Phylloxera, the louse that devastated vineyards worldwide in the late nineteenth century, also transformed viticulture. In its aftermath, vineyards were transformed. Grape varieties were variously lost, forgotten, discarded and rediscovered.
If any trend emerged, it was to forget about varietals that were perhaps more challenging to grow, or low yielding, or both, in favour of international grapes that were both easier to grow and sell.
This is precisely why a pocket of Italy like Friuli is famous for Merlot, and Trentino for Sauvignon Blanc. On the other hand, the wine lover is now familiar with Italian varietals Nebbiolo and Sangiovese; and Nero d’Avola is enjoying some attention.
Hong Kong-based winemaker Tersina Shieh, one of only 26 qualified Italian Wine Ambassadors worldwide, says that Sicily’s Mt Etna is “the up-and-coming region” and she thinks the up-and-coming grape is its native Nerello Mascalese. If the consumer is ready to embrace such grapes (helped by Shieh), then a bright future shines for many other very good native grapes. The powerful and savoury Teroldego of Trentino – and Schioppettino – represent good examples of this trend.
When Pierpaolo Rapuzzi, owner of Ronchi di Dialla, decided to focus on Schioppettino (his first release was in 1977), only a few thousand vines were left, he explains, and this grape was not on the list of “allowed” grapes. “So it was even against the law to plant it,” Rapuzzi says – until in 1975 when it finally became one of the authorised grapes. The Friuli estate was founded by Rapuzzi’s father in 1970. He had been working in the computer industry but was passionate about the region and its people and, on retirement, decided to go into agriculture. And so the project to work with some almost-lost grapes began. They estimate that no more than 50 varieties were saved from the 120 which had been grown in the region pre-phylloxera.
During the 1960s and 1970s “crisp whites were it” says Rapuzzi, and they decided to go against this trend, becoming the first producer to use barriques for white wine and to go beyond grapes like Pinot Grigio to concentrate on Ribolla Gialla. Even though 2014 was a difficult vintage, the Ronchi di Cialla Ribolla Gialla 2014 is a wine of great character and length, though it is not intended for ageing. It lives on its freshness and its floral nose is on the side of pretty but very dense – a long way indeed from a commercial Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc.
But it is the reds: Schioppettino, Refosco and the quite unique Pignolo which are their focus, and part of their project is to create red wines with great ageing ability. Rapuzzi says that to achieve fine tannins, Schioppettino can only be planted in very specific sites, and yield management is very important. He harvests late (it is the last grape he picks) when night temperatures are quite low, to retrain fragrance and bring complexity to the wine. His plantings are just 5 km from the Alps yet also close to the sea, so the growing conditions are quite special.
The 1983 Ronchi di Cialla Schioppettion is without great body or concentration but is just wondrous, admirably demonstrating how Rapuzzi is judging this grape’s ageing ability. The 1995 vintage was excellent, and wine from that year is still showing freshness with a satinate texture and tannins which still shyly say hello. His 2004, from a a cool vintage, a lively and savoury and perhaps the quintessential expression of the grape when in loving hands.
Refosco has wide plantings across Eastern Europe and is reasonably well documented compared with Schioppettino. Young wines may err on the side of rustic, lacking finesse, but the grape ages beautifully with mineral vibrancy. It probably does best in cooler vintages: The 1990 Ronchi di Cialla Refosco is lean, long and fresh, and recalls older Nebbiolo or even Pinot Noir.
Ronchi di Cialla, which producdes 100,000 bottles per year, is a monopole, the only other one being Sassacaia. Their vineyards are within a forest. A forest? “The trees absorb the CO2 created during fermentation,” Rapuzzi says, and indigenous varieties are well able to handle the moisture created by this leafy environment. (Friuli is already the Italian region with the highest rainfall so Cabernet Sauvignon, for example, could never do well there). “And,” Rapuzzi adds, “the animals and birds in the forest eat the insects, but not the grapes. Our only problem is deer, who like to eat shoots!”
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