Bolgheri and the Native vs Traditional Grape Variety Debate

There are hundreds of native grape varietals around the world. Italy has enough for Ian D’Agata to fill two substantial volumes:  Italy’s Native Wine Grape Terroirs and Native Wine Grapes of Italy.  Sometimes I think you could spend a lifetime enjoying just Italy’s native grape wines and never reach the end of the list.

Native grape varieties are almost everywhere threatened by invaders. “International” grape varieties such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Sauvignon Blanc, are thought to be easier to sell than native varieties with unfamiliar names. We tend to side with the underdogs in this fight, favoring native varieties that might otherwise fade from the scene. What a loss!

But that doesn’t mean that native grapes are the end of the story. Even in Friuli, home to so many indigenous grapes, there is a third category that are often called “traditional” grape varieties, such as Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc, which make excellent and even distinctive wines and have been planted locally for decades. Not native, to be sure, but no longer foreign, either.

Should we favor the native grape varieties because many of them are found only in a single place? Or is that unfair to the traditional grape varieties, which may have been planted locally for generations?

(I think I remember reading that there are a few wine regions in Europe where French-American hybrid grapes, which were introduced more than 100 years ago during the Phylloxera plague, are considered part of the traditional wine culture.)

A Waste of Time?

The native versus traditional grape variety question flared up a few months ago when Sue and I met up with a press group near Lake Garda in Northern Italy. All was quiet when we visited Lugana DOC wineries. Their distinctive wines were all made from Turbiana, a local variant of the native Trebbiano grape. But then we stopped at a couple of wineries in the Garda DOC, where several traditional “international” grape varieties are approved, and things changed a bit.

“This is a waste of time,” a journalist from Northern Europe proclaimed as he stared into his glass, which contained a very nice Chardonnay. My readers don’t care about Italian Chardonnay, he said, they only want to know about what is unique to this place, the native grapes.

I didn’t think it was a waste of time because learning about nice wines is almost always a good thing, but I admit I sometimes fall into a less extreme variant of this point of view, favoring native over traditional or international much of the time. But his strong reaction made me think. The vines for this wine had been planted by the winemaker’s grandfather and had helped support three generations of his family.  That seems pretty well rooted in terroir, don’t you think?

Bordeaux in Bolgheri

I am reconsidering this question right now because Sue and I have been sampling some red wines from Bolgheri. Bolgheri is located on the Tuscan coast in the under-appreciated Maremma region. The wines are the San Felice Bell’Aja Bolgheri Superiore and Podere Sapaio Volpolo Bolgheri. Coming from Tuscany, you would imagine red wines to be Sangiovese or even a “super Tuscan” Sangiovese blend.  But the Bell’Aja is 95 percent Merlot and 5 percent Cabernet Sauvignon. The Volpolo is 70 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 15 percent each Petit Verdot and Merlot.

The wines were very different from each other (just look at the blends!) but the threads that connected them were intensity and elegance from bright acidity. If you are not familiar with Bolgheri wines, these blends will come as a surprise. How did this happen? And what should we make of them? (I won’t ask what my European journalist friend would have said!)

Bordeaux grape varieties came to the Maremma region on the Tuscan coast in the 1930s, according to Joe Bastianich’s account in his book Grandi Vini. That was about the same time that the swamps and marshes thereabouts were drained to fight malaria. Marchese Mario Incisa della Rocchetta saw similarities with Graves in Bordeaux in terms of maritime climactic influence and rocky soil, so a small amount of Cabernet was planted. The wines were meant for family and friends only, but word spread about a unique wine from a vineyard called Sassicia.

The family finally offered a small amount of the wine for sale in 1968 and Sassicia proclaimed the first “Super Tuscan,” which took the world by storm, inspiring winemakers in Tuscany and beyond to both raise standards and experiment with exciting new blends.

What is Tradition?

Sassicia was designated a simple vino da tavola because no appellation existed in Maremma for a wine with Bordeaux grape varieties. Indeed, when a Bolgheri DOC was first established in 1983 it designated white and rosé wines only. Red wines remained vino da tavola until 1994 when the DOC was amended to accommodate the sort of wines that define it today.

Bolgheri and its Bordeaux-blend wines are famous today and the best of them are treasured and collected.  I am not sure anyone would tell Bolgheri producers that it was a mistake to embrace Cabernet when the native Sangiovese was available.

Obviously, these wines don’t rely upon native grapes, but would you call Cabernet and Merlot “traditional” grape varieties here, or is it too soon? The first wines were planted about 90 years ago, the first commercial wines were made a little over 50 years ago, and a DOC was enacted for them less than 30 years ago. Italy is a land of long tradition. Bolgheri is young by comparison. Bolgheri’s timeline in this regard is more New World than Old World.

Perhaps, as Hobsbawm argued, tradition isn’t something that exists on its own. Maybe it is something we create to suit our needs.

3 responses

  1. Hi Mike – very glad to see you raising this very sensitive and important subject in the face of climate change and vine genetics resources to address this . Re. Bolgeri and other areas induced ( seduced ?) into mimicking Bordeaux ;one can not ignore market / marketing – an accelerating bandwagon on to which every one wanted to climb

  2. I have never seen wine from any of the American/Noble hybrids. I understand a Lewis County nursery offers them. I would like to try some.

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