It is a cold and blustery January morning in New York City’s Soho neighborhood. The January sky hangs low and gray as the wind tosses bits of paper and other flotsam along the gutters. A crowd has gathered inside the Spring Studios. Then a man says, “There are more grapes in Italy than anywhere else.”
Okay, despite the gray, wintry setting, we are clearly not in a film noir. In fact, we’re at Vino 2017, a celebration of Italian Wine Week sponsored by the Italian Trade Commission and Vinitaly International Academy. The voice we just heard came from Italian wine expert David Lynch during his opening remarks at the early morning introductory round table discussion. As it turns out, that abundance of Italian grapes he mentioned is going to be a hot topic of discussion at Vino 2017.
Stevie Kim, Managing Director of Vinitaly International, is another voice emphasizing the country’s wealth of different grapes. “Italy has 550 indigenous grape varieties and 175,000 wine producers--which is one reason Italian wine is so complicated,” she tells us. By contrast, she adds, the French make 80% of their wine with 15 different grapes.
You can probably name a good many of those French grapes yourself, but how many Italian grape varieties can you come up with? Once you’ve rattled off Barbera, Pinot Grigio, Sangiovese and the other usual suspects, if you’re really, really into Italian wines you may even be able to mention some of the more esoteric grapes such as Schioppettino, Nosiola, and Timorasso. But at Ian D’Agato’s Vino 2017 seminar, “Rare Grapes and Wines of Italy,” we were introduced to a couple of grape varieties that I’m pretty sure were unknown to even the most knowledgeable sommeliers, wine educators, writers, and bloggers in the room.
Who among us, for example, has ever heard of Roussin de Morgex, let alone tasted it? Well, as it turns out, pretty much no one has since this was the first time Roussin de Morgex had ever been tasted outside of Italy. It also turns out that D’Agata himself is responsible for discovering the long lost grape.
With his round, somewhat beatific face and infectious giggle, Ian D’Agata is an impressively multifaceted man. A physician and a wine writer, he is the senior editor of Vinous, and the scientific director of the Vinitaly International Academy. He is also deeply devoted to discovering and reclaiming grapes that have been long neglected or forgotten altogether. Roussin de Morgex is one of those grapes.
In his important book, Native Wine Grapes of Italy (University of California Press), D’Agata describes the day he first encountered Roussin. “In the summer of 2003, while walking mile high vineyards in the Val d’Aosta…I came across a few scattered vines of Roussin de Morgex, a red grape traditional to the high alpine areas,” he writes. “It is found nowhere else in Italy, and to the best of my knowledge, nobody had made wine from it in commercially significant volumes for a century at least.” D’Agata had no luck convincing the Cave du Vin Blanc, the local co-op winery, to vinify the grape but, as he writes, “You can’t keep a good idea down.”
The next time he floated the idea was when Nicola Del Negro came on the scene as the Cave du Vin Blanc’s new director, and this time D’Agata found a kindred spirit as Del Negro threw himself enthusiastically into the project. After the first “difficult” vintage (2012), the team decided to make a sparkling wine out of this highly acidic, very pale red grape, and this was the wine--Cave Mont Blanc Roussin de Morgex Spumante Brut 2014--that D’Agata brought to New York to be tasted at Vino 2017.
Of the three rare wines we sampled that morning the Roussin struck me as the most interesting (the other two were Prié Blanc, another Cave Mont Blanc sparkler, and a Veneto wine made from Recantina). Pale grayish-pink, quite fragrant and very tart, the Roussin’s crisp minerality made me suddenly wish I had a few raw oysters to slurp down with it. D’Agata himself did not seem to be dreaming of bivalves at 10:30 in the morning, however. Having swirled and sipped, he looked up from his glass. “It’s not the second coming of Krug or Cristal,” he said with a quick bark of mirth. “But it’s fun, and it’s interesting.”
In addition to the thrill and privilege of tasting wine made from a long forgotten grape, there are other serious reasons to support the preservation of native grapes in Italy and elsewhere. While the world has been blessed with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of grape varieties, only twenty or so are commonly used for winemaking. Not only does this monoculture seriously limit our vinous experiences, but the lack of biodiversity has left grape cultivars susceptible to a host of continually evolving pathogens.
To combat this problem, many agencies are dedicated to discovering and/or preserving indigenous grape species. Universities and research institutions across the globe are leading the way through genetics and field-testing to help save, or even bring back forgotten varieties. The world’s largest conservator of grapevine genetic material is probably the INRA (the French National Institute for Agricultural Research). Other institutions, such as UC Davis, are also at the forefront of preserving various species (see both the National Grape Registry Program and the National Clonal Germplasm Repository at UC Davis). In Spain, the Torres family (in collaboration with INRA) is working to preserve rare Spanish grape varieties. In Lebanon and Israel, efforts are being made to recover cultivars that may have been in existence in biblical times.
Of course consumers generally resist unfamiliar flavors and textures. We tend cling to our tried-and-true Chardonnay and Cabernet, but it would be better for all of us--vines, grapes and wine drinkers--if we broadened our tastes. One way to start down that path is to quiz a trusted sommelier about an unfamiliar wine on a restaurant list. I did that recently in a restaurant in Maryland when I tried two wines from the Librandi Estate in Calabria (Librandi has long been known for focusing on indigenous Calabrian grapes). The first was “Efeso”, a luscious dry white wine made from Mantonico, a grape that was first documented in 1601, and is grown almost exclusively in Calabria. The other wine was “Duca San Felice,” a beautiful and complex red made from Calbria’s Gaglioppo grape.
Were this a film noir it would probably end right about now with a shot of Humphrey Bogart enjoying a glass of “Efeso” as he recycles his final line from Casablanca: “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
But as we are actually at Vino 2017 we’ll let Ian D’Agato have the last word:
“Lost up high in the Alpine clouds for centuries, Roussin de Morgex may have long been relegated to an afterthought, but my hope is that this is one native variety that will be allowed to come in from the cold.”