Thursday, August 13, 2015

Development of a Piemonte wine industry and wine-making culture in the late 1800s

In the late 19th century, Piemonte vied with Tuscany for the title of most illustrious wine region in Italy based on the amount of land devoted to grape growing in each region and the "modernity" of their respective winemaking industries. But this was definitely not the status quo for these regions. This post draws heavily on the scholarship of Simone Cinolto (Soft Soil, Black Grapes, New York University Press, 2012) to examine how Piemonte arrived at that coveted position.

Pre-19th-Century Wine Environment in Mediterranean Europe
According to Cinolto, very few people experienced wine during this period "except during rural cycles and religious festivals." The resulting limited economic value of wine, combined with its highly perishable nature -- a result of a lack of understanding of its chemistry and a paucity of viable storage mechanisms -- did not provide the ideal conditions for development and sustenance of a wine industry.

Further, grape growing was a very personal affair. Vineyards, as we know them today, did not exist. Grapevines were, instead: cultivated alongside subsistence crops; unrestrained as to height; and supported by pergolas or co-located trees.

As it related to wine production, harvested grapes were brought to the cellar and foot-trod in large vats. White wine grapes crushed in this manner were quickly moved to a hand press for juice extraction. In the case of red wines, the wine was separated from the post-fermentation residue and placed into barrels for "maturation and preservation."

This traditional winemaking process was fraught with risk for the resulting wine (Cinolto):
  • Dirty barrels
  • Lack of filtration
  • Oxidation
  • No temperature control.
According to a pamphlet from the late-1800s cited by Cinolto, "The traditional practices resulted in the farmers harvesting too early, crushing grapes with dirty feet in unclean vats, and fermenting the grapes too long in pursuit of alcohol and color."

According to Cinolto, "The commercial production of wine therefore remained a fragile, risky, and inevitably underdeveloped enterprise until well into the nineteenth century."

Mid-1860s in the Langhe and Monferrato Hills
A number of factors led to the transformation of farming in southern Piemonte from the subsistence model to the position described earlier -- viable competitor for the title of most illustrious wine region in Italy. The factors, and their impacts, are detailed in the figure below.

Source: Compiled from Cinolto (Soft Soil, Black Grapes)

This boom lasted for two decades before being brought to heel by a number of factors (Cinolto):
  • The spread of Phylloxera beyond the Alps
  • The resumption of viticulture in France
  • A tariff war between France and Italy.
By this time, however, wine had become a thriving sector of the Piemonte economy as exhibited by the following realities (Cinolto):
  • The establishment of Piemonte's international prestige for its particular vineyard areas and high quality grapes
    • Nebbiolo in Alba for the high-grade wines Barolo and Barbaresco
    • Parts of Cuneo and the areas around Alessandria and Casale Monferrato for the production of distinctive wines like Barbera, Dolcetta, and Freisa
    • Moscato in Asti for the production of a Spumante
  • Improvement of enological knowledge
    • The birth of the professional expert
    • Creation of specialized institutes like the School of Viticulture and Enology in Alba in 1881
  • Emergence of a large-scale capitalist winemaking industry
    • Factories
    • Machines
    • Equipment for mass production
    • New class of merchant intermediaries who acted as interlocutors of the large wineries and small independent wine producers.
Wine as a thriving sector of the Piemontese economy did not necessarily translate to thriving inhabitants of Piemonte. For example, even though there was a significant improvement in enological knowledge, this was shared only between a tight circle of well-to-dos and people associated with the large wineries and emerging wine indsutry. The small farmer continued to produce wine in the traditional manner. Moreover, the shift from a mixed-farming economy to a monoculture with intervening midlemen, probably contributed significantly to the heavy out-migration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme


  1. As always, an interesting, well-presented and informative post. But bon't forget the importance of Giulia Colbert Falletti, the Marchesa di Barolo, in the creation of "modern" (now traditional) Barolo in the mid-1880s.

  2. Opportunity for additional research