Let’s start with a little bit of history.
Back in 1905, more than sixteen hundred varieties – 1671, to be exact – were cultivated at a plant nursery run by Sella & Mosca winery near Alghero, on the island of Sardinia.
Sixteen hundred and seventy-one.
When I learned that an actual catalog exists that documents each of those 1671 varieties, my interest was piqued. Not because I’m any sort of historian, but because of the flood of choice that the catalog represents. In 1905! Imagine too the horticultural expertise, and the entrepreneurial initiative to propagate all of these varieties in a post-phylloxera Europe.
The catalog – whose cover reminds me of a turn-of-the-century movie poster or an Art Deco-era postcard – captures a viticultural snapshot of that time and place.
Now let’s put that snapshot into the context of today’s viticultural reality.
Today, just 15 kinds of grapes account for nearly 80% of all wine made in commercial quantities in France. In California it’s even worse: nearly 80% of wine made there comes from only eight kinds of grapes. Which makes that 1671 number pretty staggering.
It also makes the Why questions fairly inevitable. Why so many, and in 1905? Why in Sardinia? And why has that number been whittled down so drastically in the last hundred-plus years?
We could spend a very long time – as others have – trying to answer those questions. For the moment, however, let’s consider what the catalog means for our appreciation of Italian wine.
Here are five suggestions.
- Today, Italy claims more than 500 native grapes in its winemaking repertoire. Even though the grapes that still grow in Sardinia, and in Italy overall, are a fraction of what used to grow, a winelover can spend a lifetime sampling indigenous grapes and never be bored.
- For anyone who’s a fan of off-the-beaten-track varieties, Sardinia in particular is a haven and they’ve got the history to prove it.
- If wine is like a liquid snapshot of a specific place and time, then the snapshot of wines made from native grapes of Italy bear the fingerprints of everyone responsible for it – grower, winemaker, seller – within a very tight radius. It’s local food, magnified.
- The catalog also lists the hybrids and crossings of varieties with American rootstock, which was both the cause and the antidote of the phylloxera epidemic that destroyed most European vines at the end of the nineteenth century. That Sella & Mosca had mobilized their response to the epidemic by 1905 is testament to their entrepreneurial initiative in the midst of a desperate situation.
- Forty kinds of Chasselas. Twelve kinds of Gamay. Familiar-sounding but no-longer-known varieties like Grüner Riessler and Languedoker. And 50 entries listed alphabetically between Moscatel and Moscato Viola de Madera. Paging through the catalog is like wandering a botanical garden devoted to the world of wine as it used to be. It is also what has helped to preserve and shape what that world is today.