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The Vine in Peasant Civilization

Vines have ancient roots on the Amalfi Coast, no doubt from the times of Imperial Rome maybe even earlier.  The lack of available soil forced the construction of supports (usually trees such as almond, walnut and medlar) and grapes grew and ripened together with other fruit.  In the Middle  Ages, from the 11th century onwards, the vine became more autonomous as it was separated from the fruit trees.  Once again the limited soil area, the rocky ground and height were determining for cultivation on trellises.  That is to say, a kind of grill, built with crossed poles on which, at about two metres from the ground, there was room for shoots.  No wider than five metres, the terraces have an irregular profile, due to the rocks, and are supported by dry stone walls usually about 3 - 4 metres high but often reaching 8 - 10 metres.  They can hold on average four rows of vines on a typical trellis structure which is also used for the lemon tree with which the vine often has to fight for space.  The trellis is made from poles of chestnut wood from the woods which cover the highest part of the territory. At one time, the vine was planted in the dry stone wall in order to save the soil below for seasonal cultivation of other plants.

In the 11th century, the first rules regarding vine-growing were drawn up in order to regulate the various phases of farming: pruning, maintenance of the trellises, hoeing of the soil twice a year, activities which registered more and more contracts between the Amalfitan aristocrats, the church authorities and the local tenants.  These contracts made obligations on the tenants which were the same whether for the clergy or the nobility.  The only difference were the rights of the tenants.  In case of a monastery, the tenants received half of the harvest but only a third if  the land belonged to a noble.  In the agreements between the landowner  and the tenants, table grapes had precise rules.  The lords and the religious communities had the right to basketloads of grapes according to the amount picked.

A trusted intermediary followed all the phases of the harvest and was a guest of the tenant for a number of days: the tenant had to provide the man with bread and food (probably cheese and salame).  The tenant also had to transport the grapes as far as the monastery or the lord’s domain with no recompense.

There are also many vines which produce table grapes such as Marzaolla, Uva Rossa (Red Grape), Moscadellone, Strawberry Grape and others but the speciality of the Amalfi Coast is Uva Passa:  dried grapes wrapped in lemon leaves, also called Follovelli from the Latin folium volvere.  However, the varieties of wine grapes are decisively greater with their suggestive names; Bianca Zita, Canajuola, Mennavacca, Per’e Palummo all present over a limited area of land.

Literature, beginning with Boccaccio’s “Decameron”, records the banquets in Villa Rufolo, in the splendid setting of Ravello.  Wherever there were noble dwellings, from Amalfi to Atrani and Scala, the Vino Latino (made from grapes imported by the Romans), produced on the hillsides of the Lattari mountains sweeping down to the sea, was in great demand.  The years of Arabic conquests and the consequent ostracism towards wine only served to increase smuggling.  From the Middle Ages onwards, the bunches of grapes, picked and selected, were crushed in a press, a palmentum, connected to a wooden or stone tub, the lavellum, into which the wine-must flowed.  This was kept in oak vats or barrels which were placed in a fresh and ventilated place , the buctarium or cellarium.  Thus the vine accompanied thousands of years of the history of the oldest of the Maritime Republics.

This rhythm remained unchanged for almost all of the 20th century because phylloxera did not completely destroy the vines; the farmer peasants of the Land of the Sirens did not suffer the consequences of the disease and war of the Thirties and Forties.  Everything was of course more difficult but the fundamental conditions of vine-growing on the coast were constant.  Fortune and misfortune, seeing as how the peasants, the shopkeepers and the restaurant owners lacked the necessary push towards cultural development: thus in the grand hotels local wine became a curiosity.  In local restaurants a confusing wine was served in pretty ceramic jugs at table.  The reassessment of the new potential  of food and drink began in the nineties with the DOC certificate, a spring-board for the wine-producing businesses, who over ten years significantly  re-launched their products qualifying them in campaigns and in the wine-cellar by using modern marketing strategies.  Wine-growing land, climate, history, biodiversity, rules and regulations, serious productivity, high level well-established restaurants along the coast from Cetara to Positano: the premises for success are assured.