Schioppettino, the next big thing? (history of its revival and fortune)

Above: The folks at Ronco del Gnemiz hosted a vertical tasting of Schioppettino — stretching back to to 1989 — for the COF2012 bloggers last week. The township of San Giovanni al Natisone (where their property is located) is not the historical epicenter of the variety. But when current owner Serena’s father bought the estate in the 1950s, there were Schioppettino vines growing there — an indication of its popularity in another era. They still make one botte (large cask) of Schioppettino every year.

Anglophones love to say Schioppettino (here’s the entry for Schioppettino in the Italian Grape Name and Appellation Pronunciation Project). Perhaps it’s because of the variety’s purported onomatopoeic properties: some speculate that the name derives from the fact that the thick-skinned grape pops in the mouth when you bite into it; others believe that commonly encountered secondary fermentation and the resulting fizziness gave rise to its name (an early printed mention — 1823 — of the ampelonym is Scopp, according to Calò et alia).

As for the majority of Italian grape names, we’ll probably never know the etymon. But this lacuna doesn’t diminish our pleasure in saying Schioppettino (try it).

Above: In a tasting of roughly 15 Schioppettino producers from the township of Prepotto (the village where the grape is cultivated most famously), Pizzulin and Due Terre were standouts for me (the Due Terre entry was a blend of Schioppettino and Refosco). I also liked Petrussa and La Viarte. Here’s a link to a list of all the members of the Association of Prepotto Schioppettino Producers. The tasting was hosted by the Stanig winery in its restaurant/agriturismo and there is also an Enoteca dello Schioppettino worth visiting in Prepotto.

In many ways, Schioppettino and its revival in the late 1970s were precursors to the current renaissance of indigenous Italian grape varieties.

In 1976, the Rapuzzi family won the first-ever Nonino Prize — the Risit d’Âur or Golden Rootstock award — for its success in cultivating the forgotten grape. (Sadly, the wine they made from the 1975 vintage was never tasted because it was lost in the 1976 earthquake in Friuli, one of the many catastrophic events that shaped and defined the Friulian ethos in the twentieth century.)

In era when the great architects of the revival of “real wines,” Luigi Veronelli and Mario Soldati, were pioneering a new vinography that championed the indigenous over the international, Schioppettino was one of the earliest rallying cries. At the time, it was not authorized by the official “album” of government-sanctioned grape varieties and the Rapuzzi family risked a stiff fine and forced grubbing up. Lobbying by the Nonino family, combined with Veronelli’s patronage, helped to convince authorities to stand down. Today, the canonical rootstock for Schioppettino sold by the Rauscedo nursery is named “Rapuzzi”.

Above: In Prepotto, they pair Schioppettino with herb frittata, frico, and polenta. I think it could go with just about any type of comfort food. Photo by JC Reid.

Of all the tastings we attended in the Colli Orientali del Friuli last week, Schioppettino seemed to be the grape that excited the bloggers the most.

Was it because so little Schioppettino makes the Atlantic crossing?

Was it because the grape makes for juicy wines, with bright acidity and balanced alcohol?

Was it because of the grape’s signature spice, teetering somewhere between white pepper and cinnamon?

Maybe it’s because it’s just so fun to say Schioppettino

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.

Ornella Venica’s favorite wine

The inimitable Ornella Venica greeted me in the late morning with a glass of Pinot Bianco by her family’s historic winery, Venica & Venica. “Maybe not the most popular or important,” she explained, “but my personal favorite.”

For the next 5 days and nights, I’m going to be staying at the Venica & Venica estate in Dolegna del Collio (Gorizia, Friuli) with leading U.S. food and wine professionals Bobby Stuckey and Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson (owners of Frasca in Boulder, CO), who asked me to join them and a group of wine buyers on a tour of Friuli (sponsored by the Regione Friuli Venezia Giulia).

The main course at lunch was a delicious pork shank prepared by Ornella herself (note the kren in the foreground).

I’d never tasted the Venica Refosco. The 2008 (recently bottled) was killer… chewy and juicy.

I cannot conceal that I am very psyched to hang with Bobby (who helped Ornella clear the dishes after lunch) and Lachlan, two of the nicest dudes in the biz and undisputed Friulian insiders!

Stay tuned…