Langa and Roero: hills of Quality
Here is a view of the Langa from a travel writer who came to know the area during the 1950s: “ These are hills where magnificent vineyards flourish, where castles dominate from their hill-tops in feudal splendour. The hills greet the visitor with a gentle air, but this is entirely deceptive, for they soon reveal their true character as the violence of their geology, with its harsh white erosive nature, becomes apparent. And the visitor is entirely captivated by these sweet slopes with their hard, hidden soul.”
From ‘Viaggio in Italia’ (Journey Through Italy) by Guido Piovene, Milano, Mondadori, 1957.
This is how journalist Guido Piovene described the Langa of the ‘50s, when the people of South Piedmont still suffered the effects of that rural poverty described so well by writer Beppe Fenoglio, who gave it the name ‘malora’.
The ‘malora’ was an inevitable, generational condemnation to a life of want, hunger and servitude which had afflicted the area for centuries. Local ‘contadini’ – subsistence farmers - eked out a living on the hillsides with nothing to save them from ruin if the harvest was destroyed by the rain or drought typical of the capricious nature of these ‘harsh hills’.
The unexpected arrival of industry in the ‘60s was a siren-call that proved irresistible to many young people and the hills emptied as they flocked to local cities to work in the factories.
However, the economic boom was also to arrive in the countryside: during the 1970s and ‘80s, in fact, wine making became a prestigious and profitable enterprise in itself, shaking off the old image of vineyard drudgery. Many of the sons and daughters of those ‘contadini’ who had escaped the hills to work in factories returned to their father’s vineyards and made their fortunes by replanting forgotten hillsides with vines and designing new, modern wineries.
The economic and social conditions of the Langa were rapidly changing: as Mario Soldati noted in 1975, in his book ‘Vino al vino’ (‘Wine to Wine’), “Everything here revolves around wine. But it is not the inhabitants of the area who monopolise their product, it is their product that monopolises them.”
In the Langa, wine isn’t just one of life’s pleasures, a drink among many – it is the society’s very foundation, the region’s history poured out of a bottle. Here, concentrated into a perfumed liquid, are the people’s beliefs and values.
In the Langa, there has always existed a kind of symbiosis between man and vine, illustrated over and over in local lore, art, poetry and sculpture. One of the most touching examples of this devotion are the standing stones that were once placed to ‘guard’ rows of vines in the vineyards – a tradition still present in some areas right up until the beginning of the 20th century.
Only two of these anthropomorphic vineyard ‘menhirs’ remain, discovered in Regione Paroldo near Vesime, although in this particular vineyard there were originally more than twenty pairs. The standing stones testify to a heartfelt devotion to the land, reverence for its fertility and the tendency to keep alive a certain pagan religiosity. Stone carvers of a distant past used rocks turned up during ploughing to create virile male and plump female figures that the ‘contadini’ then placed in their vineyards perhaps with some kind of fertility ceremony.
The intensification of viticulture in the area has also meant a change in the landscape, with woods and hazel groves gradually disappearing from the Low Langa hills to make way for a vine monoculture. Obviously, this is not an entirely benign phenomenon and has been the cause in some areas of soil erosion and a reduction in biodiversity.
Compared to the past, the physical strain of working the steep-sided hills of the Langa has been mitigated, but not entirely eradicated, by modern farming methods. Much work, including pruning and harvesting, still has to be done by hand owing to the gradient of the slopes, although this is also a hallmark of the grower’s skill and a factor guaranteeing quality.
That the hills of the Langa and Roero in Cuneo Province are a top quality wine-growing region is immediately obvious if one takes a glance at some simple statistics: nearly 90% of vineyards are contained within the official list of Doc and Docg denominations – a percentage which is the opposite of most other Italian wine growing areas, where 60% of vine cultivation is of generic varieties. In 2008, of Italy’s 325 Doc wines, 44 (13.5%) were from Piedmont, with twelve out of 41 – nearly a third - Docg wines being Piedmontese. The importance of viticulture in the Langa is also indicated by the number of people employed in the sector: 12,000 of whom 4,500 grape growers and 1,200 wine producers.
One of the Langa wine world’s greatest riches is its variety. Here, grand and powerful reds for lengthy ageing and special occasions are produced, alongside others that are consumed early and can be drunk during any meal. Perfumed whites also have their place on the list. All of these wines, when compared to the offer even at an international level, are full of personality and subtlety and, in addition, offer excellent quality for money.
The Langa’s so-called ‘triangle of quality’ comprises its unique combination of climate and soil, called ‘terroir’, the presence of native vine varietals producing, in turn, a rich variety of wines, and the passion of local wine producers who have dedicated their lives to developing the fruits of their land.