A few posts back, I wrote about the fascinating morning visit to the old vineyard with its patriarchal vines that opened Feudi di San Gregorio’s seminar on old vines. That was followed by an invigorating lunch (including the best pasta e patate I’ve ever had) at Merena, Feudi di San Gregorio’s stylish restaurant. That was the fun part. After that, the day settled down to a series of very serious presentations of research results. Four prestigious grape scientists – Attilio Scienza, Osvaldo Failla, Luca Toninato, and Luigi Moio – talked very technically and in great detail about projects investigating those aged Aglianico vines, right down to the level of DNA and the molecular structures of their proteins, and the effects those characteristics had on the nature of their wines.
It was fascinating – for those of us who spent a large part of our lives in a university environment, where every third person talks like that all the time. For those of us who are journalists writing for a general population, it was arcane and difficult. (You can see why I sometimes feel decidedly schizophrenic.) The research involved, among many other things, hundreds of micro-vinifications, each of which was subjected to numerous tests and analyses, so that the amount of raw data to be collated, digested, and inferred from was truly formidable, and as yet is nowhere near its final conclusions.
Here is where the study, now entering its third year, stands at this point. The scientific team began by identifying three distinct biotypes of Aglianico, each named for its primary growing area: Aglianico di Taurasi, Aglianico del Taburno (both zones within Campania), and Aglianico del Vulture (in Basilicata). The study also embraces older vines of Fiano, Greco, and Piedirosso, but this year’s effort focused on Aglianico.
For me, one of the most fascinating findings was this, in Professor Scienza’s words: “The deep DNA fingerprinting we performed demonstrates the common genetic origin of the three biotypes, all of them originating from one single seed, through the vegetative multiplication of one only mother plant.” All the Aglianico in southern Italy – and that effectively means anywhere in the world now – proceeds from a single seed that produced the Aglianico Eve that mothered all the rest. The sheer fragility of that line of transmission staggers the mind: How many wonderful varieties, you have to wonder, haven’t survived and multiplied? How many are now hanging on by a metaphoric fingernail, reduced to a vine or two in some Italian or French or Spanish farmer’s garden?
A revelation like that explains more clearly than anything else the importance of a project like Feudi’s. Happily, this effort is getting attention in Italy. The academics involved are pushing to turn it into a nationwide project, and interest has been awakened in other important wine-producing areas – notably Piemonte. It’s been a commonplace for a long time that Italy is a treasure house of ancient grape varieties: Now steps may finally be taken to preserve those varieties, to create a DNA bank that will ensure their availability for future study and propagation.
To again cite Professor Scienza: survival and “longevity in grapevines is not accidental: it is the result of precise choices made by the farmer.” There were good reasons for growers to choose to preserve and propagate these vines, reasons that may still be relevant and important to us, and the effective ways they went about propagating them account for their survival. Of the latter, the investigating team found the most important was the simple avoidance of any cutting of wood more than two years old: That, they discovered, opened a wide doorway for disease. Also, forcing young plants to bear too much too soon diminished their subsequent vitality, left them susceptible to diseases, and shortened their natural life span dramatically.
One very interesting by-product of this investigation has been the rediscovery of the nearly vanished Campanian variety known as Sirica; Feudi di San Gregorio has propagated it and is now vinifying and bottling some. (Perhaps I will speak more of this wine in a later post). DNA analysis revealed that Sirica resulted from a natural crossing of Aglianico and Syrah. That’s fascinating in itself, but also for what it reveals, namely that there had to have been Syrah – now thought of as a French grape variety – in Campania hundreds of years ago. And natural crosses can occur only between closely related species, so this lends great strength to the party that believes Syrah itself is a descendant, perhaps a mutation, of Aglianico. Just to complete this slightly incestuous picture: The lab analysis also revealed, again in Scienza’s words, “a certain genetic affinity of Sirica with certain cultivars from the North-East of Italy such as Teroldego, Lagrein, and Refosco.” That in turn suggests a link between those varieties and the obviously ancient and truly patriarchal Aglianico.
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This is my last post for this year. I’m going to take a small break to recover from the holidays. Even Ubriaco’s liver needs time to rest. Next post will appear about mid-January. I wish you all a happy and prosperous 2011. (How’d that get here so soon?)