The Chief Taster and I were given two nights in a castle in Italy as a very generous anniversary present. The castle was in Vigoleno, a medieval fortified village in remarkably good nick, and complete with a 12th century Romanesque church, and stunning views over the surrounding fertile valley.
On the first night we went to a small, traditional restaurant and ordered vino da tavola. Then we were astonished when it was served to us, instead of in glasses, in white ceramic bowls. We were told that that this was the traditional way of serving the local wine, Gutturnio.
Brief history of Gutturnio wine
Barbera vines began to be cultivated around Piacenza in the second half of the nineteenth century.
In 1908, it was reported in the Agricoltura Piacentina that Bonarda wine, also known as Croatina wine, was being cultivated experimentally and showing great promise. It suffered during the phylloxera blight, but returned to strong growth in the 1930s. Cuttings were propagated in a controlled area at Pellegrina.
It was the wine expert, Mario Prati, who had the bright idea to mix the two grapes. The acidity of the Barbera would be softened and smoothed, and the strong tannin flavour of the Bonarda reduced, with the resultant wine being better balanced.
In 1938 Prati suggested that this new blended wine should be called Gutturnio and three years later the Ministry of Agriculture included it in its list of prestigious Italian wines. In 1967 Gutturnio became the seventh Italian wine to be awarded a DOC denomination (for more on DOCs follow this link).
Where did the name come from?
The origins of the name are a bit complex. Basically, there seem to be two, very different, liquid-holding vessels, both referred to as a Gutturnium.
An ancient Roman vessel, small, with a narrow neck, was found in caves at Velleia. Until the 1970s, this vessel was closely associated with the local wine.
But in 1878, another vessel was fished out of the Po, at Croce Santo Spirito, by a fortunate fisherman, and a number of replicas were made by a local Piacenzan silversmith. This vessel had a capacity of about two litres. Again, dating back to Roman times, it was a tankard (now on show at the Musei Capitolini in Rome) which was handed around at the end of a dinner, providing all the guests with ‘one for the road’ as it were, and ending the meal with a kind of ceremony of friendship. Made of silver, the handle is richly carved and decorated with vine tendrils and bunches of grapes, and the body of the vessel is stamped with a pattern of small rhomboid shapes.
In 1972, the academic, Serafino Maggi, identified this second vessel as the true Gutturnium. The purpose of the much smaller vessel (it was about 9 cm high) it transpired was much more likely to be to measure essences and perfumes, an aryballos in fact. Although pretty, the vessel is round with a narrow neck opening, not ideal for holding wine.
And so now Gutturnio is associated with the larger vessel.
In any case, Prati chose the name of an ancient Roman drinking vessel as the inspiration for his new wine. Wines from Piacenza were already well-known in Roman times, with Cicero making a famous speech in which he rails against Piso (Julius Cæsar’s father-in-law) for drinking over-large chalices of wine from Piacenza. As far afield as the Roman province of central Anatolia (present day Turkey) in the temple of Zeus in Aizanoi you can see a stone needle carved with a Roman eagle and a Gutturnium.
About Gutturnio wine and what to eat with it
There are two types of Gutturnio – the fizzy (not up to much in our view); and the classic, which is also produced as a riserva. The fizzy goes best with salamis and cheeses. The classic does well with red meat – roast, braised, or grilled.
Why is Gutturnio served in white ceramic bowls?
The theory is that Gutturnio is served in white china bowls (known locally as lo scudlein, or in standard Italian as una ciotola) because it allows the wine to breathe more fully. But it is also a symbol of peasant culture – rural workers would not have been able to afford glass vessels.
At the Piacenza pavilion at the 2015 Expo visitors were invited to a day dedicated al pollice rosso (‘to the red thumb’), a day being named after the determined drinkers of the bars in Piacenza who, when holding their overflowing scudlein, found their thumb dipping into the contents, and subsequently remaining stained a deep ruby colour.
I smell a marketing brain involved in this somewhere!
For more posts about wine, follow this link.