In the rugged hills above the Amalfi Coast, and halfway between Ravello and the Chiunzi Pass leading over the Lattari Mountains towards the Bay of Naples, there is a valley called Tramonti that is home to some very special vineyards with vines that are over 250 years old.
Did you know that most grapevines growing in Europe today have rootstock from the USA?
In the late 1800's, French wine (and other European wine) was almost completely wiped out by a tiny louse that was brought over from the USA by Victorian-era botanists. Phylloxera (pronounced fi-lok-SUH-ruh), native to the Mississippi Valley of the eastern United States, decimated Europe’s vineyards.
Phylloxera is a tiny (0.04 inch long and 0.02 inch wide), aphid-like insect that lives and feeds on the roots of grapevines. Once it is established in a vineyard, the only way to get rid of phylloxera is to remove all susceptible grapevines and replant with tolerant rootstock.
That tolerant rootstock was discovered back in the USA, where it had spent generations warding off the pests. Rootstock from the USA was grafted onto vitis vinifera vines in Europe in order to save the vines. These grafted vines are still used today.
Across Europe, especially in places with volcanic soil, there are pockets of vineyards with very old (pre-phylloxera) vines. These vines survived the phylloxera blight and did not have to be grafted. Volcanic soil contains very little clay and is sandy, making it impossible for phylloxera to survive and attack the roots.
Beppe and I were recently scouting some new hiking trails for our Amalfi and Capri hiking tour. Not far from Mt. Vesuvius, the volcanic soil here is inhospitable to phylloxera and there are some vines that are over 250 years old, like this one which is as big as a tree trunk:
Up close with a 250-year-old, pre-phylloxera, un-grafted vine of Tintore di Tramonti
Our guide explaining the soil
These old vines are planted using the traditional pergola tramontina system that is found all over the steep hills of the Amalfi Coast. The canopy that it creates helps protect the grapes from the hot, southern Italian sun and the fierce wind. On the Amalfi Coast they grow their lemons with a similar pergola system for the same reasons.
Do you want to experience these old vines for yourself? Join us on our hiking tour of the Amalfi Coast and we'll take you there.