Italian Wine Podcast Episode 316 aired on May 27, 2020. Rebecca Lawrence sat in for Professor Attilio Scienza after he dropped truckloads of Verdicchio knowledge on Monty Waldin in an “Italian Wine Essentials” installment. The information will surely be of interest to serious Italian wine scholars such as Vinitaly International Academy candidates. The below transcript accompanies the English language verdicchio episode with Rebecca playing the voice of Professor Scienza. The original Italian recording is episode 315 of the Italian Wine Podcast.
Monty Waldin: Hello, my name is Monty Waldin and this is the Italian Wine Podcast. I am pleased to welcome again Professor Attilio Scienza, esteemed vine genetics scholar and also Vinitaly International Academy Chief Scientist. Today we are talking about another iconic white wine and grape variety from Italy, Verdicchio. We already broached the subject of Verdicchio wines with Henry Davar, Vinitaly International Academy Faculty Member, and we are now going deeper into the grape variety. This episode is part of our special educational series called Italian Wine Essentials. You will now listen to the English translation of the original episode recorded in Italian with Prof. Scienza—thanks Rebecca for your hard work in recording the English version! Don’t forget that the full transcript in English is also available on our website. Welcome Professor Scienza, grazie di essere con noi per un altro episodio dell’Italian Wine Podcast.
Attilio Scienza: Good morning to all our listeners and glad to chat with you again Monty. The topic that we will discuss today is the Verdicchio grape variety, the emblem of central Italy and of the Marche region.
M.W: Let’s start with the origin of the name Verdicchio. What does it mean?
A.S.: As is the case with many other grape varieties, the name Verdicchio is linked to the color of its berries, which are always characterized by a light green color, even when fully ripe. There are other vines in Italy, whose name is connected to the green color of their berries: Verdisio, or Verdea, which is cultivated near the Verdicchio area; another vine is Verdello; all these varieties indicate the characteristic green color.
M.W.: Let’s talk about the historical sources related to Verdicchio and the history of its circulation and arrival in the Marche region.
A.S.: It is a vine cited in very ancient historical sources. The first one belongs to Bacci. Bacci was a papal physician who, at the end of the sixteenth century, talks about a vine, not yet calling it with the name Verdicchio. It wasn’t so common to name grape varieties then—wines were named after their production areas, but very rarely after the vines from which they originated.
Bacci’s description is perfect from a morphologic point of view and its oenological aptitude. There are also later documents, more or less dated around the end of the sixteenth century and the beginning of the seventeenth century, where this vine is closely linked to the Marche territory. The Marche region is the place of origin of this vine, even though probably this vine wasn’t born in Marche but was brought there from other territories a few centuries earlier around the middle of the fifteenth century through the migration of a group of farmers from Veneto and Lombardy, who moved to the Marche region to re-populate those countryside areas following a terrible plague epidemic, the famous Black Death, that hit Europe from the end of the 1300s and the beginning of the 1400s and which had given origin to a lot of migratory phenomena, including the one that had brought the Verdicchio vine from Veneto to Marche.
It is a vine that was accurately described by the first nineteenth-century ampelographers in descriptions which especially highlighted its quality. It was a vine—apart from the green hue of its berry—which had aptitude for both productivity and quality. In the various areas of the Marche Verdicchio also had different names: Verdicchio Bianco, Verdicchio Verde, Verdicchio Giallo, Verdicchio Vero, Verdicchio Marino, Verdicchio Stretto, Peloso, Verzello (Verzello comes from Verza which in Italian means savoy cabbage, hence the name refers to the color of the cabbage).
In Umbria it is called Verdone, or Verdicchio Dolce, or Verdello, or Verdetto. In the area of Castelli Romani, Verdicchio was known as Trebbiano Verde, and was an important vine in the making of Castelli Romani wines before the post-phylloxera reconstruction. It is called Maceratino in the area of Macerata and also in an internal part of the Marche region—the Matelica area—where they produce a wine that is a little bit different from the Verdicchio of Jesi or those areas closer to the sea.
In recent years DNA analysis has uncovered some important relationships. It was discovered that the Verdicchio grown in the Marche region is almost the same as Trebbiano di Lugana, which spawned Lugana and Trebbiano di Soave. The latter used to be mixed with Garganega to give rise to Soave and to a minor vine from Trentino called “Peverella” (the name “Peverella” comes from the spicy flavor of the wine obtained from this variety, just like a bit of pepper).
M.W.: In the book “Sangiovese, Lambrusco, and Other Vine Stories” you wrote that the concept of autochthony in vines doesn’t only have to do with place of origin, but also where cultivated vines express their best qualities. Can you tell us why Verdicchio found its foothold in the Marche and why it expresses its best qualities in this region?
A.S.: Verdicchio certainly grows best and expresses its best characteristics in the Marche. Here, it is cultivated in two zones that are pedologically and climatically very different. The zone overlooking the Adriatic Sea displays the morphological structure of a territory crossed by valleys oriented in an east-west direction. These fluvial valleys were created by more recent geological processes than the more internal parts of the Marche region.
Their soils generally belong to relatively recent geologic phases of the Earth, the end of the Tertiary Era, the Pleistocene, and the start of the Quaternary Era. These lands were formed under the sea and they emerged, were uncovered, when sea levels dropped in the geologic phase between the Tertiary and the Quaternary. Thus, these are alluvial soils. They have a clayey structure. Very often they are also rocky in areas of active erosion and, in accumulations within the valleys that descend toward the sea, quite calcareous marl-limestone. This means Verdicchio can express a very important quality that is determined by a late maturation and a conservation of high acidity allowing the wine to age well.
The climatic conditions are those termed “alto-collinari” [or high and hilly], with an average rainfall round 700 to 800 millimeters per year and an average temperature below 14 degrees Celsius. The Winkler index is 1600-1700 degree-days, a range that would define a viticultural zone as ideal for the production of quality white wines.
There is also another, more internal area where Verdicchio is grown, between the Umbro-Marche Appennines and the pre-Appenines of the Marche—the only valley positioned parallel to the Adriatic. While the other valleys of the region run east-west, the Matelica Valley runs in a north-south orientation. This valley is positioned at a certain elevation, between 400 and 700 meters high, and it has a very interesting geologic origin because it is one of the few fault lines in Italy (we don’t have many fault lines in Italy—I mean deep fractures in the Earth’s crust resulting from the movement of tectonic plates).
This fault formed during the Pliocene in marine conditions, meaning this fracture—this furrow—opened up under the sea and it collected lots of [sediment] deposits during the latest part of the Quaternary. These deposits are termed “terrigenous” because they are not of marine origin, but terrestrial origin, and they slid down and accumulated in this trench in the sea floor. Normally, they are called “flysch” and they are composed of alternating layers of marl and sandstone. Naturally, then, when the sea receded, it left these deposits in this fault, this depression.
The association of this marl and sand that derives from the weathering of sandstone, coupled with a very particular climate, gives rise to a Verdicchio that is completely different from that produced inside Jesi. The [Matelica Valley] climate is continental—with large temperature swings, strong rains, and less breezy—while that of Jesi is more typically marine.
It is a climate that has no marine influence, and this is very interesting because the altitude (up to 700 meters), the marly soils, and the abundant rainfall make this almost a continental wine—more like a Nordic wine than a marine wine. In fact, the descriptors are very different between the two wines. The freshness is very different, above all, and recognizable between wines produced near the sea and those produced on the Appennine mountain chain.
M.W.: Let’s get back to the characteristics of the vine itself, and the particulars of its cultivation.
A.S.: It’s a plant that doesn’t vary much morphologically; it doesn’t present many variations. The vine is rather uniform in its morphology and in its production. It produces large, heavy clusters of grapes. The vine itself is fairly vigorous with a semi-upright habit. It loves clayey soils in the hills that are somewhat late ripening, because these climates go hand in hand with the fruit’s tendency to mature progressively. It’s a late ripening variety that, unfortunately, because of the time it takes to mature, makes it susceptible to botrytis.
Still, it is a vine that is well-positioned to adapt to a changing climate: it has reacted positively to rises in temperature because it has not changed its two phenological phases. Thus, the time from bud burst to ripening has remained relatively constant and this has allowed the fruit to avoid suffering during the heat of the summer that is linked to ripening.
As I said, Verdicchio can sometimes suffer from botrytis. It is very susceptible to fungal infections of the wood, such as “esca,” and this can keep plants from reaching old age. Disease can hit plants of a certain age and, as such, the grower is forced to eliminate them.
Historically, Verdicchio has also been grown in mixed cultivation: due to its vigor, those farming in a sharecropper system raised the vine along with other plants while they also practiced other activities such as meat, cereal, and olive oil production. This mixed production allowed the vine to manifest all of its vigor and show its great productivity.
M.W.: From the vine to the bottle… Let’s hear, what are some of the most telling characteristics of Verdicchio wines from the Marche region.
A.S.: Ideally, it is vinified, as much as possible, in reductive conditions, because its aromatic descriptors are essentially linked to development in low oxygen environments. This imparts some chemical compounds very characteristic of the grape variety that then allow the wine to age very well in the bottle. It is one of the few Italian grapes that has this gift to be able to improve over time in the bottle.
The two primary Verdicchio zones, that of Jesi and that of Matelica, are differentiated in their pedological and climatic characteristics and produce two very different types of wine. Wines to be consumed in the same year of their production have a strong yellow color with green reflections. Floral descriptors dominate (acacia flowers, in particular) with some citrus sensations and a very precise almond flavor. Through the ageing process these evolve substantially toward tertiary descriptors that typically define other important vines, such as kerosene, flint, and mineral stone, and that are composed of chemical compounds that belong to the isoprenoids. These become, through the phenomenon of hydrolysis in wine, chemical compounds, born of carotenes, called vitispirans and TDNs (or trimethyl dihydronaphthalene).
This is very important because carotenes are products that form inside the grape given ample light. This is also why Verdicchio relies on very bright environments in order to produce these descriptors deriving of carotenes and that, naturally, allow the wines to last a long time.
Of course, vinification is performed as for a white wine in hyper-reduction, as they say, avoiding all contact with the air or oxygen. Such a production process maintains the chemical precursors that later become important in the aging of the wine, even for long periods of time.
M.W: Verdicchio di Jesi and Verdicchio di Matelica. We’ve talked about two diverse territories, let’s now discuss the main differences between these two wines.
A.S.: Perhaps, if we had to distinguish between the two wines, we could say that in those from Matelica freshness and acidity prevail, along with floral, vegetable, and citrus notes that are essentially linked to thiols and to descriptors of minerality. Meanwhile, in the wines from Jesi, we tend to find bitterness, dried fruits, tropical fruits, and a certain spiciness. They might be a bit less ideal for prolonged aging (those that come from Jesi) because of this fundamental difference in their aroma precursors. In Mediterranean Verdicchios that come from coastal areas we value descriptors of fruit, flowers, and youthfulness, while in those from inland areas we prefer some descriptors that will potentially become more significant with prolonged aging in the bottle.
M.W.: Well, since we are in Italia we can’t help but talk about some food-wine pairings for Verdicchio.
A.S.: I’d say that this variety is presently undervalued by the consumer for its qualitative gifts. It could really become the quintessential Italian white wine, along with Vermentino. These are probably two of the grape varieties that best represent the white wines of our country. They adapt well to a Mediterranean diet. They go great with appetizers, they are good with fish, and they can pair with elegant, refined dishes. They can even accompany the elegant cured meats typical of central Italy, such as prosciutto or certain salami. And, naturally, those wines prepared from late harvest grapes go well with aged cheeses and even pastries, dry sweets, cookies, and such.
M.W.: Very well. Thank you, Attilio for another fascinating lesson that will surely prove invaluable for those working in the sector or specializing in Italian wines. Grazie mille to Professor Attilio Scienza and we look forward to next time.
A.S.: Thank you for your attention and I invite you to our next installment. Good day.