Italy’s Piemonte region contains a range of rare and fascinating grapes. For publication in week starting 12 September 2016.
Some readers may know of the Wine Century Club. Anyone who has tasted at least 100 grape varieties is entitled to join. Probably the simplest way to reach your century quickly is to go to Piemonte, the prestige wine region of north-west Italy.
Previous columns have considered some relatively rare grape varieties like Verduno, Pelaverga and Nascetta. This week we look at some other rare varieties such as Albarossa, Carica l´asino, Uvalino and Brachetto.
The Marenco family have been making wine in the Bagnario Valley in Strevi in the hills of Monferrato since 1261. Sisters Michela, Doretta and Patrizia continue the tradition. Michela focuses on marketing and Patrizia makes the wine. Her 2013 Marenco Albarossa is a zingy joy of black fruits. Patrizia believes in the potential of the Albarossa grape, a hybrid of Barbera, one of Piemonte’s most noble grapes, and Chatus, an old French variety also known as Dronero Nebbiolo.
Albarossa retains many of the characteristics of Barbera including its ability to ripen late but still maintain good levels of acidity, especially when planted on poor-quality chalky soils. Albarossa tends to have very small berries with thick skins with high levels of anthocyanins that contribute to the colour of wine. Because the grape ripens slowly, it accumulates high sugar levels which mean high potential alcohol while still maintaining good acidity. Piemonte currently has about 60 hectares of Albarossa in total.
Patrizia also makes a lovely wine from the Carica l´asino grape (it’s means “carry the donkey”). This rare native white variety was in danger of disappearing in Piemonte until Patrizia discovered some old vines in the Bagnario Valley in 1990 and decided to experiment. About 3,000 plants of this mysterious variety have been planted. The resulting wines – we tasted the 2014 and 2015 – are dry, well-structured and delicately aromatic with a creaminess that balances the crisp acidity.
Roberto Ghio, mentioned in previous columns, also makes wine from the Carica l´asino grape, though it has a slightly different name. His 2015 Caricalasino is more mineral and crisp, like biting into a green apple while sitting in a field of wild herbs. It is an ideal aperitif wine, clean and zingy.
One of the highlights of this tasting of rare grapes in Piemonte was a chilled Marenco Brachetto to finish. Brachetto is only grown in Piemonte and tastes like a sweet red Moscato. It is bright pink with delicate aromas of roses and strawberries and is a delightful discovery. This frizzante wine only has 5.5 per cent alcohol and would be an ideal way to end a meal with the right kind of cheese or pastry. It starts sweet yet ends dry.
The Marenco vineyard’s logo is two mallards in flight, inspired Michela Marenco said, by the local countryside and the sense of freedom that land provides. She said Marenco was determined to respect the local environment and nature and made wine based on the highest standards of sustainability.
Birds continue as a theme for other wines. Cascina Castlet has the name of the wine, Uceline, represented as a small flock of birds on the bottle. This serigraphy is etched directly on the glass in the light yellow colour of the Asti sands where the Uvalino grape grows. Winemaker Giorgio Gozzelino said Uvalino was an ancient grape that had almost disappeared, but which Cascina Castlet resurrected in its experimental vineyard. It has an intense purple-red hue when young with pronounced tannins that mean it needs time and strong foods such as mature cheese or game.
Another new grape encountered was one of Piemonte’s most ancient varieties known as the Gambarossa or Gamba di Pernice, which translates as “partridge leg”. The name comes from the bright red colour of the stems just before the onset of ripening, and the fact they resemble the feet of the partridges found in the vineyards at that time of the season.
We can thank winemaker Valter Bosticardo for saving this grape for posterity. He found the few remaining vines in Piemonte and planted them in a new vineyard in 1987. A new DOC (controlled designation of origin) known as Calosso was created in 2011 for this grape. DOC Calosso is possibly the smallest DOC in the world, with four hectares of vines. Bosticardo has one of those hectares and makes about 4,000 bottles a year at his estate, Tenuta dei Fiori, in Calosso.
His 2011 Calosso has a distinct nose of spicy green peppers and a hint of Chinese five spices. A most seductive wine, it feels dry but also offers a mineral finish when the spice notes return. Bosticardo said his wines can age up to 14 years and the spice notes become more noticeable with time.
In 1986 Bosticardo created a new style of wine, a bottle-fermented Moscato d’Asti using the classic champagne method of leaving the wine on its lees – in this case for a dozen years. The wine is called Pensiero (which translates as reflection or meditation) and is an absolute delight. Bosticardo exports to Japan and Germany. The pathway to the creation of this wine, he said, “was paved with the shards of the bottles that burst during his experimental fermentations”. The wine we tasted was from the 1996 vintage and it certainly has an explosive bouquet. It is the kind of wine one tastes without food to appreciate the chance for reflection.
Special mention must be made of Bosticardo’s estate, Tenuta dei Fiori, which offers wine tourism in an environmentally friendly style where one can sleep amidst the vines. The village of Calosso describes itself as the first “junk food free” village in Italy, and is self sufficient in energy through solar power. A place of rare beauty and contentment.
The web site of the Wine Century Club is http://www.winecentury.com/.