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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