The effort to save the varietal Schioppettino from extinction can be traced back to the actions of one man, Paulo Rapozzi, and his vineyard Ronchi di Cialla. After the twin threats of oidium in the 1850s and the Phylloxera epidemic of the 1860s wiped out most of the native vines, many vineyards decided to grow more international varietals that would fetch a higher price as export.
Many varietals were marginalized, kept alive through either force of habit or as a family or farmhouse wine. When Paulo Rapozzi purchased his land in Friuli in 1970, he clearly intended to produce great age-worthy wines from indigenous grapes. When this got out, some senior citizens from nearby towns began to speak about Pokalza and Schioppettino, often still called Ribolla Nera.
Rapozzi scoured old vineyards and chased down rumors of this nearly lost varietal. He found it, in all places, in the garden of the Mayor of Prepotto. Once he could positively identify this vine, Paulo had one hundred clones clandestinely grafted and planted in his vineyard. Why the secrecy? Because planting “unauthorized” vines were illegal and could have gotten Ronchi di Cialla heavily fined.
Paulo understood the greater risk was allowing this native vine to go extinct and persevered. And with the help of the Mayor of Prepotto, they petitioned the Italian Government to allow this vine to be planted. In 1976, the Rapuzzi’s won the first Nonino Risit d’Aur, set up by the Nonino Family to encourage other growers in Friuli to work with endangered varietals.
By 1981 Ronchi di Cialla was approved, and by 1983, according to Ronchi di Cialla’s webpage that “(t)he Ministry of Agricultural Resources ‘recognizes and establishes the geographical demarcation of Cialla for Schioppettino'” and that by 1989 Schioppettino was declared a DOC Colli del Friuli wine. He had saved the varietal.
An apocryphal story is relayed in Jancis Robinson’s book wine grapes about how the wine was first mentioned in 1282, “…during…a wedding in Prepotto. The truth is the wedding took place in 1910, and on this occasion, a 1282 document saying that there were already some vineyards…in the area…however, this document did not contain any variety name.” This was an attempt to establish a greater provenance for the vine.
However, according to Robinson, the first reliable mention was probably Ribolla Nera in 1877. The vine prefers cooler temperatures, and the Colli Orientali del Friuli, which translates into the eastern hills of Friuli, provides, as this region is protected from the northern winds by the Julian Alps, close to the border with Slovenia. This area is so close to Slovenia that some vintners have vineyards on both sides of the border.
The name Pokalza is most likely the Slovenian name for this grape. This area is also cooler than Collio di Goriziano, closer to the Adriatic Sea. The hills themselves range in elevation from 100 to 350 meters. Although this region is above sea level, it wasn’t always, a fact revealed in the soil structure named after a nearby town and called “flysch of Cormons,” consisting of alternating layers of marl and sandstone. The grape is mid to late ripening, making it susceptible to downy mildew.
In the glass, Schioppettino is a deep ruby red medium-bodied with fine tannins, moderate alcohol, and sustained acidity, yielding an approachable and food-friendly wine. On the nose, raspberries, and cherries, underlying floral notes, specifically pepperiness, due to the high levels of a sesquiterpene named Rotundone.
There are quite a few theories as to where Schioppettino got its name. Some say it translates as “crackle” because it crackles on the lips due to its almost Rhone-like pepper notes. Others translate it as “gunshot” since many times these wines would referment in the bottle, causing the cork to explode from the bottle.
A traditional Friulian pairing is Rabbit Stew and Polenta, and poultry and fowl also pair well, but could it just as easily complement a Margherita Pizza. Sadly, Paulo Rapozzi has shuffled off this mortal coil, but his work lives on, not just in his children, who still work at the vineyard, but in the Schioppettino Festival held every year in Prepotto during the first week in May.