Italy’s mountain viticulture gets a boost from climate change
By Francesco Saverio Russo - Photographs: courtesy of the estates, posted on 31 January 2022
Italy has a very particular orographic conformation, in the shape of a ‘T’ formed by the Alpine arc that traces a horizontal line to the North and the Apennines that run longitudinally from North to South. Mountain viticulture has a fundamental impact on the general picture of Italian winegrowing.
From Mont Blanc to Mount Etna, via the mountain vineyards of the central regions and islands, high-altitude viticulture has distinctive features which make it very interesting, especially for its response to current climate change. The most important effect of altitude is the progressive drop in temperature, which allows the grapes to ripen more slowly and, through careful vineyard management, produce greater consistency in the fruit. The cooler climate reduces the production of sugars and raises the total level of acidity, paving the way for more contemporary and less ‘overripe’ wines. These are also very interesting parameters for the production of sparkling wines.
The majestic castle of Saint Pierre, a symbol of the Aosta Valley
Although producing ripe sugars is no longer an issue, diurnal shift plays a fundamental role in aromatic ripening, giving mountain wines a fresher and more defined flavour and aroma profile. The key to the success of mountain wines is therefore the cooler climate; vineyards with optimal exposures promoting ideal radiation for the canopy and clusters; well-drained soils which avoid water stagnation; and constant wind which helps keep the grapes healthy. Although these are the distinctive and positive factors of Italian mountain winegrowing, it must also be said that a good part of mountain vineyards can be defined as 'heroic', i.e. very challenging to work with. Heroic viticulture, in fact, climbs up very steep slopes (often made more manageable by terraces) forcing growers to work manually and incur much higher management costs.
As examples of quality mountain winegrowing, we have chosen 7 representative wineries in northern Italy.
The modern Nals Margreid winery, renovated in 2011, combines art, sustainability and technology
The history of Nals Margreid dates back to 1764, when the Von Campi estate was built on the exact site where the winery stands today. In 1932, the Nalles Winery was founded and in 1985 it merged with Magrè to form Nals Margreid. The winery is in South Tyrol, at the point where Tyrolean and Mediterranean cultures meet. The peaks of the Alps and the Dolomites frame a landscape which bears witness to a winegrowing tradition dating back thousands of years. The roughly 160-hectare vineyard is farmed by 138 families who have 14 vineyards between Nalles, in the Adige Valley, and Magrè. The vineyards are located between 200 and 900 metres above sea level, on soils with differing characteristics, microclimate and exposure. The winery has always aimed to produce wines encapsulating Alpine freshness, the symbiosis with the terroir, an international flavour and elegance. Mountain viticulture is characterised by historic vineyards at high altitudes which, combined with the experience of vineyard technicians and winemakers, means that the wines are not affected by global warming. The average annual production is 1,000,000 bottles and the domestic market is very important, although wine is exported to 36 countries worldwide.
Elena Walch with her daughters Julia and Karoline Walch, who are in charge of the winery
Elena Walch is one of South Tyrol's leading wineries. A promoter of quality and innovation, it has helped lead the South Tyrolean wine revolution. An architect by profession, Elena married the heir to one of the oldest winemaking families in South Tyrol and today her daughters Julia and Karoline Walch, (educated in France and Australia) run the company. The winery produces terroir-driven wines. To achieve this, it takes an uncompromising approach, showing respect for the characteristics of each individual vineyard site. Among its 60 bearing hectares, the two ‘Cru’ vineyards, Vigna Castel Ringberg in Kaltern and Vigna Kastelaz in Tramin, are noteworthy.
The area is home to a succession of sun-kissed land, impervious terraces and undulating vineyards, as well as high-altitude plots exposed to the cooler air and the short but warm summer months. The difference in altitude between the various plots is almost 800 metres - a feature that is virtually unique in the world of wine. Such differing elevations provide the scope to ‘play around’ with the production of wines showing unique characteristics. In order to cope with climate change, the winery has extended its high-altitude plots between 250 and 1,000 metres above sea level, where climate change opens up new avenues for positive challenges.
Five hectares have just been planted in Aldino, a mountain village on the East side of the valley, at about 1,000 m above sea level.
Currently more than 15 hectares of vineyards are above 600 m above sea level, mostly planted to Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir. Five hectares have just been planted in Aldino, a mountain village on the East side of the valley, at about 1,000 m above sea level. A further vineyard at 600 metres above sea level has been purchased in Altenburg, on the side of the Mendola that runs alongside Termeno. This is the mosaic in which Elena Walch is a practitioner of mountain winegrowing.
Climate change has also seen increased risks of damage due to spring frost, as well as more frequent hailstorms. However, the latter remain very limited locally, as the mountains with their valleys stem the air currents and moderate the clouds. At the Elena Walch winery, mountain winegrowing is perceived as interesting insofar as it provides the opportunity to produce wines of the highest quality from a wide variety of sensitively interpreted vineyard sites. Elena Walch produces approximately 550,000 bottles annually, 50% of them exported to a total of 70 countries.
Villa Corniole is a family-run winery located in Valle di Cembra, Trentino. Between the Cembra Valley and the Rotaliana plain, Villa Corniole has a total of around 10 hectares of vineyards. The Cembra Valley is characterised by an Alpine climate: the cold currents off the Dolomites influence the temperatures in the valley, generating large temperature swings between day and night and causing the grapes to ripen slowly but at the same time enhancing acidity, perfumes and aromas. The 708 km of dry-stone walls are unique: a symbol of heroic viticulture, they represent a heritage of great value for the valley and are recognised by UNESCO. They offer support for the vineyards on extreme slopes and at the same time preserve biodiversity.
Villa Corniole harvests all the grapes from its celebrated vineyards in Val di Cembra by hand
The aim of Villa Corniole is to express the region by respecting its richness and healthiness and by keeping its natural resources and ecosystem in balance. Winegrowing in the Cembra Valley is extremely labour-intensive. It is estimated that it takes about 1,000 hours a year to farm a single hectare of vines. This combines with the effects of climate change, which brings ever more frequent heavy downpours and hailstorms. Rising temperatures are, in fact, the least of their worries, as the microclimate and elevations help to produce quality grapes with excellent ripeness, full acidity and clear aromas. Villa Corniole has noticed that in recent years, consumers have also been showing greater awareness and recognising the added value of mountain wines. The company produces around 90,000 bottles/year, divided between several labels of whites, reds and Trento Doc classic method sparkling wines. 50% of production is sold in Italy and the remaining 50% is exported to Asia, Europe, Canada and the United States. The winery’s clientele is solely the hospitality industry and private customers.
Founded in 1820 by Josef Weger (grandfather of the current owner), the Weger Hof winery is a historical pioneer in producing and selling wines in South Tyrol. The hills of Cornaiano are home to the Wegers, their wine estate and their ancient cellars. Their aim has always been to produce clear, clean and easy-drinking wines in the pure South Tyrolean style. To do this, they devote great respect and sensitivity to the vineyards, aware that they are less affected than other areas by climate change and can make the most of the uniqueness of their mountain terroir. The significant temperature variations promote more consistent ripening. “After all, all mountain fruits have better aroma and flavour characteristics than those that grow on the plains”, comments Johannes Weger. “Unfortunately, the general warming of the climate is forcing us to look for higher and higher altitudes and work in the vineyard is becoming more demanding and totally manual”.
As Johannes Weger points out, the real problems caused by climate change are not only related to global warming, but also to the increase in severe weather events such as storms with strong winds, flash flooding and hailstorms, against which little can be done. However, mountain winegrowing is an important commercial lever thanks to the perceived value of the heroic work of mountain winegrowers and the quality achieved by wines from these areas. Annual production is around 80,000 bottles. The wines are mostly bound for the domestic market, along with exports to Germany, Austria, Belgium and England.
The Laimburg Winery is a model for South Tyrolean winegrowing and therefore mountain winegrowing. It is part of the Experimentation Centre of the same name and supports its strong commitment to research and experimentation in the field of winegrowing with its own production of high-quality wines. All of the grapes used for the winery's production are grown on its own 20 hectares of vineyards located in various areas with differing microclimates and elevations in the Province of Bolzano, between 200 and 900 metres above sea level. One of the focuses of Laimburg's research over the last 15 years has been to find the right microclimate area for each grape variety, with plots ranging from the plains to the hills and steep mountain slopes, home to different soils. Choices are aimed at ensuring careful and stringent vineyard management, with utmost attention paid to each phase in order to offer the vines a balanced and clean habitat.
The impressive underground ageing cellar at Laimburg
According to Laimburg, climate change poses constant challenges for winegrowing. Cultivation at higher and cooler altitudes is being tested and offers the promise of enhanced hallmark characteristics, particularly for the white wines. The ERDF Pinot Blanc project carried out by the Laimburg Research Centre showed that Pinot blanc at 600 m above sea level developed fresher aromas than Pinot blanc at 300 m above sea level. Additionally, at the initiative of the South Tyrolean Winegrowers' Association Ars Vini (TAV), a 1,000 m² vineyard at an altitude of 1,330 m above sea level was planted in 2013 at Geyrerhof in Soprabolzano with Solaris, a hardy vine suitable for these altitudes.
In terms of its range of wines, Laimburg produces three collections: ‘Vini del Podere’, fermented in steel tanks or in large oak barrels; ‘Selezione Maniero’, mainly aged in barriques and selected; and ‘Vini Particolari’ made from vines that are resistant to downy mildew and oidium, or from special winegrowing and winemaking techniques. Annual production is between 90,000 and 100,000 bottles, most of which are sold in South Tyrol. Exports are mainly to Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Holland, Belgium, Denmark, Luxembourg, Albania and exotic destinatioons such as Trinidad.
SOURCE was founded in 2003 by young, experienced farmers with deep-rooted winemaking traditions. Currently, the company is owned by the Celi-Cuc family and Stefano Celi is its current incumbent. Born in 1971, he is a qualified agronomist and descendant of a family of farmers in the Aosta Valley. Since 2005, he has dedicated himself full-time to farming and particularly to wine production. The company has 9.5 hectares of vineyards, located between 650 and 900 m above sea level, planted to native and non-native vines such as Petite Arvine, Petit Rouge, Fumin, Premetta, Cornalin and Vien de Nus, Syrah, Chardonnay, Müller-Thurgau, Muscat and Traminer. The vineyards are all located in the vicinity of the winery, in one of the most wine-focused areas of the Aosta Valley. This is mountain viticulture where most of the vineyard management is done by hand due to the high slopes and terraces. The absence of machines certainly entails higher production costs, but it preserves the land, reducing the risk of hydrogeological disruption caused by abandonment.
The vineyards at la Source in the Aosta valley
Climate change has had a relatively important impact on production in the Valle d'Aosta but the current effects are certainly positive for ripening. If the rise in temperature continues over the next few decades, the solution here, as elsewhere, is to plant vineyards at higher altitudes. Mountain viticulture, and even more so that of the tiny Valle d'Aosta, is unique from a marketing perspective in that production is naturally very limited, allowing producers to concentrate exclusively on product quality. Also, this region, and in particular the Torrette area, is characterised by morainic/sandy soils, where the international cultivars can express themselves in a unique way. Annual production at La Source is around 40,000 bottles. Its most prominent outlets are the local market and the domestic market with a small percentage shipped abroad, in particular to Japan.
Les Crêtes was founded by Costantino Charrère in 1989 in Aymavilles, Valle d'Aosta. Charrère’s presence revolutionised winemaking in the region as he made local winegrowers aware of its unique features, creating a real movement. Today the Les Cretes estate is run by the family, who have focused their efforts on tending the land and making wine for five generations. The rugged, rocky mountains are often inhospitable, but with the right experience and innate sensitivity, Les Cretes has been able to nurture genuine Crus in this majestic landscape. The vineyards range from 300 to 900m above sea level. Rows, terraces, stone posts and centuries-old vines of different local varieties alternate with international varieties in great harmony. Climate change has made its mark here in a positive way, facilitating ripening while maintaining an Alpine climate that emphasises aromatic precursors due to the considerable temperature changes, and preserves the acidity needed to produce fine, vertical and long-lived wines.
Constantine Charrère with his wife and daughters. The family is dedicated to vine growing, wines and wine tourism at Les Cretes
The range of wines produced by the Les Cretes winery is considerable, ranging from international varieties to local grapes such as Cornalin and Premetta, and from extremely elegant, refined whites to fruity, fresh reds, and even passito. Average production in recent years has been in the range of 225,000 bottles. COVID-19 completely wiped out the winter season and therefore sales in the ski resorts which are among the best in the Alps. This is no mean challenge for a company that views the local region as its main market. However, Italy and a clutch of export markets secured by the company have held up well.
How far will mountain viticulture go in Italy? This is impossible to predict, but we will certainly see vineyards planted at increasingly high elevations over the coming years due to climate change and the desire by growers to produce vertical, elegant wines, the hallmarks of this style of winegrowing. The hope is that the mountain landscape will not be disfigured, but there is every likelihood that the sensitivity of the winegrowers will prevent this from happening.
By Francesco Saverio Russo - Photographs: courtesy of the estates
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