Ep. 236 Francesco Ripaccioli (Canalicchio di Sopra) on Brunello di Montalcino
Ottobre 8, 2019
Ep. 237 –ITALIAN– Attilio Scienza (VIA Chief Scientist) sul Nebbiolo
Ottobre 9, 2019

This is the English-language translation and dubbed version of episode 237, which has originally been recorded in Italian. In this interview, Monty Waldin welcomes again Professor Attilio Scienza, vine genetics scholar and also the Chief Scientist of the Vinitaly International Academy, to discuss the Nebbiolo grape and two of its iconic expressions: Barolo and Barbaresco. Scienza discusses the geology and topography of the Langhe region, techniques of cultivation and training for Nebbiolo, its genotypes and phenotypes, and the Barolo and Barbaresco wines. Tune in to learn more also about some wine and food pairings from the region! A transcript of this interview in English is available on www.italianwinepodcast.com

ENGLISH LANGUAGE TRANSLATION

This is the English-language translation and dubbed version of the previous episode, which has originally been recorded in Italian.

MONTY WALDIN

Welcome to another special episode of the Italian Wine Podcast, my name is Monty Waldin, and today we are hosting again Professor Attilio Scienza, who’s a famous vine genetics scholar and serves as the Chief Scientist of the Vinitaly International Academy. Today’s show is dedicated to two iconic wines from Piemonte, Barolo and Barbaresco, both coming from the same indigenous grape variety: Nebbiolo. Welcome Professor Scienza!

ATTILIO SCIENZA

Good day to the listeners of Italian Wine Podcast. Good morning Monty

M.W.

Why are Barbaresco and Nebbiolo considered so important and why does the Nebbiolo vine perform so well in the Langhe? Is it the soil conformation, geology, topography, climate, the vine itself or a successful combination of all these factors?

A.S.

The territory of the Langhe, which derives from a Celtic and then Latin word and which defines a crest, a narrow and elongated territory, is certainly an example of how the soil and climate conditions have become the foundation for the quality of this wine. The quality, or we can say the fame and sensory characteristics of these wines, Barolo and Barbaresco, are linked to many factors: but in essence, they have a long history, a history made up of many experiments, they are the result of a long journey that the Nebbiolo vine has made, not only from a viticultural and oenological point of view, but also from a cultural one. The characteristics of these modern wines are very different from those wines of the early 1800s, or late 1700s and, of course, their reference model was a Burgundian model which inspired the first wines of the new period of production.

M.W.

How has the geology and topography of the region changed over time? What are the most common soils found in the vineyards of Barolo and Barbaresco?

A.S.

Barolo and Barbaresco are very particular territories, because they are the bottom of what is called the tertiary Po Valley Basin, which was formed when the Alps were formed as a result of pressure from Africa on Europe. The Alps had left a strong depression in front of them, which was then filled by the Adriatic Sea. The Adriatic Sea reached the present territory of Barolo and Barbaresco and with its presence, caused important accumulations of marine origin sediment. However, other soils have also developed on top of this marine source material, which are of terrigenous origin, as they say (flysch), this is the result of the demolition of the Apennines and the Alps surrounding the tertiary Po Valley Basin. This has led to the creation of very different soils in terms of the physio-chemical composition where layers of sand alternate with layers of clay.

Therefore, the geological phases, which are numerous and alternating throughout the Tertiary Era, have created very different conditions, which are identified in some types of soils: example might include, the clays of Sant’Agata (which are those of La Morra), where their blue clays are characterized by a very heavy structure, which in turn translate into wines referred to as having a great structure.  Or, with the soils that derive from the Tortonian, this is also still a Tertiary geology, however, where the sandy aspects prevail, and therefore the soils give rise to more elegant wines, they are more fragrant, but with a lesser structure than that of the more clayey soils. It is a great mix of climatic and pedological characteristics that gives rise to a wine where the only vine is the Nebbiolo.

M.W.

What has the greatest influence on the character of Nebbiolo: altitude or appearance?

A.S.

These marine sediment deposits and other deposits, so to speak, originating from landslides that derived from the Alps and the Apennines, have been affected by processes of erosion and accumulation in different ways. Naturally, these processes of erosion have created valleys with different exposures and have uncovered, through the phenomena of erosion, a whole series of horizons where the presence of clay and sand interact with altitude and exposure. A very large number of vineyards are therefore created, which we can define as cru, where the soil and environmental components interact to give rise to very different wines. Naturally, Nebbiolo lends itself magnificently to this interaction: it is a vine that is very sensitive from the point of view of interaction with soil and climate conditions, and this interaction manifests itself, it expresses itself in very different wine characteristics. There are not many varieties that are so sensitive to interactions, perhaps Sangiovese, perhaps Aglianico, but in Italy there are few that are able to capture these subtle environmental differences, thereby, expressing very special aromatic profiles.

There are, of course, aspects linked to the climate, and therefore to the altitude of the various vineyards; there are aspects linked to exposure, and here, of course, sorì have a particular role to play, these are the top parts of these hills that have been strongly affected by erosion. We can imagine the territory of Barolo and Nebbiolo as a quadrilateral crossed by a river and the two sides of this quadrilateral are profoundly different: on the one hand more clayey soils and on the other lighter soils, and this naturally gives rise to very different wines. It is not only the geological composition that makes the difference, but also the climatic conditions: climatic, as in altitude, as well as the exposure, these help to make these Sori, these are the determining and discriminating elements of these quality peaks. Sorì wines (at least in the past, now with climate change things are not as severe as then) were the lands where the grapes ripened better and therefore, where the wines had a higher level of alcohol and structure.

M.W.

What effect does the structure, type and pH of the soil have on the choice of rootstock for Nebbiolo (e.g. as regards the expression of the vine and the taste of the wine, the color and also the ageing potential)?

A.S.

Well, these different soil characteristics force the winemaker to make a very careful choice of rootstocks. They are not soils that have great limiting problems: we do not have so much active limestone, to determine the problems of chlorosis, we do not have soils that are too clayey or too sandy, which can cause problems like root asphyxiation or lack of water during the summer. The choice of rootstock is determined above all, by the balance that the vine-grower wants to have in his vineyard: therefore, in the looser soils, the sandier the soil is, he would choose slightly more vigorous rootstocks; while in the more clayey and naturally cooler soils, in the sense that they better maintain humidity during the summer, he would choose slightly weaker rootstocks. The main rootstock is 420A, it is certainly the rootstock that guarantees that the Nebbiolo has the best balance, making the most of the soil and climate conditions of the denomination. However, there are other rootstocks that are used in very special cases, such as SO4, when the soils are less fertile and therefore, need greater vigor and perhaps even greater precociousness, if the vineyard is located at a higher altitude. Then we have some cases where greater tolerance to drought is required in looser soils, in more exposed soils: perhaps in this case, the 110Richter would be better suited.

M.W.

What steps must winegrowers follow in preparing the soil before replanting?

A.S.

Replanting is always a very complicated operation, because of the consequences, very often, that the previous vineyard has on the new vineyard. The vine is not a plant that suffers from soil fatigue, it is not a plant produces toxins or substances that may interfere with the new vineyard: however, it is necessary, when replanting, to clean the vineyard very well, ensuring the removal of remains of existing plants, then remove all the roots and if possible leave the soil free from each plant for a couple of years. In this case, in these two years, cereals and legumes are grown, which can be very important, precisely to restore the quantity of important organic matter and to restore the soil to biological life. The organic substance is perhaps the crucial element in replanting, because the vineyard that has occupied that land for 20-30 years is a vineyard that has exhausted not so much the soil and mineral elements, but the biological life and of course the organic substance. This must be regenerated with manure if possible, which is not always easy to get even if some winemakers have very wisely organized themselves to raise livestock, not so much to obtain meat or milk, but to obtain manure: this is a fundamental element to restore continuity to viticulture in these territories. Of course, the important and critical element is the choice of the rootstock, the 420A for instance cannot be used in replanting because it suffers from soil fatigue.

M.W.

What are the pitfalls for wine growers in the cultivation of Nebbiolo, for example the stress caused by excessive heat, or the abundant harvest and also considering

  • Botrytis cinerea
  • The downy mildew
  • Oidium
  • Esca

A.S.

Well, Nebbiolo is a fairly rustic grape variety from the point of view of its response to climate change and to fungal adversities. It is a vine, however, which must be treated in a special way to ensure that the grapes ripen regularly. In the meantime, the bunch must never be removed excessively to prevent the radiation from causing injury or burn damage due to excessive sunlight: therefore, Nebbiolo is grown with a large crown, which is also the basis for a very high production of sugars, given the need for this vine to be rich in sugars, as well as to have an alcoholic wine that can be preserved during aging. The other important thing is to avoid an excess of vegetation because that could be conducive to the development of botrytis during the period of maturation, during the autumn. And here fertilization plays a great role: therefore, we must be very careful about fertilization which must be balanced, but must not cause forcing, this is not only negative for the quality of the product and therefore for the intrinsic quality of the wine, but also for the sensitivity that the plant can then have in the face of diseases. It is a vine that is quite sensitive to powdery mildew, less to downy mildew and has a good sensitivity to esca. Fortunately, however, it is not very sensitive to golden flavescence, which is currently a great problem for winemakers; they cultivate Barbera in a particular way and therefore, from this point of view, it is quite immune to the adversities that cause serious damage in Piedmont.

M.W.

What are the genotypes and phenotypes of Nebbiolo and which are found in Barolo (Lampia, Michet)?

A.S.

Well, the genetic history of Nebbiolo is very complicated because it is a vine that is cultivated not only in the Barolo area but also in western Piedmont, in the area of Ghemme and Gattinara and also in Valtellina. The name Nebbiolo is not linked to the word fog, as was thought in the past, it was thought that this vine loves fog for harvest; it is a very late vine: it is probably linked to the old names of Nebbiolo in different places. For example, the “Spanna” in the area of Novara and, in the area of Valdossola which is a small valley, but which has a very ancient viticulture, with the name of “Prunent”. What do the words prunent and spanna mean? Well they have an important semantic meaning because they make us understand that the name of Nebbiolo derives from the attribution that the ancients had given to this vine, by tying it to a spontaneous plant: the prunus spinosa, which has very dark berries, but is covered with a very light bloom, which gives this idea of gray on the berry. Then prunent is the calling card of this plant, and spanna come from the word Spionia. Spionia is an ancient name of a variety cultivated in the Po Valley in Roman times, as described by Martial, but in fact, the prunus spinosa is also linked as the origin of the name, therefore, spionia is from prunus spinosa. In fact, the population of Nebbiolo is genetically quite articulated for these three great origins: we do not have a very precise pedigree on its origin, but we know that in its DNA are preserved many varieties, some cultivated in Valtellina, some in Alba, some in Novara. So, this vine is really the result of a series of spontaneous crossings that took place involving the vines of these three areas. The Bubirasco is probably the vine that brought most of its DNA. Over time, the tradition of Barolo and Barbaresco had isolated some biotypes that were qualitatively very different: excluding Rosé, which is not a pure Nebbiolo but a cross, the other two biotypes that were cultivated, Michet and Lampia, were considered variously qualitative. Usually Michet was preferred because of the small size of the bunch, and therefore for a better capacity of accumulation of anthocyanins and sugars. With the clonal selection and rehabilitation of these clones from viruses, people realized that the morphological and productive differences of these types of Nebbiolo were deeply linked to the presence of a virus, which is responsible for the foliar curl that caused a substantial change in the morphological characteristics of these biotypes. When these biotypes were healed so that they could be homologated (otherwise they could not be homologated as clones) all these differences practically disappeared. Currently there are many Nebbiolo clones, produced both by the University of Turin and by the CNR center, and also by some nurserymen who have really offered the winegrowers genetic material of the highest quality in recent years.

M.W.

How is Nebbiolo pruned in these 2 regions: spurred cordon or Guyot? Why is that?

A.S.

Nebbiolo is a very vigorous vine, with a low basal fertility that needs to mature with very developed foliage because it has very long internodes. So, the choice made by the Alba winegrowers is quite compulsory: in the meantime, rather long distances of rows are necessary (2.20 meters, 2.40 meters, 2.50 meters), both to guarantee good mechanization, but also because it is essential to have very high canopies. If I were to have very narrow rows, very high canopy must be avoided in order that the canopies do not shade the nearby row: so, if I want to have very high canopies I must have rows with proper distances. The second thing is related to the fertility of the buds: being a vine with distal fertility, I would not be able to not adopt a spur pruning cordon but would adopt guyot pruning with a fairly important distance between the rows, not below 0.90cm or a meter.  Because, as I said, having very long vine internodes, if I had to keep them at 7-8 internodes I must have important distances between plants. It is a vine that normally produces many females, which also needs very special management of the foliage to ensure a balanced development of the leaves throughout the period of maturation. So, I have to develop some females very early, so that these then guarantee a good supply of sugar after veraison, but I have to avoid a whole series of selvedges that could eliminate these very active leaves. To do this, many winegrowers of Alba do not grapple but wrap the apical parts of the canopy and the females along the last thread, in order to create a kind of capanna, or hut as it is called, to avoid the loss of canopy in the final parts of the maturation, being that the Nebbiolo is a vine that ripens very late.

M.W.

More and more winegrowers in these areas are embracing organic or even biodynamic. Is Nebbiolo an easy grape for organic? If not, what are the pitfalls?

A.S.

It is a fairly easy grape in the sense that it has a good tolerance to downy mildew and therefore, it acts better with copper without having any side effects, it is more sensitive to powdery mildew, but here the possibility of using sulfur allows the organic option to proceed without problems. As for the insects, they can be used as tools, let’s say, very modern sexual dissuaders for the moth above all, so there is no need to fight pests with synthetic products. As far as botrytis is concerned, the best thing is prevention, which is adopted through balanced vigor in the plants, and with flaking near the bunch only at the end of the ripening period, to allow the bunches to have aeration and not to have an accumulation of humidity, which could be conducive to the development of botrytis. Naturally, organic wine-growing requires sub-line processing, and this is perhaps the most expensive and longest operation; it does not allow the use of herbicides, and even the fertilization must be done with organic products and not with synthetic products.

M.W.

Can we get you to say if you prefer Barolo or Barbaresco?

A.S.

No, but it’s almost a mandatory question at this point. As always, it is very difficult to give you an answer to this because the articulation of the qualitative offer within Barolo and Barbaresco, even if less in the latter case, is such that the choice is not between either Barolo or Barbaresco, but on which Barolo and which Barbaresco.

And here are, I must say, the two great schools of thought: those who produce a traditional Barolo using only old wood, thus producing wines that are quite tannic but long-aged, structured, or this new Barolo Boys trend, which instead uses the barrique and the large barrel. Here, two completely different wines are born: those with the use of barrique are softer, perhaps closer to an international taste, almost to a Burgundian taste. But of course, the choice of these wines depends a little on the market.

Barbaresco, on the other hand, is a slightly more traditional wine, even if, as the unanimous opinion says, it is a slightly more “feminine” wine. Also, because, being produced on the Tortonian soils, these are light soils, they are sandier soils, and therefore, Nebbiolo is much gentler from a compositional point of view and gives softer, more perfumed—and I would even say—easier to drink wines. If I may express my opinion, I prefer the Barolo that come from La Morra, the Barolo of the more clayey areas, that come from areas a bit higher than the Barolo of lower altitudes, but vinified in a traditional way, where the interaction between tradition and innovation allows for wines of great elegance but also of great power.

M.W.

A combination with food for Barolo and Barbaresco?

A.S.

Well, Piedmontese cuisine offers such a range of foods, you would be spoilt for choice. Of course, they are wines that are not very suitable for aperitivo’s, appetizers or first courses, except perhaps with first courses where the foundation provided by the sauce is created with roast meat: these wines are for meat dishes, such as stews of game, like hare or pheasant. Maybe a Barolo would be ideal for jugged hare, as is made in that area; and Barbaresco would be better for a pheasant or feathered game.

M.W.

OK. I just want to thank Professor Attilio Scienza for talking in-depth about two iconic Piedmontese wines and their fantastic grape, Nebbiolo. Thank you very much again and we hope to host you again very soon to continue to learn more and more about Italian wine! Thanks a lot!

A.S.

Thanks to all of you and, of course, goodbye until our next meeting. Have a nice day.