The settlers, farmers and the landscape of the Collio

Visitors to our local area, the Collio, discover just how beautiful it is. But why does the Collio appear as it does today? Grape vines have been around here since ancient times, yet the agricultural landscape in the distant past was very different. The land was farmed by smallholders who were largely tenant farmers and settlers, and the estates were rarely managed directly. It was they, then, who tilled the hillsides and who gave them the characteristic form we see today. They worked within a closed economy; after having paid the landlord, whatever was left over went towards the families’ survival budget and the wine was practically the only real form of “liquidity”. 

The agricultural world was culturally self-sufficient inasmuch as the involved knowledge necessary for cultivation and husbandry was generated and handed down orally within the community. However, in the second half of the nineteenth century, viticulture received a series of blows. Powdery mildew, downy mildew and Phylloxera, terrible afflictions which had arrived from America, threatened to bring an end to vine cultivation. The rural world was no longer sufficient unto itself. A certain gentleman who was taking a walk one day on the outskirts of Bordeaux, observed that the outside rows of vines - which had been treated with copper sulphate in order to discourage people from stealing the grapes with its bitter taste – were not affected by the disease.

The cure for downy mildew had been discovered, but the growers would have to pay for it. Phylloxera, an insect which bores into the roots, kills European grape vines. The idea came up of grafting European vines onto American vine rootstocks which were resistant to the parasite. The growers learnt how to do the grafts in the fields, but the production of root cuttings became specialized and was transferred to nurseries. 

And thus the wider world became a determining factor for the land. The post-Phylloxera rebuilding process began in the Collio under Austrian rule, and in eastern Friuli under Italian rule. Indeed, the old border between the two countries lay along the Judrio river just 500 metres from our cellars. Evidently the Austrians care a great deal about viticulture, as demonstrated by the three centres of excellence which they have set up south of the Alps which specialize in teaching and research; at San Michele all’Adige, Parenzo and Gorizia. 
It pays us here to take a step into the past. In the 1700’s, Paris and Vienna set the fashions in Europe, and no exception was made for wines; where German is spoken, the wine is white. And thus the post-Phylloxera rebuilding process, begun under Austrian influence, turned the Collio into a white wine area. Furthermore, the selection of varieties and the choice to graft onto American rootstocks put down the basis for modern wine-growing. On the far bank of the Judrio, in the Italian part of Friuli, the rebuilding was geared mainly to the production of reds, and producers were tempted down the dead end road of directly planted (not grafted) hybrids: Fragolino, Clinton and Baco.

The annexation from Italy turned out to be a disaster; the Great War was also fought in the Collio vineyards. The military collapse at Caporetto and the subsequent retreat and relocation of the front to the Piave, brought an end to Friuli’s production centres. With the deportation of the inhabitants, the vineyards were abandoned. My grandfather’s house was also destroyed at the hands of the Italians. A region on its knees is not a good marketplace and the auto-sufficiency regime imposed by the Fascists which followed certainly didn’t help; wine, since the time of the Phoenicians, gains more cachet the farther it is away from home. The Renaissance of the wines of Friuli would have to wait.