Italy owes wine legacy to Celts, history buffs say

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ROBBIO, Italy, Apr 18 (Reuters) Wine conjures up the image of cultured drinkers sipping their way delicately through a full-bodied vintage.

But for two history buffs with a passion for the tipple, northern Italy has the barbarians to thank for its long wine-making tradition.

Luca Sormani, from Como, and Fulvio Pescarolo, from the tiny town of Robbio near Milan, have traced the region's wine culture all the way back to its Celtic roots and have started making it according to ancient methods.

Celtic tribes from farther north -- known to the Romans as ''Barbari'' -- conquered northern parts of Italy about 2,500 years ago, settled there and started draining marshes, cultivating land and growing vines.

''There is a bit of the barbarian in us,'' said Pescarolo, 51, who is the ninth generation of farmers from the rice-growing western part of Lombardy. ''We feel we are part of this nature.'' Interest in all things Celtic -- from music to mystical rites -- took off in northern Italy in the mid 1990s, fanned by the Northern League party which rose to prominence with demands for independence for the north.

Sormani and Pescarolo said their interest in Celtic culture had nothing to with politics and that, instead of the symbols and rites, they studied what was close to their hearts -- a blend of agriculture and wine-growing.

NO HELMETS WITH HORNS ''It's not that we want to put on helmets with horns. It's not about mythology or cults,'' said Sormani, 40, who has a doctorate in agriculture.

''We feel we are part of a tradition which dates back to the times of Celts.'' Standing in a vineyard on a man-made hill in the middle of table-flat rice fields in western Lombardy, Sormani recalled how he spent years studying the history of the area, which led him to the idea of recreating a Celtic farm.

''In (the northern towns of) Vigevano and Mortara we live as if we had no history, as if one day we found ourselves here and going to work in Milan. I did not like it. I wanted to find out where we came from, who we were,'' said Sormani.

''And not being a philosopher or poet or a writer, being an agronomist, I started my research from agriculture.'' His project took off in 2000 after he met Pescarolo. They used their own savings to build a replica of a Celtic farm, based on ancient manuscripts.

They wanted to relive the history of the Celts by discovering their habits and tastes and, in a typical Italian way, the pleasures that Celts found in food and wine.

Six years later, the pair can enjoy the most treasured fruit of their labours: Celtic wine, produced according to ancient recipes from grapes grown using Celtic methods.

SENSE OF BELONGING The dark ruby wine has a rich taste with a strong herbal note and an unusual sandy after-taste.

''This wine gives you a sense of belonging to this land, to your history. It tells the story of people who lived here, of our ancestors,'' said Sormani.

Sormani and Pescarolo presented their first wine from the 2004 harvest at an international wine fair in the northern Italian city of Verona and said it had positive reviews from wine critics.

They plan to sell 300 litres of the 2004 vintage this year and 500 litres of the 2005 production next year. It will be bottled in ceramic vases of an ancient Celtic design.

They hope to sell the wine to restaurants, bars and auction houses and find wine connoisseurs and fans of Celtic culture willing to pay 140-160 euros for an 80-centilitre vase of wine.

The proceeds will help them set up a Celtic cultural centre.

''Those who buy such a vase and bring it home will have a chance to travel in time by means of taste,'' Sormani said.

Reuters SHB GC0918

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