When one mentions the word “extinction,” two things generally come to mind: dinosaurs and Donald Trump. But wine grapes? Extinct? Absolutely. History is replete with documented accounts of grapes morphing into oblivion. But, of course, every wine enthusiast knows that in the late nineteenth century, a yellow louse called Phylloxera, originally from North America, began to destroy vineyards throughout Europe, including Italy. A working summary of this phenomenon and its relevance (or irrelevance) to Slarina is as follows:
This aphid-like insect fed on the roots of Vitis Vinifera grapes and specific rootstocks, stunting the growth of vines or killing them. Fortunately, through research and an intricate series of experiments, a process was developed whereby American rootstocks were grafted onto European vines, significantly containing this epidemic and threatening the future existence of wine throughout much of the civilized world.
While Italian wine grapes were not immune from the catastrophic effects of Phylloxera, it is estimated that only about 10% of Italy’s vines were affected. The likely saviors were the incredible diversity of the country’s climate, its vines, and volcanic soil. Sicily and Calabria were struck the hardest, but overall, Italy fared better than many of its neighbors.
While disease or insect infestation could be deemed natural causes of wine grape extinction, two other significant factors which are not generally considered are economics and the law. But first, a bit about the Slarina grape.
It is beyond dispute that Piedmont produces some of the finest wines in the world. The rarefied Barolos and Barbarescos, along with Barberas, Dolcettos, Gavis, and others, place this region into a class by itself. Monferrato is in the north, just south of the Piedmont region, with approximately 300,000 hectares of rolling hills and vineyards. The Tanaro River divides into three sections. Viticulture in this area dates to Roman times. (Monferrato only received DOC status in 1994, which confirms that it was only sometimes on everyone’s radar screen). Its soil is clay, sand, and limestone, and its climate is mild, with little rain. There are so many indigenous grape varietals in the area that applicable winemaking regulations allow for the use of many varieties and blends, unlike other regions of Italy. One of these is Slarina.
Slarina’s etymology comes from “Cellerina” or “Cenerina,” which is the Italian word for “ashes,” a reference to the bloom that naturally forms on its skin. The grapes are small and berry-like, and its vines are extremely low yielding. Slarina cultivation was abandoned in the second half of the twentieth century because of poor production capacity. Slarina yields were so inconsistent that in the post-World War II period,
Italian law prohibited its planting. Italian authorities went so far as to delete Slarina from the official Registry of Authorized Varietals. Many vines were removed in favor of the more popular and fiscally sound Barbera. In sum, the favorable economics of production just wasn’t there.
The grape was virtually extinct, but the locals still embraced it. Small vineyards in the Tortonere and Asti regions continued to produce that which could have been more productive. Slarina maintained its local appeal with fruity and herbaceous notes, firm tannins, and a well-defined structure reminiscent of Barbera and Cabernet Franc.
In the early 2000s, a project embracing the preservation of biodiversity in indigenous wines emerged in the Piedmont region. The production of long-forgotten varietals with exciting and unique taste components reflecting the area’s character became the focus of several top producers, including Iuli, Agricola, Sulin, and Avamposti. This effort was less motivated by economic sanity than by a commitment to history, tradition, and an effort to literally “tell the story of Piedmont” by certain producers. This theory is underscored by the fact that, according to producer Enrico Druetto, his vineyard only realizes around 1000 bottles from 4000 vines planted, not an excellent ratio in the wine production world. On the other hand, Francesco Iuli, who is well known for lo-input winemaking, championed the comeback of Slarina, having planted one and a half hectares as recently as 2013.
He has already produced several vintages from this oft-neglected and forgotten grape. As a result of the above, coupled with considerable research and work by the University of Turin and the Italian Research Institute of Sustainable Plants, Slarina was “rediscovered” and restored to the Italian National Registry in 2007.
In sum, Slarina came as close as possible to actual extinction, interestingly not from epidemic or disease but from its biological shortcomings in yield and productivity. However, it is evident from its history that the people of Piedmont (and, to a large degree, various Italian authorities) only assessed this attractive grape from an economic standpoint. Even with its renaissance, it clearly will not be the wine that sustains the financial position of its producers. However, wine being a form of art rather than a science in many respects, it is entirely refreshing to see in practice the well-established adage that “money isn’t everything” and that even the most esoteric wines (a definition that reasonably fits Slarina as a member of the exclusive Piedmont wine club) will continue to thrive and be enjoyed by patrons of the world of wine.