By Emanuele Cenghiaro
An ancient, mysterious wine, an ancient fraud and two wonderful islands. There would be enough material here to write a novel. It is, instead, the setting of an original experiment that combines oenology and archaeology, an idea conceived by Professor Attilio Scienza and implemented by Arrighi winery.
We are talking here of an attempt to reproduce, on the island of Elba, the wine of Chios, famous in ancient times for its intense taste and for its “secret recipe”, which at that time was jealously guarded.
“I have been trying to run this test of experimental archaeology for a long time: I originally thought of doing it in Salina, in the Lipari islands, but it was not possible. The wine producer Arrighi then suggested doing it on his estate, and that is what happened. The interest is not so much in the quality of the wine produced, as in recalling a technique that in the 4th and 5th centuries BC was rare and very special.”
An experiment that also sheds some light on a mysterious traffic of amphorae…
“Exactly. A few years ago, archaeologists of the University of Siena found many amphorae from the island of Chios on the seabed of the Tyrrhenian Sea. However, Chios is small and could hardly have produced enough wine to justify this high number of containers. It was discovered that most of the amphorae were imitations coming from a furnace north of Grosseto, where the Etruscans produced containers imitating those of many famous Mediterranean wines. And these did not contain the wine that was supposed to be there: it was a fraud.
Was that wine going to Italy?
“No. The inhabitants of Chios, who understood the value of the container designed by Praxiteles, the most important Greek artist of the time, had conquered Marseilles, the gateway to Gaul as well as the richest market in Europe at the time, with their wine and their beautiful amphorae. The Etruscans, who had realized this was a good business opportunity, not only imitated the amphorae but also the wine-making method, thereby depriving the Greeks of their market.
What was the secret of Chios wine?
“It was sweet, alcoholic and very aromatic, with a very different flavour from the classic wines obtained with the ‘Hesiod technique’. The Greek poet writes of a sweet wine made from grapes left in the sun for three weeks and then pressed. In Chios, on the other hand, the grapes were dipped in sea water for a few days. The action of the salt dissolved the bloom, the wax which protects the grape, so that the grapes withered in a very short time, avoiding the disastrous action on the grape of long exposure to the sun. On a chemical-physical level, then, the salt ‘demolished’ part of the cell walls of the skin, enabling a greater quantity of aromatic substances to pass into the must during the maceration phase. Finally, the salt allowed a long period of conservation, as an alternative to the resin used in Greek wines at that time.”
What grapes did you use?
“Since we had no organic remains to analyse, we used Ansonica, or Inzolia grapes, also grown on Elba. We have in fact discovered an important connection between this vine and two Greek vines very common in the Peloponnese islands, Roditis and above all Sideritis, whose name, which derives from sideros (iron) brings to mind the hard and crunchy grape which is just right for a particular process, such as the one carried out in Chios. The result was an ‘orange’-style wine, with a deep colour and an important oxidative flavour which was the particular quality of this wine”
What does this experiment say to today’s producers?
We are always on the lookout for a balance between tradition and innovation, but the heritage of the past has largely been lost, abandoned or betrayed according to the needs of the modern consumer, who requires wines suitable for that particular era, his way of life and eating habits. We cannot go back: however, reproducing the wines of the past, using the same techniques, could be a valid proposal to integrate, not to replace, modern wines with products invented in another historical period and for another type of consumer.”