Tucked away in the eastern hills of the Friuli region of Italy is a small valley between the Upper Adriatic Sea and the foothills of the Julian Alps. This area, known as the Cialla Valley, can be found between the small city of Prepotto and Slovenia. Unfortunately, while viewing the Valley’s countryside may lead one to imagine a sense of eternal beauty and joyous life, the history of one of its indigenous grape varieties, Schioppettino, is marred by tragedy and, fortunately, after that, triumph. In fact, at one point in time, not so long ago, Italian government authorities and many wine growers believed this wonderful grape was extinct. Fortunately for us, Paolo and Dina Rapuzzi were not among those believers.
Schioppettino (pronounced Skjoppetՙti:no) is often warmly referred to as “little crack” for its explosive charge when you bite into it. The grape is medium-sized, thick-skinned, with a deep dark ruby color. The wine is medium-bodied, with hints of violet and herbs, tasting notes of wild fruits, e.g., raspberry, and spices including green pepper and cinnamon. There exists fresh acidity and mild lingering tannins. A perfect continental microclimate found in and on the slopes of the Cialla Valley – hot and breezy days to cool nights – provides optimum conditions for the grape’s maturation.
Historical articles dating back to the middle ages mention the grape, perhaps named Ribolla Nora, frequently connected with marriage ceremonies in and around Udine Province. Schioppettino was widely popular in Friuli until the mid-19th century, partially crippled by the influx of powdery mildew fungus from the Americas. Shortly after that, phylloxera invaded Friuli, nearly resulting in the disappearance of the grape. Instead of encouraging Schioppettino’s recultivation, many winemakers turned their attention to cultivating more hardy varietals outside Friuli. The tragic events surrounding World Wars I and II required many vineyard workers to leave their jobs and enter Italy’s armed forces, wreaking havoc on a winemaker’s workforce.
Many wine historians conclude that by the mid-20th century, there were less than 100 remaining Schioppettino vines, most scattered throughout eastern Friuli. By this point, the grape was no longer recognized by the Italian governing authorities, and those who cultivated it risked being sanctioned.
Fast forward to 1970. Along come Paulo and Dina Rapuzzi, settling in the Cialla Valley to establish a vineyard where native Friulian grapes would be grown and great varieties produced. The Rapuzzi’s initially sought to attain their goal by founding the Rionchi di Cialla winery near Prepotto. He painstakingly and successfully set out to recover various indigenous grape varieties, including Schioppettino. Those familiar with Mr. Rapuzzi recall he was gifted some vines from the personal garden of Prepotto’s mayor while others were collected from old vineyards in Friuli and Slovenia. Despite the risks, Mr. Rapuzzi cultivated Schioppettino (and other native varietals) in Ronchi di Cialla. The grapes, planted on the Cialla Valley’s sloping hillsides in Eocene marl soil, flourished.
Several years later, with the support of Prepotto’s governing body and numerous producers of indigenous grapes, Mr. and Mrs. Rapuzzi convinced the requisite government authorities to declare the cultivation of Schioppettino legal once again! In 1989 Schioppettino was proclaimed a DOC Coli Orientali del Friuli (the Eastern Hills of Friuli) wine.
In 2000 approximately 96 ha/237 acres of Schioppettino plantings were present in Italy. By 2010 this number had increased to 154 ha/381 acres, with most plantings in the Friuli – Venezia-Giulla region.
Paolo Rapuzzi’s live recorded interview provided to sommelier Eleanor Shannon succinctly summarizes his approach to indigenous grapes winemaking.
The grapes already have everything they need to become wine, so the less we intervene, the more we get the desired results. Making “terroir” wine requires giving a lot of attention to the vineyard because the vine is a living thing that needs a lot of care, and that’s how you make outstanding wine. In the cellar, the less you do, the better. It is because otherwise, you risk ruining all the work you did in the vineyard.
Sadly Paolo Rapuzzi passed away in his sleep on August 13, 2014. However, the Ronchi di Cialla estate lives on as a thriving 2nd generation family-owned business. Mr. Rapuzzi’s legacy as a pioneer who brought Schioppettino and other native varieties back from near extinction will live on forever.