Italy holds a unique position in the winemaking world thanks to the abundance of ancient grape varieties thriving in its soils. Several grapes grown today descend from vines cultivated during the Roman Empire, and there is evidence that grapes were being planted and made into wine in Italy as early as the Copper Age. Though many of Italy’s ancient grapes originally hail from Greece or the Middle East, after centuries of adaptation to Italian soil, they may now be considered natives.
Experts have identified 590 distinct native Italian grape varieties thus far. It is incredible to think that there are likely hundreds of uncatalogued varieties, many of which are known only to local farmers.
In Tuscany, for instance, there are over one hundred recognized grape varieties. However, a majority of the lesser-known vines are planted in such small quantities that many risk extinction. The region’s predominant grape, Sangiovese, is also one of its most ancient. The name comes from the Latin “sanguis Jovis” (blood of Jupiter), and researchers believe that Sangiovese descends from grapes planted by the Etruscans.
Even earlier evidence of grape cultivation has been found in Sardinia, where a trove of seeds was discovered dating to the Late Bronze Age, between 1,300-1,100 B.C. The seeds appear to be strains of Malvasia and Vernaccia, varieties that are still planted in the region today. This finding indicates that grape cultivation was developed autonomously by the ancient Nuragic people of Sardinia and was not the result of foreign influence.
A recent discovery in Sicily proves that grapes were being grown and made into wine in Italy long before the Bronze Age. A large storage jar, located in a cave on Mount Kronio, was found to contain the residue of a wine dating back 6,000 years. Though it is not certain which grape varieties were used, the implications of Copper Age vinification in Sicily have been of great interest for historians and scientists.
Sicily is also home to some truly ancient vineyards. It is possible to find centenarian Nerello Mascalese vines on the slopes of Mount Etna; thanks to their volcanic soils, many of these vineyards were inhospitable to the phylloxera louse and thus resilient to the pest, which ravaged vineyards across Europe in the 19th century.
The Campania region is also renowned for ancient grape varieties, showcased in its wines. Many white wines from Campania derive from grapes that were popular during the Roman Empire, such as Fiano and Falanghina, while Greco grapes, as the name suggests, trace their origins to ancient Greece. As for the region’s red wine grapes, Aglianico, which produces the acclaimed Taurasi and Aglianico del Vulture, boasts some of the oldest living vines in Italy, including several planted over 150 years ago that survived the phylloxera epidemic.
Ancient grape varieties are not limited to Central and Southern Italy. The northern regions have been home for centuries to a number of important vines, many of which have played a major role in Italy’s viticultural history. For instance, Garganega, the grape used to produce Veneto’s renowned Soave wine, is believed to be one of the parents of several white grape varieties grown throughout Italy, including Trebbiano Toscano, Malvasia Bianca di Candia, Albana and Catarratto Bianco.
Piedmont’s acclaimed vines have deeply rooted histories as well. There are records of Nebbiolo dating to the early 14th century when Pietro di Crescenzi described the grape in one of the first treatises on agriculture. In the same work, Crescenzi highlights another varietal from Piedmont, an “exquisite white wine from the Tortona area,” which experts believe was Timorasso. This interesting grape nearly faded into obscurity until it was resurrected by a Piedmontese winemaker in the 1980s.
The Valle d’Aosta region has also successfully revived several lost vines, including the Vuillermin grape, which had reached the brink of extinction in the late 1980s. It is impossible to know how many other indigenous, local varieties lie hidden throughout the vineyards of Valle d’Aosta, or the entire Italian Peninsula for that matter.
As researchers continue the important work of uncovering and safeguarding these rare, native grapes, wine enthusiasts can enjoy seemingly new wines that are, in fact, of ancient origin.
DOES VINE AGE MATTER?
You may occasionally come across the terms “vecchie viti” or “vigne vecchie,” both expressions signifying “old-vine wine,” on an Italian wine label. Though there is no standard for what constitutes an “old vine,” in Italy, this term often denotes vines that are over fifty years old. Whether old-vine wines are superior to the wines produced from younger vines is open to debate, but ancient vines do possess certain characteristics worth noting. When considering the issue of vine age, viticulturalists (specialists in the management and production of vineyards) have found that older plants are generally more resilient. Because their roots burrow deeper into the ground over time, they are able to access nutrients and water that cannot be reached by younger vines. Older vines are therefore more resistant to the extreme heat that is becoming more common in Italy, or to bouts of extreme cold.
Vines that are significantly more mature also produce fewer grapes and often benefit from less manipulation in the cellar than their younger counterparts. According to a producer from Campania whose estate has vines over 130 years old, older vines “give richer juice with greater depth and complexity,” thus requiring “less oak ageing to make a great wine with longevity and body.”
Though some grape varieties are known to produce the best fruit during their earliest years, many experts agree that for certain cultivars, healthy, older vines produce wines with “a level of concentration and character never achieved by younger vines.” We invite you to test this theory for yourself––look for bottles of “vecchie viti” or “vigne vecchie” wine and taste them alongside traditional examples of wine from the same grape to decide if ancient vines are more or less pleasing to your palate.
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