The Fragolino Controversy

 I remember when I was first introduced to Fragolino. It was in Milan in 2002, at an Irish bar near our apartment. My husband and I ordered a bottle of the house-made Fragolino wine on a friend’s recommendation, and it was one of the yummiest wines I have ever tasted. 

Fragolino wine, Italy

“Corkscrew” by Clint Budd via Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0

 A perfect summer wine, it was light, not too sweet, and as you would expect, tasted of strawberries. The wine isn’t actually made with any strawberries, but entirely from grapes – and that seems to be the problem (more on that later).

 I kept my eye out for it for years after that, and discovered, as anticipation became disappointment, that there are a few different wines that call themselves Fragolino. There’s a sweet, syrupy Fragolino liqueur that is easy to find but is nowhere close to what I had tasted. There’s a sparkling, sweet, chemically flavored Fragolino that probably works fine as a dessert wine, or maybe an aperitivo, but again: not even close to what I was looking for. 

 On the internet, I found evidence of people who had had a similar experience to mine. They had tasted the wine, wanted more, and were actively searching for it: people posted their email addresses and contact information in discussion forums, describing their experience and asking for any information about where to find this elusive wine – with no luck.

All this super-sleuthing is necessary because it is actually illegal to sell this wine in the EU. It’s not illegal to make it, so if you find a kind farmer who lets you sample some, feel free. But first, be aware of why it’s banned: 

The Official Story behind Fragolino

The Italian government says that the grape used to make Fragolino, the Uva Americana (also known as the Isabella grape), is banned because it’s difficult to control methanol levels during wine production. Given that methanol can make you go blind, that sounds like a pretty good reason to me. But some people suggest this is not the real reason behind the ban.
What the Wine Blogs Say about Fragolino

A few winemakers say that the methanol excuse is urban legend. They speculate that since the grape is an American grape and not authentically Italian, the Italian authorities don’t want it contaminating their precious, authentically Italian soil. That seems to me like an unlikely reason for not only Italy, but the whole EU, to ban the grape – but it’s not that far off another explanation.

What the Scientists Say about Fragolino

The Isabella grape is thought to have been responsible for bringing the phylloxera plague to Europe in the late 19th century. The tiny Phylloxera insects feast on grape vines, cutting off the flow of nutrients and water to the plants. They were first noticed in France but spread quickly, and devastated most of the wine growing industry in Europe in the late 1800’s.

Still Interested in Tasting it?

While the sale of this wine is banned in the EU, Switzerland is conveniently not in the EU and is easy to get to from Italy. So in theory, you should be able to nip up to Switzerland’s Canton Ticino and try this fabulous wine yourself. Or you may meet a nice Italian farmer (historically, in the Veneto or outside of Naples) who might let you have a taste.

Since the grape is not banned in the US, I went to talk to the experts at Sam’s Wine here in Chicago. I asked one of the buyers about the Isabella grape. “Definitely not produced in any of the major wine regions of the US, unless by some small local farmer”, he said. He happened to be talking to some Napa Valley, CA winemakers, who overheard my question. “Never heard of it”, they said. When I told them about the phylloxera plague, their eyes widened. “You’ll never see anyone take that grape on. Winemakers wouldn’t touch that one with a 10-foot pole”.

Sigh. I guess I’ll have to find a friendly farmer next time I’m in the Veneto. But I’ll let him take the first sip.

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