Friday 9 January 2015

Indigenous grapes from Italy

Ian D'Agata's Native Wine Grapes of Italy
Italy probably has more native grape varieties than any other country. Ian D’Agata documented over 500 in his book ‘Native Wine Grapes of Italy’ and Jancis Robinson listed 377 in her latest book ‘Wine Grapes’. In reality, there are probably more. This is a treasure trove for winemakers.

However, beginning around the 1970s, wineries from Tuscany started releasing wines blended with or made 100% from international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. These fleshier wines, contrasting with the leaner and more subtle local wines made from Sangiovese and Canaiolo, proved to be a hit in the export markets, notably the US, thus leading to many more Tuscan wineries, big and small, planting at least some international varieties over the past 30 years.

My recent visit to Chianti, it seems, revealed a reversal of the trend.

Poggiotondo, with abundant seashells in the soil (foreground) 
Alberto Antonini, owner of Poggiotondo in Cerreto Guidi between Florence and Pisa, and a consultant to wineries in both North and South America, Italy and South Africa, told me that they planted international grapes in the 70s because it was fashionable, and that wineries then needed to have international grapes in order to be treated seriously. However, he realised that these varieties do not really match the terroir, and he is now gradually reducing the plantings. He still makes Marmoreccia Syrah, a 100% Syrah but he is putting his focus back onto the indigenous varieties (albeit not just Tuscan ones). His Poggiotondo Bianco is a blend of Vermentino, Malvasia (both from Tuscany) and Ansonica (aka Inzolia from Sicily), while his reds now feature more Sangiovese and less Merlot and Syrah in the blends.

44th Expo del Chianti Classico
Alberto’s remarks were echoed, somewhat surprisingly, by at least some 20 producers out of 55 at the 44th Expo del Chianti Classico, an annual wine festival held in Greve in Chianti that I visited two days later. Most of these producers are from the new generation of winemakers who practise organic or sustainable farming. They believe that by taking better care of the vines, controlling the yield and sometimes even using different clones they can make better Sangiovese and Canaiolo, expressive of Chianti’s terroir, without the aid of international grapes.

Elsewhere in Italy we can also see more emphasis on local grapes. Leading winemakers in Etna are making outstanding Nerello Mascalese and Carricante, while Walter Massa leads the way in reviving Timorasso in Piedmont. Indeed Ian D’Agata, Scientific Director of the Vinitaly International Academy, was conducting seminars on Piedmont’s indigenous grapes at the 2014 Hong Kong International Wine & Spirits Fair, introducing Grignolino, a pale red, low alcohol wine with zesty acidity and herbal, floral notes, and Brachetto d’Acqui, a sweet, slightly sparkling red, to the largely Asian audience.

Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay may be noble, but I think the world has more than enough of them. Italy has the fortune of having probably the most varieties of indigenous grapes that would probably not thrive outside their native country. Wine lovers are lucky that Italian winemakers are rediscovering them rather than abandoning them. The wine world would be a lot duller without them.

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