[This is the English-language translation of episode 204, which has originally been recorded in Italian.] In this educational podcast, Prof. Attilio Scienza is back on the show with Monty Waldin to talk about Aglianico. Prof. Scienza is a famous Italian 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 iconic grape varieties. In this interview, Scienza and Waldin discuss the origin of the name Aglianico, Aglianico’s genetic ties with other grape varieties, and the main areas where this vine is cultivated. Scienza also talks about the traditional growing methods for Aglianico called “tennecchia” and the way Aglianico responds to various soils and climates. Tune in to learn more about its wine denominations such as Taurasi, Vulture, and Taburno and discover traditional foods paired with Aglianico. This podcast provides an insight into the importance of the Aglianico grape and its wines in the Italian wine and viticultural tradition and cannot be missed if you are studying Italian wine! [A transcript of this interview in English is available on www.italianwinepodcast.com.]
Monty Waldin: Buongiorno! Hello! This is the Italian Wine Podcast with me, Monty Waldin. We are pleased to have Prof. Attilio Scienza again today on the podcast to teach us something about Aglianico. Prof. 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. This podcast is the English-Language translation of the previous episode originally recorded in Italian. We have decided to offer it in both languages to make it available to a wider listenership in Italy and abroad. Thank you for listening, we hope you will enjoy learning about Aglianico. Ciao!
Good Morning Professor Attilio Scienza and welcome to another episode of the Italian Wine Podcast. Today we will be talking about Aglianico.
Attilio Scienza: Good morning Monty and everyone listening to the Italian Wine Podcast.
M.W.: What is the origin of the name Aglianico?
A.S.: Well, when research on vine varieties in Europe was first developed – and we are talking the 1800’s here – the cultural spirit was that of idealism and idealism saw all things spring from the East (Greece in particular), it was the origin of all cultural phenomena of the West. Therefore, the name “Aglianico” lent itself very well to being traced back to the word “Hellenic,” thus to Greece. But, in actual fact, this is not the case, at least not in the classical period, when the Greeks arrived, through migration, these peoples were not called Greeks; the word Greek is a very recent term from a cultural point of view, and so, a different explanation must be found for the word Aglianico. Meanwhile, it should be noted that the viticulture of Campania, and Naples in particular, was divided into 2 types of wine. The Byzantines, who had then inhabited the region until the eighth or ninth century had divided the grape varieties into two large groups: The Latin wines and the Greek varieties. So, this vine is related to the Latin vines, not to the Greek vines, that is, it was suitable for producing wines made from vines grown on plants, so it had a relationship with an archaic viticulture, with a native viticulture, maybe Etruscan, but certainly not Greek. In support of this notion I would say “Aglianico” comes from the Spanish interpretation of the word Aglianico: it is referring to an area near Naples called Pianura, a wine-growing region where, naturally, Latin wines were made and Greek wines were not made. In Spanish, the word “llana” means “plain” (there is a double “ll”); and so Aglianico means grapes from the plain, grapes from that part of Campania were called Plain grapes because that area was also flat. Therefore, the most etymologically correct interpretation is precisely this Spanish matrix of “grapes of the plain”.
M.W.: Where is the Aglianico grape cultivated? Which are its main areas and regions?
A.S.: Well, it is a typically Campania variety, it is cultivated in all the DOC and DOGC denominations of Campania starting from Aglianico di Taurasi to Aglianico del Sannio and Aglianico del Beneventano. Then it is cultivated at the foot of the Vulture, in Basilicata; then it is also found in Puglia. In this case it is not used alone, but often cuttings are used with Pugliese varieties, and I would say there is a small presence in the south of Naples, within the Campania region, certainly less known from a viticultural point of view, is the region of Cilento, but I would say there is still a minimal presence. Aglianico never went farther north for cultural reasons, but also due to environmental reasons because it is a vine that has particular climatic needs, it is only normally found in a well defined climate.
M.W.: Aglianico di Taurasi, Aglianico del Vulture and Aglianico del Taburno: which are the differences in climate, soil types, and how are these differences reflected in each wine.
A.S.: Well, in the meantime it has to be defined, it should be clarified, the synonymy from the genetic point of view, the Aglianico, cultivated in all these environments is genetically identical, there are no differences at the molecular level. There is, however, an interesting aspect that is often underestimated, because it is difficult to evaluate, which is the relationship between the vine and the environment through the expression of some genes. There was some research carried out a few years ago, by the department to which I belong in Milan. This research addressed the relationship between grape varieties and the environment using proteomic tools. Proteomics is a type of genetic study that deals with the expression of genes and their production of protein, and it has been shown that if you took three biotypes (we could say) if you cultivated it in three environments, these vines will not have the same way of responding to the environment. If they are all cultivated in a single environment, they create different proteins, therefore, it means that in selective development, in the selection made, in the various environments, by the populations to which these environments referred, the selection would develop biotypes that had different protein expressions. This has two types of effects on the qualitative characteristics of the must of the wine: a relapse at the level of the coloring matter and a relapse at the level of the aromatic materials. Therefore the 3 cultivated biotypes and the 3 environments are genetically identical, if they are evaluated by micro satellite analysis. But they are very different in their expression from some genes, that when selected in different environments can give rise to proteins and then to enzymes, and then to very different substances of aromatic value.
Of course the major influence on the character of these wines is determined by the environmental conditions: the cultivation territories of Aglianico in Campania, by territories I am speaking about the 3 great denominations, Taburno, Sannio and Taurase, I would say, they are close enough from a geographical point of view.
The environments are not really far apart. In the Taurasi environment, some areas have a volcanic prevalence, they are of volcanic origin, there is mainly ash that came from the ancient eruptions of Vesuvius, while in the parts, in the more north-eastern parts – those of Taburno and those of Sannio, we have a prevalence of matrices, of sedimentary origin. Then, at the bottom one can distinguish 3 big geological matrices: one continental matrix that is determined by very ancient marine deposits that in relation to the dolomitic limestones have similar characteristics, let’s say structurally speaking, so they are very hard limestones, which are the result of an ancient marine deposit. These can more or less be dated as being from around the end of the secondary era and the beginning of the tertiary era, so practically, around the Eocene. These have determined the more central structure of Campania. Then from these continental matrices, there are derivatives of sedimentary deposit materials, the terrigenous type, so they are landslides. This flysch is characterized by this alternation of sand and marl that have descended from these ancient dolomite matrices and have fallen into the sea, back when the sea was higher on land than it is now. And these deposits accumulate and have this characteristic of alternating sand and marl. Then when the sea withdrew onto these final deposits, the ashes, the lapilli, and pyroclastic materials of Vesuvius accumulated on top.
Naturally, these materials covered all there was to cover, but the subsequent erosion phenomenon eroded a large part of the Volcanic material bringing it to the lower parts, filling in valleys, filling depressions, so the volcanic areas, in the DOC and DOCG like Taurasi, are very small. It is only in Taurasi, in the village of Taurasi, that we can see a significant presence of volcanic origin soils. While in other parts there are volcanic soils, but they are composed of much lighter materials, because they are pyroclastic materials. They had been launched through the volcanic force, and they are not cooled lava, but are explosion materials, they amassed on the flysch and on the deposits and on the sediments of the continental block, and then naturally erosion removed them, and making the flysch reappear; the aspects of the clay and the sand of the flysch reappeared and perhaps these sands build up, as well as these volcanic lapilli that are very light in the depressions.
Therefore, the landscape, geologically speaking, is a kind of mosaic, where there are areas determined by the demolition of the oldest materials made of limestone-dolomite, then areas where these flysch are instead vaguely composited of sand and clay, and then naturally, these zones accumulate volcanic materials. The interesting thing is that there are no boundaries between these three types of soils, there are areas that have different shades, and so you can have volcanic areas that gradually become lighter due to the presence of materials or clay or sandy flysch or so on. These articulated characters in the soil have a fundamental influence on the sensory profile of these wines. Actually, this is one aspect that should not be underestimated: the relationship with the physical-chemical composition is so articulated that it determines different maturation processes, because it is one thing to have the maturation of a grape in a light soil, like that of a volcanic soil but it is another to have maturation take place in a clayey soil. With clays, they is a high level of structural resistance. These characteristics are also associated with altitude, because vines in these territories range from 200 meters to more or less 600 meters. Now, Aglianico is a vine that has a late phenology, that is, it has all the processes that are slow, and even the ripening process is very slow, very gradual. This maturation is slowed down in cold soils as well as at higher altitudes. Therefore, if I have a combination of a very clayey soil, with high altitude, let’s say 600 meters, I would have rather a vertical Aglianico, with higher acidity, with a lower PH, with rather hard tannins, which needs a certain type of vinification and also a certain type of ageing process. If, on the other hand, I am at a lower altitude, say 200 meters, in a clayey soil, less clayey but loose, as a volcanic soil might be, all the processes would be accelerated, and so I have grape material with more evolved tannins, with lower acidity, and less vivid colors. And of course, with these grapes I would subsequently have to introduce very different aging and processing techniques, this is perhaps the most interesting aspect.
The interpretation of the raw materials is crucial to get an Aglianico with great balance and great quality. Therefore, having soil knowledge, having knowledge of the altitudes, and knowledge of the maturation processes, these have to be paramount to an oenologist in these areas, because with this knowledge, he will do and he will employ, I would say, to that raw material, to that grape, a different type of vinification and ageing process.
M.W.:Which are the biotypes?
A.S.: The three biotypes that are now cultivated in a fairly undifferentiated way. It is not that the growers of Aglianico di Taurasi use the Taurasi biotype or those who are in Sannio use the Sannio biotype, but now clonal selection has created clones renouncing a territorial attachment. However, these clones selected in different parts of Campania certainly have a different ability to express genes that can be, I would say, different aromatically, chromatically, meaning in colour. However, Aglianico is a very ancient vine, very rich in biotypes, and has a very unique characteristic, because within the Aglianico population, when analyzing their DNA, we found, for example, fractions of DNA that belong to other varieties. For example, Aglianico has a family relationship with Syrah, and Aglianico has an indirect family relationship with Teroldego, they are almost like cousins, one could say. It goes back to the Pinot Noir, because Syrah is directly related to the Pinot Noir, indirectly in the sense that it is cousins with the Teroldego vine, and therefore, being the Syrah is related to the Lagrein vine, so we could describe these as distant relatives, even from a geographic point of view. Within this population we have also found some very interesting crossings between Aglianico and Syrah, which are called Sirica. Sirica is a variety which in recent years has also given rise to a particular wine which certainly has less hard tannins than Aglianico, and which instead has good characteristics of softness and aging suitable also for a market that is evolving towards wines that are perhaps less aggressive and less powerful. So, this is a very interesting point about Aglianico, because this shows that the multiplication of this vine in the past was done using many seedlings, using cuttings that were not only from a single plant but from several, so it is a polyphyletic variety, as it is called in formal genetics. This means that it comes from many seeds. Other varieties, such as Sangiovese for example, although it has great genetic variability, this is a monophyletic variety, which comes from a single seedling, there are no siblings, while the Aglianico has numerous siblings in the population of the variety that is called Aglianico.
M.W.:How does Aglianico respond to the stress caused by excessive heat, draught, and by the cold autumn nights during its maturation process?
A.S.: Well, Aglianico is a classic continental climate grape variety. It is not a Mediterranean climate grape variety. Its geographical location within Italy has its own central and peripheral position in Campania, because it is grown in the easternmost suburbs. This gives this vine a typically continental character; the altitudes are always quite important, meaning that it grows in very low temperatures. In winter, it often snows, the nights are cool, or even cold; it grows in an environment with high rainfall, perhaps one of the rainiest southern environments, even during the dry years or in very hot years, extremes of drought and under extreme heat, these vines are not overcome in these territories, so the Aglianico, I must say, does very well. There is little experience cultivating Aglianico in warmer and more Mediterranean environments or near the sea, except perhaps the Aglianico that is cultivated in Cilento, but also in Cilento it is cultivated at a fairly high altitude, not really close to the sea, but still closer to the sea than in Avellino. Aglianico has never suffered problems (I mean to say with regards to climate change) it has never had problems due to excessive heat and accelerated ripening, or changes in its chemical characteristics. There is perhaps one thing to say about Aglianico: it is a vine that has a good tolerance to botrytis, and therefore, it can be said that this grape can remain on the plant for a long time in autumn even in unfavorable climatic conditions, i.e. with heavy rainfall. Instead, it has a high sensitivity to downy mildew and powdery mildew, so you have to be very careful about fighting parasites because if downy mildew affects this vine, production becomes greatly reduced, so, it is a vine that has always been cultivated or bred with very important forms of cultivation.
The classic form of cultivation employed in Avellino, but also in Sannio, was called the “tennecchia”. The “tennecchia” is a form of cultivation developed using paleoliguri or padana trees because the population that settled in the territory of Taurasi, or that part of Campania, was of paleoligurian origin. After the Second Punic War, when the Romans eliminated the Taurini (who were a local population who had allied themselves with Hannibal) they had to rebuild the populations of that territory; they had brought with them the inhabitants of ancient Liguria, the areas of the westernmost Po Valley. And so, they brought with them the typical form of farming practiced in the north, using the Irpinian tree, the Avellino tree or “tennecchia:” this is an ancient expression of those old forms of farming in the Po Valley. It is a vine that lends itself very well to spur pruning, so it is precisely because of the attitude that these tennecchie are raised.
Perhaps the oldest vines in Italy are found in the territory of Taurasi. There are vines that are easily over 100-150 years old, these are called the “Patriarchs” and represent one of the most interesting testimonies of archaic viticulture. These are often the so-called Piede Franco, ungrafted vines; they grow in loose soil, a light soil, of volcanic origin, and it does not allow phylloxera to take hold, this viticulture can be analyzed without having been grafted, that is with Piede Franco vines. This is a very important characteristic because this viticulture is truly an ancient legacy of what viticulture was like in this territory, 300-400 years ago. Nowadays we make very different plants, we use espalier plants, we use plants that can be grown with cordon spur farming. As I said, it lends itself very well to this form of farming, because this form of farming allows a high level of mechanization, which can also serve to reduce production costs and make this viticulture more convenient from an economic point of view. There are no particular problems with this choice of rootstock, and this is for a simple reason: the soils where Aglianico is cultivated do not present particular negative characteristics, we do not have very high calcareous content, we do not have a PH balance that is too low and we do not have too clayey soils.
I do have to say however, as far as rootstocks go, the only problem to avoid would be to choose rootstocks that are too vigorous and that could exacerbate the natural vigor of this variety. The rootstocks with Rupestris Blood tend to delay the phenology, these should be reduced, but instead one should choose rootstocks with Ripari Blood, for example 420 A, SO4, to be clear. Then, it is advisable to renounce rootstocks such as 110 Richter, or 1103 Paulsen, which are very vigorous, and which by their genetic nature tend to delay the maturation process—at least in conditions of higher altitude and with higher clay content in the soils—limiting the vine quality.
M.W.: What is your favourite dish or food to pair with Aglianico?
A.S.: The cuisine of these territories is a typically continental cuisine, it is not a maritime cuisine, it is not a mediterranean cuisine, the fundamental element of this cuisine is pork. So everything that is used to makes pork dishes would be fine, for example, in Irpinia, pork trimmings are important, that is, these bits of pork are cooked with tomato. Rabbit is also important and made in Irpinia, this is also made with tomato. There are dishes then, so to speak, that are cold dishes using meats. Cured meats are very famous in this area because the environmental conditions allow for the preparation of dry meats, so not only ham, but also salame. And then of course, all the aged sheep cheeses. One could say it is a cuisine of the mountains or of cold areas. This wine, which is a stronger structured wine with great alcohol content, can complement these dishes in an extraordinary way, and this is all very different from the cuisine in the surrounding territories where you would eat fish, where you would eat more vegetables. Here instead, it is important to note that because the climate is always cool and where winter is cold, pork is paramount.
M.W.:Thank you very much Prof. Scienza for this instructive podcast on the Aglianico grape and distinctive wines. This podcast will be very useful to many students of Italian wine. Thank you again and speak very soon.
A.S.: Thank you, thank you for your attention, until next time.