Schioppettino #2

Posted by Keith Wallace

In Janis Robinson’s impressive “Wine Grapes,” she describes 1,400 grape varietals in commercial production. However, the world’s wine shelves are dominated by a mere 20. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Chardonnay have dramatically reduced diversity in vineyards and consumer purchases worldwide. Tim Atkins writes, “Beyond research and history books lies a much more basic problem—it’s boring to drink the same wine all the time.”

In July 2013, 60 experts gathered in Porto for the first “Wine Mosaic” symposium. Jean-Luc Ertievent, the founder and President (a French academic turned retailer,) invited an international group of wine experts: researchers, winemakers, and journalists to join the project of “Militer pour la Vinodiversite.” Their objective was to save unique wine grapes from extinction.

155 Mediterranean varieties planted on less than 24 acres are close to extinction. Another 200 regional varietals grown are increasingly rare, with fewer than 250 acres planted. The devastation of Phylloxera wiped out many varieties in the 19th century. Many more disappeared in the last decades of the 20th century when more marketable international varieties replaced indigenous grapes.

In Northern Italy, two winemakers stepped up to the challenge of rescuing two great grapes.

The winemaker Sig Pancho Rapazzi and his wife Dina, in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia Region and the town of Prepotto, brought the white Schioppettino Di Prepotto grape back from the dead after its official status was outlawed.

Another determined winemaker, Walter Massa in Piedmont (Province of Alessandra, the Territory of Colli Tortonesi and town of Monleale), rescued the red grape Timorasso from extinction.

Schioppettino’s (pronounced “skee-op-eh-tee-no”) name was believed to be derived from the word Scoppietto, meaning to “crackle” either because it was initially slightly fizzy or because its thick-skinned berries crackle in the mouth. The other hypothesis that is based on

 “Gunshot” after its punchy black peppercorn character. It is also known as Ribolla Nera.

It was cited for the first time in 1282 and used in marriage ceremonies in Albania, Italy. In 1496 it was referenced as the preferred wine of the patriarchates of Aquileia and the Venetian Republic. It almost disappeared in the 20th century when Phylloxera hit the region. It was largely replaced by Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc in those same vineyards.

Schioppettino was saved in the 1970s by the friendship and collaboration of Bernardo Bruno, the mayor of Prepotto, and the recent arrival of winemakers Paulo and Dina Rapuzzi. Paulo and Dina were the new owners of the Ronchi Di Cialla estate.

Rapuzzi found 40 Schioppettino vines on the mayor’s property and, with his permission, grafted them onto plants in his vineyard. By 1972 he had 100 plants in his vineyards that he had located across the area.

In 1976 the town of Prepotto’s local government outlawed the grape. In 1977 the mayor called an emergency town meeting called “Save Schioppettino!” In 1976 Rapuzza won the first Nonino Family “Rista D’Aur” award for encouraging those in Fruiti who were “The Preservers of Endangered Species of Grapes.”

With the support of the famous Nonino Grappa family and the mayor, they petitioned the EU, and in 1978 an EEC decree and official regulation authorized the grape for cultivation in the Province of Udine, Italy. Rapuzzi continued to be encouraged by Luigi Veronelli, Italy’s first serious wine journalist, and the Nonino family because they saw the grape’s potential in making excellent monovarietal grappa. Belatedly, Udine included the grape in its list of authorized vines in 1981.

Behind the scenes, the Rapuzzi family kept working the grape in their vineyards and cellar, and the initial production of Schioppettino in 1977 was an instant success and won many awards. The all-but-forgotten grape was on the verge of becoming a budding superstar. It was awarded DOC status in 1987. It was becoming a cult wine.

In 2002 a Schioppettino Producer Association was formed. By 2000 there was 96 HA (237 acres) planted in Italy. By 2010 there was 154 HA (381 acres.) Schioppettino di Prepotto became an official subzone in 2008. The grape is all over Fruili-Venezia Giulia but still nowhere else in Italy. It is most common in the Colli Orientali del Friuli (DOC). 90% of the vines are near Cividatle del Friuli. An official festival is held annually in Prepotto in the first week of May every year.

The wines are deeply colored and aromatic (violets), with peppery (green peppercorn) flavors and wild fruits. The fruits include black currants, blackberries, raspberries, and black cherries. It has high natural acidity, smooth tannins, and excellent balance. It has been described as having Rhone-like properties. Others have described it as similar to Cabernet Franc. It pairs well with food displaying smoky or spicy notes and with creamy sauces. It is worth trying with tagliatelle with a sauce of wild boar venison or hare.

The soil is alluvial marl and sandstone covered with a thin layer of clay or gravel, and the grape has a predilection for calcium-enriched soils. The grape also performs well in red clay soil rich in iron. It is grown between 110 and 250 meters above sea level. The vineyards are in the mouth of the narrow Judrio Valley, which provides excellent ventilation. It is aged for 12 months in barriques.

It is now grown in Northern California in Sonoma’s region around Healdsburg. The San Francisco wine critic Ester Mobley wrote, “This California Version of an Obscure Italian Red Will Make You Feel Electric.” The grape was introduced to Australia in 2005, with production beginning in 2016.

And this resurgence was all due to the persistence of the Rapuzzi family in the 1970s with the mayor and the Nonino family’s assistance.


The other great story of saving a grape from obsolescence was in the Colli Tortonesi Region in the Province of Alessandra in Piedmont. The grape is Timurasso.

Timorasso owes its modern-day existence to Walter Massa, a farmer from Monleale, a village in Piedmont. He brought the grape back from oblivion by himself. Walter is described as a man who is “half circus conductor, and half prophet, grounded in his sometimes crazy-seeming vision.” Kerin O’Keefe called the “Walter Massa Timorasso the most famous unknown wine.”

Timorasso was once the most commonly grown white grape in Piedmont. Della Provincia Dei Alessandra, published in 1911, reported it was the predominant white grape varietal in the area and concluded it was the vinicultural jewel of the Tortona area of white wines.

After Phylloxera ravened the vineyards, local growers planted Barbara, Croatina, and White Cortese.

After graduating from Alba’s Enological School in 1976, Walter Massa took over his family farm. Until then, the Vigneti Massa farm, created in 1879, grew grapes and sold bulk wine. Walter decided the altitude, microclimate, and soil were more suited to white grapes, specifically, Timorasso. In 1987 he fermented his first crop of Timorasso and produced a little over 500 bottles. He decided it was much better than the Cortese he was producing.

In 1990 Walter planted his first vineyard dedicated entirely to Timorasso. Based on its success, he dedicated nine vineyards to the grape, comprising 10 HA or 25 acres, including three cru bottlings. He now farms 30 HA in eight distinct vineyard areas. His total production is about 5,000 cases of wine.

The grape is a challenging one to grow. The asynchronous maturation of the berries is one of the reasons this variety is a pain to grow. It also suffers from floral abortion, with many flowers never bearing fruit. Finally, the berries also easily fall off the vine, which could be better in windy conditions. However, when it is successful, it is magnificent.

Janis Robinson wrote, “I absolutely loved this white wine and found more aromas and flavors, and more pleasure, as I drank it over the course of a few days…Very inviting spiced honeyed nose and some creamy, lightly, spiced aromas…Nutty, citrus, with just discernable floral and apricot notes, full of flavor and yet restraint, cool and fresh and lingering elegant and aromatic.”

This structured wine has more depth, body, and complexity than most Italian wines. The wine is crisp with fresh acidity and very delicate minerality. It has the aromas and flavors of white flowers, unripe stone fruit, and bright citrus. The wine is an intellectual grape, like an austere Riesling.

Walter’s vineyards are on steep slopes just east of Tortona. They are perched above the nearly abandoned hilltop town of Monleale at around 200-300 meters altitude. The soil is composed of clay, chalk, and sand. The wines reach maturity only 3-4 years after harvest.

Many vineyards are now trying to replicate Walter’s success. There are currently over 20 vineyards growing and producing Timmorasso—another wonderful grape saved from extinction.

The “Wine Mosaic” project was an excellent start. The Rapazzi family and Walter Massa stories were fun and informative. The Mosaic project is correct; the world must commit to diversity and conservation. We can all do our part with our friends and associates. Keep trying new grape varietals around the world.

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