VARIETALS RESCUED FROM EXTINCTION AND OBSCURITY
Not counting hybrids, there are at least over 5,000 named Vitus vinifera varietals. Some estimates put the amount at closer to 10,000. But if you pick up a wine encyclopedia, such as Jancis Robinson’s “Wine Grapes,” you will encounter just about over 1,300 varietals. Still a lot, right? But the point is that Vitus vinifera has been growing and mutating for so long in so many different climates and terrains within their geographic latitude of survivability, that we can only begin to imagine the number of varietals. Even through recorded history, we’ve lost track of varietals that were once popular on local and even interregional levels. Of course, one of the reasons for a loss of collective memory is because some of these historical varietals do not exist any longer. Like any other living organism, there are Vitus vinifera varietals that have gone extinct. Hence, we thought it would be fun if the September Amaro Wine Club theme would be about varietals that were rescued from near extinction. What we found especially telling about this project was that it became more of a story about rediscovering the history of a region and preserving its culture than about a grape varietal. Another interesting fact is that the three producers who we found rescuing native varietals on the brink of extinction have much in common in that they all operate relatively new wineries that are family-run, and they are all dedicated to natural, organic winemaking. The lesson to be learned here is probably that rescuing a culture and a history requires a particular type of passion that transcends scale and profit.
This classic wine varietal table represents a tiny percentage of the number of Vitus Vinifera varietals in existence
Tinaktorogos is an extremely rare white grape varietal that is indigenous to the Western Peloponnese, near the town of Ancient Olympia in Greece. The varietal is old enough to be referenced by Homer, and yet had been so lost in winemaking history to the point that it isn’t even on the modern wine industry press radar yet enough for us to do proper research. In fact, the producer that we highlight for the varietal is the first to bring it into any kind of limelight.
One reason for a lack of press is due to the fact that although Greece has a 4,000-year wine industry, only recently has it successfully penetrated the international market. And some of the reason for this lack of penetration is because for a 400-year period, the Turkish occupation of Greece resulted in winemaking and its consumption being discouraged and abandoned on a large scale. But because the climate and terrain of Greece have sustained Vitus vinifera for millennia, it was natural for the industry to make a comeback; however, foreign varietals, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc supplanted many native varietals in an effort to appeal to international trade. But now that international wine tastes have become more adventurous and sophisticated, the Greek industry has been able to market native varietals that never went out of local favor. Assyrtiko and Roditis are white grape varietals that have received the most fanfare, followed by Moscholifero, and on the red side Xinomavro. But there are more than 300 indigenous varietals that are still grown in Greece, and the producer, Ktima Kir Yianni, that we chose for the wine club has put their money on the Tinaktorogos varietal, native to one of the most iconic regions of Ancient Greece.
The Timorasso white grape varietal was ironically a casualty of the modern fame of the region to which it is native – Piedmont. And then one man single-handedly saved it from extinction. When you think of Piedmont, you think of appellations such as Barbera d’Alba, Barbera d’Asti, Barbaresco, Barolo, Gattinara, Gavi, Dolcetto d’Alba, and Langhe, and the varietals that make them: Barbera, Nebbiolo, Cortese, Dolcetto, and Arneis. Along with appellations in Tuscany (e.g., Chianti, Montalcino) these appellations in Piedmont are what put Italy on the modern worldwide wine map. Although Italy was never NOT a country steeped in wine history and consumption, worldwide trade added another economic dimension, and to cater to it often resulted in ignoring, and even replanting varietals that didn’t fit into the export market. Ironically, Timorasso, a white grape varietal grown in the southeast Colli Tortonesi region of Piedmont, had actually had quite a trading heyday, being widely known and cultivated since the Middle Ages to the point of becoming the most important Piedmontese white wine grape by the 19th century due to the unique, big, aromatic wines it could produce. Its undoing was the phylloxera epidemic and the fact that its vines were not a hardy as the other local Cortese varietal. After the devastation that the pesky phylloxera insects wreaked on vineyards in Piedmont, it made more sense to replant the Cortese vines that would grow and populate faster to get the industry back up and running for international trade. And so, the plantings of Timorasso shrunk considerably to the point of near extinction.
But luckily, Walter Massa, an academically trained enologist took over his family’s farm near the town of Monleale in the Colli Tortonesi in 1978. Massa’s family had followed the international trade recipe of growing Barbera for red wines and Cortese for white wines. The first observation Walter made was that the climate in which his vineyards were planted were better suited for growing white grapes, and the second observation was that Cortese, although a high yielding, hardy vine, was prone to producing grapes that made for bland wines when grown in Colli Tortonesi terrain. A true scientific viticulturist, he probed the history and vines on his land and in the vicinity and noticed that an ignored, almost-extinct, thick-skinned white grape known as Timorasso, which the family had grown mostly for table grapes, had much more winemaking versatility than Cortese. Hence, in 1987, Massa took a big chance and vinified Timorasso alone, bottled it, and put it on the market. His neighbors thought he was crazy and gladly gave him their Timorasso vines when he requested them. In 1990, he planted an entire vineyard dedicated to Timorasso. By the turn of the century, other local producers had finally taken note of Walter Massa’s success, but more importantly, they took note of the actual wines that came from his Timorasso, and as a result there are now about twenty producers of mono-varietal Timorasso wines.
Walter Massa: the man who saved Timorasso from extinction
The Susumaniello red grape varietal is found only in the Italian region of Apulia, and more specifically in the province of Brindisi. Probably the best explanation for why it did not become extinct is because it hung on by a thread as a workhorse blending grape, but even that wasn’t enough of a foothold. It took being recognized as worthy for a mono-varietal wine for it to slowly make a comeback as late as the beginning of the 21st century.
The story of Susumaniello is almost the opposite of that of Timorasso in that it never had a widely appreciated interregional trade reputation, even though locally it was appreciated in some enclaves where it was grown differently for its rich fruitiness balanced by spicy tannins. Otherwise, it was rather ubiquitous in its region within a region as a blending grape. Also in contrast to Timorasso, its vines were able to proliferate and grow an abundance of grape clusters per vine. Yet, ironically, this hardiness led to its downfall as winegrowers pushed the vines for large production for blending leading to an overflow of clustered grapes per vine, which led to a loss of flavor character, and growers began to stop harvesting it in lieu of other blending grapes with more flavor character. It wasn’t until efforts made by winemakers dedicated to salvaging local varietals incentivized the purposeful cultivation of the varietal on its own merit that Susumaniello was once again recognized for its potential. The producer that we chose for the wine club has a project called Askos dedicated exclusively to reviving varietals native to Apulia and cultivating the vines according to how they were cultivated hundreds of years ago. As such, viticulturists learned that when Susumaniello vines were aggressively pruned and their yields reduced, the grapes acquired their best biochemical characteristics. And once these characteristics were realized, producers began bottling it in single-varietal form, and to great fanfare, although still largely unknown in the United States.
THREE WINES OF RESCUED VARIETALS FARMED AND VINIFIED NATURALLY IN THEIR INDIGENOUS REGIONS
Ktima Brintziki, Ilia Tinaktorogos (2020)
In the Ilian region of the Peloponnese, the Ktima Brintziki family estate is located near the sacred town of Ancient Olympia. The wife and husband winemaking team works only with native varietals and believes that to extract the best out of these varietals they should be farmed as they were thousands of years ago, i.e., as naturally as possible. Hence, the vineyards are certified organic and carbon-neutral by renewable solar and geothermal energy. Their 15-hectare, clay-soil vineyards are located 300 meters above sea level near the Enipeas River.
Look closely to see the amphitheater that the winery/estate offers up as a community gathering place
The Brintziki family has been growing vines on the property since 1932, but the current winemaker, Dionysios “Sakis” Brintziki, although raised on the estate, was a musician by profession, which is how he met Dionysia, also a professional musician. As a married couple, they took over Sakis’s family winemaking business in 1994, employing the help of celebrated oenologist Dr. George Kotscrides. The Brintzikis also play an important role in their community by providing a local gathering place for the Arts. The amphitheater on their property is offered to the community to host plays, concerts, and other shows.
The Brintzikis have been cultivating the Tinaktorogos varietal for the last 23 years and they ferment it with native yeast in stainless steel tanks for almost 10 days.
FOOD PAIRINGS: grilled fresh fish and seafood, grilled calamari, souvlaki, grilled chicken.
The winery has been cultivating Tinaktorogos vines that are up to 20 years old now.
Cascina I Carpini, Rugiada del Mattino Colli Tortonesi Timorasso (2020)
Based in the Piedmontese Colli Tortonesi (Tortona Hills), Cascina I Carpini is a relative newbie in the region, establishing their family-run winery in 1998. They studied the land they purchased in the Colli Tortonesi carefully before executing a plan of planting grapes in the ideal soil conditions, and it is no surprise that they found that the native Timorasso produced the most interesting type of white wine for the terroir and climate. Cascina I Carpini takes a natural, low-intervention approach to winemaking, practicing organic viticulture and bottling without filtration. The wines are aged in the bottle until ready for release.
FOOD PAIRINGS: white fish, light vegetarian dishes, cured meats, salads, sushi, soft cheeses
The Cascina i Carpini vineyards in the beautiful Colli Tortonesi in southwest Piedmont, and barrels filled with fermenting Timorasso
Masseria Li Veli, Salento Susumaniello Askos (2020)
VARIETAL: 100% Susumaniello
The Masseria Li Veli estate and winery is located on an ancient Messapian site in the rolling, sun-soaked Salento plains. The estate and buildings are a legacy of the old feudal landlord system, but then the Marquis Antonio de Viti de Marco (1858-1943), an internationally known Italian economist and university professor, Radical Party Deputy of the Reign of Italy, bought the Masseria to transform it into a model cellar for Southern Italy, which at the time did not feature many DOC-quality wines for commercial consumption. In 1999, the Falvo family took over and restored the Masseria, which covers an area of 33,000 square meters, 3,750 of which include offices, a reception area, vinification, storage, and cellars for barrel-aging wine. In addition to transforming Masseria Li Veli into a center of natural winemaking, the Falvo family embarked on a project that they named “Askos” (the ancient Greek word for “decanter”), dedicated to researching, selecting and validating native varietals on the brink of extinction, and cultivating them according to what their research turned up as original cultivation techniques before mass production became a model for farming.
Masseria Li Veli is more than just an estate; it is a center for research and learning
As mentioned previously, viticulturists discovered that if the Susumaniello vine is pruned aggressively to reduce the clusters of grapes, the varietal takes on richer flavor characteristics. The Askos Susumaniello is cultivated as such, vinified in French oak vats and then aged for 9 months in French oak barriques.
FOOD PAIRINGS: Steamed pork spare ribs with black bean, venison chops and beetroot risotto, beef braised in milk (manzo al latte), lamb, brussels sprouts, risotto, hard mature cheeses, such as Parmigiano Reggiano
Masseria Li Veli is situated on 85 acres planted with native varietals: Negroamaro, Primitivo, Susumaniello, Verdeca, and Minutolo