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Extensive online gallery featuring over 1,000 Italian wine labels
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Vitigni Autoctoni (Italian Native Vines):
Witness to the Past and Protagonists of the Future
Rosa D'Ancona– June 10, 2005

 
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In a wine world that is ever more dominated by the so-called 'international taste', ruled by wines made with 'international' grapes such as Cabernet, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon, Italy, with its wide range of native vines coveted worldwide, is challenging foreign producers by bringing the attention back to where it belongs, to the zone of origin of the wines and the local cultural traditions that belays them.

With about 350 native grapes officially registered and cultivated, Italy is certainly way ahead in the fight against what some call the 'macdonaldization' of the wine industry, a trend currently under way in many wine-producing regions worldwide.

According to researchers and industry experts, the future of the wine industry depends on its roots and traditions, and  the Italian producers have all the potential to lead this wave of new rules in the marketplace rather than being affected by it. The proof of this is to be found in the growing interest of both the Italian and international markets for Italian wines that present unique personalities and characteristics, thus standing out in a flat panorama, where all wines tend to have similar taste of strong fruit, overwhelming wood and high alcohol content.

vigneti
Italian Vineyards

Ancient native vines: a resource to re-discover and promote
Vitigno Italia, the first event ever dedicated to the wines made from Italian native vines took place in Naples on June 3, 4 and 5, 2005. More than a trade show, Vitigno Italia has been a staging scene that introduced, and allowed the pioneer producers who have been able to maintain and/or rediscover the roots of their land, the Italian and international journalists who have contributed to emphasizing the legacy of these traditions through their work, the trade professionals making these wines available, and to the wine buffs who meet, get to know each other and, overall, taste these wines poured by regional enoteche (wine bars) at the event. Initiatives such as this one, underscore how, when talking about Italian wine worldwide, unique wines that are an expression of their zone of origin and local vines grown and processed according to ancient traditions (though taking advantage of the scientific knowledge available today), come to mind.

The adjective autoctono, or 'native' in Italian, is widely used to describe the native vines and is more and more proudly used to define Italian wines. The value of this adjective, as well as how it affects the buying decision made by consumers, is the subject of analyses, interpretations and projects that could potentially revolutionize the general concept of Italian wines both in Italy and worldwide.

Thus the efforts and initiatives to safeguard and exploit these ancient vines, as well as to create a national strategy to methodologically and objectively classify them, distinguishing between synonymous, clones, and unique vines. There are, for instance, 'ubiquitous' vines, such as the Sangiovese, which is widely found in various parts of central Italy, while others are strictly 'regional', such as the Sicilian Nero d'Avola. Other native vines are decidedly 'local', and grow exclusively in limited zones within a single region, such as is the case with the Sagrantino from Umbria. There are also plans to provide incentives to growing and winemaking experimentation by the vintners, who are currently the true protagonists of the 'rebirth' of many ancient native wines that were believed extinct or had been abandoned for generations.

Thanks to a revitalized spirit of research and innovation, many Italian quality wine producers are choosing to invest significant amounts of money, as well as intellectual resources, in experimenting with native vines, many of which had been disregarded for a number of reasons, but certainly not for lack of quality. These days some of the ancient vines are considered of essential value to consolidating and raising the prestige of Italian wines both in  the national and international markets. The growing consumer request for wines that express the terroir and the ancient, traditional local value of a zone, has contributed greatly to the re-appreciation of the vitigni autoctoni.

There are a number of newly founded organizations, instituted with the goal of sustaining those producers who are actively engaged in the re launch of ancient Italian native vines. Noteworthy among them is the Associazione Nazionale Città del Vino (Cities of Wine National Association), which launched numerous initiatives to protect and promote the Italian quality native vines. Some of the projects promoted by the association are the 'Giardino dei Vitigni Antichi' ('Ancient Vine Gardens') in Calabria, the compilation of the 'Dizionario dei Vitigni Antichi' ('Ancient Vine Dictionary'); the 'Vinum Loci' program, to study and promote some ancient vines to bring them back to cultivation and production; 'VIP - Vino In Piazza' ('Wine in the Piazza'), or, tasting events set up in the piazzas of the Wine Cities (Città del Vino) and dedicated exclusively to wines made with native vines. Last, but not least, there is the request to amend the Finanziaria 2005 (2005 Economy Plan), including the following specifications:

  • request to establish a specific section within the vine National Registry to classify the ancient native vines,
  • decree by the Agriculture and Forestry Minister to limit the use of their name and allow cultivation exclusively in the areas where they originated;
  • €1.5 million tax breaks for vintners and winemakers who invest in research, experimentation, and qualification of Italian ancient native vines.

The consumers' role
Wine lovers agree that one of the great things about Italian wine is its variety and differentiation area by area. But how many wine drinkers are able to say of what the diversity presented by the Italian vitigni autoctoni consists?

According to a 2004 poll, the consumers who express opinions about Italian native vines are many, but apparently, very few have an understanding of the subject. The research, which involved 1,000 people extends from the Alps, in the very north of Italy, all the way down to the island of Sicily. On a national basis, 68% of those interviewed said that they did not know the meaning of autoctono (native). If we take into consideration exclusively the center and south of the country, the percentage rises to 72%. The worst though, is that 44% of those who said they knew the meaning of the adjective, believed that it stood for 'genuine'.

Bottom line, the percentage of those who correctly explained the term as meaning 'local wine' is not statistically significant. In addition, the answers to the request to 'name some names' is disconcerting: over one third (36%) mentioned the Tavernello wine (a cheap, box wine). On the other hand, the wines that were identified correctly as made with native vines are just four: Barbera (67%), Sangiovese (63%), Verdicchio (61%) and Tocai Friulano (58%).

From the result of the poll it is clear that an information campaign is strongly needed, in order to educate the consumers. Marketing and strategic communication about Italian Vini Autoctoni must be part of an articulate campaign: the area of origin, the characteristics of the vine, and the historic evolution, as well as the origin of the name must be told in detail. Limiting the description to the organoleptic analyses of the wine is not enough. The communication should start with the front and back labels, but must be reflected in wine guides and trade magazines, emphasized at wine tasting and in educational material for wine bar and restaurant managers and employees.



 
 
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