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28 July 2020

The future of vines and wines according to Prof. Attilio Scienza "Sustainability, genome editing, cooperation and a strong identity for Italy"

Develop research and innovation, including digital aspects, increase the role of cooperation, grasp the opportunity offered by cisgenesis and genome editing even to the benefit of sustainability and the fight against climate change. And, above all, work to ensure that Italy has a brand culture and effectively communicates its macro-regions. In this perspective, Vinitaly will play a fundamental role, even in its international guises.

This is the direction, in brief, that solutions for re-launching Italian wine around the world should focus on, suggests Attilio Scienza, Professor of Wine-Growing at the University of Milan, Scientific Director of the Vinitaly International Academy and sector "guru".

The various awards he has received, even on an international scale, for research work in the sector include most recently the 2019 Premio Biblioteca Lunelli for his book "La Stirpe del Vino" (The Lineage of Wine), written together with Serena Imarizio (Sperling&Kupfer Editore). It investigates history, myth and science to reveal some of the most unthinkable "relationships" that gave rise to Italian wines.

Professor Scienza, may we ask you a question with a very broad horizon: What are the current challenges for Italian wine?

“Any response must take in several levels, so it is impossible to provide a single answer. I am convinced, however, that one of the weak aspects we must overcome is that Italy - despite boasting such high quality wines and excellent biodiversity -  has not yet achieved a brand culture."

In other words...?

“We have many trademarks but not a brand. We may have denominations, large companies and great wines but there is no unitary vision of Italian wine of the kind France enjoys. We are well aware that it would take a great deal of effort and would be expensive to build, since it takes time and effective storytelling is also needed. Yet the brand, the Italy brand, is a winner. We must develop this story on international markets."

Against this background, what role could Vinitaly play?

“Vinitaly is an important landmark and plays a fundamental role given its authoritative status in the sector. The Vinitaly International Academy by now has approximately 400 ambassadors located all over the world and is working in this direction: take a strong brand such as Vinitaly to create an Italian wine brand. We enjoy a huge advantage over the rest of the world: a truly huge variety of soils and genetic wealth, with more than 600 known vines that can all be grown and more than 50% of all wine-making varieties worldwide. However, all this must be explained to consumers."

Isn't there a risk that such far-reaching biodiversity as regards varieties and wine production could have a boomerang effect?

“Unfortunately, yes; sometimes there is a risk that such great wealth turns into a weakness. It is this inadequately promoted fragmentation that has prevented Italian wine from becoming a brand."

What could be a way forward?

“We need to refer all these variables to a lowest common denominator, working from micro-zones towards something broader. The French example is emblematic."

What choice did they make?

"France works on macro-zones: Champagne, Bordeaux, Burgundy and others. Yet they have become recognizable brands that can immediately be traced back to France. In Italy, we have wine denominations that are so small that perhaps even we don't know them. Instead, why not work on macro-zones instead of 450 denominations? We think of Trentino Alto-Adige and Friuli Venezia Giulia, and even well-known regions on an international scale such as the Veneto, Piedmont, Lombardy and Tuscany. Not to mention Marche and Abruzzo, descending along Central and Southern Italy: large areas that go beyond the logic of denominations but which, on the other hand, identify a territory. We need to establish alliances within larger geographic areas. This is what happens in France: Bordeaux is not only Bordeaux because it also embraces St-Emilion, Pomerol, Pauillac, Margaux and others - yet world they present themselves to the world as Bordeaux."

What kind of future do you imagine for research and development?

“They are part of the complex and varied challenges I mentioned earlier. It is vital to develop research in general and, in particular, in digital fields. With wine-Growing 4.0. and the space economy, we have the chance to use satellites to improve our knowledge of terroirs and the vocational nature of various vineyard areas. Science makes precision zoning possible so that errors of quality no longer occur."

Climate change and sustainability are two key aspects in this sector. What action can we take?

"We have to respond to these aspects by reducing the impact of chemicals, through resistant varieties, using water-saving systems and better, more balanced soil management."

As regards sustainability, the Green Deal, the Farm 2 Fork strategy and Biodiversity will impose an increase in organic areas and a reduction in the use of pesticides. What action should the world of wine take?

“I am among those who think that the Green Deal is a marvellous opportunity. This is provided, however, that the world of wine can effectively implement far-reaching lobbying efforts. We must dialogue with Brussels, indicate projects and solutions and bring resources home so that they can be implemented concretely. Yet, I repeat, we need projects and we avoid random action where Regions and Consortia overlap each other. We have to work through a single brand, larger wine-growing districts and macro-zones that collect requests, summarise requirements and interface with the European Union."

In the past, you mentioned that cooperation plays a strategic role but that it must also change. What did you mean by that?

“Cooperation is an integral part of the system because 60% of Italian wines are produced by cooperatives, yet the role of cooperatives must be promoted. Cooperative wines are sometimes today still considered as a kind of reservoir to boost northern wines. We therefore need a new plan to reorganize cooperation, since it is such a great wealth for the country. However, it is essential that each vineyard and each terroir can rely on personalized management and tailor-made oenology. We must radically change the philosophy of cooperation, since it is a major resource for the system."

The debate over resistant clonal varieties is still lively but with mixed fortunes. And there is also the topic of genome editing. What is your position as regards these aspects and in light of the requirements arising from climate change?

"We have given mystical values to wine, so that certain action might almost seem to contaminate the ideal purity of Vitis vinifera. Consumer themselves must realize that we can adapt better to climate change through certain expedients involving vines and less chemicals to achieve great results. Consequently, action involving grape vines must be flanked by the anthropology of genetic improvement, with well-informed consumers welcoming this evolution towards improvement. In particular, if the European Union gives the go-ahead for products of cisgenesis and genome editing, we will have interesting possibilities. As regards the use of resistant varieties obtained through cross-breeding, this would involve renouncing some of Italy's impressive genetic diversity. This is because resistant varieties mainly involve international vines, where Italy must not run to risk of only growing nine or ten varieties. On the contrary, genome editing allows us disease-resistance genes to be incorporated without changing quality characteristics and for this reason the variety treated in this must be considered to be a clone. This is cisgenesis and not transgenesis. Consequently, they are not GMOs.

Speaking of climate change, we must not overlook the fundamental role of root stocks, which help achieve water savings of around 30-40%, as demonstrated by the new M series root stocks developed recently by the University of Milan.

The Ministry recently issued a decree to protect heroic and historic vineyards. How can they ensure added value?

“First of all, we must develop a census of vineyards that need to be defended. We need a snapshot of reality and a classification: there are many very old vineyards, others less so, others still with difficult terraces, others at high altitude. We must register them and take action where needed, perhaps by repairing a drywall or helping old vines to survive. At the same time, we need a communication project. What we must definitely avoid is implementing "museum safeguards", which serve no purpose for anyone. On the contrary, a small brand identifying historic vineyards would be useful. France has a legal provision whereby a wine-grower can use the historic vineyard symbol if it is more than 50 years old. It is called "Vieilles Vignes" and it ensures genetic as well as qualitative richness.  This meant that steps were taken to provide formal recognition and a return in terms of image and, as a result, even in substance."