Vineyards, free to good owners

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The Independent Online

Adopt a vineyard, free, produce your own superb, golden wine and help to save one of the most beautiful man-made landscapes in the world. It sounds too romantic to be true. But that is the opportunity being offered to outsiders by the inhabitants of this spectacular coastline in a desperate attempt to save their terraced vineyards, carved into mountainsides that plunge vertiginously 1,500 feet into the Mediterranean.

Adopt a vineyard, free, produce your own superb, golden wine and help to save one of the most beautiful man-made landscapes in the world. It sounds too romantic to be true. But that is the opportunity being offered to outsiders by the inhabitants of this spectacular coastline in a desperate attempt to save their terraced vineyards, carved into mountainsides that plunge vertiginously 1,500 feet into the Mediterranean.

The Cinque Terre, just north of the port of La Spezia, are five picturesque, multicoloured villages which over the past 1,000 years have created some 5,000 acres (2,000 hectares) of vineyards supported by 4,200 miles of dry sandstone walls, all laboriously built by hand.

It was a feat, locals like to say, comparable to the Pyramids - except the Pyramids were built by slaves, and their vineyards by free men, of their own free will. Unesco has declared it a World Heritage Site.

Since their ancestors came here in the early Middle Ages the communities have been virtually cut off from the world, accessible only by boat, a steep wearisome track over the mountains, and only since 1890 by train.

Theirs was a closely knit society of simple folk who helped each other, traded their wine and grapes to buy flour, potatoes and other goods they did not produce themselves and were self-supporting. That ancient world was shattered in the 1960s when a road was finally built to link up the villages with the outside world.

"At first we were excited by it all. But 10 years later we realised what an amazing society was disappearing," says Franco Bonanini, 48, the mop-headed president of the newly-founded National Park of the Cinque Terre and the driving force behind the efforts to save the coastline.

Drawn by the prospect of affluence and an easier life, people left for the big cities. The total population plummeted from 7,000 to 5,000, of whom 40 per cent are now over 70. Today the elementary school in Riomaggiore has two pupils.

For every old person who dies, more vineyards fall into ruin. Candida Capellini, 94, started tending the family's vines aged nine when the menfolk were away in the First World War, and only stopped when she was 85. Her son Alberto, 67, and his energetic wife Germana, 64, are carrying on, but will their son, Giacomo, 33, who works in La Spezia, and his university-educated fiancée do the same? "I don't think so," says Alberto sadly.

So, as elsewhere, big bushes of heather will sprout among their vines, pines will follow and their terraces will revert to forest. The stone walls will crumble, starting landslides that gouge scars down to the sea.

Of the original 5,000 acres only 250 are still regularly tended, and if the trend is not reversed the villages themselves will soon be threatened by landslides and the remaining people forced to leave.

"The danger is that the Cinque Terre will vanish from geography just at the time when the world is becoming aware of the problem," Mr Bonanini says.

The two million tourists who now flock to the villages each year, mostly unaware of the looming tragedy, are part of the problem rather than the solution. Locals can make money more easily by renting them rooms and making them pizzas than working the vineyards.

Mr Bonanini's adoption scheme aims to save another 1,000 acres directly above the villages, and soon. Approximately 1,500 plots of up to 3,000 square metres (32,400 square feet) each will be handed over for a period of 20 years - which will be extendible - to anyone willing to cultivate them.

They will be free for those prepared to undertake the back-breaking work of mending the walls, rooting out the scrub and planting the vines, which will also be provided free. For somewhere between £4,000 and £5,000, however, the park will do that job for them, and many of the 1,000-odd people who have already applied prefer that route, Mr Bonanini says. Beginners will be taught how to make excellent wine.

Many vineyards have little stone houses or shacks which the ecologically-minded park will do up, fit with wind or solar energy devices and septic tanks and lend to those who work the vines - and only to them. Real estate speculation is not on.

In March the park authorities will start allotting vineyards and candidates will be asked to come for a talk "to make sure they know exactly what is involved". Those who want to do the work themselves must be prepared for long, steep flights of steps - even though little monorails now carry the heavy loads - and hard physical labour.

The vines need pruning in November or December, which must be done correctly to ensure quality rather than quantity - mere plonk does not pay. The soil needs hoeing in the winter, and in the spring the vines must be sprayed against pests - though the park may do that from helicopters. The grape harvest begins in mid-September, except for beginners: new vines start producing usable grapes only in their fourth year.

Alternatively, local co-operatives can be paid to do some or all of the work - a scheme devised to keep young people in the villages. Even then, Mr Bonanini believes, it can be a money-making proposition. "With 3,000 square metres you can produce 1,500 bottles of high-quality wine that sell here for around 30,000 lire [£10] a bottle, which adds up to 45 million lire [£15,000]. Take away about 10 million lire in costs and you still have 35 million [around £11,700]."

Then there would be the fun of designing one's own label, with the prestigious Cinque Terre denomination, the type of grape used, the year and one's very own name on it.

Will the scheme help to save the Cinque Terre? Mr Bonanini has no illusions about the size of the problem, "but we have got to do all we can. If we don't, everything will just slide into the sea".

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