When was the last time you tasted these Native wines of Italy: Cjanorie, Doux d’Henry, Vitovska or Galioppo (no, not that Gaglioppo)? While this isn’t a new book–books should be reviewed in terms of the evergreen possibility they present. Evergreen meaning it is not just a book of limited use or limited time to read but a long time to read. I looked at numerous book reviews of this book and I wasn’t satisfied as this book deserved a NY Review of Books style book review. I wanted to give a fuller view of this book.
I have long been fond of Italian wines and this nation’s wine grapes have captured my imagination along with one of my favourite cuisines. When I was creating a taxonomy of wine grapes I realised there was a need to have more information on wine grapes of Italy in one taxonomy. The wine grapes of Italy is a consequence of history, culture and trade. When I compared say other well-known wine countries nothing quite matched the same number of wine grapes that Italy has. France has at least 3,200 wine grapes and keep in mind that many of these are human created. Italy was in the opposite camp where many of the wine grapes nature created. Italy has at least 2,000 native grapes of which 400 are commercially produced wines.
I was in the White Wines of Italy session led by Italian wine expert Ian D’Agata and Laura DePasquale MS at TEXSOM at Las Colinas, Texas in August (2018). I had downloaded Ian’s book Native Wine Grapes of Italy and began to read just prior to arriving in Texas. I was very excited to attend this session. I had never really had a master class in Italian white wines and so it was fitting into the classes I ordered prior to arriving at TEXSOM (and was glad this masterclass was still available). Even if I could not get this masterclass I would have been missing so much.
Ian and Laura were perfectly paired and gave an excellent class in this subject matter. Ian’s humour was evident; he was candid about his thoughts on the many wine native wine grapes of Italy and he sounded like his book. The book is a treasury of knowledge and truly a great canon on Italian native wine grapes—the complexity is astonishing and he handles the subject expertly. He leans both on genetic identification, as well as ampelography. Ian D’Agata who family originates from Sicily is Canadian Italian and is fluent, of course, in English and Italian.He holds several wine positions: Director, Indigena Festival; Director, Italian International Indigena Center for Wine & Food Studies. Creative Director, Collisioni Wine & Food Project and Senior Editor, Vinous.
I have read many books on wine and this is wholly satisfying; a thicket of exquisite detail and Ian does his best to steer to clarity and to shine on the virtues about wine. He leans on scientific data to understand what is truly an identified variety. He works tirelessly in this book to clarify and he pushes back on scientific data if there is a conflict in information. While Ian clarifies his subject matter he steers clear of the undecided and will not under any uncertain terms decide on that which cannot be decided right now (i.e. grape parentage, etc.).
What is an exceptional call out is how native Italian wine grapes have survived the many interventions where governments have decided what was right for Italy (as native wine grapes were not always the selected wine grapes). The EU while promoting European wines has also meddled in what can be planted or continued to be grown. The meddling has probably included ceasing cultivars based on low productivity or other market criteria. While there is a tension point–that many wine grapes have survived in spite of EU or Italian requirements of permissible wine grapes. D’Agata points out in his book and in his master class that Italy’s Nonne (grandmothers) have been extremely important in preserving native grapes that we have today. We also have to thank the vineyard owners who kept that unknown 1/2 hectare of wine grapes going–not knowing exactly what it is but for the sheer sake of liking it. Estate owners who are very important to highlighting great grapes like Schioppettino or Timorasso or other wine grapes who felt compelled to keep farming grapes they felt special and in need of continuation.
Highlighting Schioppettino with only thirty producers of this storied and very old wine grape (dating to 1282) was nearly lost and yet for one family the Rappuzi family and their Ronchi di Ciallo estate they began saving this variety mid last century. I luckily happened on a Ronchi di Ciallo tasting at TEXSOM – I tasted ’83, ’93, ’00 and ’11 – it is ‘rare as rubies’ to just find a current release Schioppettino in San Francisco let alone to taste nicely aged Schioppettino. The tasting showcased how this variety can age so beautifully and hauntingly. And it was my moment of truly appreciation of this wine grape surviving because of one’s family belief in this grape.
Native Grapes of Italy is like a gorgeous meal at Per Se, Osteria Francescana, El Celler de Can Roca or other fine restaurants; it is not to be just food to be consumed but to be savored, pondered and marveled This book gives a thrilling ride into the many native grapes of Italy that no other text can do. It takes a lot for me to be dazzled by a read–I was hooked from beginning to end. Very, very few wines book I have ever read have had enough meat, enough information or a mastery of subject matter to feel satisfied by a reading. I can think of a book of my beloved Champagne that starts off well and ends… well… rushed and uncertain. This books from beginning to end is well balanced.
Native wine grapes is composed of the subject in the following manner:
First section he covers:
- Ampelology: The Art and Science of Grape Variety Identification
- The Origin of Viticulture and a Brief History of Italy’s Grape Varieties
He’ll talk about clones, biotypes and a general and up-to-date history and state of native Italian wine grapes. Ampelology is the science of vine description and classification and should not be confused with Ampelography a focus of wine grape shape, clustering and vine leafs. The Ampelography’s focus is via biochemical methods e.g. Isoenzymatic analysis and biomolecular methodologies such as DNA sequencing.
There are so many aspects that I could nearly write this review as a book as large on Ian’s subject matter because of it’s density and comprehensiveness/exhaustiveness.
The current Italian native wine grapes would not be as rich today if it were based on what government officials would have wanted. D’Agata is not afraid to point out fault in policy or policymakers. His tone is of honesty and telling his story with a full spirit of veritas.
We are richer because wine grapes and those people growing the grapes nodded slightly to requirement but continued to grow the wine grapes they believe in regardless interventions. We need grapes that thrive in specific regions as there is not a universal grape that does well everywhere.
Ian paints a picture of how important it is to identify grapes and identify them correctly. If a wine grape goes through a DNA analysis but the core data is not correct the cycle of mis-identifcation starts and confounds things later. Ian describes that there is a whole history of mis-identification and perhaps it can be a nursery doesn’t keep good records or even test what it has and perpetuates mis-identification.
The other very painful nature of wine grapes is not just the names of the grapes but the synonyms of grapes. The difficulty comes from synonyms and you can just imagine that in historical trading times would be potential for trading the wrong wine vine.
Synonyms for me are a testament of age. While not universal–the older and the more successful wine grape varieties have more synonyms. While a wine grape can be an old grape but it is rather un-compelling or unsuccessful and most likely such a grape would have fewer.
Clones & Biotypes
There is a genetic drift via cuttings when vines are transported and over time are seemingly have a genetic identity that seems to be exacting but has differences. However, as Ian points out there are changes that happen – as example Favorita and Pigato is a biotype of Vermentino. While these wine grapes are identical there is something unique in terms of the biotype should taste identical to Vermentino but they do not. If a wine grape is an old grape a genetic drift can be larger and more pronounced.
Not all Trebbiano’s are the same wine grape. Trebbiano Abruzzese is not Trebbiano Giallo and is not Trebbiano Modenese. And yet Trebbiano Abruzzese probably does have a familial link with Trebbiano Spoletino. Why the same name of Trebbiano? We are not certain. Perhaps it was a supposed relationship of wine grapes where there were none except colour and perhaps nose and palate characterization. For a casual drinker looking at a variety of wines each labeled with a different Trebbiano locality might someone assume they are the same grape but reared in a different place?
Standard native wine grapes and rare wine grapes
D’Agata talks about native wine grapes and delineates which are native and which is the core of this book; he doesn’t cover traditional wine grapes like Gewurztraminer, Carignano, Pinot Gris, or Grenache. He doesn’t cover international varieties and he doesn’t need to as we know what they are. In each entry of native or rare wine grapes he gives us a background and history of wine grape as well as wines he suggest to taste.
Ian D’Agata’s book is a foundational work on the native wine grapes of Italy that needed to be done for so long. Prior to this book there was only primary coverage of only the well-known grapes of Italy as opposed to all native wine grapes of Italy.
I walked away thinking of Italian wines as something that we all know about but there is a sense of newness or perhaps a rediscovery. While the rediscovery of wine grapes like Tazzelenghe, Schioppettino, Timorasso or Pallagrello Nero is exciting and I can only guess there is a Pallagrello Bianco of tomorrow (wine grapes that we know about but have a larger number of producers so we can taste those wines).
Even today we do live in a very different wine world that say 25-50 years ago. While wine grape cultivation has been happening for several millenia we are in a wine world where things are new or newer (appellations, regions, or revival of wine grape cultivars).
Ian’s work is a thicket of wine grape knowledge and history. It is full of clones and a very good coverage of DNA analysis and microsatellites and other identifying characteristics. The read is dense and yet there is plenty of humour and modesty that comes through. This material makes it a read for anyone who wants a more comprehensive view of Italian wine grapes. Certainly to un-cross the many wires that is the complexity of the native wine grape of Italy.
I give this book a high recommendation to read.
James/James the Wine Guy
Demystifying Wine…One Bottle at a Time from all wine regions around the world.
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