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Rare vines to be safeguarded and recovered.

Lorenzo Biscontin

Italian variety of wine production that has no equal anywhere else in the world.

At the basis of this heterogeneity is the very large number of cultivated vines: in 2021, 545 were registered, the highest number compared to all other producing countries and almost all of them indigenous.

However, the high number does not automatically correspond to a high diffusion, given that in the last 150 years the composition of the Italian vineyard has changed profoundly. The first factor of change was the arrival of the American phylloxera at the end of the 1800s. This insect was introduced into Europe through the importation of infested cuttings (young vine plants) in the south of France in 1858 and the first reports in the north Italy dates to 1875. Within 25 years the infestation had already reached 900 municipalities and more than 350,000 ha and by 1931 practically all of Italy was infected (89 out of 92 provinces).

The only effective solution to this plague that attacks the roots of the vine leading to the drying out of the plant adopted at the time was the use of grafting the European vine vines onto a American rootstock which resists the attack of the insect.

This therefore led to the substantial reconstitution of the entire national vineyard just over a century ago, giving rise to the spread of the so-called “international varieties”, but it would be more correct to say French, such as merlot, cabernet, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and pinot grigio.

Subsequently, the agronomic choices based on productivity and the oenological choices based on the style sought in the wines further modified the composition of the Italian vineyard.

The result is that today the top 10 vines grown in Italy cover almost 50% of the total surface area.

Many of the 545 Italian vines are therefore rare or even at risk of extinction, while today more than ever they represent a fundamental asset for tackling the new great challenge faced by viticulture: climate change.

These rare vines are in fact the result of a centuries-old process of adaptation with the environment and are therefore the most resilient to the effects of global warming. It is therefore a wealth both from the point of view of genetic and socio-economic diversity, the protection and recovery of which attention and initiatives are being developed.

At the end of last year, the ONAV – National Organization of Wine Tasters published the volume Vitigni Rari d’Italia  (Rare Vines of Italy) which describes 100 rare vines from an ampelographic, i.e. the morphology of the plant, historical, oenological and social point of view .

 With current demand trends that see a growing interest in the variety, originality, identity, craftsmanship and sustainability of wines, rare vines have an interesting economic potential as demonstrated by the example of Timorasso which has passed in the space of twenty years from almost extinction (3 ha) to a DOC that today produces one million bottles.

Last May, the association GRASPO – Sustainable Ampelographic Research Group for the Preservation of Viticultural Originality and Biodiversity (as well as a word which in Venetian dialect indicates the bunch of grapes) published also a book entitled 100 Custodi per 100 Vitigni, la Biodiversità Viticola in Italia (100 Custodians for 100 Vineyards, Viticultural Biodiversity in Italy).

GRASPO, however, has taken a further step towards the recovery of these vines thanks to the agreement with the Colli Berici e Vicenza Wines AOP Consortium for the creation of a field-catalogue. This is an experimental vineyard of 500 m2 which will be planted in Lonigo during this summer and where around 20 ancient viticultural varieties will be planted, including Gambugliana, Leonicena, Pomella, Quaiara, Rossa Burgan, Denela and Saccola.

According to Giovanni Ponchia, Director of the Consortium, “In addition to the objective of safeguarding vines at very high risk of extinction, the catalog field aims to offer multi-year monitoring to understand which varieties are most suitable for current climate challenges“.

In a world where only 20 varieties contribute to 80% of the production on the international market – declares Giovanni Leopoldo Mancassola, the winemaker-caretaker who will follow the vineyard – our challenge is to rediscover ancient vines capable of giving life to contemporary wines and sustainable products that meet the tastes of young consumers“.

The wine sector is going through great changes from production to consumption, in renewing itself to face a new future it is also useful to look at the distant past.

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