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Italy's wine returns to local roots

A growing movement eschews global tastes in favor of native grapes. But reviving tradition isn't easy.

September 30, 2007|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

MONTEROSSO, ITALY — Vittorio Cavallo crouched in his vineyard on a terraced slope overlooking the sea. He was shaded by a thick canopy of vines, plump bunches of grapes hanging like mini-chandeliers. In a couple of days, he and his family would launch the vendemmia -- the harvest.

The small, delicate grape that Cavallo raises will go to make a rare sweet wine that is available only in this northern corner of Italy, one so precious, he said, that "you give a bottle to the doctor so he'll take better care of you."

Cavallo is part of a growing movement across Italy to return to native grapes, eschewing the tastes of the international mass market and embracing a regional-based tradition of winemaking that goes back thousands of years.

But like the wine industry as a whole, these old-style producers face a gusher of modern-day challenges, including European Union restrictions, high costs and global warming's effect on the way grapes are harvested.

"We call it heroic viticulture," said Matteo Bonanini, head of a cooperative of grape growers here in the Cinque Terre region. "You have to be really dedicated."

Bonanini was overseeing the delivery of hundreds of pounds of freshly picked pale-green grapes to the co-op's press. Gentlemen farmers arrived with grape-packed crates tied to the roofs of their Fiats, while miniature pickup trucks hauled in more of the harvest in a land so steep and craggy that even mules cannot navigate some of the cliff-clinging vineyards, or so the locals say.

Grapes were being poured into the press, enzymes added and the liquid stored for fermentation. Gigantic wasps flitted about the bunches of fruit, and a farmer occasionally plucked a grape and popped it into their mouth, like people do in the olive-and-nut section of a supermarket.

Few in this panorama of green cliffs and blue bays, known as Italy's Riviera, can make a living as vintners, so they tend their patches and harvest grapes as a sideline, "a passion, not a job," Bonanini said.

His Cinque Terre co-op will produce only about 200,000 bottles of the region's eponymous crisp, white wine, of which 2,400 bottles will be exported to California. Sciacchetra, the rare sweet wine that he, Cavallo and a few others concoct, will not leave these shores, at least not in any significant quantity. It is "in a league of its own," Bonanini said.

That these spirits are being bottled at all is perhaps a viticultural miracle, testimony to an important shift over the last decade in Italy, the world's second-largest wine producer and home to more grape varieties than anyplace else on the planet.

Wine has been produced in this region for millenniums. The Romans made wine 2,000 years ago, the Etruscans before them.

For most of those centuries, the Italians relied on the land and climate -- with little emphasis on technology -- to yield cheap-ish Chiantis, Frascatis and other reds and whites. In the latter part of the 20th century, they began adapting their techniques and transformed Italy into a major exporter of quality wine.

At the same time, however, scores of Italian winemakers abandoned native grapes and planted imported varieties such as chardonnay and merlot. They were following the fads of the day, obeying the whims of influential wine critics.

Lost were distinctive regional wines and a measure of rich Italian identity. Eventually, Italian vintners found it difficult to compete with "New World" producers such as South Africa and Chile, which could make chardonnay more cheaply.

And so many Italian vintners began returning to their roots, practicing a craft they say synthesizes the soil, the climate and the personality of the farmer.

"All over Italy, there is a reevaluation of native varieties that is very encouraging," Burton Anderson, a leading expert and author on Italian wine, said from his home in Tuscany.

"There is more and more interest in the world in new tastes and regional dishes from Italy," Anderson said. "It is stimulating people who are tired of the standardization that took place for so long."

As examples, he cited the surge in the Nero d'Avola grape from Sicily and the Aglianico from the Campania region -- even Tuscany's Sangiovese grape, which has been cloned into a premium variety used in the best fermentations. All made comebacks or were given a new lease on life in the oenological world.

In Cinque Terre, vintners use an exact formula that combines indigenous Bosco, Vermentino and Albarola fruits.

This kind of winemaking is not easy, nor is it inexpensive, Anderson and others said. It requires meticulous processing, careful cloning of vines, and sales and promotion in markets that may be obsessed with a few familiar names.

Added to that are new challenges.

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