Many people operate under the mistaken belief that all of the grapes used as part of the Italian wine industry originate, or are grown solely, in Italy.
That’s certainly not the case, as many great Italian grapes have a presence elsewhere, and vice-versa. The simple truth of the matter is that if a region is suitable for the production of a type of grape, it’s likely that somebody is going to try and grow it there. This, of course, discounts the idea of the DOC and the regulations that they put in place in regards to where a grape can be grown.
The point is this – several countries can call a grape their own. In fact, that’s the exact situation that we find ourselves in with the Ribolla Gialla grape. As well as being one of the more important grapes in the Italian wine industry, it’s also grown in Slovenia. In that country, it’s referred to as the Rebula grape. That’s an interesting little titbit for Italian wine fans who want to explore the Ribolla Gialla grape further, plus it means that there are wines out there that use the same grape but have completely different qualities that you may expect.
But we’re getting off track. Xtrawine has always made it a point to emphasise what’s great about the Italian wine industry and we are going to do exactly that with this look at how the Ribolla Gialla grape is used in Italy.
The Early History
It’s fair to say that the grape has had fairly mixed fortunes over the centuries. It has switching from periods of intense popularity to periods where it’s barely grown at all. Typically, this is done on line with shifting consumer tastes, rather than being a commentary on the quality of the grape itself.
As for the grape, most Italian wine scholars believe that it originated in Greece, which means that it’s likely that the Ancient Greeks were responsible for bringing it to the rest of Europe. Contrary to what you may assume, most believe that the grape was actually cultivated in Slovenia long before it found its way to Italy. However, it’s likely through links with the Slovenian wine industry that the grape found its way into our country.
By the 13th century, the grape had found its way to the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, which it still calls home to this day. We have records to show that it was bring grown in the region as early as 1289, as it was mentioned as part of a contract relating to the use of land in the Friuli region. However, it’s likely that the grapes use extended further back than that.
The wines made using the grape carried the Ribolla name and actually achieved a degree of infamy during this period. In fact, the poet Giovanni Boccaccio classed drinking the wine as a sign that somebody had succumbed to the sin of gluttony in his work, which suggests that the wine had a reputation for quality. Even if it was apparently quality of the sinful variety.
This reputation grew throughout the 14th century and was aided by no less than Leopold III. Then serving as the Duke of Austria, Leopold made the Ribolla wine one of his chief concerns when he took control of the Trieste region. He told producers of the era that they must supply him with an annual bounty of 100 urns of Ribolla wine, which lends it a somewhat regal quality that makes us wonder if it’s Ribolla, and not Barolo, that should carry the King of Wines title.
By the early-15th century, the wine’s reputation was such that it was almost considered sacred. The city of Udine even passed a mandate that banned producers from changing the wine. This is clearly an early precursor to the sort of rules that the DOC now has in place.
After that, the story of the wine becomes a little less clear. It was still classed as one of the most important wines in Italy, as noted by Antonio Musnig in the 1700s. He noted that the grape produced the most potent and high-quality white wine in the Friuli region.
But then the 19th century hit…
Into Modern Times
The bad times came during the phylloxera epidemic that wiped out hundreds of acres of vineyards throughout the 19th century. The Ribolla Gialla was unfortunately not spared the wrath of the disease, but it’s what came after that truly damaged the grape’s standing.
Once the epidemic has ended, many vineyard owners in Friuli chose not to replant that vineyards with the grape. Instead, they imported French varieties, such as Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot, which massively cut into the amount of Ribolla Gialla grown in the region.
This issue continued all the way until the end of the 20th century, almost threatening to turn the grape into a forgotten relic of the past. In fact, the situation became so dire for the grape that only 1% of the wines created in Friuli’s DOC region contained Ribolla Gialla.
The situation has improved slightly since then, thanks in large part to changing consumer demands. International consumers have been showing more interest in the grape in recent times, which has led to many Italian wine producers in Friuli to replant it. While it certainly hasn’t regained the level of popularity that it enjoyed for so many hundreds of years before the phylloxera epidemic, it seems that Ribolla Gialla is on the comeback trail.
The Final Word
It will be particularly interesting to track the fortunes of the Ribolla Gialla grape in the coming years. The advent of the 2000s appears to have sparked a turnaround in fortunes for the grape, but it’s also possible that the international interest that’s driving producers to plant more of it is just a short-lived fad.
We won’t really know for a few more years. However, the team at Xtrawine truly hopes that the Ribolla Gialla grape ascends back up to its rightful position as one of the most important grapes in the Italian wine industry.