The Great Escape

It is rare today to find vines that have not been grafted to American rootstock to counter phylloxera, which destroyed so many of the world’s vines. Until recently, few people had any idea of how this had affected the wines’ flavours, but a few producers are now making wines from ungrafted vines and have discovered a taste of yesteryear, writes Kerin O’Keefe.

It is hard to believe that a nearly microscopic louse is responsible for obliterating age-old traditions of vine cultivation and wine production around the world. Yet phylloxera, a tiny insect which kills grape vines by attacking their roots, accomplished just that and continues to attack California and parts of the New World today.

Aptly named phylloxera vastatrix or ‘the devastator’ by 19th-century French scientists, the pest was unknowingly imported into Europe from America with live vines during the height of botanical imports from the New World. Destroying nearly 2.5 million ha (hectares) in France alone, phylloxera raged throughout Europe from the 1860s until the 1930s before being brought under control.

After much trial and error, it was discovered that the only effective solution was grafting the European vitis vinifera varietals onto resistant US rootstocks, a technique which still holds true today. While replanting grafted vines saved wine production from extinction in the Old World, experts and wine lovers have often wondered what wine was like before phylloxera. Thanks to tiny parcels of vineyards throughout Europe which were inexplicably unscathed by this voracious aphid – as well as a very few courageous producers who are risking all by planting ungrafted vines – it is still possible to get a taste of these wines from the past.

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Frescobaldi now in full control of Ornellaia

Tuscan producer Frescobaldi has bought the remaining 50% shares of Ornellaia from Constellation and now owns the elite Bolgheri estate outright.

Frescobaldi logoAs reported on decanter.com last December Frescobaldi had been eyeing a complete takeover since wine giant Constellation bought the Robert Mondavi Corporation. Mondavi had been partners with the Frescobaldi family in two Italian joint ventures, Luce della Vite and Ornellaia. Frescobaldi took control of Luce in early March of this year although Constellation was more reluctant to part with the higher-end Ornellaia, one of the jewels of the Italian wine scene, and whose wine, Masseto, is one of the most-sought after around the world.

Frescobaldi exercised the ‘option to buy clause’ in the original contract between the two companies which stated that if either party sold its share of the wine, the other would have the option to take full control.

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Italian and other producers turn back to large casks

Orders for traditional large wooden barrels are sharply increasing in Italy and abroad, as barrique imports fall dramatically, according major cooperage Garbellotto.

Reacting to consumer demand for less dominant oak flavours in wines, producers all over Italy are starting to use their small French barrels (‘barriques’) two or three times. Many are abandoning them altogether and turning back to traditional large barrels made from Slavonian wood.

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Barolo patriarch Bartolo Mascarello dies (by Paolo Tenti)

Italy’s Bartolo Mascarello – the patriarch of Barolo – died at his home in Barolo on Saturday at the age of 78.

A teenage partisan during the Second World War (he used to tell German wine lovers, ‘first you chased me, now you chase my wine’) he was dubbed ‘the Last of the Mohicans’ for his dogged refusal to let traditions die.

Deploring the shift from the traditional wooden botti to smaller, 225-litre barriques, he never accepted any method of making Barolo other than low yields, long maceration, big oak casks and minimum intervention in the cellar.

His dedication to the preservation of Barolo’s true character and above all its longevity, made him the patriarch of traditional Barolo and gained him an international cult following – with fans as diverse as the cellist and conductor Rostropovich, and the Queen of the Netherlands.

Mascarello spent most of his life tending four small vineyards in prime locations: Cannubi, San Lorenzo and Rué in Barolo, and Rocche in La Morra. He favoured the old-school practice of blending from those four plots, rejecting the modern style of single vineyard crus. He always argued, ‘We don’t even have a word for cru: we have to import it from France.’

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Italian wine culture in danger of outsiders and ‘vultures’: Tachis

Giacomo Tachis, the most celebrated Italian winemaker, has outlined a bleak future for corporate-owned Italian wines – and says those who inflate the price of the top wines are ‘vultures.’

At the Vini di Toscana 2004 awards ceremony held earlier this week in Florence, the legendary oenologist, who was honored with a lifetime achievement award for his pioneering work with Super Tuscans, surprised the audience with some outspoken observations.

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Pioneer Luigi Veronelli dies

Italy’s most celebrated wine and food critic Luigi Veronelli died at his home in Bergamo yesterday after a long illness. He was 78.

‘Gino’ Veronelli was among the first to celebrate the men and women who dedicated their lives to viticulture and agriculture. His pioneering guide to Italian wines, first published in 1959, set the standards for wine writing and wine guides around the world, and his television series on cooking and wine in the 1960s introduced millions of Italians to Italy’s regional specialities.

His advice on wine and viticulture was not only for consumers. According to Barolo and Barbaresco producer Bruno Giacosa, the critic also influenced Italy’s top wine producers.

‘Gino was all heart,’ Giacosa told decanter.com. ‘He was the first person to teach us that a great wine was born in the vineyards. He was the first to point out the absolute necessity of carefully selecting grapes in the vineyards, the importance of terroir, of realising the potential of one vineyard or cru over another.

‘He believed Italian wine could be brought to exceptional levels if we worked closely with the earth. Back in the 60s and 70s, no one thought like this. He truly was a pioneer.’

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Trend vs. Tradition. Italian wine styles under siege

A modern-day war is being waged in Italy’s most renowned and treasured wine regions.

Of course there are no real battlefields and no loss of life. Instead, this war is being fought in seemingly idillic vineyards and winery cellars up and down the peninsula as two schools of tought clash. In jeopardy in this conflict are native grape varieties, prized wines and years of winemaking tradition. Some obeservers even argue that those who admire and enjoy Italy’s unique wines could suffer.

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Nebbiolo is viognier cousin, conference hears

Nebbiolo, one of Italy’s most famous black grape varieties, is related to the aromatic viognier, DNA boffins have found.

Nebbiolo grapes
© Paolo Tenti | Grapes from old Nebbiolo vines in Barbaresco

The noble Piedmontese grape, which gives Barolo and Barbaresco their power and longevity, has been found to relate directly to another indigenous grape from Piedmont called freisa, which in turn is a cousin of viognier.

Genetic researchers Dr Anna Schneider from CNR of Turin and Dr José Vouillamoz of UC Davis and Istituto Agrario di San Michele all’Adige, released surprising preliminary findings from their research into nebbiolo’s DNA composition, at a conference in northern Italy at the weekend.

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Anti-Berlusconi label becomes collector’s item

A hand-painted Barolo label lampooning Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has become a collector’s item.

Bartolo Mascarello label: No Barrique No Berlusconi
Bartolo Mascarello label: No Barrique No Berlusconi

The label scandal which erupted in Italy during last year’s elections is continuing to draw wine aficionados to Piedmont in search of the rare bottles of ‘No Barrique, No Berlusconi’ Barolo.

Tourists and collectors are flocking into the area hoping to find bottles of the wine that caused at least one shop to be raided by the military for ‘displaying political propaganda in an unauthorised space’.

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