(Thanks to Nicole Mascioli for help with this post).
Anyone who has followed my blog recently will be aware of my obsession with northern Italian wines made from no longer legal grape varieties (see my last two posts). This prompted one of my Italian students in Dijon, Nicole, to talk to me about her experience with similar types of wine in the town she grew up in. This is Cuggiono, about 30 kms from Milan and in the Ticino valley at the border of Lombardy and Piedmont. It’s a place where there used to be many vineyards until phylloxera yet, as happened in much of Europe (even where I live in Burgundy) most of them reverted to waste land and forest or other agricultural use after the insect plague. Cuggiono is the only town locally to maintain this viticultural heritage. It is on the Ticino which carves out a national park in the area, and it is where Nicole’s parents and grandfather were raised as well. She generously spent some time doing local research on this heritage for me.
The vines all disappeared from the 1920s onwards, but in 1982 the local historical museum in the town decided to recreate the old wines which were made there, and which formed part of the village’s cultural history. There was a conscious effort to replicate the former styles of wine, but 60 years on many of the people who promoted the idea knew nothing of viticulture; however, a local professional agronomist was part of the team and advised them. This, then, was a group of older people who were proud of their identity (and they still are) and wanted to remember it before it was completely forgotten.
By the 1980s the use of American grape varieties was banned in Italy for making wine except for personal use. Many people, including Nicole’s grandmother, had been persuaded the banning of these grapes was due to the health danger they posed, so she pulled up her grapes, incorrectly thinking they were harmful (even though she was no longer making wine with them and it was only a small plot). This was the same year, however, that some locals, based around the town’s historical museum, decided to recreate the wine so that the tradition did not die. The found some local vines and used them to plant a vineyard in the public gardens of the town and, subsequently began to make wine. Children do the foot pressing in a plastic vat; they used to do this in the past as their pressing was softer than adults (weight) and more could get in the tub at once. Meanwhile, the adults harvest and manage the fermentation and bottling. Nicole helped with the vintage at times when she was younger.
Initially the blend was Clinton and Fragolino with some other traditional local varieties. However, the latter didn’t work soe well, and now it includes some freisa (an indigenous piemontese variety with rather bitter tannins but attractive soft red fruit aromas) plus cabernet France (as it resists mildew well) as well as the fragolino (which comes from the Veneto), and clinton. The wine is not to be recommended for those searching for elegance and complexity; however, for its creators it is not about crafting a good wine – but shaping ‘their’ wine. This is about maintaining a fading collective memory or the reinvention of a tradition ‘rooted in our way of being’. Typically the wine is drunk with pan tramvai, a local dried fruit bread. So not just the production, but the consumption also seeks to maintain the heritage.
By 2020 they were bottling 500 bottles. The wine has an has an invented label – it is entitled ‘Baragioeu DO’ (not ‘DOC’ – the standard Italian PDO designation, which would be illegal). Baragioeu is a dialect word for ‘wine. The label also records that this bottle is from the is the ‘38th anniversary’. My bottle is numbered 358/500. Because it is an illegal wine it can’t be sold so the museum kindly gave me a bottle.