The Illegal Grapes of Northern Italy

If I asked you about the wines made near Verona you might mention Valpolicella and Soave.  If I asked you about the grapes planted there, and you know a bit about wine, perhaps you’d note corvina and garganega – maybe even pinot grigio.  Yet it’s unlikely that you would talk about clinton.  As it happens it is American in origin – but nothing to do with the former president.  Nevertheless, it appears in a few villages around the city, and further afield, towards Vicenza and Padua.

When the phylloxera bug arrived in southern France around 1863 and started to eat its way through the continent’s vineyards, grapegrowers needed to find a way to protect their vines against it.  As most readers will know, planting on rootstocks from North American grape species was the widely adopted solution, but another solution was to plant some of the varieties of those American grape vines themselves, and use their grapes to make wine.  These are still planted in the eastern USA and Canada – concord is one of the best known varieties.  The trouble with these wines is that they are, at best, sickly-jelly in character, and at worst ‘foxy’.  I haven’t actually ever smelt a fox close up, but this is description for the dirty animal character the wines can have.

So what does this have to do with Verona?  Well, at some point in the last 120 years or so, in the wake of phylloxera, clinton washed up around the old city and some growers started to plant it.  Its big advantage was cost.  To plant vines on rootstocks they have to be grafted in nurseries – and that costs from 4-6€ for a good quality variety in some parts of the world currently; the cost of planting 3000, 5000 even 10000 vines per hectare would be impossible.  However, if you have an American vine you can propagate it by layering – taking a cane, burying part of it and letting it root in the soil then cutting it off from the mother plant; this is at no cost, because the American vine is resistant the predations of phylloxera!  If you are an impoverished peasant who uses wine as part of the daily diet this is much better than paying to replant grafted wines.  So it tastes worse than rondinella or trebbiano?  Well, who cares?  This wine is for energy not for aesthetic pleasure and this grape makes for very cheap wine.

In the move to make more ‘quality’ wine France banned planting these from the middle of the last century.  The argument was that they produce too much methanol – the most toxic form of alcohol – rather than the safer ethanol (though there is a cultural anti-American bias also at play).  By 1956 existing vineyards had to be uprooted in France.  Subsequently, with the development of the European Economic Community (which became the EU) these rules spread to the rest of Europe, with Italy finally outlawing them in the early 1980s.  However, this being Italy the authorities turn a blind eye when consumption is for personal use.  Consequently they live on here (as they do – actually – in parts of France still).

So much for the history; there is a cultural dimension as well.  These grapes become a symbol of being what the French would call a paysan.  The literal translation is peasant; but that doesn’t get it quite right; an English peasant is uncouth, uneducated, with few economic resources and very probably dirty as well.  A paysan is certainly not an intellectual, but may be clever (or at least street-wise), owns some land, knows it well and works it hard.  He (or the paysanne if it’s a she) is honest, says what she thinks and is genuine.  The same is true in Italy; so, to drink clinton is to identify as one of these people: unpretentious, straightforward, industrious yet willing to make do with the simpler things in life.  More than that, to drink clinton is to say that you aren’t inauthentic, arrogant, snobbish, shallow or untrustworthy – like the people who insist on buying those DOCG wines from Valpolicella or Soave: these latter are in fact made from grapes which have a much longer history in the region (and are therefore more ‘authentic’) but the view from the field is that they are also made by companies who charge stupid prices and thus cheat honest drinkers by forcing them to pay too much.  In this way wines made from clinton become a badge of identity locally.  So much so that villages where it is still grown may have festivals to celebrate this year’s harvest.  The wine becomes more than a marker for individual identity; it is also about community identity.  ‘Our (maybe marginalised) village in the valley against all those upstart villages in the hills making amarone or recioto’. I worked hard to get some bottles of these wines – and my colleague Lara Agnoli, who comes from the region, kindly sought out friends of friends of friends who would be willing to pass on a couple of bottles from their illegal stock, so that I could try them.  I wasn’t expecting anything wonderful and my low expectations were not disappointed.  You can read my review of the wine here. But to complain about the quality misses the point of the wine. It is about who you are, not about traditional good taste.

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Meanwhile, here is a postscript for the grape variety nerds amongst my readers.  Some of the clinton wines are blended with another American grape, called fragolino.  This is so little known that it doesn’t even make it into the bible of grapes – Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and Jose Vouillamoz (although they do use fragola as synonym for Isabella and it is probably the same grape).  Fragolino has a less sauvage (wild) flavour than clinton.  Like many grapes from North America it has a very sweet, confected, jelly-like, nose, a bit reminiscent of strawberry dessert made with artificial flavouring.  My colleague Lara also brought me some of the fragolino grapes to taste, provided by one producer who has stopped making the wine ‘because its high tannins are dangerous for health’; this view may be based on old rumours circulated when the grape became ‘illegal’; perhaps health was a pretext to stop people continuing to make an unacceptable drink).  They were tannic, with high acid, but also a distinct, aromatic soft red fruit character. For those who want to try it I have found a single distributor online (operating in Germany and Ukraine) who sell wines made from the grape. Ignore the garish advertising – and I suspect it isn’t very expensive.

6 thoughts on “The Illegal Grapes of Northern Italy

  1. Dear Steve,

    Very interesting article, it helps me to understand a lot about the customs of the Italian culture that we have here in Brazil. I’ll be happy to bring you a sample of the foxy wines we have here if you want to try it (not sure if you’ve tried it before). They are still the best-selling wines here in the country, the so-called “vinhos de garrafão”, and they are definitely legal. I’ve never seen clinton being planted here (I will check), but concordia, isabel and niagara are the most famous! Since I’ll be there for the graduation ceremony in May, let me know if you want and I can bring you one! Best, Patty


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