In the early 1800’s there was a priest in Alto Piemonte whose job it was to keep the cellars of the local bishop filled with wine. As he was getting on in years his niece was coming of age, and on the occasion of her wedding he made a gift to her of a portion of the vineyards he tended. Upon her marriage, his niece became a member of the Vallana family, and the rest . . . is history.
For more background, read part one of this blog series about the Vallana estate.
Just last week Marina Fogarty, of the 5th generation of the Vallana Winery, briefly passed through the Boston area and generously agreed to stop by our South End shop for an after-hours staff tasting. While we sipped through three of her family’s sumptuous offerings, Marina treated us to a lesson in history, geography, and anthropology that added a different kind of depth to her beautiful wines.
As we sniffed, sipped, and swished Campi Raudii (lovely, silky cherry and berry fruits; delicate acidity, gorgeous deep purple color), Marina explained that the soil of the Alto Piemonte region differs starkly from the nearby Langhe region, largely due to a supervolcano – an eruption so powerful that it entirely restructured the mineral composition of the soil. The overall climate, she explained, varies depending on the site of each wine producing village-appellation within Alto Piemonte, with the region’s proximity to the Alps creating numerous microclimates. These determine how the grapes grow, when they ripen and even how acidic their juice will be. The Campi Raudii blends Nebbiolo and Vespolina (one of Alto Piemonte’s indigenous grapes) pulled from several of Vallana’s vineyard sites. Perfectly drinkable without much aging, it highlights the most readily approachable aspects of each annual harvest. Campi Raudii, latin for “Red Field”, refers to the deep rusty color of some of the soil of the region, which was the site of a famous battle of 101 B.C., where the Romans held back the advance of the Germanic Cimbrian tribes invading from the north (and, as Marina noted, possibly prevented the region from becoming known for its beer rather than its wine).
Marina brought with her a bottle from the family’s vineyards in the village-appellation of Boca from the 2007 vintage – a wine none of us had tasted before. As we explored its flavors – richer than the Campi Raudii, with blackberries, a bit of black pepper, and earth; balanced by a deep acidity – Marina placed this wine for us. The northernmost appellation of Alto Piemonte, Boca has tough, rocky soil and mountain exposure, which can lead to challenging, cool growing conditions and late harvesting. Vallana’s interpretation of this wine, a blend of Nebbiolo, Vespolina, and, in this year, a bit of Uva Rara, demonstrates the fact that while some Alto Piemonte producers choose only to use Nebbiolo, appellations within the region are permitted to use some percentages of traditional, local varietals to balance and enhance the Nebbiolo. Vallana frequently does so – both to craft the flavor and ageability profiles they want to see in their wines, and to preserve the traditional winemaking practices of the region.
Finally, we dove into a bottle from the Gattinara appellation from the 1997 vintage. 100% Nebbiolo, with cigar smoke, cloves, and cinnamon on the nose, and a powerful acidity that gracefully eases into soft cherries. Marina explained that 1997 was an old-style, classic vintage for them. She tasted with us – although she had opened another 1997 just the day before – because every bottle has its own personality. “Wine is really alive.” If opened and tasted just after bottling, Marina shared, the wine is often uncomfortable, needing some time to settle into its new confinement. Similarly, once it gets situated, when first opened, it may become cross, taking some time to ease back into the open air. She found this one (breathing for several hours before pouring) strong and rich – and suggested we should seek out some steaks or other hearty, carnivorous fare to share with it.
Humbly but proudly, Marina mentioned that her family was producing village-specific wines many years before these villages were given their official appellations – meaning that Vallana wines defined, in part, the characteristics of these appellations. When asked about her family’s farming and winemaking traditions: “Practical.” So-called “organic” practices are just the way they have always worked; winemaking simply as a part of life – dependent on and in harmony with the dirt, air, water, flora, and fauna of Alto Piemonte.
Vallana Winery’s Campi Raudii and Gattinara are available at Formaggio Kitchen South End, or at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge with at least one day’s notice.