This is the English-language translation of episode 196, which has originally been recorded in Italian. In this educational podcast, Monty Waldin speaks to Attilio Scienza, vine genetics scholar and Chief Scientist of the Vinitaly International Academy. Scienza’s most recent book La Stirpe del Vino (Sperling & Kupfer, 2018) explores the genetic history of an iconic grape variety. In this interview, Scienza and Monty discuss the genetic origins of Sangiovese, its genetic relationships with Mantonico, Nerello Mascalese, Foglia Tonda and other Southern grape varieties. Scienza redefines the notion of grape indigeneity by stating that a grape is native to the place where it finds its best genetic expression, rather than to the place where it originates. Thus, despite its Southern Italian origins and progeny, Sangiovese has found its best genetic expression in Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna. Scienza talks about Sangiovese’s soils and wine-making styles and introduces key issues related to the main Sangiovese territories and denominations: Morellino di Scansano, Brunello, Chianti, and the Sangiovese in Emilia-Romagna. This podcast will give you an overview of the importance of Sangiovese to the Italian wine tradition and cannot be missed if you are studying wine! [A transcript of this interview in English is available on www.italianwinepodcast.com].
Publication date: April 30, 2019
Monty Waldin: Buongiorno! Hello! This is the Italian Wine Podcast with me, Monty Waldin. My guest today is Attilio Scienza. Attilio Scienza is Italy’s leading vine genetics scholar. He is also the Chief Scientist of the Vinitaly International Academy and author of a recent book called La Stirpe del Vino published in 2018 by Sperling & Kupfer about the family ties among grape varieties. Obviously, any student of Italian wine will know that Sangiovese is Italy’s key grape variety and this is why Attilio very kindly is going to talk about it. He will talk in Italian and we will then translate this interview. Welcome Professor Attilio, so let’s start with the genetic origin of Sangiovese…
Attilio Scienza: Sangiovese is truly a symbolic vine because in the past it was thought to have been an expression of domesticated wild Tuscan vines, but instead, with the advent of molecular biology and DNA analysis of many Italian vines, this theory of its origin has been disproven. There has been a lot of research in this regard, as researchers have sought to clarify the parents of this vine, a vine so important to Italian viticulture, and I must say, the progress of the research has in its own way changed the lineage of this vine. What is clear, however, is that the “parents” are southern parents who come from Calabria and Campania and not from Tuscany.
MW: This was a shock for you to discover that…
AS: Absolutely, but not for me, the shocking part was when we had to reveal these findings to all those people to whom we had previously told our theory to at Vinitaly 10 years earlier. The Tuscans were shocked as well because they thought it was their vine, that Sangiovese was the champion of their viticulture, their history and their culture. We now know that it is a vine that actually comes from southern Italy, and is a vine that among other things, has been crossed with another important vine of Calabria, the Mantonico vine. The Mantonico vine allegorical because the Greek name for Mantonico is “Mantonikos” which means, he who prophesies, he who sees far beyond, he who sees the future. Also, from this cross between Sangiovese and Mantonico many varieties were naturally created, about forty varieties.
MW: But which ones are more symbolic?
AS: Well, the most important are those from southern Italy, Nerello Mascalese, Gaglioppo di Cirò, the Sicilian Frappato and the Tuscan Foglia Tonda. There are many other lesser varieties that are not cultivated now, but are gathered for collections, which is pointless to mention because there are so many. I must say that the history of Sangiovese is a bit like the history of the descendants of French Gouais vines also known as the German Heunisch vines (a white grape variety that is seldom grown today but is important as the ancestor of many traditional French and German grape varieties). Chardonnay is the progeny of a cross between the Pinot and this Heunisch or Gouais vine that came from the Pannonia, and there are about 70 varieties. These are the architects of the European varieties, the European varieties have some progenitors that include the Gouais vine but also the Traminer, and many varieties stem from the Traminer just as is the case with Sangiovese. Sangiovese is the progenitor of many varieties that have spread from southern Italy to Tuscany, it is here we can see other varieties, such as Brunellone, a sweet Sangiovese, a progeny of Sangiovese but one that is not Sangiovese—these have a connection to Sangiovese as well as to a parent that we do not recognize, so we recognize one progenitor but not the other. This story is truly incredible and one on which a lot can be elaborated, even in the future, from a cultural point of view. Why? Because we compared the Sangiovese data from many Magna Graecia vines with a series of vines of oriental Greek, Turkish, Balkan and Caucasian origin, and we found that all these vines are more or less related, there are no divisions, they all have something in common and that there was this great mixture in the past, between the vines of the past and those we have now, there is continuity, there is no discontinuity. Perhaps the most interesting thing is that many of these vines, which came from specific places, have a tight bond with the human population alongside which they grew and this relationship is maintained; this is evident within their linguistic dialects. We have found, for example, in southern Italy (but it could also be done for Greece and other more eastern places), that all the populations that speak Arbëreshë, which is an ancient Albanian dialect, a Griko dialect, these are all dialects derived from the Greek occupation of the past, these populations all have within them a very strong genetic relationship between them, as well as a close relationship with the vines that are still cultivated today, so we have very precise evidence of this continuity. There has never been a discontinuity.
MW: So there is a real bond between man and vine.
AS: This is exactly what I am saying, this is the element that has come to light during these months of research. We have found this continuity between the populations of oriental origin (that are undermined in Italy), that have created Italian communities but that speak ancient dialects, and the vines that are cultivated in those communities, have relations with the reference vines from where they started, in Greece.
MW: Okay, okay. So when people said that Sangiovese was a Tuscan vine, they probably read Soderini, who wrote about Sangiovese for the first time in 1590, so it seemed to be a grape variety…
AS: No, it had already arrived in Tuscany at that time, because the first descriptions were made between the end of the 16th and the middle of the 17th century. It is from then that we have the first evidence of Sangioveto grown in Tuscany. I must say, however, that it was at this point that perhaps Sangiovese had found the ideal place to express itself, in Tuscany. More so than in the southern regions, so we could say that a vine is autochthonous not so much because of where it was born, but autochthonous because of its ability to fully express its genetic potential.
AS: That’s true indigeneity.
MW: For Sangiovese, for this vine to express itself in the best possible way, what is the preferred terroir for this grape variety?
AS: Well, in the present time, there are about 100 Italian denominations of DOCG, DOC and IGT that use Sangiovese either alone or in a mixture, so this variety is of major economic importance. It is a vine that, in order to give its best, must suffer, especially in the ripening phase. If we put it in soil that is too fertile (and this is perhaps the case with those which grow the south), it produces a lot of grapes, but this grape does not ripen well, it might make a lot of sugar but with unripe polyphenols, meaning, it has a very primitive polyphenolic content. The tannins are not complex, they have not evolved, therefore they can give rise to wines that might be are very alcoholic, not very colorful, and with aggressive tannins.
MW: When we talk about polyphenols, what do we mean?
AS: We mean the chemical families among anthocyanins that are responsible for the color of wines, there are 5 free anthocyanins and 5 conjugated anthocyanins. These are the ones that give the chromatic characteristics to a red wine making them darker or lighter, ruby, with yellow rim etc.. Then we have a whole series of substances that are procyanidins that we call tannins, that is a chemical family much more complex from a structural point of view because they are polymers. There are many small molecules that are put together and become tannins, tannins are felt in the mouth when we drink a wine, it is that astringent feeling on the gums. It is the reaction that these tannins have with the proteins in saliva that creates this sensation, as the tannins react with these proteins, the proteins precipitate – and precipitating gives that sense of dryness. These substances need some particular environmental conditions to become very complex molecules and therefore not very reactive. What we do not want is reactive molecules, we want molecules that have a low reactivity that do not react with our saliva. So, if Sangiovese is cultivated in a difficult environment, where the maturation is slow, therefore, with a sophisticated maturation period, where sugars are parallel to the phenolic maturation of coloring materials, then we will get a great wine. I have always given the Montalcino environment as an example, which from this point of view is an ideal environment, just as many areas of Chianti are ideal environments, just as many areas of Maremma are ideal environments, even in Romagna, these are areas where this vine achieves this balance between a phenolic and a sophisticated ripening. What are these soils in general? Well, there is a contiguity, a continuity, not volcanic soils, not the metamorphic soils, they are sedimentary soils, but sedimentary soils of a period that straddles the end, so to speak, of the tertiary era and the beginning of the quaternary era. It is an important period for Italy, because Italy finally emerges from the sea through a series of tectonic phenomena, and many of these materials that had accumulated under water became dry land. If we look at Tuscany for example, in this period, Tuscany is an archipelago, where the islands are the peaks of the various mountains. Here, when the sea became land, it left sea deposits, called “Flysch”, a German-Swiss word, which means to slip. These materials slid from the hills, from the Apennines to the sea in the tertiary era and when they reached the sea were crushed and gave rise to these characteristic formations in which you can see this alternation of sandstone and clay, more sandstone and clay. The Galestri and the Alberese are the result of the disintegration of these substances. The ideal soils are where there is a good balance between clay and sand, where the fertility of the soil is not very high, where during the summer it suffers and where the plants naturally reach that point where they can no longer grow under these conditions, instead it must accumulate everything in the berry.
MW: So Sangiovese has found its ideal place in Tuscany…
AS: Yes, ideal, these are conditions you don’t find in the south of Italy. What you don’t find in northern Italy, in northern Italy, then there are limits perhaps once at least climatic, because it is a vine that needs a lot of heat and light.
MW: How come if Sangiovese is original from the south, how did it get to Tuscany? By train?
AS: That’s a good question! The question we should first be asking is, why did Sangiovese and its descendants have such great influence in southern Italy, I would say that that is a very important question. So, this, once again, should point us to its color and the ritual use of this wine in the symposium where black wines were not used, but wines that had the color of blood.
MW: Was the symposium a religious ceremony, right?
AS: Yes, more than a religious ceremony, it was secular with respect to its proceedings but it was a meeting place for different people who could express all their fears and anxieties simultaneously with wine and in a ritual of wine consumption. the Greek people are a people who were able to use the symposium as a way to overcome problems of psyche nature, their oriental spirit with anxieties, with fears with the role of the divinity that no other people had, in the symposium they found a place of synthesis. The symposiarch was the individual who addressed topics, the one who introduced topics, the members of the symposium spoke, but also spoke through the consumption of wine. The Kylix was the container from which people drank the wine, it was passed from one person to another and people would speak. The symposiarch also had another role, that of diluting the wine, because an excess of alcohol could cause problems, after this they might introduce a quality wine, and then only a little at a time, they diluted this wine depending on the guest response, but the main objective was to transform the black wine into red wine, the color of blood. If you look at the Sangiovese wine, it is a red wine of course, it is not a black wine, it is not a wine like Cabernet, like a Nero d’Avola or like a Teroldego. It is a wine that always has this yellow rim and it is a red blood coloring. At that time, at this point it was not necessary to dilute it, you could drink a pure wine, and this had great results, all the offspring, curiously, of Sangiovese that have these high contents of Malvin are all wines similar to their progenitor. They all have this red colour of blood. But when did it arrive in Tuscany? Well, it probably arrived in Tuscany just before the Renaissance period, when the Tuscan bankers, the Florentine bankers like the Medici loaned a lot of money to various people who were in command during wars going on at the time. During the kingdom of the two Sicilies, I am thinking of the part of Italy that bordered Rome and the Vatican, at that point it had become, so to speak, the kingdom of the Bourbons, they needed money for their wars, and so what did they do? In exchange, in the form of a loan, they gave these lands to the Tuscan bankers.
MW: Like a mortgage…
AS: Perfect, then the Tuscan bankers sent their experts, their administrators, and they cultivated those lands for them, this would have been when they noticed this vine, Sangiovese, a very generous vine, very productive, that made a lot of alcohol. So they brought this vine to Tuscany. We could call this a bit of an anthropological explanation…
MW: This anthropological explanation means that at this point people were also beginning to write about Sangiovese.
AS: Exactly, Soderini is the first to write about it.
MW: Even if he is the first to write about Sangiovese, it doesn’t mean that Sangiovese is a Tuscan variety.
AS: No, no, like Vernacce, another wine that had been described in Tuscany for a long time in a certain way by Reddil, Vernaccia was famous because it was a wine from the Middle Ages, but it was a wine that also had that particular origin.
MW: OK, now we want to spend a bit of time describing the differences between a Sangiovese and a Chianti Classico or Vino Nobile or Montalcino or Romagna, what are the differences, why are there such differences in these wines and in the expression of the plants?
AS: Exactly, the differences are essentially linked to the environmental conditions, therefore to the soil conditions, the climate and to the rainfall conditions, the light conditions, the temperature, the raw materials are different. Then, of course, there are some factors, which are factors pertaining to the winemaking tradition, the winemaking tradition of Romagna is certainly not the same as the tradition in Maremma, that is, the winemaker who works in Romagna makes choices when winemaking that are not the same as those choices in Morellino di Grosseto. And here, of course, three things come into play: the way maceration has taken place, that is, the time spent on maceration, how long after fermentation, when the marc remains in contact with the wine, and thus, what are the ratios of marc extraction – and in this phase it is very interesting to properly manage this relationship between anthocyanins and tannins because if the tannins are well mixed with the anthocyanins, the color becomes stable. For Sangiovese, color is a weak point. In the past we wanted to make very colored Sangiovese, and for this reason we used some additional grape varieties, all the formulas, so to speak, of Sangiovese apart from Brunello were all formulas that included some different grape variety… I do not know… a bit of cannaiolo, for a little color, even in some ancient formulas used a white grape variety, but that was not something I would say was done without purpose, because some white grape varieties had a role in softening this wine when it had not been aged for long periods, and when it was necessary to sell the wines quickly since they were being sold flasks, however, these white grape variety phenols were very interesting in their ability to stabilize color. The color of Sangiovese is much more stable with 2 white grape varieties such as Trebbiamo and Malvasia Lunga, they had to create different techniques with some grape varieties, perhaps to bring out color or encourage this reaction between anthocyanin and tannins that stabilizes the color, therefore these were important. This is often favored by a little acetaldehyde that is formed as a by-product in fermentation so the winemaker must take good care of this presence, this is the catalyst for this reaction. Here, then, the other things beyond the vines is also going on, in Chianti more and more, to make a purely Sangiovese, this choice was made a long time ago in Brunello. In Morellino they are still using complementary varieties, in Romagna they can also be used, and they are trying to make pure Sangiovese, because this is the goal, the purity of Sangiovese. And then, the other thing that has changed over time is the use of barriques, as for Barolo, we wanted to make a Sangiovese that had some international character to bring it very close to the American world, closer to the taste of wines made in California, of course this stabilized the color very well, because the tannins of the wood were great stabilizers, but in a way this distorted the original character of the vine. And so, we are returning to the large barrels, not to the 60 hectolitre barrels, but to the 15, 20, and 30 hectolitre barrels, which are much more traditional, and which maintain this character, even if it is a little harsh, and not always easy for the Sangiovese.
MW: OK, if my winery wants some Sangiovese and I have to think about how to age my Sangiovese in wood, if you were my consultant and I wanted to make a normal wine and I want to age my wine in barrique, what would you tell me? What would be the best choice?
AS: If I were the oenologist, I would make the following choice; I would put the wine in a barrique for a few months, that is, I would remove the wine at the end of fermentation, still warm, let’s say, and put it immediately in a barrique so that it finishes its fermentation in the last grams of sugar, then I’ll explain… At the end of 5, 6, or 7 months, I would take this wine and put it in a large cask and I would also have it in there for two years. Why? Because in a barrique there are two effects, the first effect is the chromatic effect, that is, it has the ability to stabilize the color; the secondary effect is that barrique gives me a malolactic fermentation very quickly, very efficiently, it gives me complexity and a fullness that I would otherwise not get from a longer period of fermentation in a large barrel.
MW: The amount of volatility has also decreased.
AS: Then I would begin a process of self-reduction, facilitated in barriques, which would then give me this great evolution of the wine, without making it either reduced nor oxidized, which then completes the large barrel.
MW: But is this fashionable? Are there any companies that do it or not?
AS: Yes, it is, many do this, perhaps not all say so, because everyone would like to return to the tradition of the big barrel but when I go to these cellars I see many barriques, so they do do something…
MW: It’s not 100 % barriques but a bit of barrique and a bit of…
AS: But this also happens in Nebbiolo with Barolo, they do more or less the same and, this compromise between the two containers.
MW: If we took a geographical tour, what would we notice with Chianti Classico, Montalcino, Romagna Vino Nobile, what if we took a small visit to these regions with you, what are the characteristics that we would find in the wines and why? Let’s start with Morellini di Scansano.
AS: Scansano is a territory that has perhaps the highest temperatures during the ripening period because it is a warmer territory. From a climatic point of view, it is the one that has the closest proximity to the sea and has soils that are a bit different from the flysch of Chianti and Brunello, they are sedimentary soils, with more clay than the others. What does this do? It certainly causes a much slower maturation which is very often slowed down by the fact that the best expressions of this wine in that territory are all high. 300, 400, 500 meters. Above 500 meters, you don’t get bigger Sangiovese. You get a little sharper Sangiovese, more vertical acids but not opulent, here at 200 to 400 to 500, you can really make great Sangiovese. This does not change much in Brunello, because even there the viticulture is localized from 200 to 600 meters, even if you cannot go above altitude because otherwise, it no longer ripens the grapes and then it remains harsh, but in this case we have more of a sandy component that is given by the sandstone and then Montalcino has a characteristic that is unique in its own way, placed like a kind of panettone, I’m not saying in the middle, but in a very particular position that has 4 exposures and has 4 altitudes in the middle of the panettone and has very different territories of origin because we start from the secondary era, from the Jurassic, from the oldest soils and go up to the Quaternary, up to the Pleistocene, now we put together an exposure with an altitude and a territory, we get incredible variability. The only problem with Brunello at the moment is that I hear many journalists say that there is no classification, not much quality with respect to origin. If we were in France, they would already have codified the Sangiovese of one area rather than another, they would have already outlined profiles, but this has not happened, but it is part of the spirit of the inhabitants of Montalcino.
MW: Yes, zoning.
AS: Zoning does not exist, they do not want to do it, they are afraid that zoning becomes a factor of qualitative classification for the best, and this would not be so good for those who are at the same level.
MW: So they have no reason to be afraid?
AS: Absolutely not.
AS: Nowadays it is no longer a tool that defines a level, because we have this comparison with Bordeaux where there are the premier crus, but it is not so, we could make a zonation by defining each subzone’s basic characteristics of soil and climate to give rise to an original profile that would highlight the differences, that’s what counts. We did it for a long time in Banfi, Banfi is a large company, it has 800 hectares, so it is a denomination alone, and we understood that by defining the various origins of Sangiovese from the lowest areas of the Pleistocene to the highest areas of Cretaceous, the Sangiovese were very different. What did they do? They created all the internal classifications, but that’s not to say that this was a more or less good thing to do, they made all the wines according to their origin, we do one thing…we do another, then very often they also cut these things but then understanding diversity means using it.
MW: Yes, so you’re saying if I have two Sangiovese in Banfi on two different soils, obviously I have to harvest in a different way…
AS: Everything is different, I have to plant different rootstocks, I have to plant notionally different plants, I have to harvest differently, I have to make wine differently.
MW: And to mature.
AS: Exactly, I would create very different wines that if I had one great vinification, I would lose the diversity, therefore, instead I could cut, yes, they can.
MW: So be more informed.
AS: Exactly, to have the knowledge of what is under my feet.
MW: Okay, this was Montalcino, now let’s move on to Vino Nobile.
AS: Well, Vino Nobile is a very different territory from a geological point of view, because it is more recent than the others. It is a territory that is the result in a large part of all those formations of the Pliocene and Pleistocene that were characterized by large lakes and large rivers. So, they are all sedimentary soils, a lot of silt and sand, there are some fractions of flysch, but very few. Instead they have a lot of silt and a lot of sand. What does this mean? That Sangiovese is generally more elegant, a little lighter, but it has this characteristic, in my opinion, of maintaining acidity and freshness well, because silt is a component of the soil that maintains acidity and therefore they are wines that generally differ from the others in elegance, they do not have great structures, they do not have great power, but they do have this finesse that if they are well vinified they really have this international dimension to their wine.
MW: So it is interesting to know also that Vino Nobile is influenced by two waters, salt water, and fresh water.
AS: Yes, exactly, also because of the tectonic origin of the sea, it has left these great areas of salt as well, Montalcino also in the lower part and…
MW: But even Vino Nobile is more continental than Montalcino…
AS: Exactly, the more internal you are, the climate too, but it is quite high, so…
MW: Now let’s move on to Chianti Classico.
AS: Chianti is difficult to define in two words because it is a continent.
MW: In three…?
AS: Well then we can say that there are at least 3 areas of Chianti that can be distinguished, one area, which is the highest, the one much richer in hard materials, the area of alberese, it is an area that has clay and little sand, it is a triangle-type area, so to speak, in the highest part. Then we have an intermediate area that is the Chianti area, we can say, around Castellina, which has marl instead, not like alberese, so there is more clay and less sand and then we have a lower part, so to speak, towards the Crete Senesi, towards Siena, this helps to create some understanding of the two.
MW: The southern part.
AS: Yes, where there is a lot of sand, there is this component every now and then of this Sienese clay, which is a bit salty, which also makes it a bit difficult for cultivation, we have these vineyards that die from time to time because of the salt, and of course, the effects not only come from the soil, but also from the altitude because the land is at 200 meters to 600 meters…in short, there is also a significant interaction between soil and climate.
MW: OK. If I tell you then it would be much easier for me to go and buy a Chianti Classico where the name of the municipality is written on the label, so, a Chianti Classico Greve, a Chianti Classico Castelnuovo Berardenga, this makes it simple no? It’s useful.
AS: A series of companies around Castelnuovo di Berardenga are making a very interesting attempt, they are making a zone to characterize their companies, their vineyards, they want to define the boundaries and give it character and finally give the area a name.
MW: Yes, because it makes no sense to say that my wine is a Chianti Classico di Castelnuovo Berardenga, it makes more sense to say it comes from this part of Castelnuovo Berardenga.
AS: Exactly, in that municipality there are 40 companies that are zoning and want to finally put the precise place on the label, one goes on the map, finds the place, goes to see what type of soil there is, understands where it comes from.
MW: So, we could say it is like the Burgundy model?
MW: Okay, so let’s end with Romagna, where is it and how are their Sangiovese?
AS: So, Romagna is just a hilly area, towards Forlì, towards Imola, an area of land that is also very recent, from the Pliocene and a bit of Pleistocene, there are no flysch, these are marine soils, because flysch are terrigenic, they are soils that start from the land, they go into the sea and the sea consolidates them, but they are called terrigenic deposits. The Romagna area is composed of marine deposits, only marine, there are no influences of flysch and there is a lot of clay, recent clay, that of the Pleistocene. I must say that over time the choice of the best areas was also made by choosing the genetic materials. In Montalcino large berry Sangiovese were always chosen and this was because the water stress transforms the acids only in the skins and seeds, so it does not add volume. The opposite is true with the clones of Romagna, there they chose small berries because there is more water availability, so where there is more water, the ratio of skins and pulp is very favorable with smaller berries, so they will have a better concentration.
MW: So in general the drinkability of a Sangiovese from Romagna is not like a Brunello?
AS: Easier, simpler, it a wine that is better suited to fatty cuisines such as meats and pork, the wild boar, or the Fiorentina – these foods do not need a powerful wine, in short, you need a wine closer to the spirit and the mentality of Romagna.
MW: Yes, and that’s good for them.
AS: Yes, exactly.
MW: I would like to thank Prof. Attilio Scienza for this explanation and for this journey around Italy with the Sangiovese vine.
AS: Thank you.