Resurrecting Recantina

Stephen Quinn reports on an autochthonous variety pulled out by Napoleon’s troops, which has refused to retreat.

Vines surround the Abbey of  St. Eustace Villarrica
Vines surround the Abbey of St. Eustace Villarrica

Wars have had a profound impact on the Asolo wine region north-west of Venice. Between 1792 and 1802 Napoleon’s French revolutionary army fought a coalition of Austrian, Russian and Italian troops in northern Italy. Late in the campaign, in 1801, Napoleon ordered his troops to replace local grapes with French vines such as Cabernet Sauvignon. The only autochthonous variety in the region, the Recantina grape, was torn out and all but forgotten for 200 years until a handful of winemakers in Asolo began resurrecting it.

A rarity

The Giusti estate near Montello has half of the Recantina vines in the Asolo region; another 6ha of Recantina have just been planted there. Giusti’s flagship Recantina is called Augusto, named after the father of Ermenegildo “Joe” Giusti, who founded Giusti Wine in 2002 Augusto Giusti was born in Venissieux in France and had a passion for wine. His son Ermenegildo, 65, left Italy aged 17 and became a millionaire in the property industry in western Canada as founder and owner of the Giusti Group. Canadians could not pronounce his first name and insisted on calling him “Joe”. He is still called “Joe” in Alberta.

Giusti lives half the year in Canada and the other half in Italy. He currently has 75ha of vineyards on ten properties between the hills of Montello and the Piave River, with plans for another 25ha. He has commissioned a new €20m ($22.5m) winery designed by Armando Guizzo, which is scheduled to open next year with a capacity to produce 2m bottles a year.

Recantina was in the Asolo area well before Napoleon arrived, Giusti told a small group of journalists visiting his estate in March. “When the French established themselves here, the grape was ripped out and then forgotten for centuries,” he said. Some Recantina vines survived around Montello, including in the vineyards of the Benedictine Abbey of Nervesa. It was reintroduced at the end of last century; “Joe” Giusti for one was keen to plant this grape soon after he purchased the first vineyard in 2003 but waited a few years because he already had a thriving Prosecco business.

However, Giusti’s first Recantina vintage in 2014 did not appear promising. “Our first vintage was a total disaster. The wine smelled dreadful,” he said. “‘Oh my God,’ I thought then, ‘Napoleon was right when he decided to rip out this grape. This wine is horrible’.” He told winemaker Mirco Pozzobon to pour it down the sink, but Pozzobon convinced him to wait. But the wine improved and a year later tasted wonderful. “I’m glad I listened to my winemaker,” Giusti said with a smile.

Pozzobon made wine in the Amarone region for a decade after graduating from university in 1997. His professor at the University of Verona, Roberto Farrarini, was a winemaker with the great Quintarelli estate. Pozzobon has focused his attention on the Asolo region since 2012 and has been winemaking consultant to Giusti since 2014.
Pozzobon matures the Augusto mainly in 2,500-litre Slavonian oak barrels for 12 to 15 months, followed by nine more in bottle. It is a return to a traditional method lost with the arrival of stainless-steel tanks. Pozzobon said he also uses a touch of mulberry, chestnut and cherry oak. Mulberry trees were available because their leaves were needed to feed silkworms. Asolo was a major producer of silk prior to World War 1, and like the cultivation of Recantina, that practice is being resurrected.

Not yet a money spinner

Grape expert Dr Ian D’Agata allocated only half a page to Recantina in his huge book Native Wine Grapes of Italy, published in 2014, though he said he would give it more space in his new book out next year.

D’Agata said Recantina had been cultivated at least since the 1600s around Treviso in Veneto. It “has always been a highly regarded variety,” D’Agata said in an email. He described it as “a very perfumed wine (blackberry and an intense note of violet) with good tannic structure and acidity” and predicted that Recantina would “almost certainly one day” be included in the blends for Valpolicella and Amarone.

Viticulturists at the Conegliano Research Centre have identified three distinct versions of the variety: Recantina a pecolo scuro (dark stalk), Recantina a pecolo rosso (red stalk) and Recantina Forner, the last named for the family farm where the vines were found. The grape has been listed in the official Italian register of varieties, D’Agata said.

The Società Agricola Giusti Dal Col, to give Giusti Wine its full name, made about 5,500 bottles of Augusto Recantina in 2014. In 2017 the total reached 12,700. Last year, wine critic James Suckling gave the 2015 Augusto 92 points. He awarded 93 points to the 2016 Recantina by neighbours Serafini & Vidotto.

World War I also had a major impact on the region. The Piave River runs through Asolo and enters the sea at Venice, and the Battle of the Piave in June 1918 was the decisive event of the war on the Italian Front. A young Ernest Hemingway wrote his novel A Farewell to Arms based on his time as an ambulance driver during the campaign, during which he was wounded, and which destroyed buildings including the Benedictine Abbey of St. Eustace, built in 1052.

In addition to resurrecting Recantina, “Joe” Giusti said he had spent almost €2.5m restoring the Abbey. The renovations have faithfully recreated the building, making a beautiful place to taste wine. In total Giusti, is believed to have spent about €52m on the vineyards, winery and abbey, and as a result he admits he is not yet making a profit from wine. “Money means nothing to me. Everything comes back, like a form of karma. It was always in my heart to give something back to the community.”
The abbey sits above the main estate at Giusti Wine, surrounded by vineyards. On a nearby hill, the Montello Military Ossuary holds the remains of Italian soldiers who died during the Battle of the Piave in 1918. War and wine remain intertwined in this part of Asolo.  

Stephen Quinn

This article first appeared in Issue 2, 2019 of Meininger's Wine Business International.

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