The Disappearing Terraced Vineyards of Valtellina

Nestled north of Lake Como and south of the Alps, Valtellina, is a special place in northern Italy. Known for light, mineral-driven wines made from the Chiavennasca (or Nebbiolo) grape, the steep vineyards of Valtellina are an impressive sight. The vineyards are so steep that sometimes grapes from harvest are brought in via funicular or helicopter.

Photo Credit: Arpepe

Why have the vineyards of Valtellina been shrinking over time? We discuss this trend with both Danilo Dracco, president of the Consorzio in Valtellina and Isabella Pelizzatti Perego, who runs Arpepe, the most well-known grower and producer in the area. 

According to Danilo “Since the end of the 19th century, in Valtellina they’ve lost about 4,000 hectares of vineyards. There are various reasons why the area under vine is shrinking. For one, there’s always the problem of new generations not wanting to stay in the family grape growing and wine making business.” According to Danilo, “The abandonment of vineyards was also linked in the first half of the 20th century to the decrease in the population living in mountainous areas and using wine as a foodstuff to obtain calories to enrich the poor diet obtained from the little food available. From the second half of the 20th century, on the other hand, the abandonment of vineyards occurred due to the development of apple cultivation, which provided a higher income than grapes.”  

At Arpepe, the family has been cultivating grapes for over 150 years. Isabella’s father Arturo Pelizzatti Perego put a stamp on the business using his own acronym – ArPePe – to name the winery. Arpepe’s, holdings have gone from 50 hectares down to 15 hectares, but they are comfortable to expand up to 20 hectares to still be manageable as a “family winery”. 

Photo Credit: Arpepe

Isabella says that she and her siblings “are very proud to proceed as fifth generation in our family winery and of course we feel a responsibility to do our very best in order to pass the winery to the sixth generation in the best possible condition.  Our father Arturo never put any pressure on us and, as a result, all the three of us in different ways are all involved in the winery!”

Photo Credit: Arpepe

I asked Isabella how does the statistic of the shrinking vineyards land for her. She replied that “the Valtellina vineyards loss in the past 50 years is very sad, but we think we need to fight even more today in order to preserve what we have left and not to lose any more terraces.
If the new generation of wine producers do a good job, we should be able to reverse the process and start reconquering vineyards.”

Photo Credit: Arpepe

Another issue (or opportunity) is that the region is extremely fragmented, similar to Bourgogne, with over 2,000 growers owning an average of 0.2 hectares each. Isabella says “We do appreciate the real character of each single small vineyard, which is making everything so special here like in Bourgogne. Though properties being so fragmented creates problems in order to consolidate the vineyards and to create a winery, either from a bureaucratic point of view or an economical point of view.” 

I asked both Isabella and Danilo: what do you want the world to know about the disappearing terraced vineyards of Valtellina? According to Isabella, “The world needs to discover the beauty of Valtellina and the incredible Nebbiolo delle Alpi wines we can produce from there. It would be fantastic if the ‘world love’ towards Valtellina could help us regain some of the most recently abandoned vineyards!” Danilo shared that, “The world must know that the terraces of Valtellina are not in danger of disappearing because there are so many producers who are enhancing these vineyards, which are unique in the world for the combination of the Nebbiolo grape, Alps, and the terraces made of stone walls.”

The stunning terraced vineyards of Valtellina are at risk, but it’s up to the younger generation locally and the greater wine-loving population to save them. If wine drinkers around the world enjoy and demand Valtellina wines, that will increase awareness, which can increase the value of the grapes and the wines from that region. This can then translate to younger generations in Valtellina choosing to stay in the area and continue cultivating the land as the generations before them. 

Danilo states “In Valtellina we are ready to welcome wine lovers who want to explore our unspoiled territory and to taste the most elegant and fresh Nebbiolo in the world.”

Brianne Cohen is an LA based event producer, certified sommelier, wine educator, and wine writer. During the pandemic, Brianne entertained over 7,000 people through her “Virtual Vino” online wine classes, regularly highlighting diverse (i.e. Black, BIPOC, female, and LGBT) owned wineries. She now offers both in-person (and virtual) wine tasting experiences for her corporate clients. Brianne regularly judges at international wine competitions, including the International Wine Challenge (IWC) in London and holds the WSET Diploma certificate. She writes on her own blog and for outlets such as Decanter, Vintner Project, and Kiplinger. She also holds an MBA from Loyola Marymount University. Brianne Cohen Wine & Events is a certified woman-owned business with WBENC.