Italy: Viticulture

Appears in

Oxford Companion to Wine

Oxford Companion to Wine

By Jancis Robinson

Published 2006

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Two distinguishing features mark Italian viticulture: first, the late development of vineyards as such and a significant presence until relatively recently of polyculture in grape-growing areas; second, the long-standing dominance of vine-training systems created expressly for high yields and easy mechanization. Polyculture was a common phenomenon throughout Europe at one time. What is distinctive about Italy is the extent to which this practice lasted into the modern epoch. Grain and vegetables such as potatoes were planted between rows of vines even in Barolo and Barbaresco until the 1950s, and central Italy was dominated by an almost standard type of mixed culture in which vines, planted amidst olive groves and rows of grains, were trained up trees to prevent the grapes from being eaten by the animals allowed to roam freely in the fields. Some modern vineyards, planted exclusively with vines in regular rows, did exist, particularly in Italy’s north west, but viticulture in general was merely part of a general system of agriculture, one cash crop among many. It is no surprise, therefore, that when Italy’s vineyards were replanted in the 1960s and 1970s, frequently with the assistance of eu funds, vineyards were generally adapted to the new exigencies of mechanization and productivity. Whereas in France the practicalities of mechanization were adapted to the existing low trained-trained vines and high vine density with their proven ability to give high-quality grapes, Italian vineyards were redesigned when they were replanted, in a way that would make them compatible with the new large tractors and other machines which were then becoming generally available. The result was spacings of up to 3 m/10 ft between the rows and high training systems. This low-density viticulture, with an average of between 2,500 and 3,300 vines per ha, coupled with the generous yields that were common in the initial period of Italy’s DOC epoch (roughly 1965–80), had as their inevitable result the very high yields per vine, often as much as 5 kg/11 lb of grapes, and a reduction in vine longevity.