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   Share this article     Summary of Editorial column Wine Tasting 
  Editorial Issue 223, December 2022   
Territories and Wines in Search of IdentityTerritories and Wines in Search of Identity  Contents 
Issue 222, November 2022 Follow DiWineTaste on Follow DiWineTaste on TwitterIssue 224, January 2023

Territories and Wines in Search of Identity


 From an enological and viticultural point of view, Italy holds a record impossible to achieve for any other country in the world. Italy, in fact, counts the largest number of native varieties of wine grapes, a record that has no equal elsewhere and with a consistent gap even on the country that occupies second place. According to the National Register of Wine Grape Varieties of Italy, there are 610 different registered grapes, both native and international. A considerable number, which – to be precise – could increase considerably in case the various existing clones of many varieties would be counted as well. An important heritage that undeniably places Italy at the top for diversity and ampelographic richness, testifying the long and consolidated winemaking history of this country. In the vineyards of every Italian region can be found, without any difficulty, several native grape vines, often attributable to small territories, such as municipalities. Moreover, in many cases, these varieties have such an “identity” that they are not present anywhere else, not only in the region, but throughout the whole country.


 

 An impressive heritage of viticultural biodiversity which, at least in theory, should guarantee an enormous advantage in enological terms. For the majority of the indigenous varieties, that's exactly the case. For others, however, this does not correspond to a clear advantage, at least in terms of the market and commercial competition. The fact of having a magnificent and rich heritage of autochthonous varieties, in fact, does not mean that all of them are impeccably extraordinary in enological or viticultural terms. On closer inspection, in fact, wines produced with some autochthonous varieties do not exactly correspond to important enological criteria, at least if we evaluate them with the modern market and consumers' expectations. In this regard, dozens of examples could be given, a very long list of cases, territories and wines which – evidently – do not achieve the desired success despite the commitment and tenacity of the producers in trying to keep a native grape alive as well as the related wine.

 Very often it is about operations having the purpose of resuscitating varieties sunk into oblivion for decades, rediscovered more or less by chance, and then brought back to life by extolling the extraordinary identity value of a territory. In these cases, which actually occur more and more often, I always wonder why a certain autochthonous variety has been forgotten for so long, despite its rediscovery always and inevitably promises the highest peaks of the enological Olympus. There must certainly be a reason and it cannot be only because of simple distraction or ominous and wretched fate. After all, if certain varieties have been neglected for decades, there have certainly been valid reasons which have pushed the winemakers of the past towards other varieties. The answer, in this case, is all too simple: the abandonment of a variety – and this does not apply to viticulture only – is justified both by the scarce productive results and by the difficulty of cultivation in relation to what is obtained.

 To be honest, it should be noted that many of the autochthonous Italian varieties have been sacrificed in the past decades in favor of the so-called “international” varieties which promised great wines and extremely profitable productions. They were even called ameliorative grapes because they were recognized as having an enological superiority. Many of the autochthonous varieties have been therefore uprooted from the vineyards of Italy – thereby consigning them to oblivion – to make room for those varieties which promised to replicate the enological glory of other countries, in particular France. For this reason, the vineyards of Italy have been cheerfully invaded by Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, just to mention the most famous examples. In other cases, and I am talking about an even more distant time, it was phylloxera that caused certain autochthonous varieties to disappear from the vineyards of Italy, certainly the most nefarious event that marked viticulture and winemaking in the 1900s. Also in that case, the vineyards decimated by the dreaded aphid, were repopulated with varieties, transformed in the meantime “resistant” and mainly of French origin.

 The rediscovery, or better to say, the re-evaluation of certain autochthonous varieties forgotten for decades, it is promptly turned into an event of affirmation of the identity and value of a territory, always supported by an alleged concept of high quality since it is a historical and traditional value of those lands. No offense to anyone, in my opinion “native” does not imply “excellent”. However, the message that they try to support – for evident and legitimate economic and market interests – is that autochthonous, better if forgotten for decades, always corresponds to the marvel of excellent wines, viticultural and enological miracles, magnificent traditions which, as such, are of the highest quality regardless. With a movement of fierce parochialism, because of the rediscovered identity and history of a territory, the usual and inevitable sequence of events punctually begin, claiming, often demanding, the immediate legal recognition of this rediscovered and essential enological quality. It usually begins a war to claim recognition as a Denominazione d'Origine Controllata (Denomination of Controlled Origin, DOC), sometimes also reaching the highest peak of the Italian system represented by the Denominazione d'Origine Controllata e Garantita (Denomination of Controlled and Guaranteed Origin, DOCG).

 I am not criticizing the rediscovery and re-evaluation of autochthonous varieties and territories: as I have already said, the ampelographic heritage of Italy is absolutely unique in the world and represents an unrepeatable wealth elsewhere. However, it is almost impossible for me not to think, except in cases of ominous disasters that decreed its oblivion, that abandoning one variety in favor of others was undeniably a very precise choice made by the vintners of the past. A choice which, evidently, was not determined by the fact they were “not so intelligent” or superficial in choosing the varieties they decided to cultivate in their vineyards. More simply, a trivial choice of convenience that ensured the best result with the least effort, both economic and agricultural. Varieties – and not only grapes – were abandoned simply because it was no longer convenient to cultivate them, probably not even from a qualitative and enological point of view. This is something that has always happened in agriculture and continues to happen: it is enough to simply consider, for example, the massive conversion of agricultural surfaces in favor of more profitable and favorable crops. Vine and grapes are no exception, of course.

 From a purely enological and sensorial point of view, these rediscoveries of proud identity do not always correspond to sensational and memorable results. Modern wine making techniques often help, and not a little, to contribute to the production of better wines, often with evident forcing, even at the cost of “creating” characters which in reality do not belong to those grapes. In other cases, however, modern enology succeeds to enhance some varieties, finally capable of expressing their identity, impossible to enhance with the techniques of the past. Of course, quality modern viticultural and agronomic practices also contribute to this and, without which, no grape and no wine would be able to achieve a significant result, despite the enological magic which can be performed in the winery. Sometimes – and I admit this may be because of my limits – I find in the glass wines of rediscovered and re-evaluated native varieties which, frankly, say nothing and with non-existent personalities. Wines which would go unnoticed in comparison with any other wine, overwhelmed by enological practices decidedly much bigger and more powerful than them, or insufficient and inadequate, if not wrong. It is, very likely, my fault, as if a wine is produced with a native variety, rediscovered and re-evaluated with great pomp, it must necessarily be sublime and of impeccable absolute quality. Without exception, of course.

Antonello Biancalana



   Share this article     Summary of Editorial column Wine Tasting 
  Editorial Issue 223, December 2022   
Territories and Wines in Search of IdentityTerritories and Wines in Search of Identity  Contents 
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