How do I choose a grape variety?
I’ll give you five minutes to think about which grape varieties you would choose to cultivate on an inherited piece of land in the Parma hills to produce quality wine.
Ready? If you answered Chardonnay or Malvasia, you may already be on the right track, but only if you specified which Malvasia grape variety.
If, however, you answered Nebbiolo or Vitovska, I am afraid I will have to take on the thankless task of crushing your dreams. Yes, because the land of Emilia is fertile and generous, but not all grape varieties are made for it.
Finding the most suitable vine clones for an area is a complex task that has to take into account many factors and implies in-depth knowledge of the territory, the soil and climatic environment and the composition of the soil.
First of all, although it is true that the vine generally likes mild temperatures and finds its best conditions between the 40th and 50th parallel in the northern hemisphere and between the 30th and 40th in the southern hemisphere, mostly in the hills, it is not true that all varieties develop in the same way at the same temperatures. This is why ripeness degree is a crucial factor and should always be taken into consideration when deciding to plant a new vineyard. In warm areas, early-ripening varieties such as Ciliegiolo, Dolcetto, Malvasia Nera Lunga or Moscato Giallo risk ripening too quickly, while in cooler areas, late-ripening varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Lagrein, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and Nebbiolo risk not ripening at all.
Still on the subject of climate, in addition to temperature, we must also consider the different resistance of the grape varieties to humidity and temperature changes, and their reaction to sun exposure. To give just a few examples: some grapes have a very thin skin, which makes them more susceptible to rot and mould in the event of heavy rainfall and humidity; some grape varieties benefit from temperature fluctuations between night and day because these allow the aromatic substances and fixed acids to concentrate in the flesh of the berries, while others do not tolerate temperature fluctuations; excessive exposure to the sun could be harmful to the more sugary grapes, which risk becoming too concentrated, while it could be optimal for those rich in acids.
The composition of the soil is another decisive factor that guides the choice of agronomists when they are called upon to decide on the fate of a vineyard. There is an inescapable link between vine and soil and it is difficult to obtain wines with the same organoleptic profile from grapes of the same variety but in different soils. For example, calcareous soils tend to produce wines with a less intense colour, good acidity and little tannin: characteristics that are more appreciated in a white wine and therefore point to the cultivation of white grape varieties. Clay soils, on the other hand, produce wines with intense colours, structure and rich tannin.
The grape varieties of Tenute Venturini Foschi
So, going back to the original question, you can understand that the answer isn’t simple. Each grape variety has its own ideal environment. However, this does not mean that – without indulging in wild flights of fancy – one cannot experiment, by trying to cultivate grape varieties other than those most common in one’s own area.
This is what Pier Luigi Foschi and Emanuela Venturini have done on their estates. Unlike us mere dreamers, they started out by inheriting some land in the Parma hills and then embarked on a magical journey that runs along the two tracks of tradition and innovation: in their vineyards, which now extend over 27 hectares of land between the municipalities of Noceto, Medesano and Pellegrino Parmense, they alternate between different native and international grape varieties.
Malvasia di Candia Aromatica
Malvasia di Candia Aromatica, the main grape variety of the Parma hills, is part of this tradition and has resulted in the first two wines of the estates, Gemma and Gemma Gentile.
It arrived in Italy between the 13th and 15th centuries, probably from the Greek island of Monemvasia, thanks to the trade of the Venetian Republic, and found its ideal environment in the Parma and Piacenza hills and in part of the Oltrepò Pavese. It likes cool, fertile soils, not too dry climates and is quite resistant to winter cold and late frosts. Although it is part of the Malvasia family, the aromatic characteristics of its berries bring it closer to Muscat grapes.
If you are walking among the rows of vines in August and wonder how to recognise Malvasia di Candia Aromatica plants, look for medium-sized, glabrous, glossy green, pentagonal and pentalobed leaves, a medium-large, pyramidal, elongated, sparse bunch with numerous wings, a round, golden yellow berry with a thick, pruinose skin.
The Malvasia harvest on the Parma hills takes place around the first ten days of September – although the period may vary from year to year depending on the weather – but at Tenute Venturini Foschi only part of the grapes is picked once they have reached the correct degree of ripeness, while the remainder are left to over-ripen for the production of Gemma Gentile. Harvesting is done strictly by hand in 18-kilo boxes: a choice dictated, on the one hand, by the desire to preserve as much as possible the integrity of the grapes, which often risk being over-pressed, and, on the other, by the grape variety itself, which is ill-suited to full mechanisation. Due to the aromatic characteristics and sweetness of its grapes, Malvasia di Candia Aromatica is often used in blends with other grape varieties: here, in the case of Gemma and Gemma Gentile, it was decided to vinify them in purity to keep the identity of this grape variety intact, giving particular importance to the vinification process through the use of cold.
Chardonnay – which in the estates will be used both in the production of the most structured white wine, Fonio, and in the production of a classic method sparkling wine – is originally from Burgundy but has spread all over the world thanks to its great adaptability, with over 210,000 hectares cultivated worldwide. A versatile grape variety, it is one of the clearest demonstrations of how the composition of the soil and the climate influence the evolution of the grape and, consequently, of the wine that derives from it: in each territory, the aromatic components trapped in its berries are expressed differently, giving the wines different characteristics each time. Among the characteristics that make it a much-loved grape variety is its capacity for ageing and predisposition to ageing in wood, which make it possible to obtain wines of great complexity and structure, as well as its flexibility in vinification: from still wines to sparkling wines and even dessert wines.
Chardonnay wine is usually straw yellow, with intense and fine hints of tropical yellow fruit that can become much richer with ageing. The taste expresses great elegance and a good balance between freshness and acidity. In the case of Chardonnay, how do you recognise the grape variety? While for Malvasia di Candia Aromatica I have generally indicated August for a trip to the vineyard, in this case I would advise you not to wait too long: Chardonnay is an early variety and by the end of the month you risk not finding any grapes left. Its leaves are medium-sized, whole, dark green in colour; the bunch is medium-sized, cylindrical-conical, compact and with two wings; the berry is green-yellow, small and spherical, with a thin, pruinose skin.
Sauvignon Blanc shares two aspects with Chardonnay: it is one of the most widespread grape varieties in the world and shows a great variability of aromas, which change according to climate and territory.
Native to the Loire Valley, where it still finds some of its highest expressions between Sancerre and Pouilly-sur-Loire, it takes its name from the French sauvage, “wild” for its leaves that are reminiscent of the wild vine.
A white berry, semi-aromatic, it has several biotypes distinguished by bunch size and aromas. Its aromatic notes are typical, with hints of nettle, tomato leaf, gooseberry and grapefruit, and depend on the presence in the grapes of methoxypyrazines, compounds that are highly volatile and therefore more perceptible to the nose.
Precisely because of its olfactory complexity, Sauvignon is mainly aged in steel and there is a tendency to avoid wood, which would give the wine additional scents that would risk overpowering the primary aromas.
In addition to its aromas, a distinctive feature is its strong acidity. Often to preserve the latter and the aforementioned methoxypyrazines, harvesting is done early to prevent these two characteristics from degrading as ripening progresses.
What are the ampelographic characteristics in this case? The leaf is medium, rounded, trilobed or pentalobed, deep green in colour. The bunch may be small or medium, compact, truncated cone-shaped or cylindrical and winged. The berries are medium-large, sub-spheroidal, with pruinose, yellow-green, spotted skin.
However, Tenute Venturini Foschi is not just about white grapes because part of the land has been allocated to the cultivation of three important international black grape varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot noir.
Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the most popular grape varieties in the world and has spread to such an extent that it occupies an area of 300,000 ha. Its origin seems to be relatively recent: genetic studies have shown that it is the result of a spontaneous cross between Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc that took place in the 18th century, probably in Gironde. And it is here that Cabernet Sauvignon reaches its highest levels, mainly in blends with other wines, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, in what is known as the “Bordeaux blend”. But Cabernet Sauvignon also gives excellent results in many other areas of the world, such as Tuscany, and in particular the Bolgheri area, or the Napa Valley in California. The secret of its success lies in the thick skins of its small berries, which are very rich in polyphenolic substances. Prolonged maceration on the skins extracts these polyphenols, which evolve over time, especially when aged in wood, to produce complex, long-lived well-structured wines. With proper ageing, the wine made from Cabernet Sauvignon moves from the fruity aromas typical of youth to complex notes of cedar, tobacco, spices and graphite, and the tannins melt away, giving way to finesse and intensity.
A late-ripening grape variety that adapts well to different climates, it can be recognised by its medium-sized, pentagonal and pentalobed leaves, its medium-small, cylindrical-pyramidal, oblong and winged bunches, and its blue-black, medium-small, sub-round berries with a thick, pruinose skin.
Another international red grape variety of French origin is Merlot. Due to its easy adaptability, it is appreciated all over the world, where it has come to occupy an area of 250,000 ha.
Recently, the discovery of an almost extinct grape variety given the name Magdeleine Noire des Charentes and DNA analyses have established that Merlot is the result of a spontaneous cross between the latter and Cabernet Franc.
It is an early grape variety, which is usually harvested a couple of weeks before Cabernet Sauvignon, with which it is often combined in wine production. The choice, which is quite common, to combine these two varieties is dictated by the need to give balance to the wine: compared to the Cabernet Sauvignon grape, Merlot is much richer in sugars – so much so that its name may derive from the attraction that its sweet berries exert on blackbirds. Because of this characteristic, it performs best on moist, fatty, clay-rich soils that preclude excessive sugar concentrations and reduced acidity.
Merlot has light green, medium, pentagonal and pentalobed leaves. Bunches tend to be medium-sized, pyramidal and winged, but care must be taken as there are differences between the various biotypes. The berries are blue-purple, medium-sized, spherical, with pruinose skin.
This grape variety produces soft, full-bodied wines with intense aromas of red fruit and plants, which tend to evolve into spicy and candied notes with ageing.
Difficult, capricious, fragile, demanding. These are just some of the adjectives used to describe Pinot noir, a grape variety that represents an enormous challenge for many growers: it is susceptible to cold and spring frosts because it germinates early; in a hot climate it risks losing acidity; it needs to be well watered but, at the same time, its thin skin makes it prone to rot in the event of rain and humidity; if moved even a few kilometres, it can change character completely.
Better to leave it alone, then? Of course not! Pinot noir, in the right soil and climate and with the right winemaking techniques, produces some of the best wines in the world. Suffice it to say that the great red wines of Burgundy are made from its grapes and that, when vinified in white, it is used in the blends of the best Champagnes. Many consider Burgundy to be the birthplace of Pinot noir, but its origin remains unknown to this day. Its name probably derives from “pine cone”, a term that refers to the elongated and compact shape of its bunch.
Its character is highly variable and the composition of the soil has a profound influence on its evolution: grapes grown in clay soils give full-bodied and structured wines, in siliceous soils the wine is lighter while in calcareous soils the bouquet is enhanced. The Pinot noir clones used for both red and white vinification are numerous and have different ampelographic characteristics, but in general they have small to medium-sized, dark green, trilobed and rounded leaves. The bunch is small, cylindrical, compact and the berry is black-purple, medium, round, with pruinose skin.