A Natural wine ante litteram: Ronchi di Cialla

Long before anyone ever dared to utter the N word on a blog or in dogmatic marketese, there was a bookish Olivetti typewriter salesman who decided to give up his comfortable job shilling macchine da scrivere, opting instead to make wine from native grape varieties, native yeasts, and chemical-free integrated farming in the Colli Orientali del Friuli. That man was Paolo Rapuzzi (above) whose winery, Ronchi di Cialla, began producing Schioppettino, Refosco, Picolit, and Verduzzo — four of the native grapes of Friuli — in the village of Cialla in the early 1970s.

Of the quindecemvirate of wineries we visited during the blogger team’s stay in the Colli Orientali del Friuli, there was none in situ that I was more excited about. I first began to frequent the wines of this historic estate in the late 1990s in New York, where I happened to stumble upon a forgotten allocation of its wines at Vino. Stretching back to the 1980s, the wines were impressively fresh and they had that classic juiciness and spicy note that makes Schioppettino such a fantastic food-pairing wine.

Founder Paolo and his sons Ivan and Pier Paolo walked us through a remarkable tasting, including 2005, 2001, 1995, and 1985 (all of which are current releases, btw). The 2005 was very generous with its fruit, while the 2001 and 1995 were more closed and tannic. The 1985 sang gloriously in the classic tulip-shaped glasses that the Rapuzzi family recommends for service of their wines.

Over the course of my stay in Friuli, no fewer than three persons told me that their respective families were the authors of the revival of native grape varieties in Friuli. I’m sure there’s a grain of truth in each of their hagiographies. But no family is more closely associated with the revival of Friulian native rootstock than the Rapuzzi. In fact, some of the rootstock offered by the hegemonic Italian nursery Rauscedo is surnamed by Rapuzzi, like the “floral abortion” Picolit that Paolo resuscitated.

By the 1970s, when he began making wine, most producers had started using a newly developed clone of Picolit that did not “abort its flowers.” While the newly developed clone delivered much higher yields (and lowered the cost of making Picolit), the traditional “biotype” was ideal for making dried-grape Picolit, he explained, because its natural floral abortion led to less buds and more naturally concentrated fruit. He planted and cultivated his Picolit for 10 years before it produced fruit and then he applied what could essentially be called a massal selection to the plants that ultimately were chosen for the Rauscedo rootstock and that are still used today to make Paolo’s Picolit (50% dried grape vinification, 50% classic vinification).

Cialla is one of the three sub-zones of the Colli Orientali del Friuli and is a monopole, owned by the Rapuzzi family. It is blessed with immense beauty and idyllic tranquility. Our visit with Paolo — a colorful and warm personage, who rests his hand on yours when he speaks to you — was probably my favorite of the trip. In the hour we spent with him (with me interpreting for the group), he never once used the word “natural.”

“We grow are grapes without pesticides or herbicides,” he told us, “and then we try to intervene as little as possible, letting the land of Cialla express itself in the wines.”

No need, in fact, to call this wine “natural”: res ipsa loquitur.