The wine grottos of Pietragalla capture the imagination. The little cave-like structures that emerge spontaneously from the earth evoke another world, perhaps that of an ancient people or even of hobbits. They are called palmenti, and you will find this atmospheric complex in South Italy, specifically in northern Basilicata, just twenty kilometers from Potenza, the region’s capital.
Pietragalla was founded about a thousand years ago. The medieval oldtown features narrow streets that radiate from the Palazzo Ducale (ducal palace), formerly a castle, and the Mother Church at the crown of the historic center, perched at almost 3,000 feet above sea level.
Of the community’s long history, the most talked about event occurred on the 16th and 17th of November 1861 when the ducal palace was the site of the local citizenry’s resistance to a brigand revolt. This “Siege of Pietragalla” pit the forces of Lucanian brigands and Bourbon volunteers headed by José Borjes and Carmine Crocco against the new national guard and the pietragallesi, people from the town. After many deaths and injuries, the brigands fled and shortly thereafter the Borjes Expedition abandoned their mission to reconquer South Italy. The movement against unification would continue from hideouts in the woods.
Today, Pietragalla with its close to 4,000 inhabitants is best known for its atmospheric wine grottos, referred to as palmenti, which were used through the 1960s.
WHAT IS A PALMENTO?
As is often the case, the Italian language can be a bit tricky. The word palmento used with regard to wine indicates large vats dug out of rock or made with sides in brick or concrete for the purpose of crushing grapes as well as for fermentation of the must. Palmenti, in this sense, is a Southern Italian term and these wine vats have been constructed and utilized from ancient Greek and Roman eras through to more recent periods.
A different interpretation of the word is that of a millstone and there is a figurative use of palmenti that refers to grinding grain with two or four millstones. From this, comes the expression, mangiare a quattro palmenti, meaning to eat avidly with the image of jaws crushing food like millstones. The saying carries over to refer to illicit earnings, with a prime example being government officials and public spending.
Returning to the meaning of palmento in terms of wine production, the word palmento can also indicate the grotto, cave or place where the activity of turning grapes into wine takes place.
PALMENTI – WINE GROTTOS OF PIETRAGALLA
Just a handful of years ago, Pietragalla’s palmenti were little known, and they are still rather far off any traditional tourist route. However, when images of the grottos hit social media pages, people all over the world viewed, liked and shared what appeared to be miniature dwellings in an adorable fairytale village at the heart of Southern Italy. Despite the captions (Look how people used to live! #prehistoric), the hobbit-like clustering of tiny buildings were not homes, but structures dedicated to wine production.
While the cave architecture may look prehistoric to the modern eye, the oldest of the palmenti are thought to date from the Renaissance period, around the 1500s. I can only imagine that the time frame is as spontaneous as their construction. They are located between the vineyards and the old town, on the road, so to speak, of village wine production.
The approximately 200 palmenti cover the hillside in a haphazard manner, protruding organically from the earth that envelopes both the sides and roofs of the multilevel “hamlet.” The chambers were dug from the native quartz sandstone, which was then used to build out the front of the structure together with other material from the area. The rounded roof was constructed with stone and capped with topsoil and local grass. The facades were attractively completed with regular stone blocks and feature a square ventilation hole over the wooden doors for the carbon dioxide to escape. Thus, from the outside, the palmenti have a rather uniform appearance.
Inside, the basic palmento features a smaller vat for grape stomping and a larger, deeper one for fermentation of 15 to 20 days, after which the must together with remains of the crushed grapes was squeezed further using a portable wine press.
The vats are at different heights to allow for the natural flow from one to the other through connecting tubes.
Some grottos also have another vat, which was used when production within the structure continued to the phase of filling the wine casks. Other features of the cave include niches carved into the walls for candles, tools or the workers’ lunches. A few even have little fireplaces, used to warm the must in order to accelerate the fermentation process. Iron rings may also be fixed to the ceiling, giving workers something to hang onto as they stomp the grapes.
In the 19th century, Pietragalla’s population increased, and in turn, so did its wine production and the necessity for more wine cellars. These cantine were excavated under the old town and the aging process was thus brought closer to home. It was a tough job, accomplished with pickaxes and carried out when the agricultural workers weren’t otherwise engaged in their regular duties. Several commercial wineries were established at that time. Today, the few families that still make wine do so in small quantities for their own use.
The wine cellars are called “rutt” in the pietragallese dialect. The wine was brought up from the palmenti on the backs of donkeys or mules in 35-liter barrels and then transferred into wooden botte or casks to be aged in the deep cellars’ consistent 7℃ temperature. As Pietragalla no longer produces wine commercially, the caves are used for festivals that feature local products, as well as art and entertainment events in and around the caves in the center of town, especially during the month of August.
VISIT PIETRAGALLA PALMENTI
Most photos of the palmenti give the impression that they are out in the countryside. However, they are right on the edge of the town’s eastern side, along state road SS169. And interestingly, the doorways all face south-southeast to take advantage of the sun’s energy in order to boost the temperature of the vats over 20℃ during the autumn grape harvest.
Pietragalla’s palmenti are a captivating example of a unique rural architecture. Today, we would call it sustainable living. Back in the day, it was just life.
This fascinating site is just one of many on my Basilicata Cultural Tour. Check out the full itinerary on my Basilicata Tour page and consider joining me on this stimulating journey through the remarkable region in the instep of the Italian boot!
Much more about Basilicata in my book Basilicata: Authentic Italy, described by the Library Journal as “an intimate exploration of an often overlooked region of Italy. Recommended to readers who appreciate all things Italian.”
Travel with me to the region in the instep of the Italian boot (best known for the Sassi di Matera) on my BASILICATA CULTURAL TOUR!
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