Italiano English Flickr TripAdvisor
Osvaldo Viberti

La Morra. A Story Told by Vineyards.

As we look from the terrace of the Belvedere in La Morra, in a autumn day, we can see the beautiful landscape and the fog that comes up from the sweet hillside, reminds us of the ancient sea that overflooded the same area, some millions years ago. A fog that seems to come from the sea waves moved by the gale. A sea which looks like as if it's rough and quiet at the same time.

Many fossils, still easy to find in some parts of the Langhe and of the Monferrato, are the evidence of that ancient sea, which disappeared at the beginning of the Quaternary Period, thus originating a lucky geological conformation which, with the help of the climate, gives this part of Piedmont easiness in the cultivation of vineyards.

During the Neolitic Era, the Langhe area was the site of the early human settlements in Piedmont. Its inhabitants were hunter-gatherer tribes that had developed some form of basic agricolture. They were the Ligurians.

Roman historians Strabo, Polybius and Livy wrote that Ligurians and Gauls built their settlements around fortified points on top of hills. In the area of La Morra many Roman remains were found: gravestones and tombs as well as everyday objects which show evidence of the ancient rural villages.

The area of Alba was mentioned by Pliny for its vineyards. Many Roman artifacts and gravestones represented bunches of grapes and carts. A bas-relief of the Second century represents men and women carrying baskets, while a farmer pours wine in a barrel pulled by mules.

Compared to the rest of the Roman Empire, these areas had a late development and, therefore, the land had an advantageous price that facilitated the purchase by freedmen and veterans. In most cases the properties were small farms lead directly by the owners.

Between the First and Second century the area of La Morra had the greatest period of economic expansion and population growth, thanks to the trade with the neighbouring towns of Alba Pompeia, Pollentia and Augusta Bagiennarum. Roman settlements remained until the fourth century when, as a result of the barbarian invasions, of famines and pestilences, many changes occurred.

Thus it became a place of refuge for escaped from the most populated areas.

Some village names still carry the evidence of the barbarians and Saracen's raids that took place throughout the Middle Ages. Costa Ungaresca and Serra dei Turchi are an example.

At the end of the ancient world and the beginning of the Middle Ages, the great owners, the potentiores, overtook on the small ones, who at the end gave up their ownership and independence to submit to the potentiores in order to receive protection.

In that period, the rural population, which was dispersed during the Roman age, began to set up in villages. Castles, once again, became the main center of every settlement.

Agriculture was at that times the only source of subsistance, wealth and power.

The vineyards, yet in those times, were the main cultivation in the area of La Morra. The vines were conducted at back, supported by stacks linked by woven wire.

The rows were arranged in transverse lines of maximum slope, according to a canon that would have reach a wide diffusion during the Renaissance and would have been set as a best practice by the end of the Eighteenth century. That overcame the past methods of vineyards implantation "a ritocchino", according to the lines of maximum slope, which were prone to the erosion and the removal of the surface of soil due to the runoff.

Due to the unplanned redevelopments, the landscape was scattered by small cultivated properties.

In 1341, the Fallettis, whose economic and military prestige had grown after the defeat of Angioinis in the battle of Pollenzo in 1346, started their influence on the history of La Morra.

At the beginning of the Fourteenth century, other cultivations were preferred over vines which probably were considered too expensive to grow. Agricolture was mainly subsistence farming.

Thus, the Fallettis were concerned with the protection of vineyards. They promulgate laws to prosecute anyone who vandalized someone else's vines or fruit trees as a revenge for personal grudge.

The vineyards were regularly monitored until the time of vintage. The vintage itself could not begin without the permission of the municipal authority, which was comunicated by the auctioneer on the day of the beginning, established by the mayor together with the counselors.

All these laws were listed in the Statutes of La Morra. Among them, the prohibition of passage to outsiders, the penalties for theft and damage. The offenders were prosecuted in several ways, ranging from flogging to hand cutting, to hanging. The most severe punishments were reserved to the offenders against Fallettis' property.

The first italian campaign of Napoleon in 1796, followed for La Morra a turbulent period of occupation. The Battle of Marengo, in 1800, marked the final conquest of Piedmont, which had been finally taken over the Austrian-Savoyard. Thus, with the annexation of 1802, it officially became French territory.

The French authority, called the Maire, defined La Morra “pays vignoble”, whose wine was the main source of income. At those times there were very little other business activities. Wine production was completely absorbed by the local market: Cuneo, Savigliano and Liguria.

For many reasons, the wine produced during that historical period was not of great quality, therefore the producers could not take too much commercial ambitions.

In 1805, a hailstorm destroyed two thirds of the corn and much of the vintage in the area of La Morra.

From a letter sent, in April 1806, by the Maire to the Arrondissement Officer, we deduce that 760 hectares over the whole 2600 in the municipality of La Morra, were planted with vines. Wine production was about 9900 hectoliters. Each giornata (typical Piedmont’s dimensional unit of area) of vines produced about 5 hectolitres of wine, with a yield of about 13 hectoliters per hectare.

A production capacity far from the current one due to the underdeveloped farming techniques and the non-use of fertilizers.

The practice of grafting was still in its beginnings, as well as the use of fertilizers and pesticide treatments.

Other documents show that Nebbiolo was among the most widely planted vines.

The continental blockade made difficult or even impossible to import many commodities from the East, including sugar which, at that time, was only produced from sugar cane.

Here we can find a document of great interest, a circular of the Prefect Arborio to Maires and administrators of the hospice charity. Dated September 8, 1810, the circular called for testing new methods to get sugar, inviting to take immediate contacts with farmers and pharmacists who intended to extract it from grapes.

Le génie de le Empereur, la force de son gouvernement porteront le coup fatal à l'Angleterre, et tous le maux de la guerre seront reportés dans l'île orgueilleuse qui veut envahir le commerce du monde.C'est pour l'exécution de ces conceptions dignes d'Elle, que Sa Majesté veut donner une grande impulsion à la fabrication du sucre et du sirop de raisin, et c'est pour remplir ses intentions que je réclame votre concours.

The appeal had a sequel, of course. But we owe to beet and not to grapes the production on a large scale of the "bonapartist" white sugar, the one still familiar to us and part of our everyday experience.

But the experimentations were not enough for the Napoleonic Empire. It needed men for the Grande Armée. A report of that time remarked that so frequent and so many were the calls for duty, thus many families in La Morra were dying out as their only son was killed in war.

Stories about whom we know very little. No more than what is told to us by a fragment of a letter:

Charles Franchetti, chasseur de la troisième compagnie du second battaillon, natif de Morra, Départment de la Stura... est décedé à la bataille de Smolenska par suite d'un coup de feu reçu, le 17 aut 1812...

Once closed the Napoleonic period and restored the throne of Savoy in Piedmont, no remarkabkle changes occurred in the agricolture of the Kingdom of Savoy as well as in the rest of Italy.

A treaty of the British journalist Cyrus Redding, printed in 1833, reports about wines from all around the world, as a result of a journey that lasted for years.

Of the nearly five hundred pages of History And Description Of Modern Wines, an entire chapter, the tenth, is reserved for the discussion about the Italian oenology. The judgments are bad.

In addition to general considerations, the Redding explores the technical aspects of Italian viticulture, identifying gaps in crucial phases of the conduction of the vineyards, from the choice of the ground, to the proceedings of pruning and fertilizing. A common practice, the author notes, is to cultivate corn or grain in the spaces between one row and another.

Among the worst mistakes, recorded the Redding, there was the non-selection of the grapes and the habit of adding fresh juice to the already partially processed one during the fermentation process. This, therefore, altered and stopped the fermentation progress.

Anyway the author acknowledges that:

There are some landowners, however, who possess excellent wine, which they have been at considerable pains to manufacture, but then it is not to be drunk beyond their own families, and has no connexion with what is commonly sold in the country in respect to quality. If the vintage were as well conducted, and the same pains taken with the must as in France, very superior wines would be the result, since the climate is matchless.

For the reasons well explained by this author, the product obtained at that time in Alba by the excellent Nebbiolo vines, was a sweet and drinkable “vinello”, in some cases even sparkling, poor in robustness and in conservation.

A few years after the predictions of Cyrus Redding, many efforts had been taken by some agronomists in improving quality of the italian wines.

One of them was a prominent figure in the Italian history, the diplomat and director of national unity Camillo Benso, Earl of Cavour. He was so famous as a historical man, that his merits as an agronomist were blurred and almost forgotten, although many significant results were achieved by him in this field as well as in politics. Himself a landowner in the areas of Vercelli and Grinzane, the Earl of Cavour, alongside to his political activity, had a keen interest in modern agronomy, he conducted with scientific and rational methods. An interest driven by the desire to improve the yield of his own lands, and also, in general, the economy of the Kingdom. He managed very successfully to increase production and quality of rice cultivation in the area of Vercelli. Later on, he turned his interest to the improvement in quality of wines. The Marchioness Giulia Falletti di Barolo, a descendant of the medieval lords of La Morra, cooperated in that work. Cavour relied on the advice of a French winemaker and wine merchant whose name was Louis Oudart. The French expert studied the cultivation and vinification of Nebbiolo, confirming the observations made some time before by his British colleague.

Thus, the hints by Cyrus Redding had been eventually applied to Nebbiolo.

Barolo was born as we know it today. Since then, the cultivation of vines and the production of fine wines has achieved an increasing importance in the local economy. The spread of modern agricultural and rational techniques overcame many serious moments of difficulty, due to the outbreak of phylloxera that devastated the vines at the end of the 1800, which was followed, a few years later, by the peronospora.

Once established the improvements, by the Second World War onwards, the Piedmont wines received international recognition of their quality. They are now able to compete with the most prized, historical competitors.

The hills of La Morra, favored by a particularly fine position, contribute largely to the production of today's best Barolo. The wineries operate in compliance with the best practices of wine-making and the vines are grown with taking great care of the environment, our most important common heritage.