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Incestuous vines: the curious case of the long lost – and now found – Sirica

One of the three huge old Sirica vines discovered in Taurasi Aglianico vineyards in 2005; a glass of Sirica 2014

So what do you know about Sirica? No, me neither until the end of June, but I do like a good vine mystery and am full of admiration for people who track down forgotten or unknown grape varieties, whether intentionally or inadvertently, and bring them back from the brink.

Having been to Irpinia, Campania, I now know that Sirica is an Italian red grape variety. And I have tasted the eponymous wine made by Feudi di San Gregorio – Feudi di San Gregorio, but no one else because, until 12 years ago, no one knew Sirica existed, or rather, still existed. Pliny the Elder, writing his Natural History in 77–79AD, mentioned the Sirica vine, but in the present day it was long thought to be extinct. (It’s name, by the way, probably comes from a red dye widely used in Pliny’s time called syricum.)

In 2005 Feudi di San Gregorio found three – just three – very old, very gnarled, tree-sized vines in an Aglianico vineyard in Taurasi. They weren’t Aglianico, that much was clear, but the rest was a mystery, until DNA analysis and analysis of the anthocyanin profile established that these were descendants of Sirica – the only ones (as far as anyone knows).

What it also established was that Sirica is an ancient spontaneous crossing of, wait for it, Syrah and two north Italian grape varieties, Teroldego and Refosco. I was intrigued by how these three came together, so pitched into the vine bible, Wine Grapes (by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz). There’s no mention of Sirica in it, but what I did discover was that Syrah, Teroldego and Refosco are closely related to each other and also to Pinot. Here’s how (you’ll need to pay attention unless you’re a seasoned genealogist).

Teroldego (parents unknown) is a grandchild of Pinot.

Dureza is a sibling of Teroldego (and therefore also a grandchild of Pinot).

Dureza is a parent of Syrah.

Teroldego is a parent of Marzemino.

Marzemino is a parent of Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso (the main Refosco).

It’s so neat isn’t it? Don’t you just love it? Grape spotters unite.

The three vines were re-propagated by Feudi di San Gregorio and they now have a three-hectare vineyard with modern vertical trellising, yielding 5000 bottles a year, up from 690 bottles in 2007. The first commercial release was 2009, followed by 2011, 2013 and 2014. The other vintages were not released because Pierpaolo Sirch, CEO and agronomist, and Feudi president Antonio Capaldi weren't happy with them.

So let me tell you about the 2014 Sirica, which I tasted at dinner at Marenna, Feudi di San Gregorio’s Michelin-starred restaurant in the winery (as the food is so good, I’ve included, gratuitously, some pictures below). Sirica is unlike Aglianico, except for a smoky, volcanic, mineral note (Irpinia is between Vesuvius and Monte Vulture – see my blog on Aglianico and Taurasi). When you know Sirica’s extended parentage, there’s no reason why it should be anything like Aglianico, of course. Whereas Aglianico is dark, tannic, concentrated and long-lived, Sirica is juicy, gently structured and approachable, with soft tannins, cherryish fruit, a fresh peppery note that recalls northern Rhône Syrah and a sprinkle of aromatic herbs.

It’s a simple wine, says Feudi President Antonio Capaldi, and that suits him down to the ground because Aglianico is neither simple nor supple. Usefully, Sirica also ripens much earlier than the late-ripening Aglianico.

It's a good story, but they tell me there's an even better one called 'the mamma of Fiano'. Watch this space.

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