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The Etruscans and wine: cultivating the vine, building a bridge linking the past to the present

The University of Siena study on the native vines of the San Gregorio a Chiusi wine company and the Ministry of Culture, with unique labels

Protagonist of myths and banquets, wine had an incredibly symbolic value in the ancient world as a status symbol and a ritual object. One of the most iconic images that come to mind when you think of the Etruscans, is pictures of them intent on drinking wine convivially. The Etruscans had learned from the art and the inebriation of the Greek god Dionysus to make the most of the gift of viticulture, becoming great producers and consumers of wine. The most recent studies about the vines cultivated in the Etruscan era, started with the “Vinum” and “ArcheoVino” projects, in 2004, carried out by the Department of Historical Sciences and Cultural Heritage at the University of Siena. The projects called on archaeologists, experts in botany, archaeo-botany and molecular biology, who revealed that the Etruscan winemaking heritage represents a bridge linking the past to the present. The surprising genetic similarity of some of the wild vines and current vines, highlights that cultivation processes dated back to the early stages of life at the archaeological sites of ancient Etruria examined in the study. Analyses of germplasm have made it possible to advance the hypothesis that varieties such as Sangiovese and Ciliegiolo penetrated the Etruscan area in ancient times. Professor Andrea Zifferero, professor of Etruscology and Italian Antiquities and musealization and Management of the Archaeological Heritage of the Department, and director of the Archeology and Art Collections of the University Museum System (Simus), illustrated them explaining that special attention has been dedicated to the native vines of the San Gregorio company in Chiusi. The winery produced three wines, a Toscana Rosso TGI Canaiolo 2022, a Toscana Rosso TGI Ciliegiolo 2022 and the Toscana Bianco TGI Le Cerrete 2023, from Grechetto and Malvasia Bianca grapes, aged in amphoras as in the ancient past. And, on the label they depicted one of the most important Etruscan pictorial cycles found in the Tomb of the Monkey. The project was carried out in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture, becoming an image of the cultural heritage of territory where wine is the “medium” to narrate it to the world.
Due to very fertile alluvial soil and natural communication routes - land and river - the city of Chiusi-Clevsin, in the Valdichiana Senese, in Tuscany, was one of the most important cities in Etruria, which the National Etruscan Museum, the Tombs of the Monkey, the Hill, the Lion and the Pilgrim as well as the epigraphic collection at the Civic Museum, “The Underground City” confirm. At the peak of its power, dating back to the end of the 6th century BC, King Porsenna besieged and controlled Rome for a short period, and in 89 BC, when Roman citizenship was extended to its inhabitants, he fully entered the political scene.
Wanting to examine more fully the cultivation stages of the species one must start from the ancient origin varieties, which still survive today in the environment surrounding the archaeological sites, and can still be found in wild vine plants (Vitis vinifera ssp. sylvestris). It has been assumed that the current species of wild vines, found around the Etruscan and Roman sites, are the descendants of ancient vineyards, which have survived in a wild form.
The experience of the “Vinum” and “ArcheoVino” projects, promoted by the Department of Historical Sciences and Cultural Heritage at the University of Siena, have created a positive collaboration with disciplines such as botany, archaeo-botany and molecular biology, investigating the wild vine populations near archaeological sites, in a vast area between Tuscany and northern Lazio. Various studies have established a genetic similarity between diverse wild vines and several current vines, highlighting episodes of cultivation dating back to the life stages of adjacent sites. The analyses of the germplasm have also made it possible to hypothesize that grape varieties were present in the Etruscan area (varieties such as Sangiovese and Ciliegiolo), created by the Magna Graecia and Sicilian viticulture, through commercial contacts starting from the second half of the 8th century BC. These contacts were the basis of the subsequent development of Vulcente viticulture in the Albegna Valley (Grosseto). Results from biomolecular research have made it possible to plant an experimental vineyard, applying the Etruscan rule of rows of vines married to maples. The vineyard was created with ancient varieties recovered from the environment, near the Etruscan site of Ghiaccio Forte in Scansano.
The San Gregorio wine company has been managed by Pierangela Lucioli and Sandro Rinaldini, and the COO Michele Monica, since 1978, and has been carrying forward a century-old winemaking philosophy in Chiusi. They then wanted to learn more about the roots of the territory organizing a project in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture, and thanks to which the company's wines have become an image of the history of the territory, creating three labels for three wines depicting the famous pictorial cycle of the Tomb of the Monkey. The wines produced from native vines, such as Canaiolo and Ciliegiolo, vinified and aged in cement, plus a white wine produced with Grechetto and Malvasia Bianca, but vinified and aged in amphoras, through techniques used in ancient times to bring more attention to the territory and its history.
The objective of the project is not only to link the historical-cultural heritage to the winemaking identity of a unique territory, but also to promote more and more sustainable and environmentally friendly behavior, in order to preserve the genetic similarities of the vines. At the same time, the wines produced convey the company philosophy and the great attention to the link between history and territory, enhancing the native varieties through integrating archaeological knowledge and modern winemaking practices.

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