The Fragolino Controversy

 Cork screw flickr kyle mayI 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. 

 

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.

 Strawberries flickr clairity

 

 

 

 

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.

 
Corkscrew photo by Kyle May
Strawberries photo by *clairity*

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Posted by on Jun 18, 2009 in Food and Drink | 10 Comments

10 Comments

  1. Delia
    June 18, 2009

    cool story!

    Reply
  2. Scott Wallace
    November 5, 2013

    This wine can be purchased at any TRADER JOES

    Reply
    • Madeline
      November 5, 2013

      Scott – I wish… You’re right Trader Joe’s does have something they call Fragolino for sale but it’s the sweet sparkling one I referred to unfortunately – not the “real” thing at all.

      Reply
      • graham tate
        December 22, 2013

        Ahaha i’m so curious about this now! I’ve been drinking the sweet sparkling Fragolino… but we have the ‘strawberry‘ grapes growing on the roof! My boyfriends parents make their own wine, and now i’m wondering if they make this!…

        Reply
  3. Emily
    November 9, 2014

    This sparkling wine is so smooth and it goes well with my delicacies here in Kenya Africa.

    Reply
  4. Katja
    February 5, 2016

    In Austria you can still buy this wine, it is called “Uhudler” there. 🙂

    Reply
  5. Keli Howard
    March 30, 2016

    Now this explains why the farmer let us sample but was hesitant about selling it to us when we lived in Italy! He didn’t speak a lick of English but if you asked for Fragolino and pointed to a far off shed, he would go get you a case! I miss living in Italy just for the sweet taste of that delicious Fragolino that cannot be found anywhere else!

    Reply
  6. Alexandru
    June 8, 2016

    I hope this helps. This ‘Fragolino’, the real one, is made crom Vitis La bruscă, not Vitis Vinifera. In Romania and former Soviet stătea You can fund IT almost everywhere in people’s courtyards. Take a walk in Romanian villages, and you will fund this grapevine like everywhere, hanging on self-made metal frames or, say, trellises. Se call the sine bere ‘CAPȘUNICA’ and mostly every household has it. Commercially it is ilegal to sell IT since se are in the EU, but You can literally fund this wine in mostly any country house. The interesting thing is IT varies in taste from one house to another, which turns to a competition to who makes it better. So, if ever visit Romania, go ahead and ask for some hardwood cuttings in the autumn, tale them home and stick them in the ground to propagate. Thus you’ll have your own ‘CAPȘUNICA’ (in Romanian ‘tiny strawberry’) in about 2-3 years of growth. P.S. this variety of grapevine is NOT permited to be cultivated in Europe just because it would easily take-over the Vitis vinifera billion euros wine industry. Salut!

    Reply
    • Alexandru
      June 8, 2016

      I apologize for the messed-up words in my comment. IT is the Romanian autocorrect tool on my phone which literally kills my English 🙂

      Reply
    • Madeline
      June 8, 2016

      Thanks so much for your comment Alexandru, that is very interesting. My sister-in-law is Romanian so I think there is a good chance that a visit to Romania is in my future and this will be something to look forward to.

      Reply

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