Universities are improving Italy's favourite wine. Paul Bompard reports. The quality of Chianti wine is very close to the Italian heart. It is a key element of regional pride for Tuscans. Unfortunately, the hundreds of wines produced under the Chianti name are not always of very good quality, and although there may be a number of excellent Chiantis, there are at least as many which are nothing special.
But help is at hand. The agriculture departments of the universities of Florence and Pisa and the Consortium of Classic Chianti Producers are carrying out a joint, long-term study aimed at improving the quality of Italy's most famous wine.
Five years ago various vineyards turned over to the project 14 small plots of land, a total of 25 hectares (62.5 acres), in settings with different soil and climate within the Chianti area. Under the watchful eye of the universities' agricultural experts, students experiment with techniques of soil management, grafting, cloning and selection and treatment of the vines. Samples of grapes are made into wine in special cellars under laboratory conditions and the wine is then tasted by wine specialists and analysed in the university laboratories.
The project, called Chianti 2000, will run until the year 2000. Piero Luigi Pisani of Florence University said: "The overall plan of the various avenues of research is designed and coordinated by myself and Filiberto Loreti of Pisa University. Each year a number of students work on the project, and the specific field of research of each student usually constitutes his or her final degree thesis, or is part of it."
An Italian agriculture degree course lasts five years. Since research of the type involved in the Chianti 2000 project requires monitoring of more than one season, the students generally begin taking part in their second or third year. A single student may work on only one of the 14 experimental plots, or may study one or more aspects of the experiments in a number of different plots. Between eight and ten students from the two universities work on the project each year.
Professor Lorreti explained: "Given the long-term nature of our project the coordination and supervision of the many directions of research are necessarily in the hands of various members of the permanent staff of the two universities. In a sense, the project could go on without any student involvement, but the point is that for the students this kind of direct, practical experience is of enormous value."
The purpose of Chianti 2000 is to experimentally acquire knowledge which can be used in practice on a large scale in the future. Grape vines have a limited lifespan within which they produce good quality grapes, and in the coming decade most of the major Chianti producers are planning to replant their vineyards.
"We hope that the results of our work will be used by the individual vineyards when they replant, and that we will have contributed to the improvement of the quality of the Chianti wines of the third millenium," says Professor Loreti.
All the experiments are done on vines of the sangiovese, canaiolo and trebbiano varieties which are used to produce Chianti. The Chianti Classico Consortium is an officially recognised authority which assigns the Gallo Nero, or Black Cock, symbol to the labels of producers who respect certain standards of production methods and quality. The project is being funded by the consortium which receives state and regional subsidies.
"The project has run for four years and there are six years to go," says Professor Pisani. "So far the most interesting results have been obtained in the field of soil management. We have found, for instance, that while 'clean cultivation'(ie the removal of all grass and weeds from the soil) has certain advantages in relatively flat vine-yards, the technique of 'grass mulching'(in which natural growth is allowed to develop, die and turn into a kind of natural fertiliser) can be very useful in hillside vineyards to prevent soil erosion. Each technique, of course, influences the quality of the grapes and therefore the wine."
Professor Lorreti is confident that in the next six years a wealth of useful information will emerge. "I do not foresee anything revolutionary, but I'm sure we will help to make more modern, rational and efficient vineyards.
"Our goal is essentially quality, not yield. Italians today only drink an average of 70 litres of wine a year, compared to about 120 litres in the 1950s. But the demand is for higher and higher quality. We hope that what we are doing will help make tomorrow's Chianti better than ever before."