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Tuscan winery experiments with Georgian grapes to fight climate change

Italian wine estate Castello Banfi is planting unusual grape varieties in Tuscany to see what could thrive as climate change brings intense heat and higher rainfall to the region.

The estate has a two hectare “experimental vineyard” which is used to work out how well different clones of Sangiovese can grow without the use of artificial pesticides, but it is also useful for testing out species that “aren’t yet permitted” to be vinified and labelled as Tuscan wines.

One variety in particular which stands out is Saperavi, according to Jgor Marini, Banfi’s regional manager. Saperavi, which literally means “dye” in Georgian, is an acidic, dark-skinned, pink-fleshed grape native to the country, but also found in Armenia, Moldova, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and in smaller quantities in the Niagara and Finger Lakes regions of New York State.

Tuscany is home to 41 DOC and 11 DOCG areas, all of which have strict production rules. Winemakers can only label their wines as a DOC or DOCG by using specific kinds of grapes and vinification methods. For example Brunello del Montalcino, one of many DOCG wines Banfi produces, can only be made with 100% Sangiovese grapes.

But global warming is changing wine as we’ve come to understand it. Estates in the Old World are lifting bans on unofficial grape varieties and toying with others in their blends to be able to continue making elegant reds, restrained Champagnes and Cognacs that can stand the test of time. One survey last year found that producers believe climate change is one of the industry’s greatest threats.

In Tuscany, over the past 30 years temperatures have increased both in the winter and in the summer, and so has the amount of rain. Italy’s climate is becoming more and more tropical, which means grapes need to be both disease-resistant and have thick skins to withstand the intense sun,

Marini told the drinks business over Zoom that Banfi is looking for grapes that are “resistant to botrytis, thick skinned and lower flowering”, which makes them more durable and able to thrive in Tuscany without being sprayed with artificial chemicals, and can weather the region’s intensifying heat and sunlight over the next few decades. Once the grapes ripen, they are vinified in small batches so the end result can be assessed by researchers at the Edmund Mach Foundation of Institute of San Michele All’Adige, as well as Rauscedo Nursery and C.R.E.A.

The details of the experiment were disclosed during a webinar held by Banfi on sustainability in the Italian wine sector. Banfi and the estate’s UK agency, Louis Latour, launched a series of weekly video conferences when the UK’s lockdown as a way to keep the industry connected and up-to-date with its own news.

Banfi’s experiments build on those originally carried out in the 1980s, which have helped to shape Italian winemakers’ understanding of Sangiovese.

Funded by capital from legal — though conspicuously alcoholic — medicinal bitters in Prohibition-era America, Banfi was able to buy and develop Tuscan vineyards in the ’70s and invest in decade-long research into the 15 best, healthiest clones out of 650 Sangiovese grapes.

Castello Banfi was founded in 1978 by brothers, John and Harry Mariani, the owners of the U.S. wine importer Banfi Vintners. With vineyards in Montalcino and Chianti, the family-owned estate produces a range of wines, from Chianti Classico through to single vineyard Brunellos.

Sangiovese is the principle grape variety of Tuscany, and only a handful of other non-native grapes can be used in IGT wines.

In the 1980’s Banfi teamed up with the University of Milan to research around 650 clones of Sangiovese. Now, Marini told db that, while Banfi continues to research Sangionese clones, there is a renewed focus on hybrid grape varieties and crosses that are “not allowed to be cultivated in Tuscany” yet.

Marini said Banfi is “lucky” to have the crossings – new grape varieties created by the cross-pollination of two varieties from the same species –  “because they come from the university”, he said.

It is hoped that these and the hybrid grapes could reduce the vine’s impact on the earth, and also enable them to thrive without chemical treatments.

“The aim is to get in the future new varieties and rootstocks that are able to survive naturally.”

However, the most important part of the experiment is still monitoring Sangiovese clones. Small plots of different grafts are vinified in individual batches before they are assessed by Banfi’s oenologists, alongside researchers from the university. The plot itself is also rich in different types of soil, which helps the estate to cover as many variables as possible. “Different soils can give different results,” Marini said.

“We will need long term to understand what is the best – we have done the same in 10 years time planting different clones and eliminating those that are not responding well – it’s a long term process.”

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