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Prosecco blamed for Italy flood deaths

The tragic deaths of four people swept away by flash floods in northern Italy have been blamed by critics on the region’s burgeoning Prosecco industry — accused of over-planting and damaging the land’s ability to deal with rainwater.

The village of Refrontolo, where the flood waters swept through a local banquet (Photo:Wikipedia)

Torrential rain struck the Prosecco-making region just north of the city of Treviso on Saturday, causing the river Lierza to burst its banks.

A catastrophic flash flood was sent sweeping through the area’s iconic hills, leaving a trail of destruction that included a 17th Century mill, the Molinetto della Croda, in its wake.

Tragically, a wall of water hit head-on a local banquet, sweeping away the marquees, cars, and the 90-or-so people in attendance. Eight people were left injured; four were found dead a mile down the floodwater’s path.

Now national uproar is what is sweeping through the country, as critics voice concerns about what they see as the over-planting of Prosecco-making grapes in the area which is said to be having a detrimental effect on the integrity of the land.

Globally – but especially in the UK – sales of Prosecco have been booming in the light of the recent economic downturn and the growing impression of the sparkling wine as a suitable alternative to Champagne. This has meant vineyards in the region have had to greatly expand to meet demand.

The Telegraph reports that critics have witnessed encroachment into forested areas, a practice said to be making the slopes of the region more unstable and less able to absorb heavy rainwater.

Italian Prosecco-producing grapes on the vine (Photo:Wikipedia)

Prosecutors in Treviso have opened an investigation into the deaths, saying they could bring charges of manslaughter and culpable environmental damage to Prosecco producers.

They will call for information from engineers and geologists “to understand the causes of the disaster,” said Laura Reale, a prosecutor, to reporters. “Especially hydrogeological testing,” she continued, “on the condition of the premises before the storm and the maintenance of the same.”

In the last year the Guardia Forestale, or Forestry Service, investigated four cases of woodland being converted into crop-growing land without authorisation according to Italian newspaper The Corriere Della Sera.

And The Telegraph reports that around the village of Refrontolo, where the flood struck, the area under vines has almost doubled in the last forty years from 204 hectares in 1974 to nearly 400 in 2010.

Tiziano Tempesta, a rural economist at Padua University, told Corriere della Sera: “The new methods of cultivation leads to rounding hills, to changes in the structure of the vineyards, to the removal of particles of history.

“They make everything much more efficient and productive, but the overall hydraulic structure is affected.”

However, Prosecco producers are adamant that their success is not linked to the disaster. “We must put an end to this story,” said one grower, Alberto Resera. “Terracing improves the soil and helps the drainage and directs the water,” he said.

The growers also have fervent defenders in local government. The regional governor Luca Zaia, nodding to the forests of the area, told reporters: “See, these woods, the acacias, oaks and elms, will have 50-60 years. Where are the grapes? Where is the overbuilding? There isn’t any.

“Here the problem is, if anything, the progress of the woods,” he said.

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