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martedì 5 settembre 2017

Something more, much less

di Sandro Fracasso

Picture 1. Sagrantino grapevines, Montefalco (courtesy of Francesco Botti, Colle del Saraceno)

There are many types of plants, but none is detached from its ground


Admiring nature during a spring stroll is indeed a source of emotions; the beauty of a well-kept field, of a flock of sheep grazing peacefully, with olive trees, grapevines and Mediterranean scrub in the background.
On the other hand, are we fully aware of the direct impact of catabolic processes of animals and plants on the environment? A single example: the percentage of digestive gas of bovines and herds (mainly methane and nitrous oxides)is a little less than 30% of the entire yearly world greenhouse gas emissions. The energetic balance of plants should be carefully analysed, adding their final decomposition to the calculation: it is definitively misleading to analyse only the dioxide carbon emissions stolen from the greenhouse effect and the difference between the oxygen produced during the day and re-absorbed -in lesser quantities- during the night. As one can clearly deduce from the Second Law of Thermodynamics, nature irrevocably tends towards less organized forms of energy. Before actually sinking into a scaremongering whining, let’s keep in mind that this preamble only aims at considering the ground and anything that moves on and around it as an holistic system. In other words, if focusing on agriculture, it is impossible to separate farming from ground and vice versa, particularly with plants that stay/develop on the same ground for a long time (grapevines, olive trees, chestnut trees).

Ground eaters

The human habit of eating the ground is well documented since Homo Habilis. This phenomenon had spread so much – with the exception of the far-east – that a defining word was coined: geophagia. In the most critical cases, the practice of gulping down ground was a consequence of poverty and famine. Nevertheless, food recipes with ground as first ingredient are still available nowadays. Some even reached Haiti, brought by the slaves deported from the African coasts. Chemically, it cannot be denied that some elements of the ground are basic ingredients of several saline supplements on sale nowadays. Indeed, in case of poor and unbalanced diets, the ingestion of the ground and of its bacteria can supply vitamins that may be difficult to find otherwise (such as B12). Of course there was always a price to pay in terms of health, with heavy risks of infections and miscarriages, since in some specific circumstances also pregnant women took advantages of this practice.
It would be interesting to picture geophagia as a rough bridge between hunters-gatherers and farmers, thinking of the ground as a forerunner of the food that would be subsequently produced on it, through planting, growth, harvest.

Shifting the focus of this analysis on the effect of geophagia on the composition of the ground, it is proved that it is widely spread amongst animals, and therefore it is reasonable to consider the physical/chemical balance between the ingestion of the ground and the ejection of the leftovers of its digestion on the soil. And, as this is not a minor contribution, the impact on the vegetable kingdom must be much more crucial. Indeed, while an animal can move from one field to the other, it is only the seeds of a vegetable species that can do it. Any plant that is born on a specific plot of land grows of the nourishment of the ground; at the same time the plant releases allelochemicals, plant growth regulators, seeds, fruit, parts or the entire vegetal in decomposition. These substances change the composition of the ground, its PH, the microbial colonies. The fact that in some cases the bond between a specific portion of ground and a specific plant can last for centuries is significant and worth a pause for thought.


The word terroir comes from French, even though the concept it summarizes was already well-known to Greeks and Romans. This word was chosen for a universal use, as it contains a meaning that would need a few lines to be expressed in other languages. Also, over the years, this concept has evolved: from a well-accepted definition, based on the balance between climate and geographical conditions, it has evolved much further, maybe even too much for a single three-syllable word. Nowadays it is not rare to find oenologists and scientific communicators heated up about the issue on the use of barrique: is it related or not to the concept of terroir? It surely influences the final flavour of the wine, but isn’t it rather a well-established oenological practice? The risk is a vicious circle. A point that must be analysed in depth, however, is that of the effect of the grapevine on the soil.

Going back home

After a long period of conflict, such as that of the Second World War, the first major need is goods and the second is a way to get them. In a civil society, this goes through labour. Legislating to enhance the reconstruction of a country destroyed by the war means financing labour. What about reforestation? In the after war, Amintore Fanfani was Ministry of Labour. We owe him a wide impact law: n. 264 of 1949. A considerable budget (50 billion lire) was allocated for the reconstruction and reforestation of the Northern and Centre mountain areas of the country (on the following year a similar law, n.646, was promulgated for Southern Italy).
Locally, the absurd impact of this law is visible in a small Tuscan area: Val di Merse and specifically the territory of Monticiano. Its area (ten thousand hectares, of which nine thousand are tree-covered) didn’t escape the reforestation program even though its forests hadn’t faced relevant damages due to the conflict. Even amateurs can see the nonsense here. The project involved the introduction of the Pinus pinaster in the delicate, centuries-old balance of chestnut trees, oaks, small bushes. It was the beginning of the decline of chestnut trees, that back then was the direct (chestnut, flour) and indirect (wood) source of sustenance for the poor populations of the area. Indeed, pine trees modified the surrounding territory, and with their quick growth they occupied wider and wider parts of the forest. When the local metal-bearing mines closed down, the request of pine wood to build support structures declined. Pine trees were therefore able to grow undisturbed, to the point where they rot and collapsed on streets paths and surrounding plants. But a unique fact happened: pine trees rooted everywhere but on floodplains near rivers. Those grounds had not been conquered by any other tree before; even during years of neglect, bushes and shrub had mostly grown. A ground of this kind immediately recalls farming; in fact, centuries of agriculture had modified it deeply, making it unsuitable for forest trees. Evidence of that was clear during the so-called economic boom; those grounds, in spite of being fertile and flat were abandoned for several years. But neither the black alders of the nearby river Farma, nor Turkey oaks on the other side of the path rooted in there. This year, for the first time after almost four decades, wheat was sowed there.

Associative thought

It is a mental process that associates a specific subject to all relevant current factors, excluding the past ones. By applying it to the concepts above expressed, if a grapevine is rooted on a specific soil for a long time, it modifies it deeply and for years. In other words, if the bond between ground and agriculture is proved as some sort of symbiosis, the same concept should be applied to grapevine.

Where hawks dared

Some say that they used to be numerous, flying around, some others that they arrived with the Emperor and that the local population lead them back to him as a sign of submission. In any case, the fate of Corcurione was marked by hawks. Indeed, it was in honour of Frederick II of Swabia, who travelled through it with his army, that the town acquired the toponym “Montefalco”, literally Hawk Mountain (a few other local toponyms date back to that period, in memory of the passage of the Imperial Army). It is well documented that Frederick II stopped in Corcurione between February 9th and February 13th, 1240. The Saracen Army, led by its Liutenant Tommaso D’Aquino, Earl of Acessa, camped nearby, on the hills. He was moving against Spoleto, of clear guelph faith, during the military campaign against Rome. On this matter, the Emperor himself wrote in one of his letters to the Empire’s partisans: “Quia Civitas Spoleti, spiritu rebellionis assumpto nostris beneplacitis se opponit, fidelitati tue precipiendo mandamus quatenus, receptis hiis licteris, omnes spoletanos quos per jurisditionem tuam poteris invenire in personis et rebus debeas detinere, faciens eos cum diligentia custodiri, ad quos inveniendos omne studium adhibeas et cautelam. Datum Fulginii, I. Februarii, XIII.” (Reg. Imper. Freder. II fol. 61).

There is evidence that during his stay in Montefalco, he enjoyed with his favourite hobby, making his hawks chase the cranes. Frederick II was probably one of the most expert players of this game, as testifies in a book (the fourth: dedicated to crane-hunting with hawks) of the six in which he structured his very well-known De Arte Venandi Cum Avibus. In memory of the imperial stop in Montefalco, it is possible to visit a door dedicated to Frederick II (dates back to 1244), overlooked by a headstone with Swabia signs. This fact proves the wrong theory on Montefalco being devastated by imperial army. By the way, all his rests, during his campaign against Rome, only happened in places absolutely submitted to his authority.
The territory of Montefalco lies between hills and valleys at the heart of Umbria; a lot has been written on the art of its noble wine: the Sagrantino (picture 1). Strolling through the slopes where Federico II’s Saracens camped, the thing that strikes is the view on the entire region. The soil is rich in limestone and clay, while the alluvial part is less common. The height, less than 500 metres, keeps those places safe from the fog and extreme frosts. The temperature range is always wide, even in the hottest summers. Such a place may have been created for the cultivation of grapevines and olive trees. When French hosts visit those places, the grapevines and the cellars, they think about one single word: terroir. While I wander along those hills (picture 2) I can’t avoid thinking about the deep effect of Sagrantino grapevines have had on the soil, during the long years of permanence on this ground. Why shouldn’t this peculiar bond have the right space in the concept of terroir (maybe the one left open by the use of barrique and maybe even more?) It’s possible, also in view of the above hypothesis, to scientifically reconsider its definition.

Picture 2. Sagrantino vineyard on Montefalco hills (courtesy of Francesco Botti, Colle del Saraceno)

Apparently the word terroir has lost its value of “scientific definition”. As the article points out, a definition is not something static; on the other hand, if it becomes “pop”, a full comprehension of the term becomes difficult, especially in case of adaptations and hurried interpretations. The suggestion is therefore to bring back the definition of terroir on a hands-on level, to disclose it back later, accurately and fully.
In a following phase, specific chemical and biochemical analysis may be needed. These procedure should first involve the ground and then specific grapevines. A good practice to speed up the research could be the use of wild fields as blank tests, as long as they are close enough to those planted with grapevines.


I'm grateful to Francesco Botti, sommelier, winemaker and friend, for the beautiful pictures in support to this paper.
Sandro Fracasso 
Laureato in Chimica a Ferrara, dedica una dozzina d'anni alla ricerca presso l'Ateneo Estense. Nel 2010 si ritira in Toscana, dove si occupa di autoproduzione e di ricerca agro-enologica indipendente.

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