SEPTEMBER 2019 ITALIAN WINE CLUB
PIEDMONT PICNIC PART ONE
Let’s face it, Piedmont is where it’s at. The cat’s meow. The scrumdiddlyumptious of Italy, and Italian wine. Let’s start with the fact that Nebbiolo is King. Basta. It’s one of the few “truths” in the wine world that I personally can get behind without blinking an eye. There is so much incredible wine throughout Italy, of course, but how often do we say things like “it’s the Barolo of the South” or “this grape is reminiscent of Barbera?” Recognition for world class wines in this area is so many people’s gold standard, and clearly well deserved. But, honestly, there is still so much more to Piedmont than Barolo and Barbaresco that it’s mind bottling (wink wink.) So, as blasphemous as this is, for the next two months, we’re going to dip our little toes into the incredibly diverse Piedmont region… without going into Nebbiolo. Yet.
This Month we are featuring two of the “other” most famous local Piedmontese red grape varieties, equally important and delicious, as well as two white grapes that somehow not enough people know anything about.
Next Month: Two of the most famous white grape varieties of Piedmont (though clearly white wines are second fiddle in this region) and two more obscure red grapes that are only more recently gaining in popularity. Salute to that!
WINE NO. 1
Benito Favaro ‘Le Chiusure’
Caluso, Piedmont, Italy 2017
ERBALUCE [air-bah LOO-chay]
A fairy named Albaluce gave the people of Caluso a blessing in the form of this beautiful grape vine, according to legend. With a backstory like this it’s a shame that Erbaluce is not nearly as widely regarded as perhaps it deserves to be. It has very thick skin and actually turns quite bronze in color when fully ripened, which can present challenges if the goal is to make a simple, bright and crisp white wine. But this also provides some important positive attributes, such as the ability to retain strong acidity, as well as some natural phenolic texture that producers are learning to work with instead of constantly fighting. Wines made with a bit of skin contact, slightly off dry wines, and even sparkling wines are all examples of how Erbaluce is continuing to evolve its personality.
Benito Favaro is the true salt-of-the-earth farmer and his winery is an incredibly small production family business. Every family member has a role. One son, Nicola, farms the land with him while his other son, Camillo, makes the wine. His daughter Nicola and her partner are the viticulturalists and, of course, Mama Rosanna is the rock that keeps everybody moving, shaking, and smiling through their everyday. Situated just thirty miles north of the city of Turin and along the same Alpine fed river that travels down through the Aosta Valley, the small DOCG of Caluso is altogether a unique and stunning corner of Piedmont.
Almonds, dried hay, minty herbs and ginger chews! There always seems to be a nutty quality to Erbaluce in my mind, something easily explained as a by-product of thick skinned or skin contact whites. Favaro chooses not to do any extended skin contact, as it doesn’t really need extra texture. The thicker skins naturally provide a fantastic phenolic mouth feel, or white wine tannin, so there’s little need for that approach. Orange marmalade, quince and cantaloupes make up the soft fleshy fruits in this wine and it is packed with strong minerality that speaks to its sub-Alpine terroir.
The name actually derives from the Latin expression “alba lux” (sunrise light) referring to the warm amber color of the grapes in autumn. Try this with some smoked meats or fish – not often an easy pairing, but we find a sweet spot here.
La Colombera ‘Derthona’
Colli Tortonesi, Piedmont, Italy 2016
This is such a distinct grape – one which presents a range of flavors and textures that can be equally compelling as they are confusing. Back in the day, think Leonardo da Vinci (big Timorasso fan), Timorasso had been planted and favored as widely as Cortese throughout Piedmont, so it is incredible to learn that this grape was very close to extinction. But one man’s undying passion to save it from the brink brought this grape back into focus. Walter Massa is the man behind the Timorasso revival- re-planting, protecting and producing incredible wines, and the only producer to be found here in the US market for years. Now there are (only) two dozen producers working with it in the area around Turin with some fabulous results and soon a few brave souls soon to be working with it here in California as well. Swoon.
Elisa and Lorenzo Semino are the most recent of five generations of farming and they are all in on hailing the Timorasso grape as the pride and true identity of their region, Colli Tortonesi. In fact, out of the very small number of producers that are now championing Timorasso the La Colombera wines are the most intriguing I’ve had. Massa’s wines are, of course, an incredible benchmark but the last few vintages from the Semino family have raised the bar. I think I can say this with some authority… There can’t be too many people who’ve had the privilege (see: obsession) to have tasted through so many examples of this weird and wondrous grape variety.
Apricots, nectarines and even tart guava thrown in a bowl with some fresh picked sweet herbs. There are so few grapes to which we can attribute a distinct ‘petrol’ quality, and here is one of the rare moments where one might mistake this wine for a German Riesling? That smokey scent keeps rearing its head but it is a different smokey than what we commonly think of in Italy from volcanic soils. In this case (and I feel is an odd little marker of Timorasso) it really reminds my of toasted marshmallows. Sorry. You just can’t un-smell that one now, can you? Thankfully, nothing is sticky on the palate-just heady minerality that’s somehow both honeyed viscous and razor sharp. Geeky good.
‘Derthona’ is the old name for the city of Tortona, where Timorasso was born. Notice this is a 2016 – and yet it was just recently released! Timorasso ages unbelievably well.
Alba, Piedmont, 2017
It means little sweet one, referring to the low acid grapes that are a joy to eat straight off the vine. Important to note that you’ll never find a sweet wine made from this grape though – it is more well known for being crunchy, fresh and bitter. Out of all the more famous grape varieties of Italy, Dolcetto, I’ll admit, was one that I struggled to love for a long time. The beauty is in its simplicity to be sure, but sometimes it struggles to stand out in a crowd. And crowding has been its biggest challenge as most of the land where it was once planted has now been taken up by Nebbiolo for obvious economic reasons.
Here in Italy’s most famous growing region there are just so many incredible wineries, it’s darn near impossible to pick favorites. But I’ll admit it, GD Vajra has long been a favorite of mine. Their Barolos ride the impossible line between rustic and modern perfectly. They make one of my all time favorite sparkling wines (did you snag some last time that was in the shop? Keep an eye out for more.) and they even make a Chinato (fortified Barolo infused with herbs) that will completely blow your mind. Amazingly though, one third of their production is still dedicated to Dolcetto. Huge thanks to the champions of the little grapes like the Vajra family, especially when the results of their passions are this freaking delicious.
Dark fruit like elderberry and blackberries. More of the classic Dolcetto bitterness comes on the nose with black olives and a bit of quinine (chichona) than from the taste. And it’s even got a touch of ‘that new leather smell.’ The vital balance here is that the fruit profile is superbly ripe and juicy, but still provides a clean and crisp finish. Dolcetto is always pinned as the starter wine, the daytime wine, the ‘crush a bottle while your nebbiolo is decanting’ wine. Vajra makes this wine far better beyond that simple notion, but don’t let that stop you from being sure that it is served with a big plate of prosciutto with a balsamico drizzle.
Four little birds, pitched by my doorstep. Singin sweet songs, of melodies pure and true. This is Dolcetto for you-ou-ou. Vajra pairs perfectly with Bob Marley.
Alba, Piedmont, Italy 2017
One of the greats. Best known from Piedmont for sure, but is grown actually throughout the country in many different soils and, surprisingly, is the third most planted native grape in all Italy. Traditionally it can be found at a local trattoria poured into a (mostly) clean flat bottom water glass (or ‘paisano’ glass) in Italy for €1.50. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with those, but they can be overly simple. Barbera has very little natural tannin but gobs of natural acidity, making for bright easy drinking red. But over the past twenty years we’re seeing better and better Barberas every vintage. Don’t fall for the old higher price tag = better trick; most often those flashy Barberas are exposed to far too much oak. Barbera absorbs wood flavors and tannins more easily than many other varieties, so even a little bit of new oak can torpedo an otherwise delicious wine.
Claudio Fennochio and his family do everything in the vineyards and in the cellar in a slow, traditional, methodical way. If it doesn’t take all day and all of your attention, then it’s just not being done right. Their wines reflect this level of dedication in every way. Purity of fruit, aromatics, texture all come from the grapes and the land; the job of the winemaker is to do everything he can not to interfere with that. Fifth generation organic growers, they are content still producing what they consider is the ‘right’ amount of wine and never pushing to increase output (only 8,000 cases!) Whether it’s his Nebbiolo or Barbera in the bottle, Claudio’s wines are always going to be a beautiful and memorable experience.
Lavender and fresh baked blueberry scones. Tart blackberries straight off the vine. All that juicy fruit up front, but the mid palate also provides something you don’t get enough from Barbera- terroir! Land in Bussia is world-class soil for Nebbiolo: Clay, Tuffa, Blue Marl. Not much Barbera left growing here, as you can imagine, but for producers like Fenocchio it provides a beautiful earthy mid palate that puts this wine over the top. Supple ripeness and textured layers give way to Barbera doing what great Barbera does best… delayed electric acidity. Then the salivary glands get fired up and never let up. Pair with fat: shavable, carvable, spreadable, edible fat.
Just the most classic label, isn’t it? As mentioned, these vineyards are in the famed Bussia zone, but originally this was designated Monforte d’Alba as indicated on the label.