Subscriber login Close [x]
remember me
You are not logged in.

Mountain pressures

Published:  18 January, 2007

Like Britain, Italy is a long, relatively thin country, running roughly north-south. But unlike Britain, Italy is a country of mountains. Two great mountain systems dominate: the Alps to the north, and the Appenines, which run from nearly the top (Piemonte) to the toe (Calabria), and on into Sicily. All but one (Puglia) of Italy's 20 regions have mountains, and this fact has profoundly influenced Italian viticulture through the ages.

We hear a great deal about how latitude affects viticulture, but we hear far less about the effect of altitude, which, at the same latitude and from the same grape variety, can bring forth wines of lush fruit and quasi-subtropical flavours for early gulping, or of sturdy tannic structures and firm acidity for laying down. Compare a Morellino di Scansano (Sangiovese) grown near sea level in Tuscany's Maremma to a Biondi-Santi Brunello from the upper reaches of Montalcino at 500m plus; or an Aglianico from Campania's coastal area, picked in September, to one from the inland Taurasi at up to 600m, picked in November.

Most mountain viticulture is practised at relatively elevated altitude, as in Alto Adige (up to 1,000m), Trentino, Lombardy's Valtellina, Piemonte's Carema, Basilicata's Monte Vulture, and Sicily's Mount Etna (up to 900m). Mountain viticulture doesn't have to refer solely to high-altitude cultivation but includes steep-slope cultivation nearer sea level, as in the case of Liguria's Cinque Terre, Tuscany's island of Elba, Campania's Ischia, and Sicily's Pantelleria: what, after all, are these but the tops of mountains whose main bulk is under water? Very often, however, both factors are involved. In the region of Valle d'Aosta, in the shadow of western Europe's highest mountain, Mont Blanc, 192 of 600 hectares (ha) of vineyard are planted on slopes of over 30%, and 315 are planted at 500m and over. Of 1,200ha in the Valtellina, 1,080 are on slopes over 30% at altitudes between 500m and 1,100m!

To elucidate the characteristics of such a style of viticulture,

it is perhaps easiest to say what it is not. Forget about the flat or rolling vineyards of Bordeaux or California, where mechanisation is easy and it is possible to rationalise all operations from pruning to picking. Forget about irrigation or any similarity between vineyard management and gardening. Mountain viticulture could be described, without too much exaggeration, as heroic, a labour of love undertaken in the most difficult circumstances, on steep slopes, sometimes narrow terraces, in rocky soils of poor fertility, with hard labour or high labour costs: tending a mountain vineyard takes virtually twice as many man-hours as tending a vineyard on the flat or on a slight slope.

But, you might ask, if this type of viticulture is uneconomical, requiring archaic systems and capable of giving forth only niche wines of questionable value for money and only local appeal, why pursue it? Is it just a question of biodiversity, of protecting another strand of the natural world's rich tapestry, like the black rhino and the white tiger? Should we care if the hundreds of types of apple and cow and butterfly get reduced

to three or four? The answer to these questions leads to the answer to questions regarding the continued existence of mountain viticulture.

We would maintain that one reason mountain viticulture should continue to exist is because, in many cases, it brings forth wines of unique character from grape varieties that would otherwise disappear. But it should also continue because,

in the words of CERVIM, the international association responsible for the protection of mountain viticulture worldwide, mountain viticulture is the inheritance of all humanity'; because it is the result of the conquest of a complete equilibrium between man and nature and is an integral part of the culture of certain mountainous territories; it is of fundamental importance to the safeguarding of the environment of such zones'.

Surely it is better to start thinking of protecting species, or cultures, before they die out rather than afterwards, when all we can do is admire them in a museum. The accountants for the multinationals may not agree. But mountain viticulture is not for the multinationals - it is for little people doing their small thing (the average size of an estate' in Valle d'Aosta is 0.25ha). You may feel that the little people should be taking measures to protect themselves; but they are - organising themselves (in the case of Valle d'Aosta) into the Associazione Viticulteurs Encaveurs Valle d'Aoste for purposes of promotion. A similar movement, comprising 70 small grower-producers, has been successful in South Tyrol (Associazione dei Vignaioli dell'Alto Adige) over the six years of its existence. Those inclined to take the matter further can find these two on the following websites: for Valle d'Aosta; for Alto Adige.