UNESCO was in Baku, Azerbaijan, last week for a major assembly, and the much-anticipated announcements on the latest rare and singular corners of our world and culture to be awarded World Heritage status.
A quick read through the list of new World Heritage sites would give anyone wander lust, and wonder. Some are remote, in time and place, such as the sacred Buddhist site at Bagan, Mayanmar.
Others reveal lesser-known and still vital aspects of otherwise familiar European culture and history, such as the long-established Kladruby Horse breeding and training ground in Czechia.
But others are more familiar. The “Prosecco Hills of Conegliano Valdobbiadene” was officially announced as a new World Heritage site at the UNESCO assembly on the 7th July. Conegliano-Valdobbiadene Prosecco Superiore DOCG joins a small but growing number of historic wine appellations and regions recognised as “Cultural Landscapes” by UNESCO for their unique and time-carved interaction between human agricultural endeavour and challenging rural landscapes. Fellow wine-related Cultural Landscapes are a roll-call of the revered, beautiful and visited, including Saint-Emilion, Burgundy and Champagne in France, the Alto Douro in Portugal, and the Langhe Roero and Monferrato in Italy.
The news is (of course) being picked up by the mainstream British press as a triumph for “Prosecco”, whose consumer-led success has been the UK wine market phenomenon of the decade. In fact, wines from the newly UNESCO-recognised vineyards make up less than 10% of all the Prosecco consumed by Brits, and take some seeking out here. While interest, and sales, of this premium, hand-picked, crafted side of Prosecco is growing, mass-market attention (whether friendly or snide) is fixed on the accessible ‘gateway wines’ of Prosecco DOC. This much younger denomination is entirely separate to Conegliano Valdobbiadene, and covers a much larger area of low undulating vineyards as easy and gentle as the wines they produce.
Venerable wine regions are the beauty queens of agricultural landscapes. Nobody goes to marvel at fields of turnips (apologies to enthusiasts of Turnip Monthly). Wine growers in regions such as Conegliano Valdobbiadene embrace rural environments that are marginal in their viability. This intersection of difficulty, ingenuity, stewardship and livelihood is not exclusive to historic wine landscapes, but it is uniquely inevitable.
In awarding the status of Cultural Landscape to Conegliano Valdobbiadene, the UNESCO committee noted the centuries-long adaptation to the landscape by vine-growers, and the patchwork of vineyards, forests, streams, hamlets closely intertwined, as well as the distinctive viticultural techniques developed to counter erosion and the vertiginous slopes that characterise the region:
“The landscape is characterized by ‘hogback’ hills, ciglioni – small plots of vines on narrow grassy terraces – forests, small villages and farmland. For centuries, this rugged terrain has been shaped and adapted by man. Since the 17th century, the use of ciglioni has created a particular chequerboard landscape consisting of rows of vines parallel and vertical to the slopes. In the 19th century, the bellussera technique of training the vines contributed to the aesthetic characteristics of the landscape.” UNESCO
This beautiful region is dotted with hundreds of producers offering tastings and wine boutiques (many top wines are sold at the cellar door to well-heeled Italians, Austrians and Swiss), churches, nature parks, rural bed and breakfasts, and exquisite boutique hotels. One of Italy’s first “wine routes”, the Strada del Prosecco, offers contacts and resources to independent travellers organising their own tour of Conegliano Valdobbiadene. Despite its proximity to Venice, tourism and eno-tourism have always been elegantly, surprisingly, low key. This is starting to change, and a key objective of the UNESCO mission is to ensure the sensitive and sustainable development of growing tourism and eno-tourism in the territory. Research suggests that World Heritage status can have a major socio economic impact and stimulate in-coming tourism.
Independent guides and small-scale tour operators already offer scheduled and bespoke tours of Conegliano Valdobbiadene, incorporating all the joys the Prosecco Hills have to offer, from wine tasting, hiking, fresco-hunting, fine-dining, and more. These specialist tour guides are notable for their passion, and focus on visiting top quality producers. Their delicious stony, airy, blossomy Prosecco Superiore answers the question that anyone, panting their way through a walk in those vertiginous vineyards is tempted to ask: “Why here?”
Companies offering tours in the UNESCO Prosecco Hills of Conegliano Valdobbiadene include:
Other useful links:
Download the official Press Release from the Consorzio of Conegliano Valdobbiadene: