This is a follow-up to my previous post about clinton – the almost unknown grape of North American origin which has found a new home in parts of northern Italy. My colleague in Dijon, Lara Agnoli, who hails from one of the villages where the grape was historically grown, very kindly used her contacts (i.e. her mother-in-law!) to talk to some of the older locals who traditionally used clinton to make wine. She recorded the discussions which give a lot more insight into how the residents felt about the variety and the wines they make from it. Most of the information comes from two brothers who have independently made wines.
In fact, they mainly make a wine which they call ‘clinto’. I think this is probably clinton – but they use that name (spelt clintòn) for a grape which they distinguish as being more tannic and bitter; this, I suspect, is just another clone of the same variety – and given how tannic and bitter the clinto is then the wine from the clintòn variant must be completely undrinkable. They say that the grape is often blended with another variety which they call seipe. I wonder if this is a synonym for isabella – with a sweet, jellyish aroma – but my friend Lara says that it isn’t. I’ve not been able to trace any reference to it in and searches I’ve made. Isabella is also called fragola in northern Italy. It produces high levels of methanol (very toxic alcohol) rather than the less-toxic ethanol which is more common in most wine (made from vitis vinifera). The planting of isabella was banned in France in the 1930s because of this toxicity and it was grubbed up compulsorily in the 1950s because it was perceived to be so dangerous, but it still exists in this part of Italy.
The brothers said that their father planted these grapes in the early 1920s – that will have been immediately after the crisis caused by phylloxera in the villages. They imply that he was given the variety to propagate because locals could not afford to buy new vines and it was also planted in other parts of the Veneto like Padua and Vicenza. As I noted in the last post on this subject, clinto/clintòn resisted phylloxera due to its American roots. The locals quickly took to it. The vines were reproduced by layering (they noted that nearly everyone grew clinton at the time) and probably the fact that it was not one of the grapes used by rich local landowners and the large wine businesses around Verona made it attractive as a symbol of their independence. Historians talk of ‘the invention of tradition’ – the creation of a story with what seems to be an ancient origin (perhaps reflecting vaguely what may have happened in the past but more often an idealised dream of what it should have been). Clinto/clintòn quickly became one of these invented traditions. The fact that you could reproduce it by layering offered more continuity with previous centuries of wine-making than the fact that it was American contradicted that continuity. The tradition was cheap wine made on the farm rather than an ancient heritage of indigenous Veronese grapes. The brothers also note that they tried ‘French’ grapes at some stage; however, whilst they were good to eat they made poor wine – as did merlot (seen to be Italian rather than French as it has grown there for at least 170 years). The rich soils of the plain here may have promoted excess vine growth and overcropping.
Around Verona, we were told, the wines made from these grapes were in contrast to the ‘worked’ wines made by the large companies. They were artisanal, fermented in large vats then stored in glass demijohns. They sold the wines to relatives and a few friends. ‘They were fighting to get it’ we were told! Maybe that was due to the price; it was sold for 500 lire a litre (about 25 eurocents).
There is a festival in early October in one local village to celebrate the wines made from the grape. This, however, will be completely different from most wine festivals around the world. Those tend to be inclusive, welcoming visitors (if only because they have a marketing and promotional dimension). This will be about reinforcing community identity, maintaining ties to the communal past and educating local residents about social ties, loyalty and the need for solidarity. It will specifically not want external participants because it is the threat of the outside and a world which is changing that will be the focus of the celebration. So, it makes me want to go there, to see how it operates! However, the ‘worked’ wines from the large companies slowly became more affordable (as the population became wealthier) and fewer locals wanted to buy the villagers’ hand-made, ‘authentic’, offerings. Meanwhile the family needed to buy treatments for the vines to deal with mildew and that became more and more expensive. The brothers’ father went on making the wines until about 1984 /85. They stopped as it was too hard to sell anymore. Yet they kept one vine to remember their father by, as it was his wine, and they reproduce it by layering canes in the soil and letting them root. However, even this vine is harder and harder to keep alive; it doesn’t like the erratic weather that has come with climate change; the humidity and heat is causing the layering to fail. Thus we have an invented tradition – one which has only existed about 100 years but which probably reinforces thousands of years of peasant rebellion against authority alongside communality and rural cohesion – yet which is fading to a close.