Day 13: An Appreciation of Mountain Barolo
Bay Area wine geek extraordinaire Slaton Lipscomb dips into one of the best wines I have ever had the privilege of trying. In his book Reflections of a Wine Merchant importer Neal Rosenthal states that if he could only drink one wine the rest of his life, it would be Luigi Ferrando’s Carema. Pretty heady stuff coming from someone like him. Enjoy!
The conventional wisdom is that nebbiolo finds its greatest expression in the vineyards of the sprawling Langhe hills, in the south of Piedmont. And as far as I’m concerned, let’s chalk one up for convential wisdom. Who would deny that the ridges and slopes that make up the various communes of the Barolo and Barbaresco DOCGs, with their excellent sun exposition and lingering autumn fog, offer a uniquely ideal environment for coddling the notoriously difficult and late-ripening nebbiolo grape?
But nebbiolo is indeed grown successfully elsewhere in Piedmont. And while nebbiolo-based wines from outside the Langhe may not typically challenge Barolo and Barbaresco for the crown, they do deserve to be more well-known by winegeeks and professionals.
Starting next door, there is fine quality nebbiolo grown in the neigboring Monferrato and Roero hills, although the sites are mostly sandier and tend to produce lighter wines without the intensity or structure of better wines from Barolo and Barbaresco.
But nestled among the northern lakes and high-altitude foothills of the Alps, there are fine higher-altitude microclimates for growing nebbiolo in the north of Piedmont. Among others, Gattinara, Ghemme, Lessona and Boca have all been awarded DOCG or DOC status for their nebbiolo based wines, and the best producers from these areas make beautifully aromatic, earthy, often mineral-driven examples of nebbiolo, here called spanna, sometimes with smaller percentages of other local grape varieties blended in.
One of the most unique of these areas is the tiny DOC of Carema in the Canavese, among the alpine foothills in the shadow of Monte Bianco (Mont Blanc). This is the last stop on the A5 superstrada before leaving Piedmont for the Valle d’Aosta, and the subalpine terrain is beautiful. Just 16 hectares of grapevines are cultivated here, much of it pergola-trained on terraces carved into the steep hillsides.
Ferrando Vini is usually acknowledged as the only independent producer in Carema, although a local cooperative also produces a bottled wine that is occasionally seen outside the region. Founded in 1890, the winery is still in family hands, with current operations overseen by Luigi Ferrando and his sons Roberto and Andrea. Ferrando produces his flagship Etichetta Bianca (White Label) Carema from family-owned vineyards plus several vineyards under long-term contract.
These are traditionally cultivated, steeply terraced vineyards. Many are trained onto pergola-like trellises called tipiunto maximize sun exposure. While there are elements of natural and minimum intervention viticulture and winemaking practiced here, they aren’t certified organic or biodynamic. It admittedly gets a bit grey when you’ve been growing grapes in the mountains for over a hundred years.
One of my favorite passages from American importer Neal Rosenthal’s autobiography describes an afternoon spent alone in the mountains above Carema searching for Giuseppe Clerino, aka “Ping”, the owner of some of the most important vineyard parcels going into Ferrando’s Carema wine. Ping and his wife turn out to be true mountain folk who spend the summer grazing cattle in the mountains, only venturing down from time to time to check on the vineyards located below the treeline.
Not surprisingly Neal ends up drinking Ping’s grappa the rest of the afternoon, in various herbal, fruit and honey-infused flavors all distilled and blended by the Clerinos.
At Ferrando, the grapes are all harvested by hand, usually in the 3rd or 4th week of October, and fermented in temperature-controlled stainless steel vats. Per the DOC, the wine sees 36 months of aging prior to release, 30 months of which is spent in large oak barrels, and 6 in bottle. In the best vintages, a reserve called the Etichetta Nera (Black Label) Carema is bottled. Typically this bottling includes juice blended from the best siteswithin the highest altitude vineyards Silanc and Siei. It is raised a little differently, spending two years in barrique (yes, some new) and one in larger barrels. While I’ve not personally tasted the Etichetta Nera, it is typically described as showing more richness and density compared to the Bianca.
The Ferrandos utilize a relatively brief maceration on the skins compared to what is commonly practiced in the Langhe, about ten days. Macerations of 25 to 35, 45, even 60 days aren’t uncommon for the most traditional producers in Barolo. Despite the shorter skin contact, Ferrando Carema is a concentrated and structured, ageworthy wine, although the tannins tend to be softer and less astringent even in youth compared to its cousins from the Langhe. According to Rosenthal in a good vintage Ferrando Carema can develop for ten, fifteen, even twenty or more years. (I’ve not drank a bottle this old, but I do have a few stashedaway to try down the road.)
1999 Etichetta Bianca
Medium garnet in color, lightening at the rim. Complex, surprisingly mature aromas of mushroom, beef bouillon, soy, blood, game, soft red fruits, vitamin. This has a delightfully light palate presence, with soft red fruits, menthol, wood spice, and savory animale flavors. There’s fine, well-integrated acidity and an intensely concentrated strawberry-liquor like midpalate. Surprisingly, the tannins are nearly resolved. Ready to drink, but alas most likely not a representative bottle – the cork is streaked 2/3 of the way up, so some exposure to heat seems to have occured along the journey.
2004 Etichetta Bianca
Initially a faint but multifaceted nose, with floral, root beer, and tamarind notes, plus brooding dark fruits. Tight palate, with more stand-offish acidity than the 1999 and surprisingly fine if rather firm tannins. On the following day this has opened up notably and now offers complex, somewhat brooding aromas of sour cherry, dried strawberry, mushroom and raw beef. Punchy, tart acidity cuts nicely through rich, pure darker nebbiolo fruit tones. The tannis are still firm but now more well-integrated. Still a bit disjointed, but this should knit itself together admirably in time. Hold for now.
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Up next: The wines of Bonny Doon; or: saignée puts ethics to the test