Where to Find One of the World's Last and Oldest Urban Vineyards
- Written by Diana Zahuranec
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The villa sits in the center of a green grass hollow. In the silence, dragonflies flit in the fountains of Neptune, vineyard workers harvest grapes on the slope by the Villa, and a sweeping cityscape and Alpine mountains set the backdrop. It is just as the queen wanted it.
The Vigna della Regina, or Queen’s Vineyard in Turin, is a remarkable and historical example of urban viticulture. The vineyards stretch out over just ¾ of a hectare next to the Queen’s Villa, a 17th century structure that is included in the UNESCO World Heritage Site “Residences of the Royal House of Savoy.”
This vineyard has been a productive part of the estate since Prince Maurizio of Savoy ordered it built in 1615; it was known as the Queen’s Villa after Anne Marie d'Orléans (wife of Victor Amadeus II, King of Sicily) moved to the territory in 1714. Even when World War II destroyed the connected Palazzo Chiablese, leaving the villa abandoned and open to vandalism, the vineyard waited. The land waited. A small forest and thick undergrowth flourished, but the vineyard was patient. Several decades later in 1994, the Superintendence for Historic, Artistic, and Ethno-Anthropological Heritage of Piemonte began to restore the villa. When they finished a dozen years later, they called Balbiano Winery in nearby Andezeno. “Will you be willing to plant and tend the Vigna della Regina?” they asked. Owner Francesco Balbiano said yes, and he and his son Luca began the hard but honorable work.
When we met, Luca and his father had recently returned from presenting their wines in Paris. Turin, Paris, and Vienna are the only three big cities in the world with a productive vineyard located within their historical boundaries. “Urban viticulture used to be more popular,” said Luca, but now very few cities or towns have vineyards within their walls.
“This whole hillside was covered in trees and bushes,” said Luca, gesturing to the vineyards where workers were harvesting grapes by hand. It was the first day of harvest, and half a dozen workers were filling bright blue plastic crates with dark purple grapes, a vibrant mix of colors.
“It was a mess! It took us six months to get rid of the plants and trees that had grown up there over the past fifty years.” He laughed and said, “We had a helicopter carry out the big trees, because you can’t truck those down the center of Turin.” As we walked through the vineyards, he indicated a line of trees stretching along the top edge of the property behind the Villa. “Historical documents show that there was once a vineyard up there, too. But it was mostly for landscaping. It was an arch of vineyards under which the queen would walk.” It sounds beautiful; but both funds and able, working hands are stretched thin. There is no queen today to promenade under dangling bunches of grapes and lazy bees but perhaps, one day, it will be a crowning touch.
For all the historical documentation about the Villa, including confirmation that the vineyard has been productive since the 1600s, nothing actually noted what wine was made or what grapes were planted. The Balbiano Winery took their cue from nearby Pecetto Torinese, which historically produces the red grape Freisa. “All the historic vineyards from the area cultivated Freisa, so in 2003 we planted 2700 Freisa vines.”
They studied the soil composition, exposition, and land to further support their theory. “Before planting, we also had a consultant come in to verify it was clean from the city’s pollution. And we brought in bees, because they will only stay and make honey in a healthy environment.” They determined that the pollution didn’t reach the vineyard, which is situated high enough above the city (indeed, Paris’s vineyard is located in Montmarte and suffers from city pollution). And, the bees stayed; Balbiano Winery sells their urban honey. “The vineyard has full southern exposition, which is optimal,” he said. “And the heat from the city rises and warms the grapes in the winter.” Doctor Anna Schneider of the Institute of Plant Virology in Grugliasco (TO) spearheaded the research project to discover which clones would grow best, and they planted two historical and three experimental clones of the Freisa variety.
The resulting Freisa wine is different from any other. Here, the soil is rich in limestone and mineral salts. The vines absorb nutrients immediately and create a surprisingly complex wine for being so young.
Turin, Paris, and Vienna are the only three big cities in the world with a productive vineyard located within their historical boundaries.
“We have our own problems, though,” said Luca, though it may seem as though all conditions are perfect in the Queen’s Vineyard. “Sometimes the pigeons come up from the city to eat the grapes.” They need to pay special attention to this urban threat, especially during harvest. Perhaps a period-dressed scarecrow or two would do the trick.
In addition to planting Freisa, Luca pointed out several rows of ancient, rare varieties – rarer, even, than Freisa. Just 2% of the vineyard is planted with Bonarda (different than the Oltrepò variety that is not as rare, and which is actually Croatina, locally called Bonarda), Balaran, Grïsa Rousa, Neretto Duro, and Carì. This last grape has been planted since at least the 1500s, and Balbiano Winery makes it into a sparkling dessert wine – an unusual example of using non-aromatic grapes for this type.
The rows of vineyards are close together and the slopes are steep. For this, and for historical authenticity, the grapes are harvested by hand. At the end of each row is a rose bush, whose delicate blossoms are health indicators of the vines. If a disease strikes, the roses will be the first to sicken, alerting those who tend the vines. Balbiano Winery uses as few chemicals as possible, and this is one way they can prevent disease, herbicide-free.
In 2014, eleven years after planting the first Freisa plant, Balbiano Winery is selling the first “royal wine,” the Freisa di Chieri Vigna della Regina 2009. The scope of the work and length of time for just one small vineyard is staggering – and it is still considered a young vineyard. It takes great dedication, hard, manual work, and a certain gumption of character to work in this vineyard – in any vineyard, for that matter. Seeing the fruits of their labor and tasting it in a bottle of red wine is both humbling and heartwarming. In the midst of a culture that values quick results perhaps too highly, the high quality that derives only from determined, measured, passionate work is alive and tangible today.
Francesco and Luca Balbiano show no signs of relaxing now that they have sold the first Vigna della Regina wine, either. Incredibly, the UNESCO World Heritage Villa and Vineyard are free of charge to visit, but soon there will be a small fee to pay to help continue restoration. In addition, a new enoteca will be added to the Villa so that the Vigna della Regina Freisa can be taken home by her admirers. Finally, Luca hopes that a network of urban vineyards will develop between Turin, Paris, Vienna, and the other few towns that have their own productive vineyards, in mutual touristic and cultural benefit. And one last thing: perhaps 2015 will be Turin’s very first Festa della Vendemmia, or Grape Harvest Festival.
How to get to the Villa della Regina and its vineyards
10 minute walk from the Gran Madre in Turin: Walk straight up behind it following Via Villa della Regina. At the fork, take a right and wind your way up. You can't miss it -- there are signs the pointing the way.
The Villa is located at Strada S. Margherita, 79 in Turin, and has ample parking space.