My 2020 Wine Discoveries: Monica Larner – Italy, a Land of Discovery

“Next time, bring better shoes,” submitted vintner and viticulturalist Giacomo Ansaldi, looking up from a computer monitor in a well-equipped chemistry lab packed with scientific instruments, microscopes and liquid vials filled with all shades of wine, from pale straw to raspberry pink to ruby red to inky black. 

From the Indigenous Grapes Development Project research center in Marsala, Sicily, Giacomo and his team scoured the beautiful island countryside for undiscovered and uncataloged grapevines that survived the Phylloxera epidemic at the end of the 19th century. They uncovered genetic traces of these ancient vines growing in an abandoned field or over a pergola in the courtyard of an old country house. A farmer might remark that he tends to a single plant that performs differently than the rest: Maybe its fruit is lighter in color, more acidic, maybe it shows reduced vigor, or perhaps it displays an odd shape of leaf. 

On the day of my visit, Giacomo was especially excited by an old, twisted vine he discovered near a fresh-water spring hidden at the bottom of a deep ravine. We could go see the vine, he offered eagerly, but it’s a long hike to get there. With one glance down at my pretty designer loafers, his enthusiasm quickly rescinded.

As part of their research efforts, Giacomo’s team collected samples and pinned the locations of vines under observation using GPS mapping technology. Back at the lab in Marsala, they charted the fruit’s genetic signature and chemical compounds. The grapes were fermented in tiny batches and made into wine that was later submitted to sensorial evaluation broken down by appearance, bouquet and mouthfeel. 

By 2014, they had discovered 120 ancient grapevines under the heading Vitigni Reliquia. With roots in antiquity, these “relic grapes” somehow survived the ravages of time, war and disease against all odds, snug and cozy in the remote backyard of an unaware Sicilian farmer.

“The world today suffers from too few grapes,” Giacomo explained. “We are seeing the end of viticulture. When we discover new grapes, we ensure a new beginning for viticulture in Italy and elsewhere.”

The complicated dynamic of discovery is at the core of a definition of modern Italian wine. When the editorial team at Robert Parker Wine Advocate discussed creating a list of the Top 100 Wine Discoveries from around the wine world, I was especially engaged and excited by the challenge. 

As the Italian Wine Reviewer, I knew that discoveries would be a capstone to my own efforts as a student of vino italiano. Discoveries would give me a new storytelling tool that transcends scores and reviews, or the bread and butter of my day job. They represent a novel approach, a modern perspective onto wine criticism and a new opportunity to consider the color and context of Italian wine (not just what’s inside the glass), making the important systemic connections that attract me to wine—and the culture of wine—to begin with. 

Gearing up for our Top 100 Wine Discoveries list was an intellectual exercise that allowed me to collect and cull the many experiences I have gained on the wine trail, volleying from tip to toe of Italy many times over the course of three decades. No matter how well I think I know my adopted home, Italy always serves up a generous portion of discoveries. 

Our Top 100 Wine Discoveries list includes 12 wines from Italy, and all of the wines selected represent producers who practice specific protocols for organic, biodynamic or sustainable agriculture (both certified and not). This was not a requirement of the list, but I made it a personal challenge to select bottles that could check this box. 

I was mindful to select wines made primarily from Italian indigenous grapes Nebbiolo, Aglianico, Sangiovese, Nerello Mascalese, Corinto Nero, Greco and Timorasso. Three of my selections showcase international varieties Merlot, Grenache and Kerner. Five of the wines come from the deep south of the country, with three from Sicily (two from Etna) and two from Campania. 

One wine comes from a major appellation, Barolo, and the others are IGT expressions or otherwise from up-and-coming denominations such as Colli Tortonesi, Langhe, Roccamonfina, Alto Adige Valle Isarco and Val d’Arno di Sopra. All of the wines are discoveries either because they are new to me or because they were recently released to the market for the first time. 

Amare il vino italiano vuole dire scoprire l’Italia del vino.”
(To love Italian wine means to discover the Italy of wine.)

Italy’s grape biodiversity and genetic patrimony has no equal. Spanning the 45th to the 38th parallels, the boot-shaped country occupies a position of prime viticulture potential with warm sunshine and cooling breezes that lift off of 7,600 kilometers of coastline. 

The ancients saw the peninsula as a giant nursery conveniently located at the heart of Mediterranean trade routes. They called it enotria, or “land of wine,” because so many grapevines were cultivated here, brought in from faraway lands by seed and later by grape cutting. 

Today, Italy counts some 400 commercially cultivated wine varieties and anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 indigenous grapes used in winemaking but not fully catalogued. That number is continually growing, thanks to new discoveries made by researchers like Giacomo Ansaldi. Latin author Pliny the Elder famously remarked that Italy has more kinds of wine grapes than there are grains of sand on a beach. 

The spirit of discoveries is that of new beginnings, and of new chapters as of yet unwritten. Research at the Indigenous Grapes Development Project teaches us that “relic grapes” of the past are key to unlocking greater winemaking variables and potential for the future. 

I’ve already dusted off my hiking boots, ready to make more exciting discoveries in 2021. 

Happy New Year!

In 2015, I edited this video shot while visiting Giacomo Ansaldi and his research team in Marsala:

More articles from this author