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A drink with… Alessandro Masnaghetti

Known to many as Italy’s ‘map man’, Alessandro Masnaghetti started out as a wine taster before moving to cartography. He talks to Amy Wislocki about his career and approach to documenting different geographical areas.

Italy’s ‘map man’ has over the years helped wine-growers and wine lovers to understand the terroir of regions in Tuscany, Piedmont and beyond through his detailed mapping of appellations – the result of painstaking research. He has just published the third edition of his book on the MGAs of Barolo, available (€75) from enogea.it

‘I’m not sure where my passion for maps came from, but when I was a boy I dreamed about making a long road trip, and used to plot routes from Milan to Stockholm. A map is one of the best ways to establish order and give information in a fast and easy way – you can capture a hundred pages of a book on a single map.

‘I started out as a wine taster, and it required me to taste thousands of wines every year. Eventually I decided it was crazy. And felt the need to give readers something different. Now I give the information, and it’s up to you to choose the wine.

‘My experience as a taster has been fundamental. Sometimes people say “it’s only a map”. No. It’s not only a map. There is detailed commentary accompanying it. If you want to make a viticultural map, you need to understand viticulture and oenology. You can’t sit at home and do it all from a computer. You have to be on the ground. This is why I don’t cover the whole of Italy – it’s impossible.

‘When I started out in wine, I studied in Bordeaux, under Professor Denis Dubourdieu and others. I consider the region to be my second home. But when it comes to mapping, it’s so difficult to work there. The Bordeaux wineries are suspicious, and most don’t understand the power of mapping the area. Some people believe Bordeaux is years ahead of the world’s other wine regions, because of the beautiful new cellars springing up, and the glitzy image that the region projects, but it’s not true – they are dinosaurs. In contrast, working in California was a great and energising experience.

‘Wine producers are the same the world over. They all ask, “are you making a classification?” No, I’m not. I just want to show properties on a map. Then if you go to a vineyard with a producer and ask about soil types, they may tell you, “this is a very sandy soil”. Go to the same spot with another producer, and they’ll tell you something completely different.

‘To get to the correct answer, you have to read geological maps, take a scientific approach. People say cartography, and winemaking, is art, but it’s more science. Art is Michelangelo, Raphael… Yes I’m trying to make something beautiful, but that doesn’t mean I’m an artist.

‘The role of the cartographer and the journalist is to know a little about viticulture, vinification, geology and so on, in order to understand what you’re being told. The problem with journalists today is that they visit wineries, take notes, come home and write articles. That’s not journalism, that’s just transcribing. The true work of a journalist is to collect information and cross-check it, then give true, good information. Journalists shouldn’t be a producer’s megaphone – they need to apply a critical faculty.

‘You can’t approach different areas in the same way, describing Barolo or Chianti Classico as you would describe Burgundy, for instance. One size doesn’t fit all. In Piedmont, the norm used to be small family estates, started 50-60 years ago; big estates were the exception. In Tuscany, by contrast, bigger estates were the norm. Until the 1960s, the Ricasoli family owned two-thirds of the Gaiole commune, for instance.

‘When I decide on which regions to map, it isn’t driven by commercial considerations – you have to love the region. I’d like to complete Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, and I’d love to map Alto Adige but it’s so complex – it’s a lifetime’s work. I’d like to go back to Valpolicella, too.

‘Digital platforms are important for the future of appellations, but in my experience people are not yet ready for the digital revolution. People who love wine maps still prefer paper.

‘I’m a workaholic, but at 61 now I’m starting to question myself. Should I be spending more time on my bike, with my wife, with my family?

‘Every year I tell myself it will be the last year crazily driving around Italy. I have been planning a bike ride with my wife from Romagna to Venice for the last 10 years. I’d like to train people up, but there’s only so much time!’

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