Wine from the Ronchi
I am always amazed to read, in texts from two centuries ago, that white wine from Chiavenna used to make the corks pop out of the bottles. My amazement sprang from my experience of the ‘vino dei Ronchi’ (alpine wine) that I had to drink whenever I stopped at a crotto (alpine tavern) along the terraces of the mountain. “L’é del mè”, the owner would say (“It’s my own”). Of course it was his – that much was obvious from its rough taste, even though the cool relief of the crotto made it drinkable. This wine was made by the family, with great effort. In the past few centuries it has become a second job, after factory work. I don’t like to use the term heroic, which has become fashionable in this age of spectacularization. That simply isn’t our way, never has been; our way was one of silent toil, without exhibitionism. And what I was proudly served up in the alpine farms was their wine, the fruit of their labours in the little spare time they had; for they couldn’t earn a living from those few vines, and whatever they could produce was needed for the family.
These mountains were abandoned in the post-war years, but now the time has come to give Pianazzòla’s wine – like others – what it truly deserves. Yet this wine has a rich history behind it, with evidence dating from the 11th century, when the first written documents appeared. Back then, the Pianazzòla slope was a force to be reckoned with. Particularly “mons Sancti Johannis”, St. John’s Mount, first mentioned in 1169, along with another called “de Mole” which is referred to six years beforehand, in the same area. The former is named after the church at the foot of the slope, which was appropriately referred to as “a Pedemont” until the 19th century. The latter was one of many mills that must have existed in the area, along the River Mera and its various tributary canals. 1169 was also the year when the clergymen of San Lorenzo in Chiavenna first began clearing the land to make the “de Sancto Johanne” mountainside suitable for growing crops on ronchi (alpine farms). The point of this was most likely to plant vineyards, just as the Benedictine monks did in Dona a Prata in the 1340s, replacing chestnut trees with vines.
In the 19th century, Chiavenna became known for its craft products and its wine too, with several major wineries opening. They were generally set up by people from other regions, who took commercial advantage of Chiavenna’s position; it lay on what was then the most direct route between the Po Valley and central Europe. This was when the picturesque crenellated tower was built on the lower slope of San Giovanni, a testament to the high quality of the local wine production. Today, the tower has been restored by a new winery, Balze Grigie.
The tower marks the entrance to a series of terraces that have been cleared and restored, retaining their characteristic drystone walls which our ancestors built by carrying earth and stones on their backs; in doing so, they were also reclaiming a mountainside that would otherwise have been prone to landslides and slips.
The result is a niche wine, something to cherish now that people are rediscovering high-quality natural produce. It is produced on sunkissed land where vines have grown for centuries, with the crucial contribution of scientifically proven, eco-friendly methods.