreme precision."

How can we replace copper and sulphur?
They cannot be replaced for the time being but must be used intelligently. We must be well aware that an organic approach to wine-growing cannot be implemented everywhere, in low hills or very humid areas. The message must be clear: there are soil and weather conditions that allow production with the organic system and others that do not. The same can be said for certain varieties that are more suitable than others. In-depth knowledge of the biological cycles of various diseases such as powdery mildew and downy mildew is also essential so that we can guide the vines and apply precise foliage management strategies. Our research continues. Then there is the important yet complicated question of resistant vines, because we must ensure that the identity and sensorial characteristics of wine are retained: it is very unlikely, for example, that Sauvignon Blanc would lose its varietal character and same can be said for varieties with a “Muscat” character or Pinot Noir. Yet if we consider more neutral vines, the ones I defined in my book Il Respiro del Vino as “orchestral”, what happens?" .

What suggestions do you feel you can give to wine-makers?
"Be very careful and precise, because planting a vineyard means making an investment of at least twenty years. I suggest recording every event during the harvest to avoid repeating the same mistakes in the future."

There is always a great deal of talk about sustainability (which Professor Scaramuzzi, President Emeritus of the Georgofili Academy, more correctly defined as "rationality"). What are the priorities for our sector?
"Wine-growing today means farming with a capital F. The disciplines to be studied are the same as those handed down in the golden years of agricultural science education from the 1940s to the 1980s. A multi-disciplinary approach is needed with skills in pedology, agronomy, cultivation of shrubs and crops, biochemistry, chemistry, microbiology, food technology, animal husbandry, economics, micro-economics, macro-economics and business economics. Not forgetting the engineering aspects of water and soil management, sensitivity in combating climate change, crop rotation and reduced emissions into the atmosphere.
When we talk about wine-growing we must also be clear that wine cannot be produced everywhere and produced well because if I grow a crop where it is difficult to bear fruit and I intervene to offset the natural elements that are missing, perhaps by creating a greenhouse, supplying water and heat, I must also be aware that I am wasting energy. We could think of ski slopes in the Persian Gulf."

What do you suggest?
"We must realise that we are living in a different scenario compared to 40-50 years ago and that, for this reason, we must work with research if we are to continue making great wines in traditionally vocational areas, the wines which excite us the most and make us dream, because those places are the world's driving force: Burgundy, Bordeaux and Champagne, as well as the whole of Italy - the true country home to wine from the Alps to Lampedusa. The problem is that certain dynamics have changed because of climate change and other factors."

For example?
"For example, acidity is lower, alcohol content is higher and certain kinds of intervention are needed which certainly cannot be the selection objectives implemented in the 1940-50s which sought to accumulate more sugar; today, we must select clones that no longer accumulate high amounts of sugar but, rather, higher titratable acidity and lower sugar content. In areas that experiences scarcity of water we will have to find rootstock that requires less water. The problem is not one of cultivating vineyards in desert areas but in recognized areas, traditional and vocational areas.
Making good wine is easy, making great wines is difficult - and it is only possible to make them where there is perfect harmony between the plant and the soil-weather context, thereby intervening directly on environmental sustainability.
Another aspect is the fact that wine-growing and wine-making training must be merged and oenologists must have very high skills combining agricultural sciences and oenology."

What are the new frontiers of oenology?
"Wine is planned in the vineyard and not in the cellar. This is the only way towards lighter, less invasive wine-making. In any case, the balance should already exist in the grapes themselves and oenologists must therefore become process assistants, with a role of preparing the grape on the vine. This is the only logic behind making important wines because they must fundamentally be a faithful interpretation of the territory in the complex and untranslatable meaning of the term terroir."

What is missing in training today?
"Having lived through the oenology schools of the past, I have the impression that there are no problems as regards theoretical aspects, even with the three-year university course. Training is highly professional but the practical side falls short - the so-called hours of in-the-field practice of the past. This is difficult because facilities, technical and maintenance staff in the vineyard, agricultural aspects and the wine cellar are unavailable in a campus context. France and Germany have retained the practical training part, albeit because there are not so many training centres. It is true that, thanks to the Erasmus project or internships in the wine cellar, these practical gaps can be filled. I believe that it is very important that high level training should involve experience abroad to learn foreign languages well and gain direct experience in the wine cellar."

What kind of people study oenology today? Do they all come from wine-growing companies?
“In the past, there were many more students who were children of wine-growers or owners of companies and wine cellars. Today, the world of wine exerts great appeal and there is a substantial balance. 50% of students have a background in the wine world and 50% have no direct link with vineyards and, paradoxically, they are often the best students."

The CAP 2021-2027 reform, in force since 2023, (progressively) introduces the so-called Third Pillar on social conditionality. Do you think that wine-growing, that involves so many seasonal workers, will have to change its flexible approach towards seasonal work to avoid losing EU subsidies?
“There may be differences within the EU but there is actually another problem - the shortage of no manpower. Why? I am convinced that respect for workers must be very high otherwise there is the risk of an ever-worsening shortage of manpower. Alongside essential respect for workers, training will be the other topic we must explore, because people who work in vineyards must be highly specialized. From pruning to harvesting, there is no room for improvisation."

Wine is under attack in health terms with the risk that labels in the future may have misleading nutritional information. What do you think?
“These are completely misleading indications and I will explain why. The most important information that must appear on wine labels is already there: it is ethyl alcohol and has been mentioned for years. Tell me: do you think wines are chosen on the basis of calorie intake? An indication of this kind place a bottle of Romanée Conti on the same level as any other wine because they have exactly the same calories. Yet I certain do not think that wine is chosen on the basis of these assumptions and that emotional impact counts for nothing.
We have reached a paradox: some producers abroad indicate on their labels 'no cholesterol', 'no fatty acids', 'zero triglycerides' and 'zero salt'. This takes advantage of saying things that all people are concerned about but omits alcohol. This is what the current debate is all about: it is misleading to report nutritional values applied to alcoholic beverages. Quite the opposite: we should always remember that there no ingredients are used to make wine, the only ingredient are bunches of grapes. And nothing else. OIV has clearly classified additives for many years, distinguishing them from adjuvants. The only exogenous element that remains is SO2, which is already indicated on the label."