Wine and water among barrels and fountains
Chiomonte, the westernmost municipality in the Occitan valleys, has a wealth of waters: in the past seven were the 16th century fountains which used to meet the needs of all the districts in the municipality. One was at the foot of the Peui hamlet, one in Cantoun, one in Rìou,… Each had a different design and décor ( (the dolphin of France, the lilly,…) and in the main town there was even one made out of the merger of three different fountains. Among the ones that are left, one in particular is quite unusual: it has a stone dating 1562, together with a stone column which actually belonged to an 1888 fountain displaying an anthropomorphic figure.
It is thanks to Colombano Romean that there is such richness of waters. In 1500 this historic character dug into the mountain to convey the waters of the Vallone di Tullie to the hamlets of Ramats and Cels in the Exilles municipality because they had none and the land was barren.
Chiomonte’s wealth of water and fountains is strictly connected to the cultivation of vines and the making of wine: on the municipality’s coat of arms the quote “Jamais sans tois” (never without you) stands in between two bunches of grapes, one white and one black, and the sun, meaning that the sun is necessary for the grapes to ripen.
In the Chiomonte area where vines and wines have always been of prime importance, vineyards often grew above 900 m altitude. Man has had a tough time in making the terraces, taking stones away and bringing in soil and manure. The lack of hay and pastures meant that few families could afford to keep a mule instead of a cow, hence everything was carried by man with the ‘l gärbin: (long baskets strapped onto the shoulders and carried on people’s backs) the grapes at vintage, manure, the soil which was brought annually from the bottom of the plot up to the top; a leather bottle made of goatskin was used to carry the wine; only rarely were wooden sleighs used, and only for transports down to the valley.
To avoid all this effort, wine making often took place near the vineyards in appropriate huts with stables where the animals could eat the grass in the vineyard and produce manure on the spot. The wine made out of grapes coming from higher altitude was often of lower quality and was thus used for family consumption while the best wine, coming from lower altitude was kept for sale. The “second choice” wine which was to be drunk before the summer heat was made pressing the marc with the grapes left after the best ones had been selected. An alternative to this lower quality wine was the pikëtto made out of the fermentation of marc with the addition of pear or apple juice.
In Chiomonte records tell us that “vines were planted everywhere” (*) in favourable times, up till 1904 when the decline started, and was accelerated because of the scarcity of labour during the First World War, the Spanish flu epidemic, the damages caused by phylloxera, the vine pest in 1930, the scarce labour available during the Second World War and then came final decline in the cultivation, production and sale because of the crisis in mountain agriculture.
This vine-growing and wine-making tradition which has been going on for centuries is testified by the “Barrel race” which takes place in Chiomonte in September: an event which is something in between a sports competition and a historical recollection. The competition takes inspiration from the work that needed to be done before the grape harvest: the barrels where the novel wine was to be stored were taken out of the cellars and taken to the stone fountains to be washed and to remove the lees.
This competition celebrates the wine made out of the Avanà vine, the most important vine in the Susa Valley and which has been grown for centuries in the vineyards surrounding the village and beyond.
(*) M. Di Maio “Avënā, Biquèt, Nibiò, Müscat… Vigne, vendemmie e vini nell’Alta Valle della Dora Riparia”, Ed. Valadas Usitanos