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At the age of seventeen, Erhard Tutzer founded vine nursery in Bolzano in 1963 and later supplied wineries such as Gaja and Antinori. But his passion is the breeding of new, resistant varieties. Raffaella Usai spoke to him about Piwis, vine research and the future of viticulture.

How did it come about that you founded vine nursery as a young man?

Tutzer: Since the 16th century, my family has made a living selling grapes. My parents were winegrowers and money was always tight. Even as a child, I had to help my father make grapes. And when I got older, I wanted to earn my own money. That's how I came up with the idea of a vine nursery. Necessity is the mother of invention!

Which varieties did you propagate there?

Tutzer: Initially the indigenous South Tyrolean varieties Vernatsch and Lagrein. Later, Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay were added. In the end, I had 150 different grape varieties in my range.

Who were your customers?

Tutzer: After around ten years, I was the market leader in South Tyrol. Then I also supplied Trentino, followed by the whole of Italy and later Europe. My company was the second largest private vine nursery in Italy.

Several vintages of microvinifications from Piwi varieties are stored in Tutzer's cellar.

Raffaella Usai

What was special about your vines?

Tutzer: I have always favoured quality clones and also produced the rootstocks myself. I became a partner of all the important viticulture and breeding institutes, Geisenheim, Weinsberg, Geilweilerhof, the State Institute in Freiburg, but also Klosterneuburg and the University of Pécs in Hungary. I have always obtained my starting material for the vines from the institutes.

When did you first become interested in Piwi varieties?

Tutzer: Oh, that was a long time ago. I always realised that something had to be done in viticulture to reduce the amount of plant protection products. Their use in order to harvest healthy grapes was and still is too high. Resistant vines are one possible answer. The idea is not new; hybrid vines were bred in France a long time ago. However, they were not of the same quality as Vitis vinifera and were therefore frowned upon.

The use of plant protection must be reduced!

Can you still remember the first Piwi wine you tasted?

Tutzer: Sure, that was in Hungary in the late 1980s or early 90s. I wasn't convinced by the wine's flavour back then, but I knew it was the right way to go.

So you took action yourself?

Tutzer: Exactly. I got involved in resistance breeding in 2000 and handed over vine nursery to my managing director at the time. I first started collecting resistance carriers from French-American and Asian origins. This was followed by various vine breeding centres and partnerships with research institutes in Italy and abroad with the corresponding microvinifications. With my company Innovitis, I have made a reduced selection of the countless crossing varieties. I currently run three vineyards in South Tyrol, which contain over 60 new resistant varieties. I use their grapes for microvinification to test their sensory suitability. I am convinced that natural crossing will make it possible to breed new grape varieties that are very resistant and produce good to very good quality wines.

Tutzer's Piwi variety Aromera is reminiscent of Gewürztraminer.

Raffaella Usai

Which generation of Piwi varieties do they come from?

Tutzer: It's the third generation, which is all about refining resistance and characteristics. Incidentally, I prefer to speak of "resistant" rather than "Piwi" varieties. At the moment, it's no longer just about fungal resistance, but also about resistance to insects, tolerance to heat and cold, drought, rot and much more. You always have to bear in mind that it takes a very long time for a new variety to be authorised. The bureaucracy behind it is crazy. Ten to 15 years pass between breeding, monitoring over various years and in different locations and the authorisation procedure.

Are grapevine breeders always running behind developments?

Tutzer: Absolutely. Winegrowers urgently need high-quality, resistant varieties that can keep up with traditional varieties in terms of quality.

Why is it so difficult to breed good and resistant varieties?

Tutzer: Because plants adapt and can also lose their resistance mechanisms again. This is the main reason why it is important to work with multiple resistances in natural crossbreeding. In the past, varieties were also authorised that had not been sufficiently tested. Their resistance proved to be insufficient after a short time. Many winegrowers had to uproot them again and suffered financial losses as a result. These experiences have made grower and winegrowers much more cautious.

Vines can also lose their resistance again

How can you prevent the vines from losing their resistance mechanisms?

Tutzer: You should never completely dispense with plant protection, but also treat the Piwi varieties two to three times a year with sulphur and a very reduced dose of copper. The first time should be soon after bud break, so that any mildew infestation from the previous year can be combated at the source. The second spraying should take place during the flowering phase, as the pinhead-sized berries are very sensitive and unprotected. In extremely wet years, a third treatment may also be necessary, but the Piwi varieties generally have sufficient defence mechanisms.

There are 172 different varieties of Pinot Noir in the vineyards in Marling.

Raffaella Usai

Which already authorised Piwi variety have you bred?

Tutzer: For example, the white variety Aromera, a cross between Muscat Ottonel and Eger 2 (Villard Blanc). It produces spicy, acidic white wines with a fine muscat flavour and aromas of roses. It is also highly resistant to fungal diseases. It is also authorised in Germany and is ideal for areas where Riesling is also grown.

Most winegrowers do not want to give up their traditional varieties. What about crossing in resistance genes, for example in Sangiovese or Nebbiolo?

Tutzer: The new grape variety will no longer be identical to the parent variety, but you can achieve a high degree of similarity by backcrossing. This means that if the first crossing product gives me the agronomic and genetic resistance I need, I can make a second crossing with the parent variety and so on. In the hope that the resistances will not be lost again, but that the sensory characteristics will continue to get closer to the parent variety. Anyone who is sceptical about this should bear in mind that there are countless natural mutations of a grape variety. In my vineyard here in Marling alone, there are 172 varieties of Pinot Noir that have developed naturally.

What do you think of new genetic engineering, or NGT for short?

Tutzer: I am critical by nature and know the advantages and disadvantages of classic vine breeding. The introduction of targeted resistances through NGT is also associated with certain risks that cannot yet be assessed. It will be possible to shorten the first phase of resistance breeding, but the second and third phases, when it comes to field trials, will still have to take place. So NGT will not be much quicker if we want to find out whether a variety is actually suitable and resistant at different locations. In addition, we will only recognise the side effects of genetic engineering later. This may then require further intervention. Nevertheless, we should clearly work on new varieties in parallel. One method does not exclude the other.

Erhard Tutzer is not only grower, but also a winegrower. The Solaris from Plonerhof once again won the prize for the best Italian white wine made from Piwi varieties in 2023.

Raffaella Usai

How open are South Tyrolean winegrowers to Piwis?

Tutzer: They are very reserved, partly because we are spoilt here. The grape prices are very high compared to other regions. Piwi varieties are particularly popular with winegrowers who get little for their grapes and wines. This is also the case in Germany. Piwis are planted in areas where yields per hectare are falling. South Tyrol achieves the highest land prices in Italy alongside the Langhe (Piedmont) and Montalcino (Tuscany). Unfortunately, this is therefore not a target region for Piwi varieties.

Who else do you need to convince of Piwi varieties?

Tutzer: If you look at organic viticulture, you have to be honest and say that today it is often taken ad absurdum. The CO2 footprint of many organic wines is catastrophic. If a winegrower has to apply copper and other pesticides 20 times a season, this cannot be a sustainable solution. Organic winegrowers in particular should therefore focus on Piwi varieties, as they can reduce their plant protection by around three quarters. Winegrowers whose vineyards are very close to residential buildings, hiking trails or playgrounds should also think about it.

You are currently conducting and financing your research entirely on your own. What does the future hold?

Tutzer: I have already brought fellow winegrowers on board to provide me with land for the experimental facilities. But to be really successful, everything would have to be ten times as big. So if anyone is interested: I'm always open to partnerships. I have now reached a certain age and would be delighted if younger people would continue my research. Because Piwis and resistant varieties are the future - also for South Tyrol.

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