The fascinating history of wines from Piacenza
Piacenza has always produced wine and there is a large number of connoisseurs who appreciate our products. Wine is culture and tradition in Piacenza. Piacenza has been a wine land since ancient times: the Paleo-Ligurians, Etruscans and Romans planted vines; the Roman legions, Gauls and Celts made wine in our area. Popes, Kings, Lords and great artists have all loved our wines right up to modern day. Here below you will find information and curiosities that retrace the winemaking tradition of the Colli Piacentini through two thousand years of history.
Greek and Etruscan Culture
The history of wine in Piacenza started very long ago and came from afar: it is founded on Greek knowledge: vinegrowers here have always used low vine training systems with carasse or stakes (Columella’s vinae characatae), claiming that it is the stake that makes the grape. The ancient nobility of Piacenza wines is demonstrated by several incontrovertible findings. From the Iron Age to the first millennium B.C., the pile-dwelling inhabitants of the marine areas near the Po river emigrated to the hills of Piacenza, where they founded the important cultural and hot spring centre in Veleja and planted the first vines. Between the 4th and 2nd centuries B.C., Gallic peoples descended into the Po Valley (Cisalpine Gaul) bringing all their vinegrowing knowledge with them, including a new way of preserving and transporting wine: the wooden barrel, which was much stronger than terracotta. The Liver of Piacenza is famous all over the world: it was found in 1877 in Settima di Gossolengo and dates back to the 2nd century B.C. It is a bronze artefact which reproduces a sheep’s liver and is covered with various inscriptions, including one about the god Fufluns, the god of plenty and protection, both of wine and health. The Etruscans were cultured and mild-mannered and wine at banquets represented friendship and conviviality, to be drunk in moderation and not in excess. In the 2nd century B.C., Saserna, the most famous Etruscan agricultural expert in the Piacenza area, said that he drank Kilkevetra at his table, a wine from the Apennine woods of Piacenza.
Coming out of such dark and distant eras, we find vaster and richer documentation: the numerous fragments of wine vases that have come to light in the Val Trebbia and Val Nure; the precious patera found in the late nineteenth century in the hills of Bicchignano; the beautiful embossed metal vase decorated with grapevine canes and grape bunches, unearthed in Veleja in 1760. Wines from Piacenza must have already been very famous in Roman times. You just need to leaf through the Roman classics to discover, for example, that even Cicero spoke of our wines when in the Roman Senate he criticised his rival and colleague from Piacenza, Piso (Calpurnia’s father, who married Julius Caesar), accusing him of drinking too many goblets of the wine from Piacenza. The forging of the first large gutturnium goblet undoubtedly dates from this historical period, at the height of the splendour of the Roman Empire. Licino Sestulo, who preferred open praise to controversial remarks, preached in the Forum that vinum merum placentium laetificat i.e. that the straightforward wine from Piacenza helps to calm the spirit.
When naming the 80 most famous Italian wines in Roman times, Pliny mentioned the quality of a wine from Placentia which he had tasted at feasts in Veleja. The wine produced in Placentia and its characteristics are mentioned in several parts of the Tabula Alimentaria Traianea, the largest inscribed bronze document from Roman times: it is a collection of information and data on alimentation and cultivated products, which was found by chance in 1747 near the Roman Forum and Temple of Veleja Romana, in the heart of the Piacenza hills. It also contains information about the ancient town of Vigoleno, now a town with well-preserved medieval houses, castle and walls, whose name derives from the Latin Vico Lieo which means village of Bacchus, almost meaning that the pagan god of wine’s home was here.
The Drunken Hercules association
Still in Veleja Romana, a wonderful little bronze statue of a drunken Hercules on a small marble pedestal was found during the intense and interesting archaeological dig in 1760. It dates from the 1st century A.D. and bears an inscription by the writer Lucius Domitius Secundinus, dedicated to the Sodalicium (fraternity) whose emblem was the Ercole Bibace (drunken Hercules) and which brought together enthusiasts of the good and honest local wine. It could be said that the first and oldest association, or protection consortium in the world was founded about 2000 years ago in Veleja, to promote the quality of wines from Piacenza. In 1987, the association was revived by the Chamber of Commerce in Piacenza with the title and function of ambassador of DOC “Colli Piacentini” wines all over the world.
However, the most important wine artefact in the Piacenza area is without doubt the famous vase or tankard or goblet called the Gutturnium that re-emerged, or rather, was fished out of the muddy sand of the Po by chance at Croce S. Spirito in 1878, by a lucky but unaware fisherman. The original silver tankard is richly decorated, with a handle, and is kept in the Capitoline Museum in Rome. The Gutturnium can be defined as the first Tastevin in the world. It was filled with wine and diners took turns to drink from it at the end of a meal as a sign of friendship; what was later defined as “one for the road”, i.e. the last drink before riding off, with your feet already in the stirrups. The Irish Saint Colombanus had a huge influence on vinegrowing in the hills and mountains of Piacenza. Before the 7th century he founded the monastic order in Bobbio, in the upper Val Trebbia, which went on to govern and educate the mountain people on how to cultivate the fields, especially the vine, for the next seven centuries. References to the nobility of wines from Piacenza can be found everywhere in history. There is a collection and writings that recall the measurements and various types of containers of Piacenza wine which is particularly rich in documents, drawings and ancient references, dating from 789 to 1310. We know that, towards the end of the thirteenth century, a very “scented” wine made in the hills of Piacenza was exported to France. Almost two hundred years later, the Visconti court greatly appreciated gifts of wine sent from the noble landowners in Piacenza.
Vino dei Papi
Così come amavano i nostri vini per lo gusto, et la prelibatezza gli Sforza, il Piccinino ed il Colleoni.
Beveva vini piacentini anche papa Paolo III Farnese et anco ne mandava a pigliare – come scrive in una sua memoria il dispensiere pontificio Sante Lancerio – anco se fosse a Ferrara et a Bologna.
Tra un capolavoro e l’altro, si ristorava con i vini dei Colli Piacentini addirittura anche il grande Michelangelo, che li riceveva in botticelle (che poi il grande artista faceva travasare in fiaschi) dal piacentino Giovanni Durante, un faccendiere al quale Buonarroti aveva affidato la riscossione delle gabelle (circa 600 scudi d’oro all’anno) per i traghetti e l’uso del porto sul Po a Piacenza.
Il diritto a gabellare, Michelangelo lo aveva avuto da Papa Paolo III Farnese, finalmente nel 1535 come pagamento degli affreschi della Cappella Sistina.
Nella De Naturali Vinarum Historia di Andrea Bacci, edita esalta la qualità dei nostri vini, definendoli vina valida, synceriora ac multae laudis.
The wine of Popes
The famous general from Piacenza, Count Felice Gazzola, let Charles III of Spain taste the wines from Piacenza, who exclaimed “They are excellent wines! I have never drunk better ones in my life!”
Also Philip V demanded them from his prime minister, Cardinal Giulio Alberoni, a native of Piacenza, who sent them to Spain in special flasks, through diplomatic pouches also packed with Grana cheese and exquisite cured meats from Piacenza. Old documents and chronicles of the time show that wines from Piacenza were exported to France in the second half of the seventeenth century.
On 20th September 1770, the winemaking tradition in the area was improved by a public pronouncement of the governor and magistrate of the Municipality of Piacenza, which dictated the regulations and sales times for grapes, serving and price of the young wine of the vintage, which in the document was called “Novello” (Nouveau): undoubtedly the oldest law in the world that regulated the sale of the first new wine of the vintage. The wines from Piacenza were always present at Napoleon’s Imperial table, who sent for them at his Parisian court together with large quantities of cheese, coppa cured meat and salami from Piacenza.
Also Charles III, Duke of Bourbon, the last duke of his house in the ancient states of Parma, supplied himself with wine from Piacenza, becoming famous as a great businessman among the illustrious guests he offered it to.
There was already a red wine from Piacenza in 1869, in a limited group of the best Italian wines, which was among those exhibited in Switzerland and France in 1872.
Moving forward to more recent times we can mention an anecdote about great musical maestros such as Giuseppe Verdi, who used to give excellent wines from Piacenza to his friends in Milan as a gift. Or Giacomo Puccini, close friend of the poet from Castell’Arquato, Luigi Illica, librettist for many of his masterpieces. During their work meetings, the poet and musician rarely gave themselves a break, but when they did (discussing harmony and characters, Tosca, Manon or Mimì, chords and verses), they sipped wines from Piacenza that Illica always had with him even when he was on his very frequent work trips.
But now we come to the present, which does full justice to such an illustrious past. A fine red wine from Piacenza obtained recognition and a special award at the International Expo in Turin in 1911: one of the 18 best national products present. In a draught of the first list of typical and fine wines in 1914, the Ministry of Agriculture included a scented, fruity, full-bodied, noble red made in Piacenza, the forefather of red wines from the area, Gutturnio. In 1987 the Office Internationale de la Vigne et du Vin honoured Piacenza with the prestigious title of “International Vine and Wine City”, which recognises the high quality and nobility of our wines. The Colli Piacentini territory is a tourist attraction for its beauty and nature, works of art, castles, churches (often Romanesque), museums and villas. For these and other reasons, the “The Colli Piacentini Wine and Food route” was set up in 2000, which we will come back to later.