By Frank Cipparone
It’s not without merit that writing about wine in Piedmont tends to center around the region’s “king” and “queen” – Barolo and Barbaresco. They have supplied an identity and international markets for Piedmont just as Chianti has for Tuscany. Once in awhile you’ll come across an article devoted to Barbera and Dolcetto, two often-underappreciated grapes that could rightly lay claim to being the prince and princess.
But there’s more going on in the winding Langhe hills and surrounding areas than gets to a wine store’s shelves. From Tortona to Turin and Castagnola to Cuneo are lesser-known red wines that pull back the curtain to give a glimpse into Piedmont’s wine history. There’s no Oz-like wizardry, just solid and sometimes spectacular winemaking.
Though these wines have been around for centuries, it should be pointed out that peasant-based winemaking ensured limited production and local consumption, a zero-kilometer operation. Farmers knew what was growing in their small plots and couldn’t be bothered with what was happening in the next valley over.
That way of life continued well into the 20th century, even for the “royals.” It’s no wonder that even now Pelaverga, Brachetto, Ruche’ and Freisa are the kids in the back row of the vineyard shaking their leaves for attention. Literally and figuratively, their parochial roots meant that many Italians in other regions didn’t know of them. There was enough variety nearby to slake their thirst, a common situation throughout Italy. Ironically, the rest of Europe and America seem more adventurous and willing to give them a shot.
There are two distinct types of Pelaverga, but that which grows only around the town of Verduno makes higher quality wine that has caught the tastebuds of Italian aficionados. Since the town is a stone’s throw from prime Barolo vineyards it was traditionally blended with Nebbiolo. About 20 years ago a few producers had enough faith in the grape’s potential to risk bottling it on its own. Spurred by the critical acclaim of Italy’s wine media, plantings have quadrupled to a modest thirty acres.
There’s something about a good Pelaverga. It’s not flashy, but does stand out from other Piedmont reds. The flavors and aromas are really balanced and mild tannins don’t leave your mouth dried out. The best examples are from Castello di Verduno and Burlotto. Like other lesser- known grapes I’ve written about, I’m all in with Pelaverga.
Brachetto is an ancient variety related to but distinct from other Brachettos from this or that place growing in small quantities scattered across Piedmont. Unlike Pelaverga, Brachetto’s local popularity was the impetus for a tremendous increase in new vines over the last fifty years, noy just in small towns around Asti but across a large swarth designated as an overarching Piedmont DOC. More wine was made, sales skyrocketed, Brachetto became a rising star. Time will tell if the momentum can be sustained.
Hopefully it will. Maybe you wouldn’t describe it as do Piedmontese, as a wine that will have you singing a la Andrea Bocelli, but it has the cool factor. It’s fun wine with pizzazz and a lot of pleasantly drinkable cherry and berry flavor and a rush of attractive aromas. Brachetto works as an aperitif or accompaniment to dessert. My favorites – Braida, Giovanni Almondo, Malvira.
Years ago, a famous reviewer who considered himself the last word on all wine matters described Freisa as Italy’s most repugnant grape. How, I wondered, could a grape closely related genetically to Nebbiolo be dismissed so scornfully, one that was once so popular it took up half the vineyards near Asti and Alessandria. From a grower’s perspective it does well in diverse areas and survives natural conditions that do in other grapes.
Like Nebbiolo, Freisa isn’t darkly colored, can be bitter at times and highly acidic for a red – qualities that modern wine drinkers shy away from. If it won’t sell winemakers replace it with more “friendly,” trendy varieties. It doesn’t help when a writer with clout throws shade on it.
This may be a wine that will never get much play outside its immediate locale, where locals embrace the oddities that make it a match for food that needs a worthy sparring partner. Those I’ve had are definitely quirky, ranging from light and juicy to full bodied and powerful with scents and flavors close to Nebbiolo. I’d recommend Gilli, Mascarello, Brovia, and G.D. Vajra. Keeping it in the family, the last three are also known for their Barolo.
If Ruche’ sounds French it should – Piedmont, foot of the mountains, reflects the region’s historical ties to its neighbor. Ruche’s production is centered around the small town of Castagnole Monferrato, where it used to be added to wine that lacked welcoming aromas.
Of these four offbeat reds, this is one I’d urge people to try for a simple reason – it’s one of the finest, most elegant wines of Italy, more so than those with similar sensations such as Lacrima di Morro and Brachetto. Spicy and savory, full of ripe dark plum, raspberry and cherry it leaves a warm, satisfying feeling. Looked on by Italians as a special wine for celebrations, I think you’ll agree if you try Cascina Tavijn, Da Capo, Montalbera and Luca Ferraris.