"HEROIC" VINEYARDS OF ITALY
Updated: Apr 24, 2021
The International Centro di Ricerche, Studi e Valorizzazione per la Viticultura Montana (CERVIM) - an international organization based in Valle d’Aosta, north-western Italy – defines heroic a viticulture carried out under environmentally difficult or extreme conditions.
Specifically, a vineyard to be considered heroic must be grown on slopes of the land over 30 degrees, at an altitude over 500 meters (1,600 feet) above sea level, on steep terraces and small islands. Obviously, cultivations with such peculiar geo-morphological and micro-climatic characteristics are very complicated to maintain and the relative terroirs are continuously in danger of being abandoned because of the objective farming limitations and high production costs.
Nevertheless, heroic viticulture in Italy is currently carried on in several wine producing regions: from the vineyards clinging to Mount Etna’s volcanic soils in Sicily to those ascending the slopes of the northwestern Cinque Terre in Liguria, from Pantelleria island off Tunisia’s coast to Valtellina’s vine terraces in north Lombardy. Further, from the dry-stone walled vineyards characterizing Soave and Valpolicella’s territories in Veneto, to Italy’s “tip of the boot” Calabria, where vines strenuously grown on Costa Viola’s elevated terraces facing Sicily produce ancient autochthonous grapes under the influence of the Tyrrhenian and Ionian seas breezes.
All these vineyards are actually age-old Italian agriculture which have characterized for centuries their respective historical territory. They are intrinsic trademarks for the landscape and its inhabitants, a vivid illustration of traditional farming cultures and techniques that are still used today and cannot be lost.
This is why most of these locations are already UNESCO World Heritage sites and their vineyards and grapes are well known worldwide.
Producing wine from these terroirs is truly a heroic act and all the adverse conditions faced make it even more epic. The men and women who carry on this type of viticulture are resolute individuals driven by passion and love for their wine, history and traditions. They basically safeguard the heritage of their ancestral vineyards and terroirs despite all the hardships that can be encountered in areas often subject, among others, to hydrogeological instability.
Viticulture in mountainous areas, on steep coastal slopes and/or on small islands obviously challenge any form of mechanization. The small size of the vineyards, often not contiguous, the sharp inclination of the slopes, the elevation of the terraces (which maybe familiar to Filipinos recalling the Banaue rice terraces in north-central Luzon), the difficulty of providing consistent water supply, the challenge of finding enough manpower to manage the vineyards, all require extraordinary efforts and major economic investments.
Take the Cinque Terre which is located between Genova and La Spezia cities in north-eastern Liguria region: the name comes from five small villages nestled below steep cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. The rough environment translates into exhausting, difficult and costly winemaking, more like a battle with nature. Here the winemakers have always boldly cultivated vines on sharp terraces producing a unique heroic sweet wine called Sciacchetra’, a blend made of native Bosco, Albarola and Vermentino grapes.
This amber-colored wine is smooth and silky. To the nose Sciacchetra’ is very intense with distinct aromas of candied orange, dried fig, apricot and hazelnut.
Lombardy offers another heroic wine: Sfursat or Sforzato. In Valtellina, a territory in province of Sondrio, northern Italy, the vine terraces extend for hundreds of kilometers. The Sforzato di Valtellina is the result of 100% Nebbiolo (Chiavennasca) grapes selected by hand and matured on racks after the harvest, in dry and aerated places.
Sforzato’s color is garnet, ripe dark cherries on the nose with earth and coffee nicely mixed with notes of herbs and tobacco. On the palate is dry, full-bodied with medium acidity and tannins, surrendering flavors of spices during a lingering finish.
In Italy there is a great variety of territories with dramatically diverse environmental and morphological characteristics which give exclusive elements of typicality to its wines. The association between wine and territory is always indivisible: the heroic territories uniquely influence the characteristics of their vines which in turn transfer to the grapes exclusive elements of high quality.
The Mount Etna region, extending on the east coast of Sicily between the cities of Messina and Catania, is yet another irreplaceable heroic land consisting of the Etna volcano’s eruptive soils and micro-climates that turn this area in a miniature continent.
Here the volcanic soils naturally favor agriculture; the vines are planted on lava stones terraces along the lower slopes of the mountain up to 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) above sea level. The Etna Rosso dry red wine produced here is a blend of predominantly native Nerello Mascalese grape with Nerello Cappuccio varietal playing a minor role.
A typical Etna Rosso is dark with tart flavors of cherries, a lean texture and an aftertaste expressing fruitiness with a hint of bitterness. Finer examples of Nerello Mascalese from Mount Etna in Sicily finish long with good acidity, rustic earthy note and medium weight tannins.
On the eastern side of the Messina strait, Calabrian Costa Viola vineyards grow on steep, terraced coastal slopes supported by stone walls called Armacie which hang just above the sea. Here the wine-makers tend their grapevines undeterred by the unfavorable conditions of the territory and the prohibitive production costs.
The main red wine blend produced with Nerello Calabrese, Prunesta and Gaglioppo native grapes in Costa Viola is ruby with violet reflections, clean on the nose with an intense vinous aroma releasing whiffs of sea minerals and spices. On the palate notes of cherry turn into earthy sensations with light leather and tobacco elements. Dry with medium-high body, Armacia is juicy with soft tannins, intriguing minerality, fruity notes and a long finish.
The small island of Pantelleria is located in the Mediterranean Sea, 100 km southwest of Sicily, and it is characterized by an arid and windy climate, being the largest volcanic satellite island of Sicily. Over time, in order to cope with the difficult climatic and geographic conditions of this island, particular viticulture growing techniques have been developed allowing viticulture to be carried out despite the environmental obstacles. Specifically, for the cultivation of vineyards in Pantelleria is used the Alberello vine training system, which is a rare, ancient and traditional method protected by UNESCO and recognized as human heritage.
This great territorial variability leads to the production of wines that cannot be replicated elsewhere because of their unique characteristics. The outstanding heroic wine produced in Pantelleria is the sweet Passito which involves withering of grapes in the sun. While vineyards are planted as high as 400 meters (1,300 feet), most of the grapes for Passito comes from low-lying vineyards located close to the sea.
The color of this Passito is golden yellow, tending to amber. The extraordinary rich bouquet is typical of the Zibibbo grape is made of: aromatic, fragrant, with notes of dried fruit such as apricots, dates, figs and jam. To the palate is very fresh and intense, balancing perfectly the sweetness even during a very long persistence.
All the heroic territories mentioned enrich and complete the greater Italian fascinating viticultural landscape because of the strong identity of their locations, the tight relationship with the local communities and their historical and cultural heritage.
As a result of its unique characteristics, the heroic viticulture, although representing less than 3% of the total Italian vineyards, produces inimitable wines of superb quality, owing their distinction to their exceptionally peculiar terroirs.