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Rescuing the Real Schiava/Vernatsch

Time is running out for Alto Adige's signature variety, which may – just – be rescued in time by a New Generation of producers.

Above, the Gschleier vineyard of over 100 years old,

proof of Schiava's potential magnificence.

I keep obsessing over Vernatsch aka Schiava, the pale, alpine red grape variety known for feather-light wines, but which a new generation, following in the footsteps of old stalwarts, has begun to turn into elegant wines with a much longer shelf life than its reputation would have it. It is the main reason why, for the second time, I had the audacity to leave their Vernatsch samples sent to me for a full year in my cellar before tasting them, just so I could prove my thesis.

And again (see my previous Schiava tasting article) I was not disappointed, because Vernatsch has gone through a seismic stylistic change over the last decade largely due to a young generation cutting their teeth on this most misunderstood of Italian varieties (Lambrusco is a close second, but enjoys huge sales).

This generation may have instituted the stylistic change, but they are now beginning to inspire other producers, including those who in the recent past were so ashamed for Vernatsch that at wine fairs they used to hide it underneath the table and only reluctantly showed it to those who expressly asked for it.

And I am even more obsessed since I revised the Italian entries for the fifth edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine, published in late 2023. The fourth edition describes the variety as 'undistinguished'. The latest stats show that this Cinderella of a grapevine is losing ground worryingly fast to practically any French white wine variety in Alto Adige, its home turf, but especially to Pinot Grigio.

The speed of its decline is nothing less than shocking. The reported 1,157 ha (2,859 acres) back in 2013 had shrunk to 635 ha (1,569 acres) by 2019, while Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay have cannibalised Schiava's vineyard share.

There is still time, if very little, to turn the tide, before this ancient variety, which is ingrained in Alto Adige's culture and has formed the landscape of terraced pergolas for at least 1,000 years if not longer, fades out. That would be tragic because Vernatsch is one of Alto Adige's very few indigenous varieties of commercial significance. It is arguably also the only one (forget Lagrein, it is half as interesting) in which Alto Adige's identity, history and traditions are anchored, but which the region has been ignoring for decades because of prices spiralling down and the aforementioned shame.

Tellingly, Vernatsch and pergola share the same bad rap but without any justification, the main accusation being that pergola encourages Vernatsch's potential for excessive yields. As I explained here this cliché lacks proper scientific support (pergola does not automatically lead to high yields), but finds its justification in a recent past in which a combination of high-yielding clones, excessive irrigation and chemical fertilisers led to enormous volumes of wine.

Dramatically different bunch sizes based on water content in the soils:

left, from a waterlogged plot; right, from a dry-farmed, free-draining plot

The Swiss market in particular, conveniently on Alto Adige's doorstep, bought the pale wine en masse and in bulk rather than bottled. In all likelihood the wines were then cut to go further in the absence of any quality control.

But talking about Vernatsch/Schiava doesn't equal Schiava. The Registro Nazionale delle Varietà di Vite, the Italian grape-variety register, officially lists three distinct clones – Schiava Gentile, Schiava Grigia and Schiava Grossa – making for very different wines, while Ansitz Waldgries claim to have no fewer than eight different clones in their vineyards. It was Schiava Grossa, the least noble and the most productive of the official three, that took over Alto Adige's vineyards.

Also responsible for this appalling situation was the Versuchszentrum Laimburg, Alto Adige's agricultural research centre, which at the end of the 1960s heavily promoted Schiava Grossa. Laimburg's raison d'être and main task is to spur economic growth through agriculture, be it grapes or apples, nowadays a fierce competitor of grapes.

This 'pile them high and sell them cheap' approach, justified by an eager and nearby market, continued for decades in which Alto Adige continued pumping out industrial quantities of insipid Schiava, while a whole generation was born and raised only ever knowing the simple, dilute Schiava Grossa and, unsurprisingly, thinking nothing good of it. This is also one reason why quality-oriented producers preferred to plant French varieties with their untainted image.

Once Swiss demand dried up, the home market had to absorb the enormous production for which there was more supply than demand, and which caused prices to fall further. Grape growers soon began to plant fashionable and more marketable varieties, first Chardonnay and Pinot Bianco, quickly followed by Pinot Grigio, all of which, compared with Schiava, sell at a premium to Alto Adige's many co-ops. Generally these co-ops are so large and hence so powerful that they can set the grape-variety agenda. That meant (and still does): Schiava out and Pinot Grigio in.

Over 600 ha seems a lot but the speed at which Vernatsch is disappearing is alarming. Aside from the wholesale replacement by more lucrative but essentially foreign varieties favoured over local ones and causing an identity crisis the region is unwilling to acknowledge, Vernatsch is not helped further by the fact that it turns out to be extremely susceptible to Drosophila suzukii. This fruit fly, a recent import from South East Asia, notably tears through the Schiava vineyards because the variety's thin skin offers little resistance.

The Versuchszentrum Laimburg are investigating a potential predator, but Drosophila suzukii might well be the coup de grâce for especially steep, hard-to-work Vernatsch vineyards. Hartman Donà's Liquid Stone, a range of three Vernatsch wines from different, old, steep vineyards and now on its second release, dramatically show how exceptional Vernatsch can be. Liquid Stone also makes painfully clear what Alto Adige is about to lose once the old clonal material – which, inexplicably, still hasn't been looked into scientifically here – has disappeared for ever.

There are plenty of liquid arguments why the wine world should start paying attention to this highly original, elegant red wine that is light in everything but substance. And Alto Adige should push the pause button now before it is too late for Vernatsch.

Historic, terraced Vernatsch/Schiava vineyard near Meran/Merano

There is a flicker of hope for Vernatsch now that even several co-ops have begun to produce a style of Vernatsch different from the sweet, dilute, lightly vegetal fruit drinks of the past. This rather nasty type of Schiava (I simply cannot bring myself to call it Vernatsch) is the result of a speedy fermentation with selected yeast that mercilessly push the wine-gum button and, with hardly any maceration time, avoid any tannic extraction.

This style has been dominant for so long, and has been so destructive to Vernatsch's image, that it will take a long time for the international market to be convinced of the 'new Schiava' – time Vernatsch vineyards simply won't have. Widespread, regional promotion is now urgently needed to get this style under the noses of as many professionals and wine lovers as possible to prevent its demise.

The co-op of Girlan, a staunch supporter of the variety for over half a century, has always treated Vernatsch with the utmost respect, keeping the wine for extended periods on the skins and then ageing it for one or more years in cask. But this blueprint was ignored by most producers because, not knowing any better, they considered the style an aberration. Schiava is now paying the price for this historical lack of vision.

This year's samples clearly showed that more than ever producers are embracing tannins, something the avant-garde have done for years and have often been ridiculed for. This means that in many cellars now Vernatsch is left longer on the skins, helping to extract those very tannins, which need to be ripe.

This simple fact follows all the way back to the vineyard, where the focus has shifted from high yields to ripe fruit and consequently ripe tannins.

This seems so logical but it represents a dramatic change, because a whole generation grew up believing that tannins in Vernatsch were undesirable, bad practice even, and that the variety is only good at providing very light wines with the shortest of shelf lives.

Finally, old conventions are thrown overboard because of a new generation of wines with a clear tannic structure. In der Eben's Sankt Anna R Vernatsch from the 2012 (!) vintage neatly shows how well Vernatsch can age.

Slowly a Vernatsch elite has emerged, spearheaded by a younger generation taking all the risks while getting little recognition in the region itself. But if the achievements of this young generation are not recognised, what will the future for Alto Adige look like? After all: these are the sons and daughters of those unwilling to change

This article was previously published at on 29 October 2020 and republished with kind permission.

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