Among leading Italian wine professionals and their American counterparts, Nicola Manferrari (above, photo courtesy his Borgo del Tiglio estate) is widely considered to be one of Friuli’s greatest winemakers.
In the wake of allegations that some of Friuli’s top wineries have been adding prohibited additives to their Sauvignon Blanc to enhance the wines’ aromas, I asked Manferrari to share his insights on the legacy of Sauvignon Blanc there.
His response came in the form of a riveting 3,000+ word essay that I have excerpted (for space and time’s sake) and translated here. I’ll post more from our exchange down the road.
In the course of our correspondence, Nicola emphasized that
he is not a producer of Sauvignon Blanc as a monovarietal wine Sauvignon Blanc, bottled as a monovarietal wine, is not the focus of his production. He does however grow and vinify Sauvignon Blanc for his Studio di Bianco (Study in White).
I hope readers will find his notes as compelling as I did. Buona lettura.
Sauvignon [Blanc] first arrived here from France around the mid-19th century. It seems that it arrived after a French noblewoman married a local aristocrat. In other words, Sauvignon found its way on the unpredictable wings of love as it followed cupid’s arrow.
Phylloxera hadn’t arrived here yet and the Sauvignon that was brought here adapted itself to the place where it was grown. It gave rise to a phenotype that is much different than the Sauvignon clones, for example, that arrive today from France.
Our original Sauvignon has an oval berry and loosely clustered bunches. It’s not very productive. Its must is rich with sugars and acidity. The locally selected clones have these characteristics and they are totally different than the French clones.
For my Studio di Bianco [editor’s note: Studio di Bianco or Study in White is one of Manferrari’s top wines], I use grapes from an old vineyard and the grapes are this type of Sauvignon, the old Friulian Sauvignon. Naturally, over the years everything gets mixed up and so there are other clones in the area. But these days, the tendency is to plant different clones or selected clones that come from this original, ancient line. This is true at least for hillside vineyards. One of the reasons is that it is more resistant to grey rot.
[In regard to vinification of Sauvignon in Friuli today] my Sauvignon is not a technical one. There are as many techniques [for vinifying] Sauvignon as there are ideas on which the different techniques were based and developed.
One of the most popular techniques for making Sauvignon is that of constantly protecting it from oxygen [editor’s note: in other words, in reduction]. The idea is that the aroma is already present in the grapes as a free molecule and so it needs to be protected from oxidation from the outset, unlike other grape varieties where the aroma in the must is bound in [an aroma] precursor.
The reductive environment supposedly helps the development of certain aromatic molecules that are typically found in the aromas of Sauvignon. But the resulting wines are so fragile that they need to be protected from the air until they are to be consumed. Ultimately, the wines produced are like people who suffer from chronic conditions and need to be treated for their illnesses for their entire lives. Making a wine like this would be too stressful for me.
[In regard to allegations that Sauvignon Blanc producers in Friuli have been using prohibited additives to adulterate their wines aromas] the investigator’s office is doing its job and when the inquiry is closed, we will know whether or not Sauvignon has been doctored and if so by whom.
For years now, there have been rumors that the aromas of certain Sauvignon [wines] have been adulterated. But then again, there have also been all kinds of rumors that were often disproven by the facts. People like to speak ill of others.
The investigator’s allegation that additives have been used to accentuate aromas still needs to be proven.
It’s definitely not a question of health risks. The problem is fraud: The sale of wines that have been produced in a manner different from the way they are labeled.
You can put whatever you want in an industrial beverage. But a DOC wine must respect the appellation regulations. This is the problem. It’s a matter that will have to be decided by the courts and it could take years before the inquiry is completed and we have a definitive answer.
There’s another and more general observation that we can make, however, and I believe it wine lovers and consumers will find it even more interesting.
The inquiry was borne out of a suspicion in turn owed to the intense aroma of certain Sauvignon [wines]. These wines have a pungent character that doesn’t align with traditional-style wines produced here.
This wouldn’t matter much if it weren’t for the many leading trade publications, not to mention the experts who judge international [wine] competitions, who have devoted ample attention to these wines and have made them the standard-bearers of classic Friulian Sauvignon.
Winemakers who want their wines to be unique because their vineyards are unique should ask themselves: “Am I really doing everything I can to make the best wine I can from my vineyard?”
In that case, everything from the vineyard that gives character to the wine is a positive. And everything that masks the character of the wine is a negative. And this should be the true philosophy of the DOC.
As far as I’m concerned, the true Sauvignon scandal isn’t whether or not investigators will convict someone of having using prohibited additives in the wines. The real scandal is that the unique character that a DOC wine gets from the vineyard can be masked by flavors and aroma added by the use of technology.