Over 500 years ago, the attraction of the Colli Euganei – a tiny, hilly wine region south of Padua in Northern Italy – was already felt. In 1550, Avise Cornaro (1484-1566), advisor to the bishops of Padua and promotor of agricultural life, wrote his famous Trattato de la vita sobria, a treatise on how to live a sober life. In this treatise, he proposed to the nobility of the Veneto to lead a new way of life, in harmony with nature and without the opulence and decadence of Renaissance Italy. Cornaro also directed the building of a country retreat for the bishops, the Villa dei Vescovi near Torreglia, on the edge of the Colli Euganei. Walking in the gardens of this beautifully restored villa in 2022, with its orchard and vineyards, or enjoying a glass of Colli Euganei wine in the modern enoteca next door, you can only agree with Cornaro: the Euganean Hills have a truly healthy and relaxing effect on the visitor. I visited this beautiful region on the invitation of the Strada del Vino Colli Euganei in June this year. And I was impressed by their vision to understand the possibilities for both region and visitor; to create a way to explore the Colli Euganei not just as wine region but also as an exciting hidden world to explore and enjoy, regenerating both inhabitants and visitors.
The Colli Euganei, or Euganean Hills, are a collection of small conical hills, pushed up by volcanic activity 34 million years ago. Gazing out from a car window on the highway south of Padua, they spring into view on the plain like a mysterious collection of bumps, hiding a world only to be discovered by turning off the main road. Since Roman times the region is famous for its thermal activity, and remains of Roman baths can still be seen in the centre of Montegrotto Terme, at the edge of the hills. Around Montegrotto Terme and the larger Abano Terme, modern spa hotels still offer the opportunity to enjoy those thermal waters. They attract a crowd of elderly tourists, for a large part German but until recently also Russian. Since the last category has fallen away and Covid-19 has hit the region hard, other ways of attracting tourists are needed.
The Colli Euganei also produce wine since Roman times. Modern wines, together with the beautiful surroundings, the good food and the rich history and culture, open up a good opportunity for that other kind of tourist, who wants to actively discover the hills on foot or by bicycle. The Strada del Vino is aiming for this other, younger and more active tourist, by promoting the wines not for their own sake, but always in the context of the unique nature and history of the area. Talking to Roberto Gardina, president of the Strada del Vino, he did not have to think long when asked what he wanted people to take away from a visit to the Colli Euganei: the importance of its volcanic soils, the extraordinary biodiversity of the hills, and the authenticity of its people. Although Roberto is owner of organic winery Quota 101 in Torreglia, wine was not part of his answer. It is the aim of the Strada del Vino and its participants to bring the Colli Euganei and its wonderful wines to life by presenting the whole, as opposed to promoting only the wines. During my recent trip, I was impressed by the constructive way the Strada del Vino is focussing on improving the economic conditions of a small but beautiful geographical area. And thereby also creating a wonderful experience for wine lovers who not only get to know a series of surprising wines, but are also able to unwind and truly restore body and mind.
A hidden and green world
Hiking and biking trails are marked and presented on a clear map published by the Strada del Vino, free and widely available in Italian, German and English. The Enoteca of the Strada del Vino is housed in a building that belongs to the sixteenth century Villa dei Vescovi – designed by Cornaro – and sells, besides the wines from the region, also local olive oil, the special maraschino cherries and several other delicacies. With the wines the Enoteca staff serves slices of delicious Veneto ham, a local version of the better known Parma and San Daniele hams. The town of Este, at the southern border of the Colli Euganei, houses the Salumificio Giovanni Fontana, a family business producing ham, salami and other sausages since 1919. The salumificio is also part of the Strada del Vino, as are a craft brewery, oil mill, hotels and restaurants like the wonderful Antica Trattoria Ballotta in Torreglia. Renaissance villas and medieval towns offer a beautiful opportunity to tell the history of the region, once chosen by famous Italian poet Petrarch (1304-1374) to spend his last years in. Petrarch’s house in the medieval town of Arqua Petrarca is an important focus for visitors, as is his tomb on the church square. Tasting the local liqueur Brodo di Giuggiole, made of jujube and other locally sourced fruits, adds to the charm of a visit to Arqua Petrarca.
Within this hidden and very green world, however, the wines play the unifying role. The volcanic soil gives those wines, both red and white, their unique expression. The biodiversity of the protected regional park Colli Euganei adds even more to the character of the wines. The vineyards are dotted around the hills in small parcels, with a lot of families still owning tiny plots scattered on the slopes. The families that make wine on a larger scale each choose their own way of expressing this volcanic, green world of the Colli Euganei in their wines. The production of quality wines in the Colli Euganei is a relatively recent development: in the 1970s Franco Zanovello was the first to do so. He founded a business that now has made a name for itself, Ca’Lustra, in the heart of the hills. Franco died a few years ago, but his son Marco and daughter Linda carry on the work. The production is fully organic, the wines are the result of spontaneous fermentation, and use of clarifying agents and sulphur is kept to a minimum. This results in exciting wines like the white blend Olivetani, made from Garganega, TAI (Tocai Friulano), Pinot Bianco, Sauvignon Blanc and Moscato; or the aged dry Muscat A Cengia. Like most other wineries Ca’Lustra also produces a Fior d’Arancio Passito, a sweet Moscato Giallo wine that the region is famous for. As for the red wines: the Colli Euganei are known for Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Carmenère and Merlot, introduced here in the second half of the 19th century by, among others, the Counts Corinaldi of Lispida. The volcanic soils ensure the wines have a totally different expression than elsewhere. Ca’Lustra also was one of the first to recognize and research the enormous differences of the terroir within the region: grapes planted in the south, near Arqua Petrarca, are ripening a month earlier than those in the north of the region, for example, within a distance of only 25 kilometre as the crow flies.
Wineries, especially those united in the Strada del Vino, also have welcoming tasting rooms and shops, serving not only wine but also accompanying bites and delicacies. Visitors in the mood for some more history and culture must certainly visit Conte Emo Capodilista- La Montecchia in the extreme north of the Colli Euganei. A medieval castle, a Renaissance hunting lodge and a range of good wines are not just attractions, but also the home and work of the present day count, representing the 22nd generation farming the land. The count and his team work to recover old varieties like Turca and Raboso, but also produce wines with Moscato (Fior d’Arancio), Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and many other varietals.
Dining in the vineyards
All these companies, both in wine, in food and in hospitality, work together to present a region that is more than just the sum of its parts. Because it is not only the region that is regenerated by the initiatives of the Strada del Vino: the Colli also give back. A visit to the Colli Euganei with its lush green, its thermal waters, its stunning views, exciting wines and delicious food revives the stressed and tired visitor that enters its domain. Once inside the hills, you are in a different world and temporarily away from the ‘rest’. I experienced this especially at Quota 101, winery of Roberto Gardina and his family. One evening of our visited, we dined in the vineyards of Quota 101, perched on a hill outside Torreglia, with breath-taking views to the Villa dei Vescovi and the surrounding hills. These vineyard dinners are organized several times during the summer, hosted each time by a different winery. Modern young chefs prepare the food, and the hosting winery provides the wines. At Quota 101 you are able to try an exciting range of wines, such as Manzoni Bianco, TAI and different powerful red blends. But for me it was mostly the combination of wine, good food, scenery and relaxed atmosphere, surrounded by the green hills of the protected park of the Colli Euganei that made for a totally unique and relaxed experience, away from it all, enjoying the company of friends and other wine lovers. Just what we sometimes need!