Wine truck.

Wine truck. The Marenco vineyard in Italy use an old Land Rover. Reproduced by courtesy of Land Rover World.

Defender of the Vines.

A high mileage 90 Tdi works hard in the hills of northern Italy.

Words and pictures by Toby Savage.

High in the sun drenched hills of Piedmonte, northern Italy, wine production is the biggest and most important industry. From any vantage point looking across all four points of the compass the hills are covered in vines, a coating of lush green with great promise. But behind this scene of tranquil beauty lurks furious activity. In summer the vines are growing vigourously and need constant attention to prevent infection. In early Autumn the grapes are ready to be harvested and swarms of grape pickers 'vendangeurs’ descend to collect the valuable crop in a short window of opportunity. Too early and they will not yield enough alcohol, too late and they begin to rot. Fierce pruning occupies the winter months in the vineyards, while the wine matures in oak barrels deep in the cellars. Then, in the Spring, the whole process starts again. Nothing is easy. The hills are very steep, the seasons extreme - scorching hot or under deep snow, bone dry, or lashed by heavy rain.

Whilst many vineyards favour tractors to move produce and people in this demanding terrain, the Marenco Cantina supplement their small fleet of tractors with a 1996 SWB Land Rover, 300 Tdi, with 200,000 kms on the clock. This unpretentious Land Rover joined the family run business as a new car bought by the Cantina founder, Giuseppe Marenco, to tow his daughter’s horse box. It helped out with the busy harvest, ferrying the vendangeurs to and from the vines, whilst a tractor and trailer did the donkey work. As the daughters interest in equine activities dwindled, so the Land Rover became more a family hack. With the arrival of in 2001 as head of grape production the Land Rover, by now five years old, was about to be promoted. Filippo has always loved Land Rovers and he saw this pampered low mileage 90 as a real asset to the business. A multi functional tow hitch was fitted to add versatility, a robust grab handle was bolted to the dashboard and a tool box bolted into the rear tub.

On Marenco’s 80 hectare estate, this involves driving off road, almost every day, throughout the year, from dawn to dusk.By no means a youngster, this Land Rover was about to start the hardest eight years of its life. Filippo’s job is to supervise all aspects of grape production from the pruning through to the picking. On Marenco’s 80 hectare estate, this involves driving off road, almost every day, throughout the year, from dawn to dusk. Whilst not the most demanding of off-road situations, these hills are steep and need low ratio most of the time. They are especially treacherous in winter, when drenched in rain, or covered in snow, but the work continues whatever the weather. What is most impressive, joining Filippo in the cab, is just how good a 200,000 km Land Rover can feel if well looked after. Regular servicing has kept it in fine fettle and the only replacement parts in 13 years have been a set of shock absorbers and a clutch. On a vehicle that - lets be honest - doesn’t have the best of reliability records, this is testament to the value of proper servicing, maintenance and sympathetic driving.From the busy headquarters of the Marenco Cantina we headed up a narrow tarmac road to the hills, then peeled off into the vines, all neatly pruned and attached to purpose built fencing to ensure there was just room for small caterpillar tractors to gain access for spraying.

Filippo slipped the 90 into low ratio 2nd gear and let the engine braking restrict the speed to a steady crawl down the steep slope. With the track before us straight as an arrow, Filippo was able study the vines through he driver’s window, leaving the Land Rover to find it’s own way down. In much the same way as its predecessor, the donkey, would have done a generation ago. A natural dip at the bottom had a layer of slippery mud sitting in it, but even the road biased tyres made light of it and we soon started the ascent on the other side following the same procedure. Now in 1st low, the Land Rover chugged up the hill with Filippo pointing out various aspects of vine culture and just how important it was to keep a watch out for any infections that could affect the harvest. Being very Italian, Filippo was accompanying his talk with energetic arm waving to accentuate the relevance of a particularly virulent pest!The busiest time of the year is September when the grapes are harvested and the wine production cycle starts. This is when the Land Rover is in use for about 16 hours a day. Ferrying vendangeurs up to the vines, racing round the hills with tools and mechanics to repair any broken machinery, rushing back to the lab with grape samples for analysis of alcohol content and inspecting each area of vines to decide what to pick on a particular day.

The work is stressful and demanding. A wrong decision could have a detrimental effect on the quality of the wine. Marenco has enjoyed an very good reputation for over its 60 years of production, which has established the brand as one of the regions premier producers. During this period, above all others in the calendar, success relies on hard work, long hours and total reliability of all equipment. Something this venerable Land Rover has delivered for 13 years and shows no signs of giving up.Most of Marenco’s production is shipped out by lorry to destinations across Italy and even to the U.K. under the name of Conterro wines, but for local deliveries Marenco use the Land Rover, loading a few cases into the back and driving down into the local town of Acqui Terme where many of the restaurants offer their wine.

It looks an idyllic lifestyle, pottering around the hills in a classic Land Rover dropping off a few cases to a local restaurant. Maybe joining the proprietor for a glass or two in the shade of a tree, discussing future plans, food and the regions wines. Even indulging it some Landy talk with fellow local owners. Land Rovers are very popular up in these hills and all models are represented from Series 2 to ‘07 Defender. The rub comes in the winter when Filippo can be found checking on the pruning of their precious vines high up in the hills, a biting north wind penetrating every layer of clothing, ice and snow under foot, but with the security of knowing the Land Rover is there, ticking over, heater on full, to offer shelter and a place to thaw numb fingers.

Back at base Doretta Marenco, daughter of the founder, was delighted, if a little surprised, that the Land Rover her father had bought to tow their horse box around 13 years ago had matured into such a valuable addition to the vineyard, fulfilling roles they had never dreamt of. Over a glass of Dolcetta she talked nostalgically about their late father towing the horse box with their two ponies up and down these hills when the two daughters were keen competitors. They would be squashed in the front with all the saddles and harnesses in the back and a good picnic of bread, cheese and fruit, plus of course, a bottle of red for Dad to pass the day away as he watched is daughters from the comfort of the Land Rover.Toby Savage. February 2009