The Alto Orvietano
A discovery in the forest
As all wine lovers know, the ancient vineyards of Europe were devastated in the late 1800s by the phylloxera vitifoliae aphid which attacks the roots of grape plants. A huge sector of the economy of Europe was affected. The only solution was to graft plants on to American rootstock which had grown resistant to the pest, and replant.
Now, remarkably, ancient pre-phylloxera vines which escaped destruction have been found hidden in a forest near Orvieto, including six varieties that have never been identified before, true Umbrian natives.
We Wine Girls had to investigate!
So in September we drove south to the hills above Orvieto where we met up with Renato Montagnolo, the former mayor of Montegabbione. We wanted to see the centuries-old vines which have given impetus to a reclamation project begun in 2012, “Terra della Vicciuta”, Land of the Vicciuta, the climbing vines. If all goes well, the fruit of these precious plants could give a boost to the local economy of the Alto Orvietano.
What is La Vicciuta?
Renato explained that “vicciuta” is the term chosen for vines which farmers in the past abandoned at the edge of their property, often near a ditch, perhaps because they were no longer productive. These vines were not pruned or treated to produce grapes for wine, and so they grew as Mother Nature intended: climbing everywhere, creating lots of leaves and little fruit, returning to their wild state, “marrying” with nearby trees. However, they continued to live in a marginal way as part of the economy of the property. Some produced white grapes, some black. In the last century landowners still gathered them to make a sweet, alcoholic wine. Renato told us that old people who had the opportunity to taste this wine said that it was very good.
How old ARE these vines?
Renato, still a dynamo in retirement, explained that for some time it was known that very old grape vines existed in the forest outside of Montegabbione, on the slopes of Monte Arale. He had seen them when he hunted in the forest. The collection of testimonies by hunters and truffle hunters was the first step in locating them, and just the beginning of a fascinating scientific project which we learned about as the day progressed.
Piling into a four wheel drive, we began our ascent of the mountain, eventually turning onto a rough track leading into dense growth. At a certain point we disembarked and continued the rest of the way on foot, clambering over boulders and streams. Renato, in the lead, hacked through the underbrush with his sharp falce sickle and before long we were there.
Noting the huge size of the trunks and how high the branches have climbed, Renato observed that the vines must date from the latter part of the 1800s. We wondered how it’s possible to find an ungrafted grapevine, more than 100 years old, living in the middle of a forest? He explained that seeds may have been disseminated by birds, deer or boar, or possibly an isolated farm once existed here, eventually abandoned by impoverished share croppers. Nevertheless, to be out of range of the dreaded aphid, for once Umbria’s isolation was a benefit!
Taming the wild grapevines
Along with his friend Luciano Giacché, professor of food anthropology at the University of Perugia and a lover and promoter of the Alto Orvietano, Renato began a project which encompasses the five communes and two provinces where the vicciute were found: Città della Pieve, Piegaro, Montegabbione, Ficulle, Parrano, Fabbro, Monteleone di Orvieto and San Venanzo. Now four years later, two experimental vineyards are being established to save these old varieties and discover if they will produce good wine.
But before planting, endless research was required. Genetic testing on 40 examples involved scientists in Arezzo and Conegliano and their findings were a surprise. Along with local varieties Drupeggio, Trebbiano Perugino, Nocera, Sangiovese, Trebbiano Toscano, Morellino del Valdarno, Verdicchio, Famoso delle Marche, and Montonico Bianco, they found a Cabernet Sauvignon! How did that end up here? Even more astonishing was the discovery of six unknown, never before catalogued varieties. These were named for the places where they were collected; for example Montarale testa 1 because it was found on Monte Arale.
The count’s vineyard
Leaving the forest Renato took us to meet Conte Lorenzo Misciatelli who is, along with nine other wine makers, a participant in the project. The count has rooted 1,300 cuttings, 50 plants of each variety and the minimum needed for microvinification, in a field below his imposing Castello di Montegiove, where he produces wine under that name. (Near Città della Pieve, the second vicciuta vineyard will be created in 2017 by Paolo Bolla of Podere Fontesecca.) The little plants are growing slowly. In 2018 the first vinification will probably take place, and the wine assessed as to its potential.
It is a fascinating experiment and the whole of this territory bordering Tuscany and Umbria may benefit, a tribute to Renato, Professor Ghiacchè, his fellow scientists, and the seriousness of today’s Umbrian wine makers.
We can’t wait to try it!
We dedicate this blog to the memory of our beloved friend, Ann Burbank Nelson.