Italy's Native Wine Grape Terroirs

Italy's Native Wine Grape Terroirs

by Ian D'Agata

Hardcover(First Edition)

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A New York Times and Food & Wine Best Wine Book of 2019

Italy’s Native Wine Grape Terroirs is the definitive reference book on the myriad crus and the grand cru wine production areas of Italy’s native wine grapes. Ian D’Agata’s approach to discussing wine, both scientific and discursive, provides an easy-to-read, enjoyable guide to Italy’s best terroirs. Descriptions are enriched with geologic data, biotype and clonal information, producer anecdotes and interviews, and facts and figures compiled over fifteen years of research devoted to wine terroirs. In-depth analysis is provided for the terroirs that produce both the well-known wines (Barolo, Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino) and those not as well-known (Grignolino d’Asti, Friuli Colli Orientali Picolit, Ischia). Everyday wine lovers, beginners, and professionals alike will find this new book to be the perfect complement to D’Agata’s previous award-winning Native Wine Grapes of Italy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520290754
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 08/27/2019
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 392
Sales rank: 129,209
Product dimensions: 7.40(w) x 9.90(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Ian D’Agata ( is an award-winning author who has been writing about wine for almost thirty years. Senior Editor of Vinous and Creative Director of Collisioni’s Wine & Food project (Italy’s largest music, literature, wine, and food festival), he is also Director of the Indigena festival (devoted to Italy’s native grapes and wines) and Director of 3iC (an international wine and food study center in Barolo). In 2018, he was nominated to the prestigious Accademia della Vite e del Vino, Italy’s official association of viticulture and enology researchers, university professors, and educators.


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Understanding Terroir and Its Context in Italy


A look at the history of terroir reveals a legacy that stretches back into antiquity. In France, where the concept of terroir is held in the highest and purest esteem, it reaches almost artistic form in Burgundy and Alsace. In fact, no serious wine lover would ever discuss Burgundian or Alsatian wines without referring, at some point in the discussion, to climat or terroir. It would be unthinkable, in fact. The wines of those regions live not just through the (very) specific grape variety they are made with, but through the (very) specific sites where that variety is grown, sites whose names most wine lovers know by heart. Burgundy's Musigny, Chambertin, Romanée-Conti, Montrachet, and Corton-Charlemagne are music to a wine lover's ears; and much the same can be said about Alsace's Rangen, Schoenenbourg, Hengst, and Brand, for example.

There are many reasons why France developed the "cru" ideal that so permeates its wine fabric. The most important is that the country was united early. (The birthdate of France, one of the world's oldest countries, is open to debate: some report it to be A.D. 486, when the Germanic Frank King Clovis I conquered all of Gaul, establishing the Kingdom of France; others place the country's birthdate in the ninth century, with the end of the Carolingian Empire; and still others set France's birth in the eleventh century.) Being a united front made it easier for France to rule upon viticultural and winemaking matters in a far-reaching way, as is demonstrated by the well-known edict of July 31, 1395, signed by Philip the Bold (Philippe le Hardi). Most wine lovers know this as the decree that wiped out Gamay from Burgundy's Cote d'Or, but in fact the edict covered numerous other aspects relative to fine wine production. Among these were admonishments not to abandon the better vineyard sites (which implies that people were aware, already then, that some viticultural sites were better than others, and aware of which sites those were) and to curtail manure use in the vineyards, in an effort to avoid excessive fertilization and high yields detrimental to wine quality. Later on, having an emperor didn't hurt the French wine cause, either: it was thanks to Emperor Napoleon III that the famous Bordeaux classification of 1855 came to be. Created in honor of the 1855 Exposition Universelle de Paris, it harked back to similar classifications of Bordeaux wines that had been available decades before, so the concept of classifying wines by price and/or quality was already well engrained in the French mentality (so much so that Napoleon I's 1804 classification des vignes in Germany was the basis for the Prussian State's vineyard classification of 1868). In Burgundy, the Roman Catholic Church, and especially the Benedictine and Cistercian orders, played a role of paramount importance not just in guaranteeing wine quality but also in establishing the identity of specific crus. Not all experts agree on the exact extent of the monk's influence in creating a "philosophy of terroir" (Matthews 2015), but monks and nuns certainly had the time and manpower to study their terroirs well (Brajkovich 2017). In tending to their vineyards uninterruptedly for over one thousand years, they created some of France's most famous vineyards and wines. Clos de Vougeot provides a very interesting take on the Burgundian cru concept. Perhaps inaccurately, it is generally believed that the monks had subdivided Clos de Vougeot into thirds (the top, the middle, and the bottom of the hill) based on the quality of the wine made in each part. (Certainly, Clos de Vougeot's lowest-lying vines suffer from drainage problems.) In fact, the monks had subdivided the clos into roughly fifteen different climats (for example, de la Combotte and Devant-la-Maison); and in wanting to make the best possible wines, they proceeded to assemble some of them in — perish the thought! — Bordeaux-like fashion (Kramer 1990). In fact, according to Bazin (2012), the use of specific place-names in French wine emerged late. For example, up to the eighteenth century, wines were bottled and sold as generic "Burgundy wine," regardless of origin; but it sufficed to know that a wine came from a specific site or plot of vines for it to have more value than another. As early as 1855, Jean Lavalle (the author of Histoire et statistique de la vigne et des grands vins de la Côte d'Or, whose work helped create the first official ranking of Burgundy vineyards) distinguishes between specific place-names and classifies them according to wine quality; for example, he wrote that the wines of Mazis-Haut were better than those of MazisBas. (Note that examples of such written historical site-specific evaluations relative to Italian wine vineyards are practically nonexistent.) With the establishment of the Appellation d'Origine Controlée system and the enactment of the Premier Cru law of 1942, such place-names became even more famous and embedded in everyday life. That Burgundy's climats and terroirs were officially recognized in 2015 by their inclusion on UNESCO's World Heritage List only crystallizes their relevance further.

The history of terroir in Alsace isn't much different from Burgundy's. That statement might surprise some readers, given that Alsace's wines are very strongly linked to the grape variety's name being proudly displayed on the label. And yet in Alsace, specific cultivars have always been associated with specific sites. The Romans were known to have planted vines around Andlau, in what today are known as the Kastelberg and Moenchberg grand crus (Stevenson 1993); and it seems only logical to infer that the Romans, who most likely did not build the largest empire mankind has ever known by being idiots, planted vines there, and not somewhere else, for a reason. Wines from the Steinklotz, Mambourg, and Hengst were mentioned as early as the sixth, the eighth, and the ninth centuries, respectively. More specifically, Alsace grand crus such as the Zoztenberg and the Goldert have long been famous for their high-quality Sylvaner and Muscat wines. Much like in Burgundy, regional unity did much to promote the Alsace wine brand and its reputation: the name Alsace, or Alesia, as the region was known back then, was reportedly in use as of A.D. 610. By the ninth century there were already 119 recognized wine-producing villages of note in Alsace; by the fourteenth century, that number had climbed to 172. And much like in Burgundy, monks tended to the vines. (There were over three hundred abbeys located throughout Alsace by the fourteenth century.) Some were linked to very famous wines. For example, in 1291 the Dominican convent of Basel bought vineyards in the Rangen, still today one of Alsace's most hallowed sites; and the abbot of Murbach thought enough of the Hengst (another of Alsace's most famous grand crus) to buy vineyards there in the ninth century.

By contrast, Italy did not become a nation until 1861, and that late start in the country sweepstakes explains partly why a true culture of wine terroir failed to develop. Things weren't always so: for example, the importance of terroir was not lost on the ancient Romans. (Of course, you might find yourself thinking that ancient Rome and modern Italy have very little in common, but we won't go there.) The Romans named their grape varieties and wines in many different manners (D'Agata 2014a), and place of origin was perhaps the most important of those; but even in ancient Rome it took a while for the idea of associating wine with specific places and sites to jell. As late as 121 B.C., no specific appellation was given to the produce of different localities, and jars or amphorae were marked with the name of the ruling consul; in 121 B.C. that person was Lucius Opimius, and hence a wine from that year was known as vinum opimianum, or Opimian wine. (Apparently, wines from 121 B.C. were highly thought of, thanks to the vintage's especially favorable weather.) Once areas associated with higher-quality wines began to be recognized, commercial considerations led to an increased use of appellation names, or nomen loci (names of places). Falernum (Falernian),Pucinum, Mamertinum, and Vesbius were just some of the most sought-after wines in ancient Rome; however, these names indicated the wine's region of origin, not the precise site where they were made. For example, Pucinum was the wine made in the vast area of Aquilea, a city in today's Friuli–Venezia Giulia region; Vesbius was a wine made on the slopes of Vesuvius; Mamertinum, made near Messina in Sicily, was apparently one of Julius Caesar's favorite wines (Smith, Wayte, and Marindin 1890). The Romans also prized many wines made outside of the Italian borders; the production, import, and export of wine was so important in ancient Rome that the city boasted a wine market (forum vinarium) and a port (portus vinarius) entirely dedicated to wine-related activities (Dosi and Schnell 1992). Falernian, made in an area south of Rome on the border with modern-day Campania (the exact production area has been the subject of much academic debate), was not just one of the most famous wines of antiquity, but also one of the oldest examples of a wine with a clear-cut association with terroir. Falernian was divided into three quality levels: Caucinum, made from the grapes grown at the top of the hill (Caucinian Falernian, in English); Faustianum, from grapes grown on the middle slopes (Faustian Falernian; this was the most famous of the three, perhaps because these slopes belonged to Faustus, the son of the Roman consul, and later dictator, Sulla); and generic Falernum, from the vines growing at the base of the hill (the lowest quality of the three). Apparently, there were other ways by which to classify Falernian wines as well: Pliny the Elder distinguished three types: the rough (austerum), the sweet (dulce), and the thin (tenue); this being Italy, it will not surprise you to know that Galen recognized two types of Falernian only, the rough and the sweet; and that others wrote of yet another, called severum, a subtype of austerum.

With the fall of the Roman Empire, viticulture and winemaking were carried on in Italy as in the rest of Europe: mostly by monks and nuns who needed to make wine for the officiation of the Holy Mass. The monks allowed the local inhabitants to farm some of their landholdings, most often under a contractual agreement called the pastenadum; the farmer would plant and upkeep vines until they started bearing fruit, at which time the farmer had to turn over to the monastery a portion of the land or of his annual produce (generally ranging from one-seventh to one-tenth of the total amount). Another, much less popular, version of the pastenadum was known as the pastenadum ad partionem, in which the land planted to vines was divided in half between the two parties. However, because the parcels of land were invariably very small, and the poor farmers needed to stay on good terms with the church, the division rarely if ever took place as such (Leicht 1949). In general, it appears that the rental agreements were actually fairly favorable to the poor farmers; this is not surprising, for these agreements derived from the "level," a specific type of agrarian contract established in A.D. 368 by the Roman emperors Valentinian I and his brother Valens. (The former, who ruled from A.D. 364 to 375, is known as the last great Western Roman emperor; upon ascending to the throne, he made his brother Valens, or Flavius Julius Valens Augustus, the Eastern Roman emperor.) The two wished to improve the lot of the empire's poorer working classes by encouraging landowners to rent out their lands at a fair fee (but without a loss of ownership rights). Unfortunately, there was no requirement in the level contract that those renting had to improve the conditions of the land they were renting. For example, the medieval statutes of the towns of Alatri and Ferentino, in Lazio, show that the vineyard work a farmer was obligated to perform was minimal: pruning in March, sodding the ground in June, but little else (D'Alatri and Carosi 1976; Venditelli 1988). The amelioration of the rented plot's agriculture was an integral part of another agrarian contract — the emphyteusis (with which the level contract is often confused), which did require the renter to perform the work needed to improve the land (ad meliora) under contract. In fact, contracts stipulated with the church were usually of this latter type. For example, the monks insisted on low training systems, which would ensure better ripening of the grapes (climate change must not have been a problem then), and tight spacing of the vines, which helped both to improve the quality of the wines made from those vines and to concentrate the farmer's work on a smaller piece of land, thereby making more land available for others to work. Apparently, the monks also furnished technical assistance, such as how to correctly build terraces on especially steep slopes. According to Vagni (1999), the monastery employed a cellerarius, who was in charge of the cellar, and terraticarii, emissaries of the monastery who would oversee the division of the year's crop when that time came. They were also in charge of communicating the date of the harvest, which could not begin before the monks gave the green light on the matter. For this reason, the terraticarii were also known as nuntii, from the Latin word nuntius (nuntii is the plural form), or "messenger." Thanks to these sorts of arrangements, viticulture seems to have thrived to a degree; for example, a medieval inventory of the episcopate (the territorial jurisdiction of a bishop) in Tivoli shows that there were fifty different vineyard contracts; most of these vineyards were of the clausurae type — that is, vineyard blocks that were closed off similarly to the walled and gated clos of France (Fabiani 1968). We also know that vineyards were protected, as much as possible, from vandals (Taglienti 1985). For example, chapter 29 of the 1544 statutes of the town of Grosotto in the Valtellina states that vineyards had to be "tense," or protected (Maule 2013). Interestingly, in some townships such as Castel del Planio, on Tuscany's Monte Amiata, the harvest date was set on separate days for different grape varieties; even back then it was apparent to all that cultivars have different ripening curves.

In medieval times, Italy's scenario was a far different one than that of France: Italy as such did not exist, but was made up of little city-states that were almost continuously at war with each other. One of the consequences of this was that the countryside was ravaged by rampaging armies, and so establishing the quality scale of (or even a list of) viticultural sites was not first and foremost on the minds of those for whom just surviving was a chore. Furthermore, unlike Burgundy and Alsace, Italy has had very few Benedictine and Cistercian monasteries of note (Shepherd 1964) to help make and keep order among the vines — the result being that, unlike in Burgundy and Alsace, a "culture of terroir," so to speak, was never established in Italy (or at least not to the degree that it was in those two regions of France). In fact, in those few areas of Italy where monastery-related influences were present (for example, in Carema and Gattinara, in northeastern Piedmont), a history of greater attention to sites and of their documentation is obvious. The importance of terroir didn't escape everyone on the boot, however. This is obvious from the famous edict of 1716 by Cosimo III de' Medici, who officially identified the four viticultural areas of Tuscany that gave the best wines in his time. It is one of the world's earliest and most important documents specifically recognizing the privilege of place, and it clearly stated which these were: Carmignano, Chianti (the Chianti Classico of today), Rufina-Pomino, and Valdarno di Sopra.

In any case, for all the potential terroirs Italy possesses, such wines have become a reality in Italy only recently. The concept of "terroir" implies a spiritual and respectful tie to the land, and the use of mostly one grape variety to translate into the bottle the environmental and human factors it has been exposed to over time. There can be no terroir expressed when many different grapes are used in wildly varying proportions to make wines from very high yields, using often faulty winemaking practices and poor cellar hygiene. All of that has long been a problem in Italy. Another roadblock to recognizing the quality of site in Italian wines was that wine was mostly made by growing grapes by the method of viti maritate or viti alberate ("married vines" or "tree-bound vines") in which the vines ran free around a natural support such as a tree. Unfortunately, however "natural" a support a tree might be, it also provides copious shade to the grape trying to ripen below. Clearly, the resulting highly acidic, dilute potions were not the ideal vehicle by which to express a terroir's nuances. (Italy did away with the viti alberate only in the twentieth century, but they can still be seen in Campania's Asprinio d'Aversa production area.) Sharecropping, in which farmers got to keep only a small percentage of what they grew (a derivative of the old level contract, this arrangement was alive and well in Italy well into the 1960s), was also an impediment to recognizing or caring about site quality, for clearly sharecropping spurred poor farmers to grow as much as they could regardless of quality. Many vineyards were co-planted with other plant species, such as grains, vegetables, and other fruits — which clearly did not help matters any as far as wine quality goes. In Piedmont there did exist vinee (small parcels of land entirely devoted only to vineyards), but for the most part co-planting dominated, in the sedimen or terrae aratoriae cum vistibus ("arable land with a view") (Pasquali 1990). Furthermore, because Italian wines traveled poorly and weren't all that great, they lacked the important European markets that French and German wines could count on. The English and Dutch wine markets were knowledgeable and demanding, and wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy were of a stable quality standard, unlike Italy's.


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Table of Contents



Part 1 Understanding Terroir and Its Context in Italy
A Brief History of Terroir in Italy
Italy’s Wine Terroir: An Overview
A Study in Terroir
The Italian Job

Part 2 The Grape Varieties and Their Specific Terroirs

General Index
Index of Grape Varieties
Index of Terroirs

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