The answer lies in the pip: Sardinian discovery rewrites the history of wine

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The Independent Online

A trowelful of pips and sediment is in the process of overturning the centuries-old snobbery with which mainland Italian connoisseurs have regarded the rustic wines of Sardinia. The world's largest wine producer has discovered that it owes a massive debt to the island's growers.

A trowelful of pips and sediment is in the process of overturning the centuries-old snobbery with which mainland Italian connoisseurs have regarded the rustic wines of Sardinia. The world's largest wine producer has discovered that it owes a massive debt to the island's growers.

Dutch and Italian archaeologists digging in the fertile Sardara hills north of Sardinia's capital Cagliari said yesterday that they had discovered grape pips and sediment dating to 1,200BC. Sardinia, it seems, may be the cradle of European wine culture.

DNA tests on the grape remains are being carried out by researchers at Milan's Bicocca and State universities to try to determine if the vines were imported from other ancient winegrowing regions or were a local variety.

"If the latter is the case we will have to rewrite the history of the origins of wine," said Massimo Labra, a researcher on the project. It had been thought that the region's earliest wines were imported from Mesopotamia, but the latest research appears about to shatter that theory.

"The hypothesis we are trying to prove is not only that the most ancient wine in the Mediterranean was produced in Sardinia but also that vines were cultivated on the island at the time that civilisation exploded into life in Mesopotamia and then in Egypt," Mr Labra said. "Preliminary analysis carried out on Sardinian vines to trace their genes will be compared with the data that one can extrapolate from analysis of ancient grape seed to see if there are affinities with wild Sardinian vines born on the island."

The excavations are being conducted by archaeologists and botanists from Italy and the Netherlands working with agricultural experts from Cagliari. An earlier study has already shown that the cannonau variety of Sardinian grape thought to have been imported from Spain was native to the island.

"It was thought that this grape was Iberian, imported from Spain toward the end of the medieval period," Fabrizio Grassi, of Milan's state university, told the Corriere della Sera newspaper. "Instead, analysis that has been carried out in Spain shows a very high probability that cannonau could be the Mediterranean's oldest wine."

Italian connoisseurs and wine critics customarily praise the established wines of the northern regions of Piedmont, Lombardy, the Veneto and Liguria. They have tended to look down their noses at the often rough and powerful wines of Sardinia.

For Sardinians, it has just been another example of what they see as mainland prejudice. Theirs is an island noted in the eyes of many Italians simply for its fierce soldiers, who helped to forge the Genoese empire in the 11th and 12th centuries, and for its tough shepherd bandits, who ran a thriving kidnapping business from around the town of Nuoro until the late 1980s.

The theme of prejudice against Sardinians and Sardinian culture and language on the Italian mainland was explored in the classic film dir-ected by the Taviani brothers, Padre Padrone which depicted the struggle of a young Sardinian to escape from a harsh, inward-looking sheep-farming existence.

But the report in the Corriere, a newspaper often considered by southern Italians to be the epitome of northern snobbery, acknowledged in its headline that "two discoveries in Sardinia could change the history of the grape".

Proud Sardinian producers already are taking steps to preserve their newly discovered heritage. A summit of the island's principal producers and agronomists was recently held at which it was decided to eschew use of any imported vines, the Milan daily reported.

"The genesis of cannonau must be preserved," said the co-operative's director, Tattanu Piras. "We are launching a plan to renew our vineyards selecting only local plants."

The digs disclosed hundreds of examples of the 3,200-year-old grape seed planted near ancient vases and urns that the archaeologists unearthed at Sardara, on sites at Villano- vafranca on the rugged island's Campidano plain, and at Borore, in central Sardinia.

The ancient grape pips are poorly conserved, so the researchers have adopted a special technique to unravel their genetic history. "We have developed a biomolecular platform, that is a series of machines linked to each other, to extract the DNA of the vines," Mr Labra explained.

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