A Synopsis of Italian Viticultural History

Vines were growing in Italy long before the beginning of recorded time. The fossilized remains of prehistoric vine leaves and grape clusters have been found throughout the country. Some vineyard sites date from the Bronze age, leading scientists to believe that Man was already making wine here on a regular basis at that time. Wine was more than a beverage in these early days; it was thought to possess a mystic power and it played an important role in the religious lives of the ancient tribes who inhabited the area.

The Etruscans arrived in Italy from Asia Minor around 800 B.C. Their first colonies were in the Tuscan area of the Maremma. At the peak of their power, in the 6th and 7th centuries B.C., they controlled the whole of northern Italy from the Tiber to the Alps.

The Greeks arrived on Italian shores around 750 BC, establishing the first colonies of Magna Grecia along the coast of the Ionian sea and on the island of Sicily. Along with grape seeds and cultivation and winemaking techniques, they brought the cult of Dionysus, divine son of Zeus and God of Wine and Revelry. These original colonies prospered by trading, among other things, local wine with Greek colonies in Africa and with their mother country.

The Romans based their viticultural techniques on Greek models, sowing Greek grape seeds alongside the many indigenous vines. Virgil declared that there were so many of these local varieties as to render them uncountable:
He who would number them, the same would wish
To tell the tale of sand that Zephyr stirs
On Libya’s waste, or when the East wind drives
Most vehemently on the ships, to know
How many rollers reach the Ionian strand.
Virgil Georgics, Book II Of Trees line 122 – 128 T. F. Royds, Translator

The Romans often planted vineyards and fruit orchards on the same plots of land. Trees were an indispensable part of vine growing in those days, as Virgil’s graphic description of vine husbandry, from planting to the thinning of the first tender leaves, reveals:

When all is safely planted, it remains
To draw the earth about the roots, and ply
Stern hoes; or deeply drive the frequent plough,
And e’en through vineyards guide the straining steer.
Then must you furnish shafts of barkless wand,
Smooth reeds and ashen poles and stalwart forks,
That the young plant, relying on their strength,
May rise to mock the winds, and, climbing higher,
Attain the topmost storey of the elm.
And while sweet childhood’s bloom is on the leaves,
Spare yet their tenderness; while the vine-spray
Leaps blithely into foamless seas of air
Unbridled, unrefrained, no pruner’s blade
May violate the vine; only the leaves
Must with bent finger-tips be nicely thinned.
Virgil Georgics, Book II Of Trees line 424 – 438 T. F. Royds, Translator.

Early winemaking methods were simple but effective: the harvested grapes were piled into a stone or wooden trough. The free-run juice was collected and set aside to be made into the highest quality wine. Then the grapes were trod underfoot to make wine for everyday drinking. Torque presses squeezed out the last few drops of juice. The crusty residue which remained was pressed into blocks and sold to the poor and to slaves who added water to it to make “instant” wine.

A Roman technique which is still used throughout Italy is the semi-drying of grapes before pressing. This procedure is called appassimento and the resulting wines are known as passiti. These tend to be rich, full-bodied and highly alcoholic. In their Southern colonies, the Romans left the ripe grapes to dry on the vine. In cooler, more humid climates, they harvested the fully ripe bunches and left them to dry in well-ventilated lofts. These drying grapes were sometimes braided and hung from the ceiling.

Today, appassimento is used to produce superb dessert wines, such as Torcolato and the Reciotos, Passitos and Vin Santos. This process is also used in the production of rich, dry red wines, of which Amarone is the best known example.

The chaos that emerged from the fragmentation and subsequent collapse of the Roman Empire virtually put an end to what had been a thriving international wine trade. But wine drinking continued apace, at least within the walls of monasteries and in the courts of enlightened Monarchs. Vine growing and wine making was carried out principally by religious orders.

In the 5th century, inhabitants along the coast of what is now the Gulf of Venice fled to a small island in the lagoon to escape the Barbarian invasions. Their collections of huts eventually became the glorious city of Venice. The Venetians earned their reputation as master navigators and traders. By the end of the 6th century, Venice was providing spices, fabrics and other Oriental products to all of Italy.

In 1202 the Venetian armada conquered Constantinople, thereby consolidating their control of all the important trade routes. Thus, they had a virtual international monopoly on wine trading.

The Republic of Venice continued to expand its territory. However, when Venice lost control of Crete, and the sweet wine that island produced, its merchants were forced to seek wine sources closer to home. They developed the areas around Verona and those in the hills south of Padua, encouraging the production of passito wines, which withstood the rigours of transport better than wines made from fresh grapes.

Italy was not yet a united country, and therefore, every major power wanted to stake its claim on the peninsula. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, the House of Savoy and Napoleon all marched troops through the vineyards. With no secure political system in place, trading in wine was difficult.

Cyrus Redding writes in his magnificent book, A History and Description of Modern Wines (published in 1833), “The wines of Italy have not obtained that character which might be expected, if the excellence of the grape, and the congeniality of the climate to the culture of the vine, be duly considered. The wines of modern Italy are all made for home consumption. The interests of commerce, which lead to competition, have not yet interfered to improve them.”

By the 1880s Cabernet and Merlot were already well established in Friuli and the Veneto, from which they spread throughout the country.

During the late nineteenth century wine producers throughout Europe faced a continual crisis as vine diseases followed by ruinous infestation wreaked havoc in the vineyards.

This massive devastation resulted from phylloxera vastatrix, a vine louse whose fiendish lifestyle makes it virtually impossible to arrest. This brazen bug, it has been conjectured, found its way from America to a greenhouse in Hammersmith on the leaves of an ornamental shrub. By 1868 it had infected the vineyards of Bordeaux, by 1884 it had destroyed most of viticultural France and had caused great damage to Austro-Hungary, Germany, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Madeira. Italy sought to profit from France’s woes, and between 1870 and 1890, Italy’s wine production doubled. In 1880, 80% of the population made its living from vine growing, winemaking and trading. The phylloxera scourge continued unabated until the late 1880s when scientists realized that the only way to impede this louse was to graft local vines onto American rootstock. This worked because the American plants had existed for centuries along with phylloxera and had, over time, developed an immunity to it. Grafting and replanting took a tremendous investments of time and money, and the first phylloxera-free vintages did not appear until the 1890s.

The World Wars created a devastation of another sort, virtually bringing vine growing to a standstill in some areas of Italy as vineyards were destroyed and family estates fragmented. A war never neatly ends with the signing of a Peace agreement; the ravages and deprivations can linger for decades. After World War II, there was simply no money to be made in wine, and most fit young people were forced to move to the cities in order find work to support their families. During this period, land in some areas became virtually worthless. Many of these abandoned vineyards and farms were snapped up by businessmen and foreigners who built summer homes on the land. Much of the rest was given over to the production of more profitable crops.

Soldiers returning to the United States took back certain scraps of European culture and lore, among them, the idea that “Soave” was a term for light, dry whites, while “Chianti” was synonymous with cheap, dry red. During the 1950s, one suspects, wines from all over the country and from any manner of grapes were employed in the task of turning out generic red and white to satisfy this new, thirsty market. It has taken the Chianti zone – through consistent and concerted effort – decades to revitalize its wines and its image.

During the 1960s, in an effort to shore up the rapidly declining reputation of Italian wines and bring production regulations into line with European Community standards, the Italian Government set up a system of wine laws, which basically codified the realities of historic production zones with regard to yields, grape varieties and boundaries. As the DOC laws were based on “tradition” – which sometimes stretched no further back than the 1930s, and thus accommodated 20th century mass production practices – the government created DOCG laws, awarding the first DOCG in 1980. The “G” stands for Garantita and is supposed to serve as a guarantee of high quality. To receive the “G” rating, wines from a zone must be submitted to tasting panels and show consistently high standards. It also requires that producers work together and agree on just what those standards should be. This is not an easy task

In the 1980s and 1990s, wishing to attract wider international attention, producers often chose to mask the personality of their local varieties with a dash of Chardonnay or a splash of Cabernet. And because New World wines wrapped in a thick layer of oak were winning awards during this period, many Italians decided to give their wines the same treatment, with wildly varying degrees of success.

The international market’s thirst for Chardonnay and Cabernet has reached saturation point, with “ABC” (Anything But Chardonnay/Cabernet) now being the common battle cry among wine lovers. In this atmosphere of exploration and open-mindedness, Italy has the opportunity to take the wine world by storm, as no other country can offer the same wide variety of flavours and fragrances. Italian producers are now building their future on their unique and age-old viticultural heritage