Farming Piemonte: the most beautiful work in the world
Cascina Val del Prete
Val del Prete, or in English Valley of the Priest, takes its name from the exiled Bishop of Asti, who lived in this part of the Roero appellation in 1850. Roero is located in southern Piemonte just across the Tanaro River from the Langhe, the area that includes Barolo and Barbaresco. In 1977, Bartolomeo and Carolina Roagna purchased the farm, where they had worked as sharecroppers and replaced fruit and grain crops with what are now 27 acres of vines. Today their son Mario runs the business and has dedicated himself to producing Nebbiolo wines that have the same quality as those in Barolo and Barbaresco. In its quest for excellence, the family converted the estate to biodynamic viticulture, a system that is far more rigorous than even organic farming. In addition to prohibiting toxic chemicals to control pests, weeds, or molds, the farm must be completely self-sustaining, and any nutrient that the vines or soil might require must be produced from plants grown on the site, which are then plowed into the soil. Val del Prete has received multiple Tre Bicchieri awards from the prestigious Italian wine guide “Gambero Rosso” for its Roero wine. Writing for Robert Parker’s “Wine Advocate,” Antonio Galloni says that the winery is one of his favorites in the Roero appellation.
In 1967, Alfonso Ferrio bought a 48-acre estate in Roero, Piemonte, planted with old vines on very steep terrain from 1400 to 1550 feet above sea level. Like many small farmers in that decade, he made wine from his fruit and sold it in bulk to others, who bottled, labeled, and sold it. Today, Alfonso’s son Angelo runs the business and in 1995 began to bottle their own estate wines, including Nebbiolo, Barbera, and Arneis, the classic varieties of Roero. The winery is on track to receive its organic certification in 2013. Considered one of the best producers in the Roero area, the family is making delicious wines, especially from the Audinaggio and Mulassa vineyards and has received multiple Tre Bicchieri (Three Glasses) awards from “Gambero Rosso.”
Founded in 1929, this is truly a family business. Present owner Carlo Daniele Ricci is the grandson of founder Daniele Ricci and has created an agri-tourismo function at the estate, including accommodations and a restaurant. His mother does the cooking; his father helps in the vineyards, and his son makes vinegar. Daniele Ricci states that the philosophy of the winery requires that they follow the rhythms of nature and adjust to the natural world that surrounds them, not visa-versa. Working this way means that they keep mechanical and above all chemical interventions to the absolute minimum possible. For many years, Daniele Ricci has not used any type of herbicide or pesticide in his 20 acres of vineyard. Instead he employs cover crops that reinvigorate the soil and farms the vines naturally and with love without the need for any formal certifications. He works in the cellar using the same philosophy that he employs in the vineyards. He does not use clarifying agents or filter the wines and accepts that the wines will sometimes leave a small deposit in the bottle. The addition of sulfur is minimal,. His goal is to make a wine that is both natural and delicious, and his wish is that those who drink his wines acquire at least a little love for what he considers the most beautiful work in the world. The family specializes in Bonarda and Croatina, typical of the area but similar enough so that they are difficult to distinguish in older vineyards. The winemaker is Carlo Arnulfo.
Italian Wines of the Month
Cascina Ca’Rossa – 2010 Roero Arneis “Merica”
With a greenish straw yellow color and a fragrance with notes of apricot and grass, the Ca’Rossa Arneis “Merica” is 100 percent Arneis, the classic white of the Roero region. In the Roero dialect, the name “Merica” refers to the American continent where so many inhabitants of the area migrated. But the word “Merica” is also imbued with hopes for a better life, which gradually occurred as Italy recovered from the World War II.
The wine was aged for several months in stainless steel tanks. Serve this fresh and fruity Arneis chilled as an aperitif and with main courses of fish or poultry dishes.
Daniele Ricci – 2009 Bonarda “El Matt”
This rustic but delicious wine is 100% Bonarda, once widely planted but now mainly blended with Nebbiolo. The wine was aged in stainless steel tanks to preserve its pure aromas and flavors that mimic raspberries and flowers with notes of balsamic. Serve at cool room temperatures with salumi, risotto with wild mushrooms, and ravioli with meat.
Cascina Ca’Rossa – 2009 Barbera d’Alba, “Vigna Mulassa”
Wine guide “Gambero Rosso” writes, “Meticulous work in vineyards on the steep, sandy terrain…, has enabled him [owner Angelo Ferrio] to create wines with big personalities and a fine sense of place,” an idea that certainly describes this 2009 Barbera d’Alba from the single vineyard “Mulassa.” Aged for 18 months in Slavonian oak barrels, the wine has an intense purple color and shows a wide range of scents, among them plum jam, cherries, and blackberries, typical of Barbera. The wine is full-bodied and well balanced with fruit flavors, acid, and soft tannins. Serve at room temperature with roasted meats and meat-based ravioli.
Daniele Ricci – 2004 Croatina “Elso”
This unusual wine is 100% Croatina, closely related to Bonarda and in many older vineyards, like those at Daniele Ricci, indistinguishable from it. Aged for 24 months in large oak casks that do not mask the flavors of the fruit, the wine has a smooth texture with rich fruity and flowery flavors on the mid palate and spice and pepper on the finish. Serve at cool room temperature with stuffed eggplant, roasted rabbit, and other small game.
Cascina Val del Prete – Roero “Bricco Medica”
“Bricco Medica” refers to the wild medicinal herbs that grow in this vineyard, about three acres at an altitude of 900 feet. This is a more delicate wine than the Roero, showing suggestions of crushed flowers, sweet baking spices, red cherries, and raspberries, all of which meld together nicely on a mid-weight frame that is typical of Nebbiolo. Aged for 16 months in new French oak barrels, the Bricco Medica reveals gorgeous inner perfume that adds to a compelling finish. Antonio Galloni, writing for Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate gave the wine 92+ points. Serve this delicious wine at cool room temperature.
Cascina Val del Prete – 2005 Roero
This wine is a more classically styled Roero, similar in structure to Barolo or Barbaresco. The goal of owner Mario Roagna is that his wine from the Roero appellation be the equal of the two other noble Nebbiolo-based wines of Piemonte, Barbaresco and Barolo, the Barolo appellation located just across the river from his estate. To this end, Mario Roagna has combined the best fruit from his various Nebbiolo vineyards for this wine, which for numerous vintages has won the prestigious Tre Bicchieri award from Italian wine guide “Gambero Rosso.” Aged for 22 months in new French oak barrels, the 2005 Roero is an elegantly brooding red with intense flavors and aromas, typical of Nebbiolo.
Italian Region of the Month
Almost half of Piemonte, which means “foot of the mountain,” lies in the great arc of the Alps and the Apennines, from which the Po River flows east through its broad valley to the Adriatic. Bordering Switzerland and France, Piemonte and the smaller Valle d’Aosta region to the north were part of the French-speaking principality of Savoy between the 11th and 18th Centuries and played a key role in the Risorgimento, the movement that united Italy under a Savoy king in 1859. Famous ski resorts and the wild Parco Nazionale del Gran Paradiso draw visitors to the majestic mountains in the north, while in the south, vine covered hills around Barolo and vast fields of grain and rice in the Po valley continue a rich agricultural tradition. Torino, the region’s capital, is a crowded industrial city and home to the Fiat car company, but it also offers splendid Baroque civic buildings, palazzi, and museums, one of which is world renowned for its Egyptian collection gathered during the Napoleonic Wars.
The ancient Liguri tribes who dominated the region probably first cultivated the wild vines of the Apennines, but they learned wine making from the Greeks about 600 BC. The Celtic Taurini, who gave their name to Torino, also grew vines in the region. Although the Romans planted vines, they didn’t favor the wines. Finally in the 19th Century, the wines of Piemonte gained distinction when the Savoy and others began to use French methods.
Piemonte has 57 DOC and DOCG zones, more than any other region. Most vineyards are located in two major areas, in the Langhe and Monferrato hills, which are connected to the Apennines in the southeast and in the foothills of the Alps to the north between Lake Maggiore and Valle d’Aosta. In the Langhe hills above the town of Alba are the vineyards of Barolo, one of Italy’s most prestigious wines, “the king of wines and the wine of kings,” although some think that Barbaresco is its equal. The noble Nebbiolo vine produces both wines as well as Gattinara. Barbera and Dolcetto are popular full-flavored reds, while Freisa, Grignolino, and Brachetto are popular pale, fruity varieties often made as bubbly wines.
Whites are equally prominent, the first being Asti Spumante from Moscato d’Asti, the nation’s second DOCG in volume after Chianti and the world’s second sparkling wine after Champagne. Among still whites, Gavi from the Cortese grape has emerged as one of Italy’s most coveted wines, and Arneis is attracting increasing attention.