In this month’s wine by wine lesson on Italy via Il Buco wine director Roberto Paris’s btg lists, a chance to examine what it means to call an Italian wine grape traditional. In my glass at Il Buco Alimentari e Vineria: a wine made entirely of the Alicante grape, a Costa Toscana IGP 2016 bottle by Tuscan producer Ampeleia.
Appearing on Italy’s registry of recognized wine grapes at number 10, earlier than better-known number 52 Sardinian Cannonau, than Veneto’s Tocai Rosso (number 236), and with Ligurian Granaccia and Umbrian Gamay Perugina noted as synonyms, the Alicante grape is, like those four and like France’s Grenache and Spain’s Garnacha, a locally mutated version of one grape variety. (To head off potential bewilderment: Alicante also is a parent of red-fleshed Alicante Bouschet, a crossing made in 1866 by Henri Bouschet. “In Italy and therefore in Sardinia, where it’s most widely grown, [this crossing is] called simply Alicante, which is incorrect, insofar that such name refers to the old variety that gave the pollen, synonym of Grenache,” reads Alicante Bouschet’s ampelografic record.)
Back to Alicante proper: “Somewhere in the middle between native and international grapes are the traditional varieties: international varieties that have grown in a specific place for three hundred to five hundred years (different experts favor different cut-offs: I would submit that three centuries is probably enough) and have become part of that land’s tradition,” writes Ian D’Agata in Native Wine Grapes of Italy. “For a grape variety to be considered native or traditional, and hence an integral part of an ecosystem, it has to have lived there for a very long time.” Alicante is generally thought to have been part of Italy’s ecosystem since at least the 15th century, when Spain began its occupation here. But this area’s contact with Spain began far earlier, and the grape’s origin is up for debate.
Mediterraneanly anyway, Alicante and its clan have been around forever, an indomitable presence in southern Europe and North Africa. Before Spain’s arrival, and after the fall of Rome, the Italian peninsula and islands were controlled by a collection of powerful maritime states: “Venice, Genova, Pisa, Amalfi,” Paris names for me. Rulers of those homegrown maritime republics clashed consistently with the North African Muslims who governed Spain then, a 700-year reign that ended with the battle of Grenada in 1492. In the meantime, through the age-old channels of war and trade, they supplied their new land with what are now essential foods of Spain — agricultural products like oranges, saffron, rice, which made their way to Italy as well. “There was all this crossover of invading armies. These states were all pretty powerful, controlling the trade in Italy, and they also had contact with Spain,” says Paris of what must of been a bustling Mediterranean basin. Spain’s wine production was lessened — though not as drastically as one might assume — under its generally alcohol-adverse rulers. Wine likely flowed, albeit sometimes hushedly, in all directions. “You have to put grapes in context,” Paris reminds me.
On Wine-Searcher.com, Alicante is relegated to mere Grenache synonym, and Italy makes only a polite appearance — “on the island of Sardinia [Grenache] has been known for centuries as Cannonau” — even though the grape’s entry is linked to from this wine’s page. No Alicante mention on its own or under Grenache in The Oxford Companion to Wine. The 2005 Slow Food Guida ai vitigni d’Italia notes a 1960–65 Ministry of Agriculture study that places the grape’s origin in Aragonese Spain and traces one possible Italian route as Sardinia and Liguria to, beginning in the 1800s, Sicily to Calabria to Tuscany, with one sure thing: “It is without doubt a biotype of Garnacha (the name for it in Spain).” Meanwhile Wine Grapes lists the synonym as Spanish, which as with Slow Food’s exploration I’ll take as linking the culture of growing it here to that country, if not a thought on who came first. “A name deriving from the Italian Vernaccia,” writes D’Agata of Spain’s Garnacha. “The name Cannonau is considered a deformation of the Spanish Canoñazo.”
There isn’t a lot about Alicante in Tuscany.
In the Mediterranean basin, Paris points out, “all the coastal areas have the same grapes. Catalonian, Ligurian, Sardinian vineyards were all planted by the same people as they worked and traveled there.” Repeatedly for centuries, the Genovese, the people of Pisa, of Barcelona, of southern France dug into the grounds they visited and raised two grapevines: Vermentino and “Vernaccia” (this name is still used in parts of Italian regions Umbria and Le Marche). As of 2010, 370 hectares of Alicante remain in Italy, a steady decrease from 1970’s 1,180 and a fraction of 2010’s Cannonau number: 5,322 ha. What little there is is grown throughout most of Italy, “especially in the center and south, with the largest concentrations in Toscana (32%) and Sicilia (20%).”
The Costa Toscana IGP was made official in 2010, to signal that part of wine-rich Tuscany that has a specific relationship with the region’s coastline, with subsequent influences from the Tyrrhenian and Ligurian portions of the Mediterranean Sea. Throughout the IGP zone, the winds gathered along those waters blow unchecked over a 297 km–long coastline, a mix of flatland and hills rising up to 400 meters above that sea and cut off from Tuscany’s better-known, inland — a relative term for most of Italy — areas like Chianti Classico, Montepulciano, San Gimignano by the 2,000 meters- high Apuan Alps, the Amiata and Pisani mountains, the Metallifere hills. Costa Toscana’s constants are those drying winds, humidity that holds near 76%, a counteracting sunniness that can make vineyards gaspingly short on water in July and August. There’s a reliable variable: as you progress north more rain falls. And the inevitable slew of differences: “The variability of the soils is the fundamental factor for guaranteeing the complexity and finish appropriate to high-quality wines,” specifies the IGP disciplinare. “The entire coastline is made up of sands and silts, interrupted in the northern part by sandstones, clays and shales, marls and conglomerates,” dominant soil conditions dotted by volcanic materials, schists and “other formations variously localized in the territory.”
On the Ampeleia website, the description of its popular Unlitro bottling notes that Alicante is foremost among this blend of “varieties originating from the Mediterranean Basin.” The winery was founded in 2002, in that less-rainy, south-end portion of the Costa Toscana which together with a touch of Lazio’s northern coast is called the Maremma, with a helping hand from Trentino winegrower Elizabetta Foradori and a mission to make wine faithful to the territorio of Roccatederighi, a coastal set-back in Tuscany’s Grosetto province. From northern Sardinia, head about 250 km northeast over the Tyrrhenian sea to reach Roccatederighi. There in a vineyard about 250 meters above the level of the sea just crossed — “plot number 148 of cadastral sheet 153, known as Vigna della Pieve, with sandy soils rich in pebbles” — grow Ampeleia’s Alicante Nero vines, “a Mediterranean variety widely diffused throughout the Mediterranean world.”
Writing in 2015, Italian wine blogger Sergio Di Loreto considers the possibility that this traditional grape originated in Italian soil instead. No Garnacha remains from Spanish colonial times have been found in the United States, he writes referring to the studies of Gianni Lovicu, researcher at Cras (Centro regionale agrario sperimentale), although Spanish colonialists and missionaries planted grapevines there starting in the late 15th century and would certainly have planted Garnacha if they’d had it. “And according to similar research efforts, Spanish Monastrell, called Mourvèdre in France, could be a descendant of Sardinian Muristellu,” Di Loreto ventures. Add another direction along with some basic groundwork, by way of a 2015 research paper, published by Elsevier, on controlling grapevine viruses:
Cultivation and domestication of the grapevine appear to have occurred between the seventh and fourth millennia BC in a region between the Black sea and Iran. From this area, the cultivated forms (types) of grapevine were eventually transferred by humans to the Near East, Middle East, and Central Europe, which may have constituted secondary domestication centers. An independent domestication may have happened in Spain as well.
“Evolution is not a straight line, the grape may have gone to Liguria then Tuscany, or maybe Sardinia and then to Tuscany,” and, I imagine, so on, Paris says of the variety’s travels in Italy.
In NWGOI, D’Agata points out that while the fact that an array of Garnacha skin colors — pink, grey, white along with usual red — that’s offered in Spain does not appear in Sardinia makes it seem likely that the former is the grape’s home from further back, “recent studies have added more food for thought.” Of grapes specimen from Spain, Sicily, Sardinia, Veneto and Umbria, “the Italian samples were characterized by a strong genetic variability, in contrast to the Spanish samples, which showed great genetic similarity.” And on Italian Wine Central: “Along with Cannonau, Tai Rosso, and Vernaccia Nera, Alicante is another Italian descendant of Garnacha (Grenache), brought to Italy from Spain by the Aragonese in the 15th to 18th centuries.” More useful terms for several versions or another descendent are subvariety or biotype: “Biotypes are members of a grape variety that exhibit phenotypic plasticity, by spreading out geographically and adapting to different environments over the centuries,” explains D’Agata in NWGOI. “In doing so they have built up mutations. . . . The more ancient a variety, the more likely it is to have greater intravarietal variability — and hence many biotypes — simply because mutations have accumulated over times.” In the everchanging patchwork tale of grapevine identification and origin, the presence of several versions of one grape in one area means the vines — native or traditional — been around for a while, adapting, mutating to local soils, climate, human use.
There’s an oft-repeated illustration: during the 1980s, Sardinian winemakers found their Cannonau selling robustly. Eager to plant more of it and quickly, they turned to nurseries for new vines and, unknowing, wound up with Tocai Rosso, a biotype that grows in response to the Veneto’s cooler, wetter climate and does not fare well in hot, dry Sardinia. “Lower quality,” was the going, disappointed, reaction by Sardinian farmers. “Misplaced,” might be a more accurate assessment. Genetically identical, biotypes of a variety arise after centuries of growing in specific places, with looks and behaviors in both vineyard and winery differing between them and in specific response to where each one has been for a long enough time. “It may not be a matter of one biotype being much higher quality,” writes D’Agata, ” but rather of the variety adapting over the centuries to a specific habitat and becoming more successful in producing interesting wines there.”
Traditionally, Alicante’s Tuscan role is as a blending grape, a component of nearby Sangiovese-based Morellino di Scanzano wines, adding a soft touch and a Mediterranean-herbed edge. “This beautiful Morellino di Scanzano, there’s only a few who aren’t using Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon,” Paris notes of some local attempts to appeal to an imagined international taste. In practical protest, some producers have turned to making it 100% Sangiovese (or, rather, 100% its local biotype, Morellino), but it’s fair to say that that in purezza is not this wine’s profile. As a red wine of coastal Tuscany, it is Morellino based for sure, but its origin, what makes it proper to this coastal place, has been the inclusion of other local grapes, Alicante along with Canaiolo Nero.
Ampeleia’s true-to-place mission began as a coplanting one. Its website reads:
Originating in the Near East, the grape varieties that have been brought together in Ampeleia are often found in Mediterranean farmlands and are affirmations of these places’ identities, ones that are richly varied and nuanced. In past times, vineyards were not planted with just one grape variety but many types were present.
But in time, in order to make “wine that best expresses the land of Roccatederighi,” Ampeleia expanded its bottlings to include a single-varietal one — the Alicante wine now in my glass. Considering the grape’s history, I read, and taste, this wine as confirmation of coastal Tuscany’s roots, a stand against the effects of the region’s recent past — global successes with super Tuscans made of newly arrived international varieties and with a tenacious hold on the wine world’s imagination if not on its current preferences.
“The first time I tasted this wine it was under difficult conditions,” Paris shares. At a crowded, noisy trade show — florescent lights; rows, rows of winery tables and tasters packing just the ground of horizontally and vertically hulking space; one could be anywhere, and if not for some of the wines one would rather be anywhere else — he sought escape for a moment, closed his eyes, and lowered his face to the glass. An immediate overwhelming smell: “bay leaves, myrtle, memories from 50 years ago rushed in of the garden my father had planted” back in Umbria, filled with those Mediterranean standards, the coastal brush called macchia mediterranea in Italy and garrigue in southern France and smelling deeply, deeply, of nowhere else. “On a wine list it becomes one of those geeky things,” he continues. “This revolution, this focus on indigenous varieties in areas like the Maremma, where everyone is eradicating them and planting international varieties.”
A wine made of grapes grown in a single plot for “a better understanding of each vineyard’s potential expression,” reads Ampeleia’s website: Alicante the wine is a “new journey for [the winery] . . . varietal wines representing the fruit of our deeper knowledge and of the evolution of our ideas.” It is made of biodynamically farmed fruit and aged for half a year in cement. The prettiest nose, I wrote, rendered words-shy while tasting this wine with so very much to say. Dry earth and strawberry candy. Tannins sturdy and soft, fruit woven through them. Needs food. Traditional through and through.