Monday, October 19, 2009

The Land of Lombardia - from Franciacorta to the heights of the Valtellina

Welcome to the new blog. For one thing, the pink had to go. Every so often I would preview the actual blog, and I would wonder if I had been redirected to Barbie's Dreamhouse. I swear it didn't seem so on par with pepto-bismol when I selected it.

Regardless, it's done now. And so is dedicating entire blog postings to one winery - with sometimes 3 or 4 cantina visits in one day it's too hard. From now on they will be grouped together in an intelligent manner; for example, this posting is going to be about my rapid 3 days in Lombardia - minus the 24 hours spent in Lake Como. (Sorry you non wine-loving readers, you will have to wait for my Northern Italian surf 'n turf posting to hear about Como.) The wineries featured are:

Bellavista (Franciacorta)
Bellavista Franciacorta

Nino Negri (Valtellina)
Aldo Rainoldi (Valtellina)
VALTELLINA (Negri and Rainoldi)

So, to continue from where I left you hanging upon departing from Piemonte, after an afternoon and evening in Milan my friend Tasha (who had joined me from the States to drive through mountainous northern Lombardia) and I departed early to head to Franciacorta for an appointment at Bellavista. We were met by Alberto Chioni, the head of their marketing, for an in-depth tour of the cantina and an impressive lunch to follow.

The Franciacorta zone is very unique in that it is a glacial basin situated between the Orobie Alps to the north (which separate it from the more northerly Valtellina, which you'll hear about next) and the hills of Monte Orfano. Also included in this little pocket is the Lago d'Iseo, which helps moderatate the climate. indeed, when approaching by car the landscape is totally flat until you are within - which you don't even realize until you get out of the car and have a look around at the massive hills that seem to have just popped out of the earth, with mountains looming both around and beyond the lake to the north. As such, the soils were brought by the alps (in a glacial movement) and are a mix of clay and stone.

Like everywhere else in Italy, winemaking has been going on for centuries here, though it has only become an area with prominence in the last 50 years. Even in the 1960's there was mainly Piemontese varietals planted here (Nebbiolo and Barbera), with the wines labeled as "Pinot di Franciacorta". However, in the 60's a movement towards the production of sparkling wine ensued, and in the 70's it became the very first DOC (a nationally recognized wine zone in Italy) to dictate that the wines be made by motodo classico (traditional method that Champagne is made in with a secondary fermentation occurring in the bottle to create the bubbles.) Over time, it was also deemed that Franciacorta must come from Chardonnay, Pinot Nero and/or Pinot Bianco grapes, and that the wines must age a minimum of 18 months in the bottle - beating even the laws for Champagne! In 1995 the zone was elevated to a DOCG - the highest grade in Italy, and in 2003 the EU even recognized it as one of 13 protected appellations. What does that mean? That, like Champagne, the name "Franciacorta" is essentially trademarked, and is only permitted anywhere on a wine label if it comes from this zone in Italy and is a sparkling wine made by the metodo classico.
**The fact that I just used "sparkling wine" to describe it totally goes against everything that this appelation represents to the producers of Franciacorta. The true purpose is to hammer it in to peoples' heads that when they hear the word "Franciacorta" they should know what to expect, like Champagne. Think about it, if someone is going to offer you a glass of true Champagne, would they ask you, "Would like some sparkling wine?" Of course not. (The real tragedy is that you're far more likely to be offered a glass of "champagne" (I'm talking in the privacy of someone's home) and actually get handed a glass of something that's sparkling, but nothing like Champagne.) To add to their cause, the still wines of the zone - which were previously called "Terre di Franciacorta" have been changed to "Curtefranca" so as to not to further draw from the Franciacorta namesake and image. Capisci?

As for Bellavista, the company was founded in 1977 by Vittorio Moretti who was the owner of a large construction firm, and wanted to make wines from property owned grapes - a "grower-producer", if you will. At this point the company is mammoth - with 187 hectares and 13 more added this year! However, having visited the winery I can vouch for the fact that everything is still being made in a very artisinal manner. For one thing, they were still using the old-school Marmonier press until not so many years ago, though they have now switched to a vertical press. They keep the musts of each vineyard separate during tank fermentation, and the juice for sparkling wines see a minimum of 6 years in old french barrels - and that's before they enter the bottles for the secondary fermentation! Not to mention, the bottles are all still riddled manually, and their grand cuvee, the Vittorio Moretti, which is only made in exceptional vintages, is bottled with a natural cork for it's fermentation and aging. (Alberto said that the disgorging of these bottles is particularly entertaining, as it requires 2 people in water-proof jumpsuits wearing helmets with a large protective face shield.) I did not, unfortunately, get to see the vineyards, but I can only guess that as much anal-retentive care goes into them as it would be a bit of an paradox if they were neglecting them or harvesting by machine.

MOVING ON... see, try as I might, I can't abridge to save my life.

In the interim of Franciacorta and the Valtellina we stopped in Lake Como to take in the breathtaking views of the lake. In doing so, we traveled the entire western shore of the lake and around the very top. I passed through dozens of adorable little lakeside villages, and can honestly say that anywhere you choose to stay around that lake is magnificent. As I traveled east along SS38 it wasn't long before I began seeing vineyards etched into the mountainous northern wall. Yet, we were a good hour from our destination near Sondrio, where the Valtellina Superiore vineyards are. I guess I didn't realize how far the actual DOC zone stretched!

At Negri I have to admit I was a little disappointed to find out that the winery had long ago fallen out of the Negri's hands and has now rifled through several big-business hands, to it's current owner, Gruppo Italiano Vini. Not to say that this is bad, but... there's something to be said for meeting the family that has for their lifetime - and probably their parents and grandparents, too - worked the vines, handed down the land, and possibly pulled the purse strings tight to erect a cantina. The cantina did spend its first 80 in the family, though - started in 1897 by Nino and then taken over by his son, Carlo. However, when Carlo passed away no one in the family wanted to take over and it was sold in 1974 (to the bank of Switzerland. Cha-ching!) One thing that big money can do is to help to preserve and expand, and as such the original house that the Negri's lived in is still there in all its glory.

They export 70% of their annual production (which I have in my notes as 850,000 bottles, but I can't find evidence to back that up, so let's leave it at that.) They own 34 hectares of vineyards in Sassella, Grumello, Inferno and Valgella, which produce a little over 1/4 of their fruit. Interestingly enough, they also are the proprietors of a co-op of local farmers where the rest of their fruit hails from. I assume this is the situation because, similarly to the steep vineyards in Valle d'Aosta, many people have small parcels of land, but don't have the means to produce on their own (nor do they have enough fruit to). At least, I tried to make this analogy to our guide, Urbani, but he didn't seem to grasp what I was getting at. (That's what I get for choosing to study a topic in a foreign language.)

All the details of ownership aside, the wines still speak for themselves. And after a full degustazione I can say I left with a smile on my face. Their wines are especially interesting because they use many different vessels for the production and aging. Steel vats, cement tanks (though this was more of a practice in the past), french oak, american oak, and botte in every size imaginable (made of slavenian oak - different from slovenian, as Aldo Rainoldi clarified the next day).

Last but CERTAINLY not the least, a morning tour at Aldo Rainoldi, given mainly by Aldo's business partner, Fabio, but with some face time with Aldo at the end - mainly our driving tour of the vineyards and a local castel.

At Rainoldi it's still a family run operation, though this Aldo is the nephew of the Aldo Rainoldi that started the company in 1925 - who was the son of winemaker Giuseppe Rainoldi. So, it's in the blood here. (And Aldo has a baby boy, so hopefully there's another generation on deck to take over some day. Good thing they were baby-proofing at Ca'Rizzieri :)

They use large barrels with, yes slAvenian oak, not to be confused with the more commenly seen SlOvenian oak, which borders Italy along Friuli in the northeast and long ago infiltrated the country with their oak casks. To be honest, I didn't even know there was a country called Slavenia - and apparently either does google maps, it asked me if I meant Slovenia. (Ironically, I can't decide who I feel worse for - Google for not knowing about an entire country, or Slavenia who's identity has been reduced to oak barrels.)

Regardless, Rainoldi saves the flashy french barriques for their Sursfat, Crespino, and Inferno Riserva, and the barrels are only used up to a second passage (the fancy french way of saying that thier barriques see only 2 vintages). For those of you that don't know, Sfursato is a type of wine made only in the Valtellina that involves laying the grape clusters out to dry in a place called a "Fruttaio". (but, p.s. the shortened version, "Sfursat" is technically dialect!) Thus far in Italy I've seen fruttaios that were located in anything from warehouses, to large lofty rooms over the cantina, to entire wings of the fortress (Dal Forno).

Alright, my plan to not get lengthy is clearly failing. So I'm gonna wrap this up with this last comment.
So, I learned that these stone walls that break up the steep vineyards are actually called "Scisto". Without these walls - that basically turn the steep mountainside into stairsteps of short rows of vines - the area would be unworkable. On a seperate note, one of the Valtellina Superiore vineyards, the Inferno, is named as such because it's rocky soils increase the temperature to the extent that it becomes like an oven. Upon actually getting to see this famed vineyard I was surprised to not see the ground scattered in jagged rocks. I asked Aldo, and according to him the rockiness comes from rocks that are actually beneath the soil (also visible in some areas jutting out of the ground - see album), and the sheer amount of shisti (the stone walls) due to the steepness.
See, it looked like I was going into 2 seperate directions there, but I brought it all together.

I wanted to close with this funny little video of driving in the valtellina, stealing apples, but I've tried twice now and wasted almost 2 hours killing time on line waiting for it to finish upload, and no dice. Sorry, blame Google. First Slavenia, now this!

Friday, October 16, 2009

Piemonte Round-up (a.k.a. La Spinetta parte due)

If Giorgio Rivetti saw that picture I'm sure he would not be happy. There's a very good chance he may, in fact. But, rest assured after he goes racing into the cellar at Grinzane Cavour, where his precious Barolo rests in brand new barriques (that, as you can see in the photo, I have marred with an over-flow) he will find no trace of the err. That's because Stefano can make miracles happen. (If only he could do the same to so many shirts I have!)

My last week at Spinetta I worked mainly in the cantina filling and emptying barriques. I would like to say that I got pretty good at it, but evidence exists to fight that statement. Not to mention, it's not necessarily difficult, it mainly requires patience, though the filling of the barrel is definitely the harder task of the two. For one thing, it's a listening task - you musk keep your ear by the opening on the barrel to listen for when it's almost full. But let me tell you, there's nothing like keeping your face over the only outlet for all the acidic fumes coming off of freshly fermented barbera - Mamma Mia! My eyes would burn, and my nostrils tingled! All the same, it was a task deemed appropriate for the girl from New York who has no experience working in a winery.

However, lucky for me, I was able to enjoy some time in Piemonte that did not include wincing over barrels of fresh barbera. My first weekend there, for example, Suzanne returned from Milan (where she is studying for a masters at Bocconi), and we headed to La Morra, in the Barolo zone, for a sunday degustazione at Mauro Molino with Martina Molino. When we were there she informed us that there was actually a big festival going on in town with almost all of the producers in La Morra tasting the masses on their 2005 Barolos (and usually their other wines, too). There are some pictures of this in the album here, amongst others (the first few being from before I arrived at Spinetta - whilst we were still in Northern Piemonte.) Like the previous albums, be sure to watch the captions for a better explanation, though my favorite picture definitely hails from Enzo Boglietti's booth where we were served by a boy (presumably his son) who was probably 9. Only in Italy!
La Spinetta & La Vita Piemontese

In the album you can also observe Giovanna Rivetti - my "hostess" in Piemonte, as well as her hens - and the rooster, not pictured, that served as my alarm clock during my stay. It's amazing, in New York I learned to block out the sounds of ambulances, car horns, and noisy bars. In Piemonte, it was farm animals. (I'll have you know, though, by the end of my time there I was successfully sleeping through that damn rooster!)

One thing slightly unfortunate was that I was unable to visit as many producers as I would have liked because it was harvest (vendemmia) and all were busy - including me. I had a rapid tour at Eunaudi (which is really a beautiful estate!) and a wonderful lunch with the Altare's. My last day in Piemonte (a day I was actually supposed to be in Milan with my friend, Tasha, who had arrived the previous day from the States) we got to also visit Chiara Boschis at the E. Pira e Figli cantina - which was much better than anything we could have done in Milan.

Right before I left I was also lucky enough to catch a friend who was an amazing resource to setting up this trip - Mark Fornatale, Italian Wine Portfolio Director for Michael Skurnik Wines in NYC. We got to spend the afternoon at the Bra Cheese Festival, and then that night dive into the ENTIRE Barolo portfolio of Marc DeGrazie for 2005 and 2006 at the cantina of Fratelli Ravello(!!!) (So you know, these were not opened for us, this was in honor of Steve Tanzer's visit - whom I was lucky enough to meet earlier that week during his appointment with Giorgio (I played the sommelier for that appointment :). We were just part of the free-loading crew that came by afterwards to partake in all the open bottles of delicious, amazing barolo.)
The final added bonus of over-lapping time with Mark was attending a dinner my last night with all the Barolo kids. It was a "bring a bottle blind" kind of event, and I'm happy to say that I did pretty well. Go me! But, more than that, it was a wonderful chance to get to hang out with everyone on their own turf versus when they're being dragged around New York. In fact, my luck served me well in that I got to sit with Chiara Boschis, who was every bit as fabulous as you might expect, and the reason for pushing back that Milan arrival one more day to visit her cantina.

All in all an amazing visit in Piemonte. I felt welcomed (and enthusiastically invited!) by everyone I met, and at this time I have many open invitations to return... which I just might have to do before I depart. It was nice to be able to work as well as offer my service skills at Spinetta (not only as a tour guide for english speaking visitors, but also during a few dinner parties and, of course, the Steve Tanzer appointment), as it allowed me to give back a bit to the overwhelming generosity I received. It was definitely an experience I will never forget, and I can only hope to continue the friendships for years to come.

Here are a few short films from the time in Piemonte. They are very rough, but they offer a more real-time experience. Enjoy!

Bra Cheese Festival

Friday, October 9, 2009

Ghemme vs. Gattinara (Cantalupo & Antoniolo, Piemonte)

Any great lover of Italian Wines (who has taken the time to get to know the lesser known areas of Gattinara and Ghemme in northern Piemonte) can tell you that they are completely different wines. But then, consult a map, and you see they are just accross the river Sesia from each other. And what's more, they are made with the exact same grape - Nebbiolo!

Visualizzazione ingrandita della mappa
So what gives? Why is it that Gattinara shares similarities with it's stong-willed siblings, Barbaresco, Carema, and even some Barolo's, while Ghemme strikes the palate more like a Burgundy?

From what I can understand, the main difference is their soil composition. In Gattinara they have volcanic soils that are mainly composed with porphyr and also some granite. The hills are steeper, they see more rainfall than their neighbor, and the day to night temperatures vary more. The high level of minerality in the soils helps preserve acidity, and overall the wines are capable of producing the powerful identity more commonly attributed to the Langhe.

In Ghemme the soils were brought by glacial movements, and as such they have much more rocky, mountain deposits that have come together with a chalky, sand-like binding component. Alberto Alunno stopped the car at one point and directed me to break a chunk of soil from the exposed hillside. It was light tan in color, and though initially firm would crumble into a pile of dust without a lot of effort. Now, as much as I'd like to make a general comparision to the soils of Burgundy here (or, as the French call it, "Bourgogne"), there just no way to do that as the regions most famous selling point is that the soils vary from one vineyard plot to the one right next to it, and even within the same vineyard sometimes. However, (generally speaking) what they have in common is their clay base (though more limestone in Burgundy) and sandy or gravely composition, which helps drain the soils and maintains a certain level of elegance in the wines. For a better visual of how close these areas lie, refer to the photo below.

Looking at Gattinara from the hills of Ghemme

But when all is said and done, I have only my own experiences with these wines over the past few years, coupled with the ones I had here to base my ideas on. And in tasting through both current vintage line-ups, it was clear that Antoniolo's Gattinara's offered up more acidity, spice, licorice, fresh leather, and cherries, while the Ghemme's struck that certain "barnyard" note that is so commonly associated with Burgundy. (Being so young there was also a lot of cigar-box smokiness and even a floral aspect, but really nebbiolo in a class of its own :)

What was comforting to see was that both wineries had remained in the family and were onto their second or third generation, with roots dating even further back. At Cantalupo I consider it second generation, but that's only in regards to the current company, Antichi Vigneti di Cantalupo, which was founded in 1977 by Carlo Arlunno and his son, Alberto. The Arlunno family has been in the area since the 1500's, and land has passed down from each generation to the next. The land had some vineyards - the wines were produced under the label "Antonio Arlunno", but the families main business was the construction of new homes; and, according to Alberto, the wines were quite simple.
However, after Ghemme got the DOC in 1969 Carlo decided to turn the winery into the families main business, and so he replanted the vineyards and even bought more land. The company was changed to Antichi Vigneti di Cantalupo in 1977 (which translates to "The Old Vines of the Laughing Wolf") to establish itself as a higher quality, more serious cantina than the previous "Antonio Arlunno". In the mid 80's Alberto took over as winemaker, and has only increased the quality of these wines with each passing vintage. Here he is pictured on the cover of the album from Ghemme.
Cantalupo (Ghemme, Piemonte)

I was fortunate enough to pick up a 1996 "Collis Breclemae" Ghemme at the cantina and shared it with some of the guys I worked with at Spinetta - Andrea Rivetti being one of them. Everyone agreed it was one of the best (if not the best) bottle of the evening. (And there were several bottles that night :) My biggest regret is that I only got one bottle instead of a 6-pack.

As for Antoniolo, they had an interesting back-story, as well. Their family also was historically from the area, and had vineyards. But, after phylloxera completely wiped out the vineyards around 1910, Lorella (Antoniolo)'s great-grandfather was among the other farmers of the area to abandon their now defunct vineyards and head to a city in search of work. He settled in Rome.
However, after WWII his son, Mario, (Lorella's grandfather) decided to return to the region of his families roots and be part of a massive replanting of the area with American root stock. Amazingly, Lorella said that before the phylloxera there had been near 4,000 hectares of planted vineyards as opposed to the 1,300 - 1,400 that exist in the zone today. Antoniolo's vines all range from 30-40 years in age, and they produce wines under 2 DOC's: Gattinara (a DOCG) and Coste della Sesia for their nebbiolo normale, rosato, and erbaluce. Also interesting about Gattinara is that the actual city was historically a fortified one - meaning all the vineyards are technically outside the city walls, while the cantina (and their home) is located in town. Lots of other fun facts in the album below.
Antoniolo (Gattinara, Piemonte)

After Mario Antoniolo started the cantina in 1948 he passed it onto his daughter, Rosanna, and it is now in its third generation with her children, Alberto and Lorella (whom Suzanne and I were lucky enough to have lead our tour, and then eat lunch with.) At Antoniolo there is also the option of picking up some older vintages of wine - mainly because the family makes sure to set aside 600-700 bottles each year for themselves... Which doesn't even compare to the 5,000 bottles Rosanna set aside in 1961 when she gave birth to Alberto!
The good news is that at the cantina many older vintages are available for purchase. All the more reason to get there! (I picked up a 1979 Vigneto San Francesco, personally :)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Lunch with Luigi Ferrando (Piemonte)

On my last evening in the Valle d’Aosta Suzanne rejoined me to travel to Lake Orta (for a relaxing day at the lake ;), and then onward to Gattinara, Ghemme, and for the grand arrival at Spinetta.
On our way to Orta we would be passing right by Ivrea, where the lesser known (but worth knowing about!) wines of the Carema DOC hail from. It was a Saturday, but we thought maybe, just maybe we could stop by Ferrando for a degustazione. Long story short: whomever Suzanne spoke with at the winery then gave her Roberto Ferrando, who then called his dad, Luigi Ferrando himself, and the next thing we knew we were on our way to lunch with him. Only in Italy would they ever be that hospitable!

The Ferrando family has been making wine in the area for around 100 years now, though Luigi started in the late 60's right around when Carema was given a DOC (1967) - but more on the turbulence of that time below. Originally the Ferrando family sold most of their grapes to the Valle d'Aosta region, but in the early 70's Luigi bought his first very own vineyards and began making wine under his own label. The wines themselves come from steep slopes (and I can vouch for them because I drove past them - and after stepping foot in the Valle d'Aosta, I feel I can judge a book by its cover) and are in a conca or horse shoe shape. His first vintage of white wine made of the native Erbaluce) was in 1981, but the wine turned out brown and oxidative, so for some years they actually shipped their Erbaluce grapes to Friuli to have the wine made!

Here was our Degustazione:

One of the most interesting moments of the lunch was when I dared to inquire about the Canavese Rosso as it's exact blend is always a little up in the air. To this Luigi responded with an enthusiastic "Well that's a story!" (Granted, in Italian :)

As it goes, back in the 1960's when the DOC laws were first put into effect (and, in conjunction with the 1967 Carema DOC), the general Piemonte DOC only could be used for wines made south of the Po River... so, basically a regional DOC that actually only applied to 25% of the region - even if it was where 93% of the wine was being made at that time. Being so far north (on the border with Valle d'Aosta) Carema was completely shut out of a DOC unless they wanted to make Carema (which requires a minimum of 85% nebbiolo). On the other hand, the Canavese Rosso is comprised of 70% Nebbiolo & Barbera, with the remainder: neretto, fresia, dolcetto, & nebbiolo puro(?). Ironically enough, they have a Canavese Bianco - which I had seen during my summer at dell'anima. Turns out, this wine (100% Erbaluce from old vines dating to 1870!) was a private label wine they made for a local restaurant in Ivrea. They had a little more, so around 50 cases were exported to the US as a very inexpensive wine labeled "Canavese Bianco". Sadly, I believe all has been sold from dell'anima - and whilst we had no idea what a rare item it was!

All in all a wonderful lunch - probably more so because it came completely out of the blue! We also got to taste a couple of dessert wines that I had never gotten to taste: a wine similar to ice wine called Solativo which is late harvest and then aged 8 months only in stainless steel. (It's the only wine of its style made in the entire region!) Also a 2003 Erbaluce passito (in an unmarked bottle... didn't catch the name) that spent 4 years in oak (and was amazing!)

And to think all we had to do after such a lunch was get to the lake to relax...

Friday, September 18, 2009

LA SPINETTA - parte uno (Piemonte)

So, I admit it: I haven’t even finished telling you about all the cantine I visited in my first week in Italy. But I realized that I’ve officially entered my third (and final!) week at La Spinetta - and in Piemonte, for that matter - and it’d be an awfully long blog entry if I dared to squeeze everything into one posting! (Keep in mind, these first entries were mere day trips!) Not to mention, I'm dying to talk about moscato harvest - check out Suzanne & her multi-cluster! They were so intertwined that she had to cut all 3 bunches just to get the fruit off!

Before I launch into that, though, I’m also inclined to apologize, because with such a lengthy stay here I figured no need to play Japanese tourist like I did in the Valle d’Aosta and have my index finger glued to the shutter button on my camera. No, there’d be plenty of time for photos… except, now I fear I made a terrible error.

For one thing, most of the harvesting that I will do is done. The nebbiolo will be picked after I depart. (At least I got some good shots of Suzanne & I picking moscato our first day - see the album below.) But what’s really too bad is that the weather has drastically changed each week that I’ve been here, and it looks like my final week is going to be cold and cloudy with some rain. Alas, the views I took in of rolling hills of vigneti drenched in the late summer sun as I whipped around the narrow, twisting roads will have to live in my mind. Now the sky is bleak, the wind is chilly, and amazingly the leaves are already beginning to show that the colors will change soon. I can’t believe how quickly it went by, or that my first week all that anyone could do was wipe their sweaty brow and proclaim, “Fa Caldo!” (It’s hot!)

All the same, it’s been an amazing experience thus far working at La Spinetta. Every single person has been incredibly warm and welcoming and done their best to help me understand everything going on around me… albeit in a foreign language :) Granted, I was lucky that Giorgio and his wife, Anja, both speak English, and also Giorgio’s neice, Manuella, so I had some language relief (plus Suzanne came back for the first weekend!) But the person I’ve worked with most is a guy named Stefano who’s actually half French – born and raised there, so his Italian has a bit of a French accent. He’s been so patient and has managed to explain things to me in such an easy manner that sometimes I forget we don’t speak the same language! Occasionally I get tired of speaking in a foreign tongue and just start talking to him in English. The blank stare I get in return is all the entertainment (and motivation) I need to convince myself back into Italian for awhile. But little by little, he’s learning some English!

(Sadly, what I keep trying to teach him are American sayings or phrases, and by the time I’ve figured out a way to correctly translate and explain it the humor is long gone. The good news is that we’ve got the swears down :)

La Spinetta moscato Harvest

The first two days I was in the vineyards helping to clip grappoli (grape bunches) from the vines. Suzanne was with me the first day, and we helped to pick moscato in the morning from the Biancospino vineyard, and in the afternoon we picked Chardonnay. Since both of these varietals produce white wines the grapes are green (or sometimes yellow) in color… meaning they blend in with the foliage quite well. From the start Suzanne and I were commenting on how hard it was to see where the bunches were, and even then what we were doing as they were mainly deeply nestled amongst the sturdy leaves. Well, a mere hour into work there came a sudden gasp/cry from Suzanne – yep, she’d just snipped right into her thumb. Luckily it wasn’t too bad, and I secretly thanked her for being the one to prove that the clippers were definitely sharp enough to cut flesh. Fortunately, that afternoon - working alongside the experienced - we realized that they were ripping the leaves away so that they could see where the grape bunches were and, more importantly, where they were cutting. Good to know!

The fruit itself was perfect in form, and ranged from a vibrant lime-green color to golden yellow in places where the grapes had had more exposure to the sun (usually at the top of a hill, and more often than not at the end of a row.) These grapes with more sun exposure were definitely sweeter and not as firm as grapes that came from deep within the foliage, which were tarter (more acidic). But, as Giovanna explained, it’s good to have both as they balance each other out in the end. Also interesting was the general difference between handling moscato grapes in the morning and chardonnay that afternoon. Both the foliage and the grape clusters (not the individual grapes) for the moscato were softer, more pliable, whereas the chardonnay foliage was much scrubbier and tough, and the fruit seemed even more structured… kind of like the wines!

By the end of my first week I was working mainly in the cantina. My main tasks have included: helping unload the bins of grapes arriving from the vineyards (Moscato, Chardonnay, Sauvignon and Barbera) into the de-stemming machine, and a lot of hauling hoses around, turning on & off pumps when I’m told to, and constant cleaning. You don’t really think about all the extra pulp, seeds, lees (dead yeast cells from post fermentation) and just general muck that is a natural by-product of wine. While the most solid version (usually from the grape press) is distilled into grappa, there’s a ton more, called the “fundo”, which gets removed from a series of movements from tank to tank (or tank to barrel). See picture :)

Each of these “movements” or “decantings” is a process unto itself, and requires everything to be cleaned afterward… the tank, all the valves, the hoses, and sometimes the barrels. Then there’s the “jimmy-ing” effect of what to do when there’s a little more wine than there is room in the tank… Or when you realize that the new botte have to be broken down because they’re too tall to get through the doorway of the cellar… Or how to react when a hose springs a leak (happened today – a BIG leak at that! Italian curses flowing and half the room spray painted in barbera. Talk about excitement!)

Anyway, I’m sure you have a good mental picture of what goes on in the cantina. The next installment will focus a little more on my life here and some of the fun events I’ve been lucky enough to take part in (like some great dinner parties thrown by Giorgio!) Also, if they’ll let me document them, some pics of the guys I spend my days working alongside and some shots of the actual cantina. Then, I promise, I will bang out the other couple of places I visited (Antoniolo, Cantalupo, Ferrando, La Morra, and now even a weekend in Liguria…) as soon as I possibly can. It’s unfortunate, but all these amazing little wine towns in Piemonte are not exactly internet hotspots – as they probably shouldn’t be, but, hey, it IS invisible – no one has to know that my wi-fi card gets a signal! At least this weekend in Liguria I was able to hideout in my hotel room with hours of blissful internet. Oh technology, what have you done to me?

Signing off. And, in case you’re wondering, I definitely have opted for the Doogie Howser approach to this blog from here on out: Computer Diary awaiting internet upload when possible. It doesn’t get much geekier, and that part has nothing to do with wine!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Morgex, La Salle & Arvier (Valle d'Aosta)

I believe Gianluca Telloli (the Co-Op president, and my guide to the scaling vineyards of Morgex, La Salle & Arvier) summed the day up best as he looked at my ragged disposition by late afternoon: "Un giorno intenso!"

Before I begin my run down of the "intense" days events, feel free to browse this album. It has some handy captions :)

Morgex, La Salle & Arvier (Valle d'Aosta)

That picture above is how my day started as I exited my agroturismo in La Salle. Though it was absolutely breathtaking, it was also a little chilly, so I thought it best to dress for cool weather... bad idea!

After arriving at the Co-Op winery to meet Gianluca we were off to visit many of the small vinyards in both Morgex and La Salle to collect grape samples for testing at the lab later that afternoon. Similarly to Donnas, Caves du Vin Blanc de Morgex & La Salle is also a co-op winery as the area has many small vinyards that couldn't really support their own operation, so they all combine their grapes together and then pick someone (like Gianluca, and the previous day Mario Dalbard) to run the show. Later, at the lab, we would test the sugar grams, the pH and, well, I'm not really sure what the final test was... When everything's delivered in Italian you're bound to miss something!

By the time it reached 10am I was dripping with sweat under a blazing sun amidst rows of short pergolas in Morgex. Since the town of Morgex is at such a high altitude the grapes benefit from being closer to the ground so that during the cool nights they can be kept warm by the heat collected in the soil during the day. (This drastic temperature difference is also what helps keep the wines dry, crisp, and brightly acidic.)

After observing tall pergolas the previous day (which one would obviously pick from below), I couln't help but wonder how one goes about picking grapes from these lower ones that hit around the waist. I also couldn't help but notice that most of the people who were working in these vinyards were short and stout... if that's not a case of survival of the fittest, then I don't know what is!

After Morgex we headed into La Salle, which is when things started to get a little steeper - especially towards the top. The vines actually reached even higher in La Salle than Morgex - check it!

From Morgex, La Salle & Arvier (Valle d'Aosta)

However, neither of these towns vineyards would prepare me for what I would face that afternoon in Arvier. Gianluca named his Arvier wines L'Enfer d'Arvier which translates to "the hell/inferno" of Arvier. Let me tell you, it's not just the heat that lent these vineyards their name - though that was pretty unbearable, too. The higher we climbed the more I had to utilize my hands to cling to the ground - which wasn't such a far reach as it was becoming increasingly more vertical. In the album there is a picture of old vineyards that were abandoned over time - I can completely understand why! How one could work these vineyards, much less haul the grapes down without overturning the bins completely escapes me. The monorail system in Donnas could DEFINITELY be of some help.
  • To my friends and colleagues at dell'anima (read:Clinton): I hope you all take this to heart as you sell bottle after bottle of Enfer d'Arvier wines. By no means should you stop - the poor souls who torture themselves by keeping these vines deserve a hearty return for their masocistic efforts. But please know the toil and effort that go into this wine even existing!

Much to my dismay, when we reached (what seemed to be) the top of the vineyards we kept right on climbing - Gianluca wanted to show me something he seemed really excited about. What turned into a 40 minute hike would have been totally fine if I had been prepared, but I was totally unprepared and desperately craving some water. All I could think was that whatever was waiting at the top of this mountain - a pot of gold, I hoped - had better be pretty damn exciting to warrent this spurr-of-the-moment mountail hike. At one point Gianluca asked me (after watching me pant, no doubt), if I worked out. My answer: "No. Lavoro in piedi." (No. I work on my feet.) Maybe that's a lame excuse to the rest of the healthy, fit, sport playing world, but I promise you that the majority of these people don't stand a good 12 hours a day.

In the end there was no pot of gold, but instead a very cool little cantina atop a mountain that dated back to medieval times. Gianluca mentioned trying to re-open it to the public... to that I suggest implementing a gondola system. He made up for it, though, by dropping me off at a spa at the end of the day where I spent an hour wading in natural spring pools then a good 20 minutes in some waterfall massage room. Not my typical place, but very much appreciated after a long day of steep mountains and Italian comprehension!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Donnas (Valle d'Aosta)

I gathered myself my first official day in Italy from my friend Suzanne's apartment, where she had graciously welcomed me the previous night with a bottle of Vintage Tunina... followed by a late night amaro tasting :)

I had only one errand to run before heading off to the Valle d'Aosta: buy a wireless card so that I would be able to access this blog (and the rest of the world) from the get-go.... a lot of good that has done so far! Alas, here I am, a week and a half later, having driven a half hour to Alba from Castagnole so that I can finally divulge what I saw and learned that day in Donnas.

First off, my cellphone was registering an hour behind, so rather than being 10 minutes late it turned out I was an HOUR and 10 minutes late! Lucky for me, Mario, Guy and Bruno were extremely nice, and so long as I agreed to jumping right into the degustazione (tasting of the Rose, Donnas normale and Donnas Napoleon) they weren't bothered the slightest.

Also lucky for me was that Guy Dalbard speaks some English - something I already knew was going to be a luxury considering the woman who met me at the airport with my car - from a French/American company, albeit - instructed me on the features of my car and all the documents I needed available completely in Italian. Welcome to Italy, eh?

But back to Donnas, we began with a little lunch at the Co-Op restaurant before heading into the vineyards. This is where realization #4 from my opening blog statement first developed: I was definitely the most bizarre person in the room as a 28-year old American girl hanging with the guys from the winery. Local eyes stared upon me with.... I'm not really sure if it was disbelief, confusion, or just plain disapprovement. Regardless, the looks were there, and I realized that while I flew solo in New York City often, it was not exactly a common sight in Italy. (As I type this in a cafe in Alba I promise you I'm the weirdest person in the room.)

Once in the vineyards the slight uncomfortableness of my situation blew off and I remembered that I was looking at what I came there to see: secret-garden-like rows of tall pergolas - as you can see by the photos, almost too tall for me to reach! The Nebbiolo (Picotendro) vines were pretty fat from the August heat though they are generally harvested in early November. Ironically, when I referenced the nebbiolo as picotendro at lunch, Bruno was in such disbelief that it became his own joke to correct anyone who referenced the grapes as nebbiolo (reminding them, "No! C'e Picotendro!) for the rest of the afternoon.

The vineyards were really quite steep - so steep that they utilized a mono-rail trolly system in some vineyards as it would be just too difficult to haul the grapes down from the vines without dumping them all over the ground. Also interesting was the number of different vinyards we visited. Since the winery is a Co-Op the grapes come from several different privately owned vinyards, yet as the president of the Co-Op (and winemaker) we were allowed to show up at any of them just to check out the quality of the grapes. (Talk about VIP!)

All in all a very pleasant visit, and Mario wouldn't let me leave without a few bottles of wine - very generous of him. Most exciting one is a 1999 Donnas - I can't wait to study a bottle with 10 years of age since it is generally released (and drank) with only 4-5 years of age!