The vertical wine of Feltrino Dolomites

Perhaps, you’d be surprised, but wine in Italy grows not only in the lowlands, but also here in the Dolomites at altitudes of up to 600 m. Anyway…

The “vertical wine”, as it is also called, is not just Trentino and Bolzano. The Feltrino region in the lower part of the province of Belluno, for example, has an important history in the production of quality wines, at least since the Renaissance, but the tradition, unfortunately, has been lost. It is therefore the local wines not as well known as the ones from the neighboring regions, including the world-famous Prosecco of Treviso.

The good news is that today, the tradition of winemaking is Feltrino revived, thanks to 11 local vineyards and the consortium that unite them. The main goals of the project are to bring back to our glasses wines which are now forgotten.

Read about the past, present, and future of the wine in the Feltrino Dolomites in this article.

Augusto Gentilli
Managing editor of the World Wine Passion project

Feltrino vines: An overview

— Among the alpine areas which suffered the reduction — if not the almost complete disappearance of vineyards — the Feltrino area, in the lower part of the province of Belluno, represents one of the most dramatic cases.

The wine and the mountains had a complex relationship, almost of love and hate, in which the potentialities of territories capable of producing very high-quality grapes clash with climatic and orographic difficulties, such as the impossibility of mechanization and the number of working hours per hectare hardly sustainable in terms of final price on the market.

To these already serious problems must be added the often very low yields per hectare and the frequent seasons often climatically complex.

Therefore, especially after the second world war, important wine areas in the Alps — just think, for example, about Val d’Aosta and Valtellina — have seen a strong decrease in their vineyards, and only recently they are reaping the success they deserved.

De Bacco Winery in the Feltrino Dolomites © De Bacco Winery
De Bacco Winery in the Feltrino Dolomites © De Bacco Winery

Feltrino wines: The past

Area of excellent viticultural potentiality, the Feltrino area has documented its viticulture at least since February 24, 1518, when Gerolamo Borgasio asked and obtained, with 21 votes in favor and only 13 against, the approval of the statutes of the vine-dressers of Aurin, a hill few kilometers west of Feltre.

In these statutes were contained both technical rules (for example it was imposed that the grape harvest did not take place before the day of San Michele, September 29) and concerning the relationships between producers and other agricultural workers, such as woodcutters, who had to be careful not to damage the vines themselves (source: Archivio Comunale di Feltre, Volume 34).

Later on, in 1632, Giovan Battista Barpo, dean of the Cathedral Chapter of Belluno, also dealt with viticulture in Belluno in his work in three books titled “The delights and fruits of agriculture and the villa” in particular in the fifth treatise of the second book of this work, titled “Of grapes, vines, and vessels for wine”.

Feltre wines, exported beyond the Alps during the nineteenth century, saw the beginning of their decline with the arrival of powdery mildew and downy mildew and, later, of phylloxera, which encouraged the spreading of direct hybrid producers such as clinto and bacò.

The final blow was, however, because of the Great War and of the emigration which took people away from the cultivation of vineyards and, just as serious, they almost completely canceled traditions and ancient knowledge related to the cultivation of the vine and the production of quality wines.

Grapevine in the De Bacco winery © De Bacco Winery
Grapevine in the De Bacco winery © De Bacco Winery

Feltrino wines: The present

Feltrino viticulture interests the hilly and piedmont portions of lower Val Belluna at an altitude between 300 and 600 meters (1,300 and 1,600 feet) in particular in the communes of Arsiè, Fonzaso, Feltre, Seren del Grappa, Pedavena, Sovramonte, Lamon, Cesiomaggiore, San Gregorio nelle Alpi and Santa Giustina although it is also present in some communes on the left bank of Piave river.

Vineyards are frequently located on large conoids which are generally no longer active. Soils, thin if not very thin, are rich in the coarse skeleton of calcareous or calcareous-dolomitic nature. The area planted with vines is currently limited to about 20 hectares as well as another 20 which will soon enter into production.

The climate is characterized by rigid winter temperatures, by a significant increase of the same during summertime, and by a rainfall that frequently exceeds 1,000 mm per year.

The traditional ampelographic patrimony of the territory preserves some ancient varieties such as the bianchetta trevigiana, the pavana, the turca, and the trevisana nera; in recent years, these vines have been joined by others of wide diffusion such as, for example, the manzoni bianco, the chardonnay, the gewürztraminer, the merlot, and the pinot nero.

The bottle of De Bacco wine © De Bacco Winery
The bottle of De Bacco wine © De Bacco Winery

Feltrino wines: The future

The viticultural future of these lands sees many of its hopes pinned on the Coste del Feltrino Consortium, founded in 2015 to promote, on the one hand, “healthy” viticulture, not intensive and fully sustainable from the landscape and environmental point of view and on the other hand offering farms and individuals an opportunity to diversify and develop their agricultural activities within the municipalities previously reported.

The Consortium now has 11 member farms (see the full list at the end of the article) and has adopted a stringent set of regulations which, while remaining within the more general Vigneti delle Dolomiti IGT, imposes strict constraints on the varieties allowed for cultivation by members and on the use of synthetic molecules.

Particularly important is the rule which obliges members to enhance the value of traditional varieties by reserving minimum guaranteed areas in the vineyard. The Consortium, I will quote, “reserves the right to gradually introduce the prohibition to use — for the cultivation of grapes destined to the production of wines distinguished by its brand — active ingredients which, although allowed by the law and/or by the regulations in force, are considered by the scientific community as seriously dangerous for health and/or for the environment.”

From this point of view, it is particularly relevant to the collaboration with a local consortium of beekeepers and with the Zooprophylactic Institute of Padua for the adoption of production models which are not harmful to bees and other pollinating insects. It is also interesting to point out that among the varieties allowed to be cultivated by members there is no glera also known as Prosecco.

Valentina and Marco De Bacco © De Bacco Winery

Feltrino wines: Conclusion

I believe the best way to end this article is to quote again the current President of the Consortium, Enzo Guarnieri, with whom I spoke in a little interview:

— What is the idea behind the Consortium?

— We believe that the area of Feltrino, for its ampelographic, climatic, geomorphologic, and historical peculiarities, has all the prerequisites to obtain the recognition of a specific denomination of origin and therefore a DOC that distinguishes it from the existing, although valid, but too wide IGT, that is “Vigneti delle Dolomiti” which includes the entire three Dolomite provinces of Belluno, Trento, and Bolzano.

— Which are the goals you have set to help the rebirth of viticulture in the area and which are the paths it intends to follow to achieve those results?

— The main objective to accompany the producers in this path, which is not only an administrative procedure but above all, for all of us, an effort to focus on our identity and continuous quality improvement.

— What other objectives do you have?

— Another fundamental objective is, of course, that of constituting a point of reference for all local operators in institutional relations and also a support for the Trade Associations that in our area only in recent years have begun to equip themselves in this complex and changing sector.

— The protection of traditional varieties and the environment are essential values for you: how do you think these principles are perceived by consumers?

— In our vision, the protection of traditional varieties and that of the environment go hand in hand and this is first of all due to the greater ability of our vines to adapt to the characteristics of the territory and therefore better able to resist many phytosanitary diseases with a consequent reduction in the number and intensity of the necessary phytosanitary treatments.

Secondly, because the perceived environmental quality is not only determined by scientific parameters but also by the possibility for the consumer to identify and appreciate, precisely through the traditional varieties, the authenticity, the genuineness, and the specificity of the Feltre vine-growing area.

— Could you sum up in three words what the wine consumer is looking for in the Feltrino Dolomites?

— Simplicity, tradition, and authenticity, which must, however, be naturally combined with a constant improvement of products and services in terms of quality and sustainability.

The list of member companies of the Consortium Coste del Feltrino (in Italian)

Author: Augusto Gentilli.

This is the translation of the original article published in Italian in “Il sommelier magazine” on 22.02.2019.

Cover photo: Marco Debacco — the owner of De Bacco winery in Feltre © De Bacco winery.

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