Nowhere else in the wine world are descriptions, reviews, and love or loathing of liquid so often set in the context of "modern vs. traditional" as in Italy. What does this paradigm of taste really mean and why is it used so often?
Simply put, a wine is modern, traditional, or a little of each based largely upon three things: 1) the use of indigenous/native varietals vs. the use of so-called international varietals (cab, merlot, syrah, chard, etc.); 2) the use, re-use, type and size of cooperage used for aging (what type of wood is the wine aged in, how big is the barrel, how long was it aged, was the barrel used before, was it toasted, etc.?) Generally, wines aged in French Oak barrique (small vessels = greater surface area), especially if it's a long time, used only once, and toasted are considered modern. In contrast, wine aged in larger vessels, made of less influential wood such as Slavonian Oak, that are used several times are generally considered traditional. A purist might suggest that traditional methods allow for the true expression of the fruit, as opposed to tasting wood or characteristics thereof, such as vanilla; and 3) vinicultural and/or viticultural practices (what practices are being employed during vineyard management and what practices are being employed after harvest and during maceration, fermentation, etc. that influence or expedite a wine's character or flavor profile?). This last reason is the most technical, the least referenced, and the most beyond my expertise.
Why is Italian wine often described and sold in the context of "modern vs. traditional?" Most importantly, it makes sense as a way of helping consumers understand the complicated world of Italian wine and where their palettes may fit into it. Do you like soft, round, and fruit forward wines or angular, slow to open, contemplative wines that are most appropriately consumed with food? Perhaps an over-simplification, but I have a dozen more questions just like that. Italy 's known varietals are greater in number than the rest of the world combined and its history of winemaking rivals any country or civilization in the world. Modernity, particularly regarding oenology, was late to hit Italy. As a result, Italian winemakers have had the opportunity to pick and choose which modern methodologies they wished to employ and to what degree. And we all know that, with possible exception of France and India, no other country's people so selectively and creatively employ and combine modernity with antiquity. Through their wine, Italian producers can express their personal philosophies and we in turn can share them with consumers. That is what is magical about Italian wine- it's simultaneously a living, changing agricultural product and a winemaker's story, culture, and philosophical expression. So- are you a modernist or a traditionalist?