A blog devoted to exploring wines made from unusual grape varieties and/or grown in unfamiliar regions all over the world. All wines are purchased by me from shops in the Boston metro area or directly from wineries that I have visited. If a reviewed bottle is a free sample, that fact is acknowledged prior to the bottle's review. I do not receive any compensation from any of the wineries, wine shops or companies that I mention on the blog.
Monday, April 16, 2012
Ciliegiolo - Golfo di Tigullio, Liguria & Maremma, Tuscany, Italy
Let's take a moment to consider what an individual grape variety actually is. Take Chardonnay, for example. We happen to know that Chardonnay is the offspring of two other grapes called Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc. What that means is that pollen from a Pinot Noir plant was used to fertilize the flowers of a Gouais Blanc plant and when one of the resulting seeds was planted, a Chardonnay plant was the result. But here's what we also know: when the same two parents got together on other occasions, the plants that grew were not Chardonnay, but were rather Aligoté, Auxerrois, Gamay Noir, Romorantin, and Melon, among many others. All of these grapes are full siblings of one another, and if you think about the consequences of that fully you should see that what that really means is that each variety of grape is essentially like an individual person. We can't get more Chardonnay plants by having its parents mate over and over again, so if we want to grow more Chardonnay vines, we have to clone the ones we have by planting cuttings. By the same token, if we needed another one of you, we couldn't ask your parents to have another child but would rather have to clone you.
Now let's imagine a world where human cloning has been perfected and is not only allowed, but is the preferred method of creating new human beings. Over time, there have been certain individuals who have particular qualities in certain combinations that makes them ideal human beings and these individuals are now our archetypes for the human race. They are still capable of sexual reproduction, but this kind of reproduction is seen as a kind of genetic gamble that people are rarely willing to take so nearly all new human beings are clones of a series of archetypal individuals who were born as products of sexual reproduction several generations ago. Let us further imagine that we are face to face with two of these clones who are ultimately descended from different individuals, one of whom was the father of the other, but we don't know which is the father and which is the son. Neither of the individuals in front of us actively fathered the other, but one of the genetic lines is the ancestor of the other. How could we tell which was the father and which was the offspring?
Obviously we can't just look at the two to see which is older since we're dealing with clonal lines and not direct lines of parentage and progeny. You might be thinking that DNA analysis should be able to clear this up rather quickly, but it's a little trickier than that. Offspring, both grape and human, get 1/2 of their DNA from their father and 1/2 from their mother. If we were to analyze the DNA from each of the two individuals in front of us, we would be able to see that they share 1/2 of their DNA, but we wouldn't be able to tell which of them had passed that DNA to the other. In order to determine which is the father and which is the son, we would need the genetic information from the mother as well. Whichever of the two people in front of us also contained DNA from the mother would be the son and thus the descendant of the other.
All of which does, finally, bring us to today's grape, Ciliegiolo. We know that Ciliegiolo has a parent-offspring relationship with Sangiovese, but the direction of that relationship is in some dispute. Our story begins in 2007, when a paper was published which claimed to have uncovered the parentage of the Sangiovese grape. José Vouillamoz (who some of you may remember from the Hondarrabi Zuri saga) and his team used a private database of microsatellite markers and 180 plant samples from various university germplasm collections in an attempt to discover Sangiovese's parent grapes. To do this, they first checked to find grapes in their databases and samples that shared a lot of DNA with Sangiovese. These grapes were hypothesized to be Sangiovese relatives, though the exact relationship at this point wasn't clear. In order to establish parentage relationships, they essentially had to go by trial and error and try out a lot of different combinations of grapes as putative parents to see what worked. In the course of their analyses, they found that Ciliegiolo and an obscure grape they plucked out of the countryside near Naples that they call Calabrese di Montenuovo were the parents of the Sangiovese grape.
Game over, right? Well, not exactly. Shortly thereafter, another research group led by Manuel Di Vecchi Staraz (citation below) analyzed the DNA of several thousand different grapes to try and determine how and where Sangiovese might fit in with any of their family trees. This team was unable to find any parent-pair for Sangiovese among their samples and while they found a parent-offspring relationship between Ciliegiolo and Sangiovese, their research led them to conclude that Sangiovese was actually the parent to Ciliegiolo (along with a grape called Muscat rouge de Madére). Further, their analysis enabled them to discover the parents of Muscat Rouge de Madére, which enabled them to do some analyses based on these sets of grandparents which, they feel, cemented their claim (I don't understand enough of the science to know how justified they are in this claim). They also point to the fact that Sangiovese appears in the literature earlier than Ciliegiolo as proof that it is an older variety and thus parent to Ciliegiolo by necessity, but I don't find this argument convincing as names for grapes change frequently and the presence of a grape in the written record only accounts for its discovery not for its existence.
So we have a controversy here, and as far as I can tell, it is still unresolved. A paper published the next year seems to side with Vouillamoz et. al., though you can really only tell that by looking at Figure 2 in their paper (the text is maddeningly vague). The VIVC, though, seems to accept Di Vecchi Staraz's theory, and they list Ciliegiolo as an offspring of Sangiovese. Wikipedia acknowledges the controversy and remains agnostic, if poorly cited, about it. The Oxford Companion to Wine (online version) unequivocally states that Ciliegiolo is one of the parents of Sangiovese, which shouldn't be that surprising if you remember that José Vouillamoz, the lead author of the paper cited above which also makes this claim, is the OCW's resident grape pedigree expert. In fact, José Vouillamoz is credited (obliquely, I should add...his initials are provided at the end of the entry and you have to click on the J.V. to get his name) as one of the authors of the entry (the other author is one of the cadre of MW's that the OCW has on staff who is an expert on Italian wines but not on genetics). This means that the entry in the OCW wasn't written by a dispassionate outside observer, it was written by one of the scientists who is directly involved in the debate itself and it bothers me a bit that this not only was this fact not openly disclosed, but the other voices in the debate are completely disregarded in the entry itself. If you only read the OCW's entry on Ciliegiolo, you wouldn't know that there was any controversy at all, and that doesn't sit right with me. I haven't contacted anyone at the OCW regarding this because I'm not really in the mood to be told that I have to wait and buy their $125 book to read the full story again.
There are a few lessons to be learned here. The first is that scientific discovery is a process which sometimes arrives at the truth quickly, but sometimes arrives there by a more complicated route. The information that is currently available is conflicting, and it seems like a reference material such as The Oxford Companion to Wine should acknowledge that conflict to some extent. The second lesson is that you should always try to be aware of who the author of what you're reading actually is. The OCW, as an encyclopedic resource, is a collaborative effort, but there are certain articles that are written by specific contributors and those contributors are occasionally highlighted and credited, but not always. It is important to know that what you're reading has been written by someone who is in a position to know what they're talking about (an expert), but it's also important to know whether the author has any other kind of stake in the issue at hand. This particular entry is written by an expert, but he is a biased expert in this case and the responsible thing to do is to acknowledge both the bias itself and also the wider controversy so that interested readers can seek out the original materials if they are so inclined.
I've recently come across another paper published in 2010 that sides with Di Vecchi Starazin saying that Ciliegiolo is the offspring of Sangiovese and Moscato Violetto, which is a synonym for Muscat Rouge de Madere. Their research seems convincing and I'm inclined to believe their results at this point. The citation is: Cipriani, G. et al. The SSR-based molecular profile of 1005 grapevine (Vitis vinifera L.) accessions uncovers new synonymy and parentages, and reveals a large admixture amongst varieties of different geographic origin. 2010. Theoretical and Applied Genetics. 121: 1569-1585.
So, enough about all that then. Let's take a look at a couple of wines made from the Ciliegiolo grape, whatever its relationship to Sangiovese turns out to be.
Wine Bottega for about $23. In the glass this wine was a coral red color like the color of the juice in a bottle of maraschino cherries. The nose was very intense with nearly every kind of cherry that you can imagine (maraschino, candied, dried, tart, red) along with a touch of strawberry. The grape is supposedly named for the Italian word for cherry (ciliegia) due to its propensity to smell and taste like, well, cherries. On the palate the wine was medium bodied with fairly high acidity. There were flavors of sour cherry, wild strawberry, candied red cherry, cranberry and sour red fruits. There may have been a hint of residual CO2, but I wasn't entirely sure. The wine was fresh and juicy but completely dry. This is a knockout summer wine that I would drink with just about anything. The fruits were pure and ripe and the wine was an absolute delight to drink.
Curtis Liquors brought it in for me for about $18. In the glass this was a deep, opaque purple ruby color with a narrow violet rim. The nose was moderately intense with very meaty, savory flavor notes that reminded me of the smell of dry-aged beef steaks. There were also dried black fruits (fig and prune) along with some flat cola, baking spice and chocolate. On the palate the wine was on the fuller side of medium with medium acidity and fairly substantial tannins. There were flavors of dried black fruits, black cherry and fig, along with a distinctive meaty, beefy kind of flavor and something like flat cola and imitation chocolate. The wine tasted a little sweet, but it could have been the 15% alcohol giving that illusion. The meatiness did eventually blow off but in its place that fake chocolate taste came on stronger and stronger. I just flat out did not like this wine and was unable to finish the bottle. The sweet taste and the fake chocolate were just too much for me and I only made it through one glass before I discarded the rest.
DI VECCHI STARAZ, M.; BANDINELLI, R.; BOSELLI, M.; THIS, P.; BOURSIQUOT,
J. M.; LAUCOU, V.; LACOMBE, T.; VARÈS, D.; 2007: Genetic structuring
and parentage analysis for evolutionary studies in grapevine: kin
group and origin of the cultivar Sangiovese revealed. J. Am. Soc.
Hort. Sci. 132, 514-524.