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domenica 2 settembre 2018





Strolling through the woods

Mario Rigoni was a son of the Asiago plateau, so strongly tied to his land that he swept through its woods and mountains until a ripe old age. As a consequence, it was not infrequent to bump into this stern old man, or to witness one of his scolding or one of his precious classes on mycology or ethology.
But wasn’t his full name Mario Rigoni Stern? Where has the second surname ended up? It simply doesn’t exist; Stern (the German word for star) was the nickname of the Rigoni family branch Mario belonged to. It had become necessary since the Rigonis, in those places, were and still are extremely numerous.
When she arrived in the Farma Valley, Fiammetta had brought a secret with her, something that the local population soon discovered. So, Fiammetta was able to recognize and cook the Wood Blewit (Clitocybe nuda). None there was brave enough to gather it and many actually believed that this fine edible mushroom was lethal. By asking to the oldest people in the area, you will discover that the Clitocybe nuda is still called “Fiammetta’s mushroom”.
Sometimes a nickname becomes a name; sometimes a name creates an illusory kin, as perhaps it did to some ancient Italian grape varieties, attributed to the Greeks all the way back to the second colonization, after the Aegean one (occurred in the 9th century B.C.).

The Oracle’s prophecies
Although indirectly, Delphi was at the heart of the Greek colonization between the 8th and the 7th centuries B.C. No matter from where they departed, the aspiring colonizers could establish their final destination only after the Oekist (the leader of the colonies) had consulted the Pythia (the High Priestess of the Temple of Apollo) in Delphi. In this way, the mission was covered in holiness and should a war or abuse of power become necessary to complete it, it was under a god's will. Groups of two hundred men would leave the polis to create a new colony (with very few women, in order to enhance integration through marriages with local populations). Amongst these expeditions were those that led to the invasion of Sicily and of Southern Italy, later proudly called Magna Graecia, since very often the magnificence reached in those lands was superior to those of the motherland. Colonists triggered rivalry, inflamed by the beauty and fertility of those lands and by the wealth reached through generous harvests and trades. 
Tyrant, oh Tyrant
After Thrasybulus' death, Syracuse had conquered democracy, but as usual following years of invaders at your threshold, the concentration in a single gifted warlord of power, abilities and money led to a quick upheaval. History put on the path to freedom one of the cruelest, most elegant and intelligent man of the ancient times: Dionysus. Syracuse’s future tyrant achieved the absolute loyalty of his troops when, during an expedition to Gela as support to the local militia, he sentenced to death the local corrupt wealthy citizens, distributing their belongings between the local population and his soldiers. With both the sword and the public opinion on his side, tyranny seemed almost as something due, as masterfully planned as it was. From then on, Dionysus’ fortunes and misfortunes were contrary to Himilco', an experienced Carthaginian leader and seafarer to whom he opposed in several clashes. During Dionysus’ tyranny, most of Syracuse’s battles aimed at conquering new lands, especially between 387 and 385 B.C. In 385 B.C. Adria was founded, as the furthest strip of land under Syracuse control on the Adriatic sea, and, in the tyrant’s ambitious plans, the port from where to conquer Delphi’s temples.

But truth is that in the lands were Adria was founded, Paleoveneti populations had already built stilt houses and Etruscan aristocrats had ruled. It is therefore more accurate to write of a re-founding of the settlement. And it should be kept in mind that ancient Greeks were well known for their tendency to seize the efforts of previous wealthy societies. And they usually accomplished it by ‘founding’ settlements that already existed, or with the help of a myth. One clear example is the Myth of Phaeton, with his adventurous fall in controversial places, but all of them conveniently ascribable to the greatness of Mycenae. 

Greek or “Greek”grapes?

Because of the huge contribution that the Greeks gave to the development of humanity, let’s risk and partially resize it, as they might have actually seized something that didn’t really belong to them. Let it be trading charm, haughtiness, or dishonest mistreatment of the Mycenaean fame, indeed not everything considered Greek really is from Greece. And, speaking of wine, something very peculiar can be noticed. Currently, the official so-called Greek vine varieties in Italy are six: two of them from black wine grapes (Greco nero, Grechetto rosso) and four from white wine grapes (Greco, Grecanico dorato, Greco bianco, Grechetto). All these varieties show great organoleptic and ampelographic differences. This detail seems to suggest different origins, in spite of them all being appointed as Greek.
During the Middle Ages, it was the Venetians that spread the so-called Greek wines among clergy and aristocracy and made it a myth among the common people, pushing on their medium sweet notes and on their body richness, due to over ripening of the grapes. Several attempts at reproducing them were made, as well as real frauds, taking advantage of the sapling growing system and of the Greek-style wine-making. It was only in the nineteenth century, when trades spread and became more efficient, that the massive introduction of Greek wines from Southern Italy (originated from those of the Magna Graecia), canceled the clumsy imitations from northern Italy. Nevertheless, it cannot be excluded that the first viticulture and wine-making by the Greeks colonists on the northern Adriatic coastlines occurred around the 4th century B.C. Sure enough, the above mentioned foundation of Adria by Syracuse must have brought with it some precious vines' cuttings, that inevitably followed colonization.
Proceeding with this time machine game, we jump into the 1348 Black Plague that inflicted a huge trauma on Italian viticulture. High mortality did not spare farmers and along with them many of their ancient viticulture techniques and precious vineyards went lost. These were often substituted by grapevines more suitable for an intensive production of wine, even though of lower quality. That dramatic event is probably the source of the numerous assumptions that have grown around the mythical Greek grapevines. It is therefore necessary to go back to the status quo ante, in order to intercept the related historical macro areas and at last to introduce the missing hypothesis, completing the big picture.

The mysterious people

We know a big deal about Etruscan customs and traditions, thanks to their numerous necropolises, the remnants of artifacts and buildings, but nothing proves their origins without a doubt.
Theories based on historical sources are contrasting; they range from Herodotus’ oriental theory, that sees them coming to Italy from Anatolia, to the native theory from Dionysius of Halicarnassus.
Years of researches, upgraded by the possibility to carry out in-depth DNA tests, do not diminish the importance of historical sources, but actually make good use of a powerful weapon to understand which thesis is the most consistent (Assuming that there are no stronger theories to be developed in the future). The cornerstone of these studies has been the use of NGS (Next Generation Sequencing), to sequence DNA. In the field of paleontology, this powerful tool has allowed to obtain information from DNA molecules of thousand-years-old samples. Applied to the Etruscan debate, it provided fascinating answers: according to the studies of Professor Guido Barujani, it seems that both Herodotus and Dyonisus of Halicarnassus were both partly right. To avoid a situation that could remind us of Schrödinger’s cat, it is worth to deepen into further details. In short, the investigations suggest that the Anatolia origins are more than likely to be true, but dated back to some thousand years ago (about 5000 years). It appears to be one of the many migrations from East to our peninsula. Only at a later time, in Italy, a lineage of these migrants developed into the civilization that we now know as Etruscan. This conclusion, that seems to join two theories apparently very distant from each other, is also supported by some studies on cattle breeds, specifically Chianina and Maremmana, by the University of Piacenza. Thanks to this research, we know that the above mentioned breeds are genetically similar to those from Anatolia. And also, the first domestications of grapes seem to have occurred in areas close to Anatolia (a theory that joins linguists, historians, geneticists). Recent studies date the most ancient traces of wine-making back to 8000 B.C, and position them in Georgia, specifically in the Shulaveris Gora and Gadachrili Gora sites, about 50 kilometers south of Tbilisi. The above mentioned places belong to the culture of Shulaveri-Shomutepe, a civilization that spread as far as Azerbaijan and the Armenian Plateau (to the east of oriental Anatolia). These pieces of information, joined fluidly and not deceptively, lead us not to exclude that Etruscans arrived in Italy from Anatolia, introducing the primogenitors of Chianina and Maremmana cows and one (if not even the first) art of wine-making. It is also difficult to deny that by doing all that, those population brought with them some vines' cuttings and planted them in the fertile grounds of central Italy. According to the results of the most credited studies, it is clear that Greeks arrived much later on the coasts of our peninsula. Indeed, it is history that the two populations strongly clashed, because of the Etruscan attempt to oppose to the Greek invasion, masked as a pacific colonization. To summarize this scenario, we have a population, the Greeks, that arrives onto a fertile land, not far away from their own coasts, at least 4000 years after one of the populations that have already established and developed there: the Etruscans.

In viticulture, it is a vine variety characterized by winged grape bunch, oval berries, strong peel, and the harvest is usually in the second half of September. There are two different clones of Grechetto, the older, from Orvieto, named G109, the more recent one, from Todi, called G5 (the two of them are often confused and grown together). DNA studies allowed to outline a close relation between Grechetto di Todi and the nearby Pignoletto and Ribolla Riminese (Ribolla from Rimini), while Grechetto di Orvieto is genetically tied to Greco di Tufo. Usually, when talking about Grechetto, we refer to the one from Orvieto.
Orvieto (Velzna in Etruscan language) rises in an area inhabited since prehistory, and was made famous and powerful by the Etruscans. Its peak was between the 6th and the 4th centuries B.C., when it was a booming trading and artistic center, as well as the sanctuary seat of the twelve Etruscan cities (“Fanum Voltumnae”). Each year a religious feast took place at the sanctuary, along with markets and fairs visited by the citizens of the other cities that were part of the federation. This feast was well-known in the entire peninsula, and it was a place of exchange, meeting, culture, as well as a strong evidence of the power of the city. In fact, Orvieto was the last Etruscan city to fall to the Romans, in 264 B.C.
Todi, just like Orvieto, bordered with the wide lands controlled by the Umbri people. In fact, it was this proud population that founded it between the 8th and the 7th centuries B.C., on the left bank of the river Tiber. Its peak was between the 5th and the 4th centuries B.C., under the strong influence of Etruscans, so strong that the city ended up under their control. It was then that it acquired the name of Tùtere, meaning "border", being at the outer border of Etruscan lands. Under Etruscan ruling, Todi’s isolation ended, and new trades were possible, also thanks to the route that joined it with Orvieto. The downfall of Etruscans was completed in 340 B.C., with the fall of Tùtere under Roman control, and the change of its name in Marzia.

Origins of Grechetto
According to the most widespread hypothesis, it is a wine of Greek origin, arrived in Umbria through Greek merchants. If taking into consideration just its name, it seems absolutely plausible: Grechetto from Greek. However, scientifically it is a slightly weak assumption. Following this modus cogitandi, Adria should also be Greek and so should be Alfonsine and/or Crespino (Phaeton’s myth), as well as anything else that the Greeks, once conquered, considered something that could give eminence to their remarkable, praiseworthy history.
Let’s start from G5 clone and its relatives: Pignoletto and Ribolla Riminese, the first from Bologna’s surroundings (ancient Villanovan lands), the second close to Verucchio, cornerstone of the Villanovan civilization. An Etruscan origin seems more than a hypothesis.
As far as the G109, the relation between Grechetto di Orvieto and Greco di Tufo makes us think. According to the historical reconstruction, Greco di Tufo arrived in the lands of Avellino from Thessaly (Greece) in the 1st century B.C. Some historical sources defining Greco di Tufo as Greek are based on a Pompeii fresco showing a generic writing, ‘Greek Wine’, that was ‘forced’ to correspond to the Aminae Gemina, coming from Thessaly and praised by Aristotle. But isn’t it history that well before the arrival of Greeks, in the Tufo area, vine grapes were grown and wine was produced? After all, the same thing happened in many vast areas of Italy (researches date bake the first Etruscan wine–making traces to the 8th century B.C.). It’s no coincidence that not far away, in Aversa, the Etruscan method of growing vines on trees (in this specific case it was the poplar tree) was well-known, so much that a specific term was coined: atalson (vine grown on tree). It is something that can still be traced all over Italy. And because the Etruscan made landfall in our peninsula about 4000 years before the Greeks, coming from an area -Anatolia– were wine had been produced for at least a thousand years, is it really so daring to hypothesize that Greeks took possession of Etruscan vines that had been grown in the regions of their landing for centuries, and, as they found them perfectly suitable for their fading production, adopted the sapling growing system and conformed them as ‘Greek wines’? Coincidences do not exist, especially when researching.

This first part of the research on “Greek” wines in Italy will definitely require a further detailed study. The remaining four vine grapes, that were not analyzed here, must also be involved and studied, in order to verify the hypothesis here expressed. So far, this work is meant to be an excursus, a base for further investigations that should be able to confirm or prove these theories wrong. To proceed, a series of crossed DNA tests between vines coming from Greece and Anatolia are absolutely crucial.

I'm grateful to Sandro Milei, sommelier, farmer and friend, for the beautiful pictures of his Grechetto' vineyard, 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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