I recently attended a fascinating day-long seminar in Avellino, the heart of Taurasi country. The subject was old vines – everything about old vines: the ways they were cultivated; the character of the grapes they bear, as different from those of younger vines; the wines those grapes make; and how, in turn, those wines differ from the wines young vines produce.
Part of a project called (aptly) I Patriarchi, and sponsored by the Campanian winery Feudi di San Gregorio in collaboration with two major Italian universities, the event included a visit to a pre-phylloxera vineyard, presentations by some of Italy’s foremost grape scientists – Professors Scienza and Failla of Milan and Moio of Naples – and a comparative tasting of Aglianicos from 60-year-old vineyards in three different zones, Taurasi, Taburno, and Vulture. To say I learned a lot is understatement, as it also is to say I had a great time: This was an experience that appealed to the old scholar in me as much as to the wino.
It’s hard to say which was the best part. We seminarians (I’ve always liked that secularized usage for its ability to shock the pious) started the day – bright and cool, with high clouds scudding across a Mediterranean-blue sky – in the somewhat rain-sodden fields, tromping around in boots that Feudi thoughtfully provided. (That, by the way, indicates in its small way how thorough was the preparation for and organization of this event: My compliments to everyone involved.) That visit provided eye-opener number one: I was standing in the middle of pre-phylloxera vines in a zone where I hadn’t known any such existed.
It turns out that pockets of sandy soil – alluvial deposits from ancient, now-vanished rivers – lie here and there among southern Italy’s otherwise volcanic terroir. The phylloxera louse, America’s great gift to the Old World and the scourge of its vines, can’t survive in sandy soils. Ergo, small caches of ancient vines still survive on their own roots. In this particular Aglianico vineyard, the vines, gnarled and twisted to a fare-thee-well, were minimally 60 years old. To my (not particularly expert) eye, what I thought of as the parent vine looked even older. I refer to it as the parent vine because of its size and its central position in a vineyard planted in the antique manner, with vines trained high – eight to ten feet – and clinging to trees and large poles.
I’ve known for a long time that training vines to trees was one of the most ancient methods of vineyard management, but I’d never thought much about it. If I ever did, it was to dismiss it as primitive and probably inefficient vineyard management, the product of peasant ignorance and laziness. There’s nothing quite like the condescension of a modern know-it-all, is there? I couldn’t have been more wrong, and actually seeing an example of a properly cared for old-style vineyard made that clear at once.
First of all, the vineyard was very carefully planned, with the vines located about ten feet apart either at the corners of checkerboard squares or on a diagonal plan, in quincunxes. My parent vine was gripping a meticulously pollarded tree at the center of one quincunx, its lower limbs cut away decades ago, its middle limbs trimmed or trained to the four directions to support the vines, and its canopy held well above the growing grapevine. It was, Professor Scienza explained, a sort of combination of a high cordon speronata training system and a pergola.
That system worked beautifully for the needs of the people who invented it. The grapes were held high, still easy to harvest but well out of the reach of boar or deer or roving goats. They hung below their foliage, shaded by it from the intense southern sun and open to the drying mountain breezes – the latter the best insurance against any kind of mold or mildew. Thus situated, they could ripen slowly and thoroughly through the long growing season Aglianico requires. And underneath those high vines, there was ample room to cultivate other crops, of kinds that would feed both the farmers and the soil, thereby preventing famine, erosion, and soil depletion at the same time. So much for peasant ignorance and laziness. Realizing just how complex this seemingly artless system was, I was simultaneously humbled, stimulated, and ready for more information. What else was going on here that I didn’t know? or had all wrong?
Another post – probably not the next, but the one after that – will continue the saga of my enlightenment.