I am quite cliché and easily sold when it comes to idyllic landscapes such as the rolling hills of Tuscany and lavendel-covered fields of Provence. During a period of my life, especially on rainy winter days in my beloved Gothenburg, I used to comfort myself with feel-good- movies portraying people drastically changing their lives, leaving their boring 9-5 jobs, buying an old castle in the French country side and starting a winery. For some reason, maybe influenced by these rainy days daydreaming, even before becoming seriously passionate about wine – I always got a warm cosy feeling inside of me when seeing a landscape with vines. Last Easter me and a close friend did a part of El Camino del Santiago in the north of Spain together, and every time we passed by a vineyard I would stop to take numerous photos or just to gaze at the vines with dreamy eyes, as if there was a secret hidden within them. At this point I had already been thinking about going to Italy to study wine culture for a while, and being in this landscape reinforced my inspiration to do it. Now, after some months of studying and slowly getting a little grasp of the world of wine, I still have the same dreamy gaze when visiting wineries, and specially when seeing the vineyards. To me there is something about viticulture that, even more than other kind of cultivation, represents the ultimate connection between nature and culture, the link between history and present and the combination of science and art. I guess it represents the ultimate dream of another life – closer to nature, but still highly civilized. I guess the magic lays in there.
So, imagine the surprise when for the first time in my life I passed by a landscape of vineyards and was actually not filled with joy. The place were this happened was in Veneto, where we went for a study trip last week in the Proscecco making areas of Asolo and Conegliano-Valdobbiadene. I have for a long time appreciated Prosecco as an easy drinking aperitivo drink, and due to the low prices I realized that there was an intense production behind it. But never had I expected to see such a compact cultivation as in this area. The absolutely beutiful landscape is dominated by vines in a way that almost takes away the charm of it. It´s just too much, too crowded, too stressed, forced. For some reason I had never before associated intense monoculture with viticulture, until this moment. Cultivation is of course always a mans work, there´s nothing “natural” about it, at least if we by natural mean untouched or wild. But where does the limit between respectful cultivation of the earth and exploitation of it go? When travelling through this area, seeing the vines squeezed together on every single piece of land available, that limit at least was passed for me.
The world loves Prosecco – the numbers say a lot: around 500 million bottles/year sold internationally. Prosecco is sparkling, easy drinking and cheap, what’s not to love? But as always, the concept of cheap is just an illusion – there is always someone else paying the price – and in this case, it is the soil and the biodiversity paying that price. The inquination of the soil, the health effects on farmers and the loss of biodiversity in this region have been big topics during the last years, and attempts to improve the sustainability have been made; for instance, the weedkillers Glyphosate, Folpet and Mancozeb will from 2019 be completely banned in the Prosecco Conegliano-Valdobbiadene Docg area. What effect this rule will have only time can tell – there is still a long list of other herbicides allowed in the intense production of Glera, which is the main grape variety for Prosecco. And all this talk about sustainability could also be just another marketing strategy. Or maybe I am just being cynical – let´s hope so.
Don´t get me wrong – the fame of Prosecco creates lots of work opportunities within viticulture and tourism for people in the region which of course is positive. On the other hand, this sort of massive monocultural production seem to be going in the opposite direction of the sustainable and long-term approch that we apparently need today. Therefore, as a contrast to the big scale production, it was interesting to visit a few small producers during our trip – such as the lovely couple at Terre dei Gaia who received us for dinner and gave us an interesting introduction to the situation in the area, and the family run company Marchiori working with organic farming and growing autochthonous grape varieties, where we tasted some wines with great personality. Positive examples of alternatives to the huge mainstream production surrounding them. The organically certified producers in this part of Italy are still very few and struggling, and there is a physical as well as economical problem to it: since cultivation is so intense and close, even if you choose to be organic, your growth might be contamined by your neighbours pesticides; also, how to compete on the bigger market with such low prices with a wine that might cost a lot more to produce?
To sum up, this visit really surprised me in many ways. First of all, the landscapes of Conegliano-Valdobbiadene and Asolo are absolutely spectacular and worth a visit. Secondly, I tasted some great wines that were far away from my expectation – such as still Prosecco (had never heard of it before) and unfiltered sparkling wines done with traditional methods and with the use of indigenous grapes. Being a person that before the trip said: “I am not a big fan of Prosecco”, still somehow I managed to bring home 8 bottles. Thirdly, I learned a lot about the situation in the area, the conflicts of interest and the exploitaion of the earth, as well as about the great initiatives that are showing up in response to all this. I am realizing that the more I learn, the more my movie-inspired-vineyard-dream fades, but I still hope to keep my idea of the vineyard as a representation of the melting pot of nature/culture alive – and not having it being replaced by yet another representation of man´s thoughtless domination of nature.