Slow wine: a movement embedded in la dolce vita

As fast food took over the western world, Italy staged a revolution.


The film Eat, Pray, Love may not have us believing that Julia Roberts has ever had to undo the top button on her jeans, but it gets one thing right: the Italians’ devotion to spending hours and hours around the table. According to the OECD Better Life Index, Italy is second only to France in the amount of time they spend eating and drinking. Italians dedicate on average two hours and seven minutes a day to their meals, compared to just under an hour and twenty in the UK.

In the second half of the 20th century factory-produced, ultra-processed food boomed. The fast food revolution is often associated with the United States, but thinking back to the way my peers and I ate in the 90s and early 00s, the UK was no exception. Sugary breakfast cereals with little-to-no nutritional value, Dairylea Dunkers and the infamous Turkey Twizzlers which galvanised Jamie Oliver’s war on school canteens. And let’s not get started on Billy Bear ham. 

In the midst of the processed, plastic-wrapped Western way of eating, the Slow Food movement was born. It was founded by Carlo Petrini in reaction to the opening of the country’s first McDonalds in Rome in 1985. In 1986, Petrini named his non-profit Slow Food. Italians had always been eating this way, they just hadn’t put a label on it. Slow Food aimed to preserve traditional recipes and local ways of cooking, promote local, artisanal and organic produce, and to help support small-scale producers.

“Italians are really addicted to food and wine,” says Giulia Fusco, co-owner of Merumalia Winery in Frascati. “We change what we eat according to the season, that’s in our culture. Slow food and slow wine is a big movement in Italy, and we first got involved in the movement as consumers, because that’s how we eat.”

Photo: Merumalia Winery

Slow Wine, an offshoot of Slow Food, published their first guide in 2011. The guide took a different approach to those which had hitherto dominated the market. Instead of long lists of aromas to identify, their focus was on the way the wines had been made, the lands on which the grapes had been grown and who the farmers were that created them. 

Giulia’s parents bought Merumalia in the 80s after falling in love with the place, but it was a long time before they’d make their own wine. Wine lovers with no commercial experience of wine making, they hired a team to help them to take care of the vines that already existed, and sold their grapes to other wineries. Little by little, they learnt how to take care of the vines, and when Giulia’s father retired in 2012, he was ready to make his first organic wine, producing his first vintage in 2013. Just 11 years later, Merumalia has won numerous awards, including “top wine” for their GIOVA Greco IGP Lazio Bianco 2020 in the Slow Wine guidebook.

In the UK, the fast food generation experienced a lurch towards ‘clean’ eating in the mid-2010s. It sounded good on paper, and organic businesses and small-scale producers started to thrive, but aspects of the clean eating revolution made it just as worrying as the fast food trend. Many pioneers of clean eating claimed to have healed all kinds of ills, even those as serious as cancer, by changing their diet, and used their newfound platforms on social media to preach their regime. Ella Mills, née Woodward, author of Deliciously Ella (2015), sold more than 32,000 copies of her debut cookbook in its first week, making it the fastest selling cookbook since records began. It was full of plant-based recipes which she claimed had cured her postural tachycardia syndrome, a condition which causes digestive issues and extreme fatigue. My university housemates and I pored over them, pulverising sweet potatoes and kale, the food processor becoming our most invaluable kitchen gadget, and following recipes which were often extremely low in calories. Some, like Alice Liveing, formerly known as “Clean Eating Alice”, later publicly stated that their way of eating was disordered, and that “clean eating’ had left them underweight and malnourished. The shift had been too extreme, but organic food consumption continued to rise, and with it, organic and natural wines.

“I first came to Rome in 2009 to study as a sommelier, and natural wine really wasn’t a thing, or at least wasn’t an accepted term, like it is today,” says Maurizio Di Franco, owner of the VinoRoma Wine Studio & Social Club in Rome. “I started working for VinoRoma in 2011, and over the following 10 years we slowly made the shift to only using natural wines, from small producers.”

Photo: Vino Roma

VinoRoma, a wine tasting showroom and education centre just minutes from the Colosseum, runs wine courses and tastings for tourists and locals alike. For Di Franco, the sustainability aspect was important, of course, but he first became interested in natural wines by accident, purely because he preferred the taste.

“Natural wines have more of a sense of place about them,” says Di Franco. “You can taste the terroirs, and more interesting flavours. Sure, added sulfites can kill off the bad bacteria, but they can lead to wines that are much more similar to one another. Everything is in its proper place, but there’s not much to distinguish them from each other.”

The Slow Food movement is now active in more than 160 countries in the world, there are Slow Wine guides to the USA and China, and the Slow Wine Fair in its third year. This mindful, conscientious way of consuming, has gone global, but as Giulia Fusco says, it’s also about creating something that will last. 

“There have been vines in this part of Italy since Roman times,” he says. “After my father died, my sister and I took over the running of the winery together. Weather extremes are becoming more common, and after the excessive rain last spring followed by an extremely hot summer, we only bottled 15,000 bottles of wine—usually we bottle between 30,000 and 45,000 annually. It is worrying, because we want to build something that will last. We both have kids… this is a legacy that we want to pass down to them.”

Merumalia has accommodation on-site where visitors can stay among the vines. Giulia says there has been a positive reaction between tourists and the local slow food and wine scene. “Most of the people who come to stay with us are in their 20s to 40s. The younger generation are much more interested in genuine, local and organic products, and that’s really positive.”

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