Alpine Wines: Turin Hills, Susa Valley, and Pinerolese
- Written by Diana Zahuranec
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The Torinese is off the beaten wine tourist track today. Long ago, however, its wines were Piemonte’s original drinks of royalty, and now, appreciation for its wines is growing.
Ask anyone from Piemonte what the king and queen of wines are, and you’ll hear, “Barolo and Barbaresco.” Had you asked the same question in the 1600s, however, the answer would have been, “Doux d’Henry,” (fittingly named after a king) and the queen, “Freisa.” Producers have cultivated grapevines and made wine in the Torinese wine zone since at least the 8th century AD. Take into account the fact that the royal Savoy family, Acaja princes, and Italy’s first capital all resided here, and the wines were destined to fall into the good graces of nobility. In fact, the Queen’s Vineyard, or Vigna della Regina, overlooking Turin is still producing wine today, making it one of the world’s oldest urban vineyards.
The Torinese territory is one of the most genetically diverse in terms of grape varieties in Piemonte and all of Italy. In 1881 at the first Ampeliografic Expo (Mostra Ampelografica) in Pinerolo, experts recorded over 300 grapes in the area. When phylloxera swept through Europe not long after, biodiversity proved its worth and many of the peripheral grapes remained untouched; but the Torinese did suffer, and when the vines made a comeback they did so in quantity rather than quality.
It has only been in the past 15-20 years that winemakers have begun to invest in quality, gradually producing more and more excellent wines like Erbaluce di Caluso and Freisa di Chieri, while continuing to cultivate small pockets of unique grapes like Avanà, Ramìe, and Ner d’Ala. As interest and production grows in this area that is so conveniently close to Turin – especially among adventurous wine tourists – this is a territory to watch.
The Queen's Villa and Vineyard
The Vigna della Regina, or Queen’s Vineyard in Turin, is a remarkable and historical example of urban viticulture, and one of the world’s last and oldest urban vineyards. The vines stretch out over just ¾ of a hectare next to the Queen’s Villa, a 17th century structure that is included in the UNESCO World Heritage Site “Residences of the Royal House of Savoy.” This vineyard has been a productive part of the estate since Prince Maurizio of Savoy ordered it built in 1615; it was known as the Queen’s Villa after Anne Marie d'Orléans (wife of Victor Amadeus II, King of Sicily) moved to the territory in 1714. Read more about this unique vineyard and the Balbiano Winery that takes care of it here: Where to Find One of the World's Last and Oldest Urban Vineyards.
The Torinese wine zone is divided into four distinct regions: Canavese, the Turin Hills (Collina Torinese), Pinerolese, and the Susa Valley (Valsusa). Within these regions, there are seven different DOCG or DOC certified wine areas: Caluso, Canavese, Carema, Freisa di Chieri, Collina Torinese, Pinerolese, and Valsusa (in order from largest cultivated area to smallest). We already covered the larger and spectacular Canavese territory here: Alpine Wines: The Canavese area; now, let’s sample the wines of Collina Torinese, Pinerolese, and Susa Valley.
Turin Hills – Collina Torinese
In the centuries following the fall of the Roman Empire, we can thank the industrious, pious work of the monks for keeping Italian winemaking traditions alive for the Eucharist. In the Turin Hills, Vezzolano Abbey was the heart of this production, carrying on winemaking long before people drank for pleasure (though the monks probably didn’t drink wine only at Communion). Later, the Court of Savoy’s interest in wine pushed production all throughout the hills – don’t forget about the Queen’s Villa and Vineyard in this area, cultivated by the Balbiano Winery. Today, this region extends to touch Monferrato wine territory. Sometimes corn or other agriculture covers more land than vineyards, but that’s not the case everywhere; and appreciation for the main wine – Freisa – is growing.
Here, in the southwest part of the Torino province, the land rises to around 800 m (over 2600 ft) at its highest. Winemakers practice what has been dubbed viticoltura eroica, or “heroic viticulture,” so called because the terraced land gets so dizzyingly vertiginous. Beginning in the 1200s, the princes of Acaja and the royal Savoy family didn’t limit their enological interests to the Turin Hills, but cultivated and made wine from the Pinerolese land (or told their peasants to do it). In the 1500s, Cardinal Richelieu ordered this wine to be shipped to Paris for his personal consumption. And during meetings with the Duke of Savoy Emanuel I in the 1500s, Henry IV of France took such pleasure in the local wine that folks renamed it Doux d’Henry, a name that stuck. Doux means “sweet” in French, a hint at the preferred wine style, and a reminder of our evolving tastes. Today, winemakers still proudly cultivate Doux d’Henry, along with another unusual variety, Ramiè. Its name derives from “d le ramie,” or “from the branches,” because branches cut from the surrounding thick forest were used for vineyard terracing. Other grapes cultivated here include Dolcetto, Barbera, Freisa, and Bonarda.
Susa Valley – Valsusa
You’ve made it to the oldest recorded vines in the Torinese, and the highest in all of Europe. In 739 AD, Abbone’s Testament praised the importance of winemaking in this verdant valley. Here, vines climb to over 1000 m (3000 ft) and are cultivated with the impressive ritocchio system: producers plant their vineyards on the mountainside’s steepest slopes, then harvest the grapes meticulously, exclusively, and probably dangerously by hand. Casa Ronsil in Choimonte is Piemonte’s highest vineyard at 1100 m. Several grape varieties are cultivated here, including the rare Avanà and Becquét; but just one, precious DOC wine comes from these hills: Val Susa DOC.
Camera di Commercio Industria Artigianato e Agricoltura di Torino. Torino DOC: Oenological Selection of the Torino Chamber of Commerce 2014-2015.
Comune di Macello. Quaderno di Cultura Popolare, 2007.