As a country with a very diverse landscape, Italy offers vineyards in locations ranging from the gentle Chianti hills and the gravity-defying terrain from Cinque Terre to Mt. Dramatic slopes of Etna and the Aosta Alps and Alto Adige regions. But the most unexpected place to find a vineyard in Italy is probably within the bounds of one of the famous cities.
While Italy has wineries and wine cities surrounded by acres of grapes, the city’s vineyards are rarely found. But you can visit a number of these extraordinary properties – located in Turin, Milan, Venice, Siena and Palermo – making it easy to enjoy art and architecture and historic wine culture in one convenient stop.
Luca Balbiano, the third generation of wine sellers, has been at the forefront of a growing movement to revitalize urban vineyards, not only in Italy but throughout the world. In 2003 he and his family, who owned Balbiano wine in Andezeno (Piedmont), accepting the challenge of replanting grape growing areas on the grounds Villa queen, a 17th-century royal palace a short walk from Piazza Vittoria Veneto Turin.
The villa, badly damaged during World War II, was abandoned for almost 50 years, but was restored by historic authorities and local preservation and reopened in 2006. (This is a UNESCO World Heritage site, along with other royal residence collections in Turin and the surrounding area .) Collaborating with wine experts such as Turin University professors Vincenzo Gerbi and Dr. Anna Schneider of CNR (Italian National Research Council), and following a spatial structure dating from the 1600s, Balbianos people grow a type of grape – Freisa – believed to have originally grown on property. They began with 2,700 cuttings, involving three historical clones and two experiments; 600 additional cuttings were added in 2015. (Freisa is a first-degree genetic relative of Nebbiolo, the wine used for Barolo and Barbaresco, Babliano said, citing Schneider’s study.)
Working with Gerbi after the first harvest in 2009, they experimented with vinification to produce long-lived Freisa for wine to be included in bottles under the label, Queen’s vineyard (Queen’s Vineyard) with Freisa’s first DOC in Chiera debuting in 2011. (Full name: Freisa in Chieri DOC Superiore “Vigna Villa della Regina.”) “This is one of the few urban wines that have the DOC designation,” Balbiano said . Because of the historical layout with closely planted vines and the slope of the terrain, harvesting and maintenance, as in the past, everything is done by hand.
In addition to the successful implementation of the challenging project and the opportunity to help “Mother Nature reclaim its space,” Balbiano said that vineyard restoration encouraged interest to connect with similar properties both in Italy and abroad, leading in 2019 to the creation Urban Vineyards Association. (He is now the group president.)
“During the replanting of the Villa della Regina vineyard, we will often wonder if we are the only ones who started it [such an] Adventure, “said Balbiano. UVA currently has eight members – six are Italian vineyards, two are French – and they all offer more than just wine that arouses interest. “It is impossible not to fall in love with the poetry of Venetian vineyards and lagoons, the history of Leonardo Da Vinci’s beloved vineyard in Milan, with the biodiversity of Siena and Palermo vineyards, the agricultural and social interests of the République des Canuts of Lyon, and the beauty the Montmartre vineyard that rises above Paris, “Balbiano said.
While the association was young, Balbiano saw him develop a very wide international network. Besides France, “we are talking about countries such as England, Germany, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Greece and the United States.”
Although the criteria for being appointed as an urban vineyard seem clear, Balbiano said each potential member was evaluated individually. It is important for vineyards to be inside the city limits, he explained, and the historicity of the site as well as cultural interests are also a determining factor. “City vineyards are often unknown jewels,” Balbiano said. “This is the main reason that led us to create UVA, to join in order to promote these entities who would otherwise have the resources to make themselves known as much as they deserve.”
Another factor to be addressed by UVA is distribution. “Urban wineries have, by their very nature, very small production,” Balbiano said. At present most of the 4000 bottles produced by Vigna della Regina are sold in Italy. “We plan to export to New York, California and several other states, hopefully in the near future,” he said.
Initiatives are underway to arrange tours of these unique properties – postponed, of course, due to a pandemic, but visitors who are allowed to visit Italy can arrange to stop by the vineyards (write to: [email protected]). Even with all the changes in the journey made by Covid-19, Balbiano said he was convinced “the desire to discover the world through extraordinary stories – the kind that can only be said by urban vineyards – will never change.”
In periods heavily affected by the health crisis, visits to wine growing areas, especially those that have a unique longevity, may have more meaning for travelers. “If you think about it, there is no greater example of resilience and rebirth than the vineyard itself,” Balbiano said.
The place to find city vineyards in Italy
In addition to Vigna della Regina in Turin, members of the Urban Wine Association in Italy include: Venice Vineyard on the lagoon, managed by Laguna in Glass Associationn, and San Francesco della Vigna; Siena Siena vineyard; Milan Leonardo’s vineyard; Palermo Vigna del Gallo. (In France, Clos Montmartre in Paris and Lyon Canuts Republic is part of UVA)