Producer Profiles

Extreme Olive Growing in Valle d'Aosta and Piemonte

Growing olives in Valle d’Aosta, a mountainous region enclosed by the Alps, seemed unthinkable until a group of daring farmers decided to try.

Dario Martinelli
Jul. 24, 2018
By Ylenia Granitto
Dario Martinelli

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Our adven­ture started about twenty years ago,” said one of the first olive grow­ers in Valle d’Aosta. I had a small house on a hill in the ter­ri­tory of Don­nas, sur­rounded by lands pre­vi­ously taken up by vine­yards, which were suf­fer­ing increas­ing aban­don­ment,” Dario Mar­tinelli pointed out. The bush started to over­grow the ter­races, and at some point, with the idea of an olive grove which would have helped to recover the lot, I thought to myself: Let’s try.”

For the first har­vests we had to wear warm clothes, and the last ones we car­ried out in t‑shirts.- Dario Mar­tinelli

Valle d’Aosta is a moun­tain­ous region — the small­est of Italy — enclosed by the Alps, with cli­mate and soil con­di­tions ideal for grow­ing grapes. Due to its con­ti­nen­tal cli­mate, the pos­si­bil­ity to grow crops like olives seemed unthink­able until a group of dar­ing farm­ers decided to try.

It was 1999 when our farmer planted a small olive grove. Try­ing to fig­ure out which were the best vari­eties for this weather and soil con­di­tions, I started with fif­teen plants of Lec­cino because it should give good results even with a harsh cli­mate,” he con­sid­ered. And, in fact, those proved to be resis­tant to the cold and frost of the early years.”

The ini­tial har­vests were not easy, as olives often need to be picked in the snow. Despite that, Mar­tinelli con­tin­ued to add more land and olive trees, includ­ing sev­eral plants of Fran­toio with a pur­pose which was just based on my stub­born­ness and per­sua­sion.”

Those first olive trees are located at 350 meters (383 yards) above sea level, on a steep slope which was recov­ered by the farmer’s great-grand­par­ents after a land­slide occurred. They recre­ated paths and walls, and many years later, he con­tin­ued to build walls and fill the ter­races while clear­ing out the bushes and spread­ing manure to enrich the soil.

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At the time, my work seemed unnec­es­sary and fruit­less, but I was dri­ven by the desire to man­age that olive grove and see that land flour­ish­ing again,” he said, point­ing out that he now man­ages 180 healthy olive trees scat­tered on a plot of almost 5,000 square meters (around 1 1/4 acres).

Mar­tinelli found other farm­ers inter­ested in olive grow­ing. At the begin­ning, there were only a few who believed in it, but grad­u­ally the poten­tial of the new activ­ity gained trac­tion. The first group of pro­duc­ers cre­ated the Piemonte Olive Grow­ers Asso­ci­a­tion, which cur­rently has more than 350 mem­bers from areas includ­ing the Canavese and Aostan Dora Bal­tea val­leys; the Ivrea Morainic Amphithe­ater and the Mon­fer­rato Casalese and the Mon­viso val­leys.

Dario Martinelli

Now, in Valle d’Aosta, there are more than 3,000 olive trees whose fruits are crushed into the mills of Set­timo Vit­tone and Vial­frè, in Piemonte, near the bor­der.

For the first har­vests we had to wear warm clothes, and the last ones we car­ried out in t‑shirts,” Mar­tinelli observed, reveal­ing that he was fur­ther moti­vated to pur­sue his objec­tive by the increas­ingly fre­quent good weather.

The expe­ri­ence of these farm­ers illus­trates what sci­ence has con­firmed: The tem­per­a­ture in the Alps has increased by 2°C since the end of the 1800s, about twice the aver­age increase of the North­ern Hemi­sphere.

Some farm­ers started plant­ing spo­radic olive trees since the late 1990s because at that time we had the per­cep­tion of par­tic­u­larly hot and dry sum­mer sea­sons,” said Antonino De Maria, an expert in olive grow­ing who par­tic­i­pated in sev­eral research projects.

Dario Martinelli’s terraced olive grove under the mountains

Between Piemonte and Valle d’Aosta there are cur­rently around 250,000 olive trees, most of which have been planted since the 2003 – 2004 sea­son,” he observed, spec­i­fy­ing that, in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2011, drops in tem­per­a­ture cre­ated prob­lems and in the 2011 – 2012 sea­son many olive trees were lost. Var­i­ous projects were car­ried out by the Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture of the Uni­ver­sity of Turin to under­stand which vari­eties are best suited to the cli­mates of Piemonte and Valle d’Aosta.

We saw that, in addi­tion to Lec­cino and Fran­toio, which can be vig­or­ous and pro­duc­tive in this envi­ron­ment, pol­li­na­tors like Moraiolo and Pen­dolino are suited to these cli­matic con­di­tions,” he noted.

Also, Lec­cio del Corno, Brisighella, Bor­giona, Grignàn and vari­eties from north­east Italy and Croa­tia such as Bianchera and Drob­nica, and the Car­olea, wide­spread in south of our penin­sula, can be cul­ti­vated well and with a good yield.”

Although the total pro­duc­tion is still lim­ited, the last har­vests in Valle d’Aosta and Piemonte gave very good results in terms of vol­umes and qual­ity, thanks to ideal weather con­di­tions.

We tasted great extra vir­gin olive oils, with inter­est­ing fra­grances, which are being sold by the grow­ers at attrac­tive prices,” De Maria revealed, adding that since 2007, the Con­sor­tium for the Pro­tec­tion of Piemonte and Valle d’Aosta extra vir­gin olive oil has worked to enhance the pro­duc­tion of the two regions which is still young but very promis­ing.


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