Italy has a rich winemaking history shaped by politics, culture, tradition, historic events, climate, and evolving wine trends. From the evidence of wineries in Sicily over six thousand years old to today, the history of wine in Italy tells the stories of hundreds of different varietals, many of which are native to the country itself. Each grape has its unique story; however, many grapes face a similar fate: extinction. These grapes, almost lost to time, have often been saved by the efforts of a small number of passionate winemakers. One such example is Pallagrello Bianco, a grape favored by Italian nobility in centuries past only to be brought back from supposed extinction in recent decades.
Pallagrello Bianco is a mid to late-ripening grape with low yields grown in specific communes in the south of Italy in Campania. The vines are characterized by small bunches with small berries that are low in acid and high in sugar. The bunches are not unlike those of the Coda di Volpe grape in that they are shaped like a foxtail. As such, the two grapes were often confused for each other until genetic testing confirmed the two varieties to be distinct. Pallagrello Bianco is most likely named after a straw lattice the grape traditionally dried on called a “pagliarello.” A small portion of grapes was traditionally dried in this manner for use in baking pastries. The first recorded reference to the grape dates back to the 1700s. The grape was called “Pallarelli,” which referred to a white and black grape in the region. Genetic testing of these two grapes, Pallagrello Bianco and Pallagrello Nero has shown that neither of these distinct varietals is a color mutation of the other.
As is the case for many wine grapes, the story of Pallagrello Bianco is inexorably linked to important historical figures and events over the centuries. A favorite grape of King Ferdinand of the royal House of Bourbon, which ruled Naples and Sicily, it rose in prominence during the 18th century. Pallagrello Bianco was included in the Vigna del Ventaglio, a vineyard designed by Italian architect Luigi Vanvitelli that contained the king’s favorite grapes. The vineyard has long since disappeared, but records from the 1800s indicate that it was designed in the shape of a “ventaglio,” a type of traditional handheld fan. The ten segments of the fan were each planted with a different varietal.
Despite its status as a favored grape of the aristocracy, Pallagrello Bianco could not escape the clutches of phylloxera, a tiny insect that feeds on the roots of Vitis vinifera. Native to North America, phylloxera ravaged the vines of Europe, which had no naturally evolved defenses against the louse. This led to the loss, or near loss, of countless varietals as the pest spread across the continent in the late 19th century. The World Wars and their subsequent economic devastation followed closely on the heels of the phylloxera outbreak delaying any potential efforts to reestablish many varieties of Vitis vinifera. As a result, Pallagrello Bianco was only cultivated and believed to be extinct for decades once it was serendipitously rediscovered in the 1990s.
Pallagrello Bianco owes its revival to the passion and efforts of two individuals who left established careers to pursue winemaking. As the story goes, Peppe Mancini, a lawyer in Campania, found Pallagrello Bianco growing in an abandoned vineyard in the region in the 1990s. This grape had particular significance to Mancini, who could remember stories of the grape told to him by his grandfather and other locals as a child. Alongside Manuela Piancastelli, who left her journalism career, Mancini established Terre del Principe in 2003. The pair continue to make wines today from Pallagrello Bianco and two other indigenous varieties: Pallagrello Nero and Casavecchia. Other modern-day champions of the varietal include Paola Riccio, who took over her family winery Alepa in 2002. Referred to as the “Lady of Pallagrello,” Riccio continues producing wines from Pallagrello Bianco and Pallagrello Nero.
Pallagrello Bianco is typically produced and marketed at the Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) classification level. At this point, the grape is primarily grown in Campania. If any producers are utilizing Pallagrello Bianco outside of the region, they are few. The primary communes where the grape can be found are Castel di Sasso, Castel Campagnano, and Caiazzo in the province of Caserta. Wines produced from the grape are often described as having aromas of apricot and peach, similar to Viognier. Other typical aromas include almond, honey, and wax. The higher sugar content of the grapes often results in high-alcohol wines with moderate acidity. Fermentation is typically done in stainless steel, and the color of Pallagrello Bianco wines is usually a brilliant straw.
Although the grape seems like it could be more poised for international expansion, thanks to the efforts of a few ardent winemakers, this once-lauded grape will remain a staple in its home region for the foreseeable future.