Italian estates have traditionally played it safe by investing in Chardonnay and Merlot rather than risk it with native grapes. But home-grown varieties are fighting back, writes RICHARD BAUDAINS.
Here in italy it is a commonly held belief that the national football team is struggling because the invasion of foreign stars is denying opportunities to local players at top level. Club owners, the theory goes, would rather spend money on a famous foreign name than invest in nurturing home-grown talent. There are exact parallels in the wine industry. Traditional complementary varieties are disappearing from Chianti because estate owners prefer the instant results of Merlot to the risks and investment involved in developing a successful autochthonous blend. And who can blame them? It would take a lot of courage to choose a local variety over Chardonnay if you are planting a new vineyard in Sicily, or to exclude Cabernet from your plans if you are setting up in Bolgheri. What is at stake, however, is the loss of biodiversity and identity. To borrow a metaphor from Attilio Scienza (see box, p13), native grape varieties are like minority languages – they die out when they cease to be used.
It is not all doom and gloom, however, and in fact there are signs that we could be at the start of a new chapter for Italian wine. There has probably never been such a high awareness of local, native varieties, or so many success stories involving regional wines. The following examples show what Italy can do when it begins to get serious about its native grapes.
Fiano is southern Italy’s most interesting native white variety by some distance. It makes a typically steely, dry wine with a firm structure and delicate-but-complex aromas characterised by a distinctive note of toasted hazelnut. It is fresh and immediate but, like all thoroughbred whites, it also develops with bottle age.
The variety is planted widely across the southern peninsula, and is also present in places as far apart as the Marche and Sicily. It is native to Campania, where it appears as the principal grape in the reliable, if rarely exciting, DOC blends of Cilento and Sannio. Fiano shows its best on the high, volcanic slopes of Irpinia in the province of Avellino, where it originated and where it now enjoys DOCG status.
Yields can be irregular, but producers love its resilience. As Angelo Valentino, winemaker at Macchialupa, recounts: ‘It is a grape you can leave on the plant until it’s ripe, without worrying about the weather. In 2004, there was a lot of rain, which caused problems of dilution for other varieties, but we waited on the Fiano, and we got great fruit as a result.’
Its thick skins also make it suitable for late-harvested or even passito wines, and these styles are beginning to gain a following. Some producers are also starting to use oak, in a trade-off that works to the advantage of body, but at the expense of varietal aroma.
Until the mid-1990s, Mastroberardino’s Vignadora selection offered virtually the only opportunity to taste Fiano di Avellino at its classic best, but the current winemaking renaissance in Campania means that there is now an ample selection of top-quality Fiano in circulation. Raise a glass to that.
Colli di Lapio,
Fiano di Avellino 2004 ****
A nose of spring hedgerows, hazel and ripe pears; the palate starts off round and soft, and finishes long and dry; a fresh and appetising taste, with a great underlying structure. Up to 2008.
Luigi Maffini, Kratos IGT 2004 ****
A ripe-fruit nose with peach, apricot and pineapple jostling for attention at the front, and a touch of milky hazelnut in the background; a soft, juicy palate with a long, fresh finish to it. Up to 2007.
Macchialupa, Fiano di Avellino 2004 ****
Delicate fruit and a nutty character on the nose; lots of energy on the palate, with a broad structure and a long, dry finish; a little closed, but shows a lot of promise. Up to 2010.
Lagrein has been recorded in the Alto Adige since the 16th century. Until fairly recently, over half the annual production went into a rosé called Lagrein Kretzer, but demand for reds in the late 1990s put the focus on the dark ‘Dunkel’ or ‘Scuro’ version, which has since become the flagship wine of the region.
Modern red Lagrein is the product of reductions in yields and a rethink of vinification. Urban Piccolruaz, from the Laimburg research station, sums up the winemaking process in four steps: ‘A maximum 6–7 days soak at 30?C; delicate pumping over of the cap; immediate malolactic and straight into barriques.’
Provided you start out with fully ripe fruit, the result is a wine with a purple-ruby colour, bags of aroma and a luxurious texture. Ripeness is the key. Being a late variety in a northern region, Lagrein is vintage sensitive. It is also picky about soils. Urban von Klebelsberg, from the Abbazia di Novacella, explains: ‘Lagrein needs the opposite conditions to most premium varieties. It prefers flat sites to hillsides, and likes deep, coarse, alluvial soils and infernal heat.’
The centre of production is just outside Bolzano, at a place called Gries, where the tiny, walled vineyards are under siege from urban sprawl. Planting to meet the demand for the variety is going on in various sites in the Adige valley, but sticklers for terroir will want to look for the ‘Grieser’ mention on the label. Entry-level wines can be rather dull and, to get the full Lagrein experience, it pays to trade up into the Riserva category.
Muri-Gries, Riserva Abtei Muri, Lagrein, Alto Adige 2001 *****
A distinct nose of wild berries, with hummus undertones; fine-grained tannins, a firm structure and a subtle mineral finish. Get your hands on a bottle now. Up to 2010.
n Josephus Mayr, Unterganznerhof, Lagrein Riserva, Alto Adige 2001 ****
The Unterganznerhof has a spicy fruit nose with a touch of inkiness; it’s long,
dry and juicy on the palate, and slightly light on the extract, but boasts fine tannins. Up to 2010.
Produttori Santa Maddalena, Lagrein Riserva Taber,
Alto Adige 2000 ***
A well-made example of the modern style of Lagrein, the Produttori Santa Maddalena has chocolatey oak in with the fruit, and soft tannins.
Up to 2008.
Ribolla Gialla does not have the aromas of a Sauvignon, the fruit of a Chardonnay, nor the body of a Tocai. Traditionally defined as a blending variety, for years it was excluded from the DOC of its native Collio and considered a commercial non-starter. This view is changing, however. Interest in native varieties and the swing towards easier-to-drink styles have led to a demand that is persuading producers that this variety has a future.
Much of the credit for the Ribolla revival belongs to Collio growers Josko Gravner and Stanko Radikon, and the Bensa brothers of La Castellada. They showed that, by treating Ribolla like a top premium variety, you could get a top premium wine. They also taught the region that Ribolla will age well in oak.
However, its appeal remains in what producer Marko Primosic calls its ‘honest drinkability’. It is a late-ripening variety that is sensitive to site. ‘If you make a mistake about where you plant it, you might just as well grub it up,’ says Ivana Adami, of the Ronco delle Betulle. The fact that it only does well on the premium slopes of the Collio and Colli Orientali means that a dramatic increase of production in the future is unlikely.
Primosic Gmajne, Ribolla Gialla Collio 2002 ****
Oak-matured Ribolla from Oslavia; a complex nose with fern and moss, and a hint of vanilla; a balanced palate with citrus. Up to 2008.
Ronco delle Betulle, Ribolla Gialla Colli Orientali Rosazzo 2004 ****
Opens with candied fruit and a touch of vanilla; develops fresh and citrussy on the nose; excellent structure and length, with a broad, dry finish; will open up with time. Up to 2009.
Vinai dell’Abbate Colli Orientali Ribolla Gialla 2004 ****
A classic example of the unoaked style from Abbazia di Rosazzo vineyards; light and dry, with aromas of hedgerows, apple and lemon peel. Up to 2007.
Sangiovese di Romagna
Romagna has not always enjoyed huge prestige as a wine region. Claudio Fiore, son of the Tuscan-based winemaker Vittorio, says that his decision to settle in Romagna was greeted with a mixture of derision by fellow winemakers.
That was in 2000. Today, Romagna’s native red variety is the most improved, and one of the most interesting, sources of Sangiovese in the country. Riserva styles are beefy and full bodied (even excessively so in some cases) while, one step down the DOC scale, ‘Superiore’ wines make supple, everyday drinking. Both categories represent good value for money, which is a good reason in itself to seek them out.
Another is that the wines generally give you straight, unblended Sangiovese character. Although the DOC allows the use of complementary (in this context, read international) grapes, the majority of top producers remain faithful to the monovarietal tradition. Sangiovese di Romagna is a wine, not a grape variety. There are bio-types that are typical to the region, but Tuscan clones are also widely used. The choice of clone in itself is probably not a determining factor.
As Cristina Geminiani, President of the Convito di Romagna producers’ association, stresses, what has really marked the break with the past is the new approach to vineyard management, which gets full ripeness out of the late- harvested Sangiovese, and allows producers to make wines of a richness unimaginable in the past in Romagna.
Benchmark Sangiovese di Romagna
Stefano Ferrucci, Domus Caia Riserva, Sangiovese di Romagna 2001 *****
A distinctive dark colour and a full, intense, wild-berry nose; a great fruit impact and volume on the palate, with a velvety, tannic finish. 2005–2010.
Castelluccio, Ronco delle Ginestre 2002 ****
Bags of colour; slightly closed-up fruit on the nose; tightly-packed tannins and a long finish. Up to 2012.
Tre Monti, Thea, Sangiovese di Romagna 2001 ****
Cherry brandy, bay leaf and mushroom on the nose. Up to 2007.
Uva di Troia
Legend has it that Diomedes brought this enigmatic grape to Italy following the sack of Troy. A more prosaic theory is that it is named after the village of Troia in the north of Puglia. It is the principal grape of the moderately well-known Castel del Monte Rosso, and contributes to various other local DOCs.
Highly regarded as a blending variety for its depth of colour – it is also known as Nero di Troia – until recently, it had never enjoyed particular celebrity in its own right. The first producers to cast it in the role of an upmarket monovarietal were the Rivera family from Andria. Other local wineries followed suit, and the last few years have seen a string of new releases featuring Uva. Some come out as IGTs, others as Castel del Monte DOC.
The most interesting examples are sourced from the high plateau known as Le Murge, where the cooler climate and ferrous-limestone soils accentuate the spicy floral aromas of the variety and impart a mineral note. Uva di Troia wines are big on extract, which makes them suited to oak ageing and possible long living. Improved winemaking has smoothed a lot of the rough edges, but producers admit there is still work to be done. They can be encouraged by a vote of confidence from Randall Grahm, the Californian champion of ‘ugly duckling’ varietals, who was so enthusiastic about his first encounter with Uva that he commissioned it for his Bonny Doon label.
Benchmark Uva di Troian D’Alfonso del Sordo,
Guado San Leo IGT 2003 ****
Subtle wild-berry fruit on the nose, and discreet oak; the firm, concentrated palate needs time. Up to 2010.
Rivera Puer Apuliae
Castel del Monte 2002 ****
A floral nose, with berries and pencil lead in the background. Up to 2010.
Research scientist, leading expert in the DNA of vitis vinifera, agronomist, charismatic educator and indefatigable champion of biodiversity, Attilio Scienza is one of the most influential figures in Italian wine today, and catalyst of the current revival of native varieties.
As head of faculty at the University of Milan, he coordinates projects aimed at identifying, studying and preserving native varieties. And bringing them back into production. In Sicily, for example, he is running a 10-year clonal-selection project that aims to create the platform of local varieties for the island’s production of the future. He is excited about the potential of some of the 70 uncatalogued bio-types that a joint project with Librandi in Calabria has thrown up. Scienza calculates that there are around 1,000 named grape varieties present in Italy. Only 360 of these are included in the National Grape Variety Register and, of these, only 200 are in production.
Working at the interface between research and the industry, Scienza is under no illusions that commercial success is the key to survival of varieties at risk of extinction. ‘Grape vines shouldn’t be kept in collections like animals in zoos,’ he says. ‘They have to get out and make wine again.’ The greatest obstacles to their revival? In his opinion, flying winemakers who vinify all grapes as if they were Chardonnay or Merlot, and writers who disregard any wine that does not fit into a standard varietal tasting.
The native-grape revival of the last 10 years has seen numerous varieties rescued from the brink of extinction. Some are destined to remain local curiosities, others look set for greater things. Oseleta is a Valpolicella variety with distinctive character retrieved from oblivion by Masi, and is now a fixture in the Amarone blend. Vitovska is a unique, delicately scented white variety that producers from the Carso DOC zone in Friuli have adopted as their signature wine. The variety everyone wants to plant in Friuli-Venezia Giulia is the monstrously impressive red Pignolo. It is going to be big. Lacrima di Morro d’Alba is an exotically scented red launched by Stefano Mancinelli, which is now finding its way onto numerous lists in the Marche. The intriguing Timorasso, from the Colli Tortonesi, has the potential to become Piemonte’s top native white varietal. Two reds of obscure origin but very distinctive character, Casavecchia and Palagrello Nero, are causing a stir in Campania, while, in Calabria, the consultancy team of Attilio Scienza (see separate box, p13) and Donato Lanati are making great wines for Librandi from the rediscovered Magliocco (red) and Mantonico (white) varieties.