October 26, 2012 7:31 pm

Land of wine and money

How to mix farming with tourism
Villa San Raffaello

Villa San Raffaello in Italy’s Le Marche region includes eight acres of land that produce up to 700 litres of wine per year, on sale for €750,000

How many readers, on a gloomy, stressful day in some cold, northern city have not dreamt of ditching it all to live in a beautiful corner of Italy – say Tuscany, Friuli or Le Marche?

Many tourists are familiar with the hospitality side of agriturismi – rural inns or bed and breakfasts, or restaurants that serve home-produced food in a family setting – but few realise the extent of their agricultural concerns. The Italian agricultural ministry invented the agriturismo scheme in 1985 as a way to keep Italian farmers on the land, allowing them to use their buildings to tap into Italy’s rich tourism market. By law, 51 per cent of an agriturismo’s revenues must come from income-producing agriculture, including livestock or forest management, though owners are not obligated to do the cultivation themselves and may rent out their land.

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A choice of properties across a broad price range and in a variety of Italian regions makes this an attractive time to purchase income-producing property that combines the pleasures of hosting guests with farming in Italy’s most attractive regions.

However, generalising about prices for agriturismi is not straightforward. Mario Breglia of Scenari Immobiliari, a real estate research group, says prices vary widely because of variables such as the region, the variety of grapes cultivated and building preservation. On a regional level, the Tecnocasa agency says that restored rural residences in Umbria go for between €2,500 and €3,000 per square metre. Italy’s National Agricultural Institute reports that many Italians consider agricultural land a haven for investment; prices have increased by more than 20 per cent since 2000, though this represents a 3.4 per cent drop adjusted for inflation.

Certainly, lower-priced sectors such as camping and agriturismi have been less affected by downturns in tourism than more expensive types of lodging.

One path to agriturismo ownership is to acquire property to convert into an agriturismo, which is what Damien Conrad, a former financial services project manager, and his family did in 2006. They sought a lifestyle outside the UK that was “self-sufficient and less materialistic and that offered a community-based, safe and stimulating environment for our children”. After scouting properties in Italy and elsewhere, they purchased the Villa San Raffaello property near Sarnano in Italy’s Le Marche region.

Their purchase included eight acres of land and a derelict farmhouse. The Conrads restored the farmhouse to create four apartments with a total of 10 bedrooms. There are now several al fresco eating areas and a pool with views of the medieval town of Sarnano.

The Conrads lease their land, which produces maize, fruits and nuts, and vines that can yield up to 700 litres of wine each year from a combination of Merlot, Sangiovese and Syrah grapes. Vegetables from the kitchen garden feed the family and guests. Income ranges from €3,000 to €5,000 per week, depending on the season. Despite being integrated into the community, the Conrads are returning to the UK to meet their children’s educational needs, and are selling Villa San Rafaello. They are asking €750,000 for their property, which is available via Italy Property Sale.

Another approach to agriturismo ownership is to add hospitality to an agricultural enterprise, which is what the owner of a historic Tuscan estate, or tenuta, between Poggibonsi and San Gimignano did in 1998. He turned a cluster of hail-damaged farm buildings into nine guest rooms and two apartments with views of San Gimignano’s towers. The 700 acres of land produce wheat, olive oil and 200,000 bottles of Vernaccia di San Gimignano, San Gimignano Rosso and Chianti Colli Senesi. There is also a purpose-built barn for drying and fermenting prizewinning vin santo. The asking price for the property is €39m, and it is being sold through Beatrice Sidoli at the Real Luxury Inc.

All too often, Italy’s lesser-known rural regions are overlooked in favour of Tuscany and Umbria. An island agriturismo in the Adriatic Sea near Trieste offers a chance to discover the Friuli region, home to superb wines and the beautiful coast near Trieste. La Ravairina, as the property is called, is located in the lagoon of Grado and comes with a fish farm suitable for raising sea bass or gilt-head bream.

Wine cellar

Wine cellar at an agriturismo near San Gimignano

Grado is an Austro-Hungarian seaside resort, once enjoyed by Freud and Pirandello. Austrian and German travellers love its combination of Habsburg nostalgia, sandy beaches and Friuli’s wine and food.

La Ravairina is a five-minute ride by water-taxi from Grado’s port and is a favourite Sunday lunch destination for boaters from Trieste. Across the water lie the Dolomites and the campanile of the basilica of Aquileia, the Roman port where early residents fled from invading barbarians before they eventually moved on to found Venice.

La Ravairina covers 577,288 sq m. It has few guest rooms and its strong point is the popular, full-service restaurant that seats 120. The fish farm qualifies Ravairina as an agriturismo. The owners are asking €3m for the property, which they are marketing through their Dolomites-based hospitality business Piz de Sella SPA.

Owners of agriturismi tend to agree on the rewards of living in the Italian countryside but are emphatic about keeping it in perspective. “This is first and foremost a real business,” says the owner of the San Gimignano estate, who hires outside experts to harvest his grapes and cultivate his wheat. “You can’t do it any other way.”

Kevin Gibney, a transplanted New Yorker who sources and restores property in Le Marche, says the most common mistake newcomers to agriturismi ownership make is underestimating the costs of restoration and effective marketing. To avoid construction delays, Gibney says: “Don’t begin without a contract written by an Italian lawyer that includes a guaranteed price and penalties for delays.”

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Pros

You can make your dream property pay

No commute to work

Slow pace of rural life

Cons

Italian bureaucracy

A farmer’s work is never done

Remote, no international schools

What you can buy for ...

€100,000 Not an agriturismo, but a restored medieval town house in Le Marche. There is no land to care for. The 95 sq m include a grotto, living areas and two bedrooms

€1m An established guest-hosting property, with change left over for marketing. Comes with three 3ha of land, a main building and outbuildings, pool and sauna. Both through www.propertyforsalemarch.com

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