Ancient Grape Revived in Tuscany


If it’s an exclusive grape variety you want, W. Blake Gray has just the thing for you.

By W. Blake Gray | Posted Monday, 25-Jan-2021

All right, wine geeks, let’s wait until everybody else leaves the room, because I have a story for us.

It’s about reviving an ancient wine grape variety – but doing so by using experimental modern technology.

There are monks. There are grapes with green juice and grapes with pink juice – and it turns out they’re virtually the same genetically. There’s a treasure of a vineyard that was almost callously replanted, but was saved by a family of non-wine engineers who ignored their patriarch’s demands to never work in farming. Let’s go!

Colombana is the grape variety in question. Currently it is made varietally by only one winery in the world: Fattoria Fibbiano in the Pisan Hills of Tuscany. The Cantoni family found it on their property some years after buying it. Advised to tear it out and replant with something else, they went the other way and planted more of it.

But they’re still sussing out what to do with it. It took them a decade to make a white wine from it that they could sell; 2019 was the first commercial vintage.

“We’re not only making wine here,” Fibbiano’s Matteo Cantoni told Wine-Searcher. “We’re trying to do something different and in a different way, but always related to our land and our traditions. We try to give new life to old indigenous varieties that have been canceled in Tuscany.”

Back to the farm

Cantoni says his family were farmers going back eight generations until his father, Giuseppe.

“My father, when he graduated around 1960, he was living around Milan,” Matteo Cantoni said. “At that time, my grandfather make all the kids sit down around the table and told all of them: ‘I don’t want any of you to be a farmer. I work hard to make you a better living. I will pay for your study, but you don’t have to be a farmer.’ My father is an engineer and he was working for an oil and gas company. For 30 years he was traveling all over the world. He was in Texas, and then he was in the UK. He was in Asia for the last 20 years of his previous life. He had the opportunity to retire from his previous business quite early. He was not even 60. Together with me and my brother, he decided to go back to agriculture. Our living, our faith is in the soil. I grew up in my grandfather’s farm. When I was six years old I was driving a tractor. All my friends were driving bicycles, motorbikes. I was driving a tractor. I love tractors. My grandfather was not happy about that. But he was quite hard with my father and the other kids, but not with us.”

Newly retired Giuseppe Cantoni was looking for a summer house in 1997 when he spotted the Fibbiano property – a house big enough for three families to live in separate apartments. It came with some very old vineyards that had been planted for big crops of wine: widely spaced, with double cordon pruning (not that it meant anything to the Cantonis yet.)

“He found this property just driving,” Matteo Cantoni said. “He saw this sign, Vendesi [‘For sale’]. There was a phone number. He got the phone number, called the guy, and this was love. This was not something we were ready to buy. He was looking for a house with a garden and a few olive trees. We end up with 100 hectares of land, a huge house, machinery and a cellar. We were so in love with this place that we didn’t realize which project we were going to end up with. The funny thing is that this place was on sale for 17 years. We bought in three weeks. We saw this place and just signed the paper.”

Matteo Cantoni said the previous owner had planned to make wine at Fibbiano, and already had labels and even a bottling line, but decided they couldn’t make it work. Fibbiano is in the Chianti zone but not Chianti Classico, so selling wine for a decent price in the 1980s and 1990s would have been very difficult.

Going native

The Cantonis were engineers, not winemakers. Nicola, Matteo’s brother, studied winemaking and became one. Matteo, who was an environmental engineer, got the job of figuring out how to sell the wine. Because they are scientifically minded, they invited a University of Florence viticulturist to look at their vineyard. From the very beginning they decided that, unlike many Tuscan wineries in the late ’90s, they wanted to grow only indigenous grapes.

“Even if we didn’t know anything about vineyard and about wine, we were farmers inside,” Matteo Cantoni said. “We always have been seeing my grandfather doing his own seeds. It’s still in my family. One of my uncles take over my grandfather’s farm. After my grandfather passed away, they still have seeds coming from behind, generations on generations. Of pumpkin, of zucchini. We have a lot of kind of vegetables from the past. So once we discover that this is a very old vineyard, the guy who showed it to us said, ‘You need to remove it and replant it.’ We did completely the opposite. We removed the younger vineyard and kept the older vineyard. We knew the older vineyard was our future.”

Their idea wasn’t to keep farming the older vineyard for quantity, but instead to use cuttings from it to replant the younger vineyard with their genetic material.

“That is a job that took us years,” Matteo Cantoni said.

It's hard to track down, but worth the effort.

© Fattoria Fibbiano
| It’s hard to track down, but worth the effort.

The viticulturist from Florence, a Sangiovese expert, told them he didn’t recognize many of the varieties in their old vineyard. Genetic testing identified them, and here’s where the story gets complicated. Two of the rarest vines they found were Colombana and Sangiovese Forte.

Colombana, in Tuscany, is a grape with pink juice. But it’s virtually identical to Verdea, a grape that plays a very minor role in Lombardy. There were less than 400 acres of Verdea in Lombardy in 2000, according to the book Wine Grapes by José Vouillamoz, Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding. In the same book, Vouillamoz says Colombana “is such a rarity that it is not even mentioned in the 2000 Italian census”.

A tale of two grapes

Here’s the odd part: Verdea has green juice. That’s why it’s called “Verdea”. Thus the pink juice of Colombana is a terroir effect of growing separately for centuries.

Vouillamoz believes the grape is originally from Tuscany and says it was mentioned in a document in 1303. But the local story of the grape is that it was brought to Tuscany in the 1400s by monks from the Lombardy area; it’s called Colombana because a monk started a pilgrimage to Rome in San Colombana in Lombardy, and that monk stopped for a while in Peccioli in Tuscany and left some of the vines behind. Now, 600 years later, Colombana and Verdea may be the same but they don’t look the same.

“Verdea is used just for the wine, not for eating grapes,” Matteo Cantoni said. “When Verdea arrived in Peccioli, with this latitude and this soil, people start to eat the grapes. It’s not anymore for making wine. Outside here, it’s pink. It’s the same grape but it’s called Colombana and it’s pink. For centuries it’s the eating grape. The only wine they did with Colombana was the vin santo.”

The Cantonis’ first attempts at making wines with Colombana led to an orange-colored wine, which they didn’t want initially (though they’re working on making one as an alternative.) They picked it late in the season, when they thought it was ripe enough, but that turned out to be a problem.

“The Colombana was not able to stand up on its own,” he said. “It’s an aromatic grape. It has a lot of nose, but it don’t have structure.”

Part of the solution was harvesting earlier, when it has more acidity and less aroma. But that wasn’t enough. So to resurrect the ancient grape, they used a completely new idea that an enology professor from University of Pisa wanted to try.

“We do a bed of dry ice in the tank,” Matteo Cantoni said. “We don’t press it right away. We do destemming, crushing. We send the juice into the tank where we have a bed of dry ice. As soon as the skins touch the dry ice, the dry ice become a gas, fill up the tank, and doesn’t allow the wine to get oxidized. Immediately the temperature inside the tank goes down 2-3 Celsius. This helps the extraction from the skins. Usually we keep skin contact for 8-12 hours. After that we put everything in the press, we press it, and we remove it from the skins. Then we leave the wine in a neutral tank. Then the fermentation starts. The wine ferments without the skins.

“This was one of the first approaches we had from a university. They were looking for a winery to do a trial. Every year we do a small experimental batch. If you’re not crazy you can’t do what we are doing. You need to look through things that people believe they cannot change. If you want to change you just need to try.”

A rare thing

It took the Cantonis a while to get me the wine to try, before it was available for sale in the US. Fattoria Fibbiano Toscana Colombana 2019 was worth the wait. On the first day it was citrusy with a hint of white peach, with good freshness and a bit of saltiness on the finish. I recorked it and finished it the next day and it was one of those rare wines that was actually better: the finish was longer, the saltiness was more apparent, and the fruit was more complex, with some green apple notes.

The salinity is probably from the soils at Fattoria Fibbiano. The Pisan Hills area used to be a seabed and Cantoni said his soils are mostly shells and clay.

That kind of soil is difficult for phylloxera to grow in. It turns out that the Cantonis’ old vineyard was planted at the end of the 1800s, before phylloxera came to Tuscany, and that many of the vines in it are not only Tuscan heritage varieties; they are also own-rooted.

“With this vineyard in the last 20 years we did a lot of clonal selection. We did it to preserve the indigenous varieties of the area,” Matteo Cantoni said.

“We’re not only making wine here. We are trying to give a second chance to a variety that is dismissed. Sometimes it’s not easy to work with those varieties. There is not books. If you want to make a good Sangiovese, you can learn in books. You can read how to make Merlot. But you can’t read how to make a good Colombana because nobody ever made it before. You can try, but you can only try once in a year. It’s what gives us the push to keep going. It’s not only making wine. It’s trying to bring back a piece of Tuscany into the future.”