VIA Community Guest Blog: PIWI and the Future of Grapes by Francesco Marchio

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VIA Community Guest Blog: PIWI and the Future of Grapes by Francesco Marchio

The synergic garden is a garden where all the crops are grown respecting the synergies that exist in nature. We are used to a Cartesian vision of the garden: we put tomatoes on one side, bell pepper in another one, all lined up and tidy. I decided instead to put together different species of the same vegetable, in this way they can help each other against pest diseases.

Professor Attilio Scienza

Stevie Kim and Professor Attilio Scienza convened via "highly experimental" VOIP call in episode 318 of the Italian Wine Podcast to field a call and answer some questions from Francesco Marchio in Hong Kong. Francesco asked about PIWI grape varieties and the future of Italian grapes. Somehow the discussion ranged to the Professor's garden and chickens. Stevie said the Professor's answer put her to sleep but it was actually super interesting and Francesco was a good sport and seemed satisfied with the information. Listen to the original recording of Italian Wine Podcast Episode 318 and find Francesco's questions and translated transcript below..

About Francesco Marchio

Francesco Marchio is a Vinitaly International Academy (VIA) Italian Wine Expert (IWE) and DipWSET. He's also Managing Director of Vinoveritas Asia Limited, Hong Kong.

Question from Francesco Marchio

Buongiorno ecco la mia domanda per il Prof. Scienza: Spesso ci si chiede quale sarà la prossima regione o i prossimi vitigni Italiani a diventare protagonisti della nostra viticoltura.

Tralasciando i fattori commerciali e i fattori umani (es. Gaja x Barbaresco), dal punto di vista scientifico quali sono i presupposti per favorire tale successo? Clima, ettari coltivati etc? E su quale regione scommetterebbe e perché?

Grazie mille.

Dear Stevie,

Good day to you, here is my question for Professor Scienza: we often ask ourselves which region or Italian grape variety will become the next big thing in our viticulture. If we set aside commercial and human factors, from a scientific point of view, what are the supposed determining factors for success? Climate, hectares cultivated, etc? What region would you bet on and why?

Could the answer to my question be the PIWI varieties? Are these grape varieties the future of the viticulture?

Many thanks.

Translation by Francesco Marchio

Prof. Scienza: These are complex questions, especially the first question, because we need to look into many factors: communication, quality, sustainability, terroir etc.

It is difficult to make a forecast, but we need to say that Italy in the last few years has shown to be a very interesting area for its different regions and viticulture areas. The most recent one to spark everyone's interest is the Etna area in Sicily. Etna 10 years ago was just an unknown territory, with no investments (like what had already happened before with Bolgheri) an area that really boomed after Sassicaia’s success.

Another area that is becoming very popular is the western part of Piedmont, the so called Alto Piemonte, with Gattinara, Ghemme, Sizzano and Boca appellations. The main reason behind their success is because the more famous and well known Barolo producers have shown interest in producing wines in these areas. They can bring their expertise to improve the quality and place these other wines under the spotlight. The available land at reasonable prices also helped the investment to buy land or rent it.

Italy still offers many chances of viticulture areas to discover, but what is important is to have a leader, someone important as it was Gaja for Barbaresco. Otherwise it will be very difficult for a place to emerge without any help from outside.

Another example are the Marche with the Verdicchio. This is definitely an area to discover because it is a wine that can age and give great results, also considering that a white wine that is able to age is more interesting for a restaurant owner because the value of the bottle will increase with time. However, Verdicchio does not have a favorable commercial history having being considered in the past more of a GDO wine with the typical ‘Anfora ‘ bottle. At the moment there is only Bucci as producer that can restore a positive image for the Verdicchio but we need more producers oriented towards quality wine production in this area.

Surely the Centre-South of Italy has been enjoying a successful momentum these days, especially because there is much more to explore if compared with the North of Italy. The climate change has less influence on Southern Italian grape varieties because these are less sensitive to the increase of the average annual temperatures showing a very good resilience. My bet is on Southern Italy for the future but we need professionalism from the producers first, and of course a leader that can penetrate and educate the international market.

Sicily also has a lot of opportunities besides the Etna area or Menfi where we have big and important wineries like Planeta or Mezzacorona, provinces like Messina where we have already great wines but still it is vital that producers from this are combine communications and entrepreneurial skills.

Changing subject, the PIWI varieties are a good direction to explore because they are resilient varieties. Italy is the country that is putting more effort than anyone else to create these varieties through genetic studies, like in Udine and San Michele all’Adige that recently have produced five new resilient varieties. The main difficulty regards the regulatory problems because the EU doesn’t allow these varieties (partly not coming from Vitis Vinifera) to be part of DOC wines, but IGT only.

France last year was the first country that allowed PIWI varieties to be used in the Appellation controllée but only in very small quantity for a maximum of 5%. This is an initial phase to evaluate how this new varieties perform as part of the blend of more established wines produced under AOC regulation. In five years’ time they are planning to increase the percentage up to 15% but they will not be allowed to produce a wine made with a 100% PIWI variety under AOC appellation.

The pros of PIWI varieties are first of all a great benefit for the environment because they see a drastic reduction on sprayers against pest infestation using less copper, chemicals to combat pests and diseases. The quality, especially on these white wines obtained by back-cross varieties, is really good when they involve international grape varieties like Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot et. However, if indigenous grape varieties are used instead, the final quality drops. In Italy now there are regions that allow the use of PIWI varieties like Friuli, Trentino Alto Adige, Veneto, Emilia Romagna , Abruzzo, but some others don’t allow it.

Stevie: Francesco are you there? I fall asleep for a moment

Francesco: Yes I’m here, actually I was about to say that I recently tasted the Solaris from Trentino and I found it surprisingly good

Prof. Scienza: Yes it is an old crossing that works very well because it keeps the acidity levels high, produces a good quantity of grapes and well adapts to climate change .

Francesco: I heard that it is also planted in Denmark

Prof. Scienza: absolutely. It is also planted in the UK, even in Sweden we can say that at the moment is the most planted PIWI variety.

Stevie: Welcome to my world Francesco , do you understand now that every time we ask a question to Prof. Scienza he keeps talking for at least two hours. Do you have another question for him?

Francesco: not really, nothing ready…

Prof. Scienza: sorry I wanted to finish to answer to the previous one

Stevie: Mamma mia!!!

Prof. Scienza: unfortunately we don’t have the opportunity to create resilience varieties from indigenous varieties like Nero d’Avola or Sangiovese. The risk here is to introduce these PIWI varieties that are very similar to international varieties like Chardonnay or Sauvignon blanc, and to lose our identity embodied by our local indigenous varies. The right direction to follow is another one, we need to use the genome editing and work on the genes

Stevie and Francesco: What???

Prof.Scienza: We need to act on the indigenous grape varieties introducing genes originating from Vitis Vinifera in order to create resilient varieties that are for 99% a Sangiovese or Nebbiolo but they become resilient varieties. Like this we want change their quality features with a cross, but we only introduce genes there are not GMO, and this would be a breakthrough. The EU is discussing in these days to allow the use of the molecular biology to finally create Vitis Vinifera varieties from indigenous grapes resilient to pests and diseases.

Stevie: Attilio I have a question for you. During these days of lockdown what are you doing during the day? What do you do?

Prof. Scienza: I wake up very early around 5:30am, because I’m not tired and I don’t know what to do. I tidy up my library and I’m in the process of reorganizing all the shelves

Stevie: How many books do you have in your library?

Prof. Scienza: here at home? Not so many around five or six thousand, but still it takes some time to reorganizing them. Then another thing that I do is tidy up all my slides accumulated in 40 years, classifying them by age, location…Then I write. Actually, I just finished a chapter for Oscar Farinetti’s book. The book is about “serendipity” and my chapter is about the history of fighting the downy mildew disease. What else, I’m writing a chapter for another book about the non-compatibility between scientific and humanities education and we need to look for a solution to make both elements exist together. About this, I remember a beautiful book written in 1959 by a British physicist….

Stevie: No please stop it..

Prof. Scienza: the last but most important is that I look after my garden for three hours a day. I’m creating a wonderful garden!

Francesco: what do you grow in your garden?

Stevie: this is exactly what I wanted to talk about it: what is it : a synergic garden? Please tell us

Prof. Scienza: The synergic garden is a garden where all the crops are grown respecting the synergies that exist in nature. We are used to a Cartesian vision of the garden: we put tomatoes on one side, bell pepper in another one, all lined up and tidy. I decided instead to put together different species of the same vegetable, in this way they can help each other against pest diseases.

Stevie: Yes I saw your car, that looks exactly like a synergic garden, do you have a synergic garden also in your car?

Prof.Scienza: Maybe yes, I like to put together different varieties of tomatoes like cuor di bue, ciliegino, datterino, costuluto and then I add also basil planted between them different species foglia larga, foglia rugosa, basilica violetto, basilica antartico because the basil..

Stevie: Mamma mia you talk about basil like it was wine, we are hopeless…

Francesco: I never heard of basilico antartico before

Prof. Scienza: that is a very important technique in a synergic garden

Stevie: Please do me a favor: go to your synergic garden and send me a picture

Prof.Scienza: Sure I will do it today

Stevie: then we can use it as title page for this episode: “L’orto sinergico – the synergic garden”. I like you both but now I need to say goodbye because I also need to do some synergic garden at the office

Prof. Scienza: sorry the last thing please listen, when they are going to open the borders and the regions did you schedule a meeting?

Stevie: yes of course

Prof. Scienza: great, in this way we can meet on the mid of June

Stevie: Yes sure please bring me some of your synergic garden

Prof.Scienza: I will send you some photos of the synergic garden

Stevie: by the way, did you pass to your wife the hazelnuts that I gave you before? For the salad?

Prof.Scienza: yes I ate them with the salad, but it’s more my daughter that loves these kind of food, exotic food being my daughter vegetarian

Stevie: what about the chickens? Do you still have some?

Prof.Scienza: Yes I do. I have four hens that every day they make 4 eggs, amazing animals

Stevie: let’s save the hens for another episode ok? I want to say goodbye to all the listeners and I have to say to Prof.Scienza to stop speaking, this was an experimental “Everybody needs a bit of Scienza” episode. Francesco, now you understand my life: he goes on for every half an hour all is very interesting and Professor is incredible generous with his knowledge and we are very lucky and honored to have him. Francesco good luck with everything and let’s keep in touch

Francesco: Sure thanks Stevie and thank you so much to Prof. Scienza, thanks for sharing your knowledge. Bye bye

Stevie: Bye bye everybody