PIEDMONT, A REGION OF BOTH RENOWNED AND LITTLE-KNOWN NATIVE WINE VARIETALS AND APPELLATIONS
Piedmont, or Piemonte in Italian, literally translates to “foot of the mountain,” which describes the region perfectly as it is surrounded by mountains. The Alps in the north and northwest, and the Apennines in the south and southwest, are what account for the ultimate microclimate for growing Vitis vinifera vines that produces some of the highest quality wine in the world. Hence, it is no surprise that there is anthropological evidence dating back to at least the 6th century AD of peoples practicing viticulture in this region, even before the Romans manhandled it into part of their widespread wine cultivation to service the thirst of its widespread empire.
Interestingly, despite this long history of winemaking, Piedmont wine has succumbed to very little mass production. In fact, most of the region’s wine still comes from small vineyards owned by growers who also make the wine. And although there are some international varietals grown in Piedmont, such as Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir, most plantings are from native varietals. The most popular, in terms of international recognition, are Nebbiolo, Barbera, and Dolcetto for red wines, and Cortese, Arneis, and Moscato for white wines.
Since we wanted to make things difficult for ourselves, and more interesting for you, we chose to ignore these world-renowned native varietals that create such gems as Barolo, Gattinara, Barbera d’Alba, Langhe Arneis, Gavi, and Moscato d’Asti, to name a few, and explore wines made from lesser-known native varietals, which, by the way, account for a sizable amount of wine production in the region. What you have in your Wine Club box are three wines, each made from a varietal that while very representative of Piedmont are not well known outside of the region: Ruché and Freisa are the varietals for your two red wines, and Erbaluce is the white varietal.
Source: Wine Folly. Mountains surround Piedmont wine regions on the north, west, and south to create a "perfect storm" of microclimates
The ridge where Ruché is grown in the Castagnole municipality is 750 feet above sea level, where it is possible to see the peaks of the most iconic peaks of the Italian Alps: Monviso, Monte Rosa, the Matterhorn, and Mont Blanc. The name of the town that is the namesake of the appellation, Castagnole, is reminiscent of the “la castagna,” the chestnut, because the area was renowned for its chestnut forests. The area retains its natural beauty, with rolling hills, woods, meadows, and, of course, lots of vineyards. There are seven municipalities that produce Ruché di Castagnole Monferrato, which is a DOCG appellation: Castagnole, Grana, Montemagno, Portacomaro, Refrancore, Scurzolengo and Viarigi. Ruché di Castagnole Monferrato wines must be made from at least 90 percent of Ruché grapes and the remaining 10 percent can be any combination of the Barbera and Brachetto varietals.
The Ruché varietal almost disappeared in the mid-20th century, but, in 1964, a priest found some rows of the close-to-extinct native varietal among his parish vineyard and decided to bottle wine made exclusively from these grapes, and he designed a catchy label for his bottles depicting an angel with open wings, which caught the attention of consumers. Fast forward to 1987 and Ruché plantings had become diffuse and popular enough again to achieve DOC status. In 2010, the appellation achieved DOCG status. Keeping to the Piedmont winegrowing and winemaking tradition, small producers, not mass production, made this near extinction to DOCG status happen.
From Castagnole, you can see the most iconic peaks of the Italian Alps
As an initial descriptor of the varietal, an article in Decanter magazine eloquently describes the varietal: “Freisa is the wild and more rustic kin of one of the world’s greatest cultivars, Nebbiolo.” The article goes on to explain that, according to studies, Freisa is most likely the parent from which Nebbiolo branched to become its own genetic varietal. Their similarities are certainly evident and so are their wines, including the high tannins that give them an ability to age well. In fact, if you have the patience, do not be afraid to put the one that is now in your possession away for 5-10 years. And, if you do, we will bet that whoever you share it with will have a difficult time distinguishing it from a Nebbiolo, maybe even a Barolo.
The varietal was first officially documented in the 1500s in the commune of Pancalieri, only 20 miles south of Turin. In fact, historically, Freisa has been known for its association to vineyards surrounding Turin, the largest city in the region, and the fourth largest city in Italy. Because the varietal was so prevalent and cultivated so close to a major population center, it took on a utilitarian nature, used often as a blending grape, and to make sweet and fizzy wines, since it has a rigorous, rustic quality that is easy to work with. In a sense, this utilitarianism backfired on the varietal as it gained an undeserved reputation for being cheap, and as a result plantings dwindled considerably after the 19th century after having been one of the most planted grape in the region, and became marginalized to less-desired parcels of lands on estates, if planted at all. Fortunately, the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and the Piedmont and Turin governments, pushed by Balbiano Winery, thought the historical, uniquely “urban” Turin varietal had to be rescued from obscurity and possible extinction. The varietal has DOC status in Asti (Freisa d’Asti), since 1972, about 35 miles southeast of Turin, and Chieri (Freisa di Chieri), since 1973, about 12 miles southeast of Turin. But it is also present in the Piemonte, Langhe, and Monferrato DOCs.
Freisa vineyards growing in the famous Asti winegrowing region of Piedmont
While the Freisa and Ruche DOCs are in the heart of dense Piedmont wine country, Erbaluce is a bit of a geographical outlier, growing in the northern region right at the foot of the Alps. Again, although not well known now, this varietal is not a newcomer by any stretch. The first documentation of Erbaluce was in 1606. The municipality of Canavese is generally credited as its native birthplace, and, indeed, there is a DOC Canavese Bianco made with 100% of the varietal, but the neighboring Erbaluce di Caluso has been its champion, boasting DOCG status. One of the reasons why the varietal is not as well known as its white neighbors Cortese and Arneis has something to do with the fact that there are only 400 hectares planted in all of Italy. And 242 of these hectares are in the Erbaluce di Caluso appellation. The Erbaluce varietal is a delicate, lightweight, fussy varietal that requires skill to coax its considerable attributes into creating an interesting wine, but when this skill is applied it also shows considerable versatility, with the ability to be vinified to a sweet passito, a spumante, and various degrees of “orange” wines when the wine is rested on its skins.
Erbaluce grown in regions literally at the foot of the Alps
A RUCHÉ FROM OUR SHELF AND A FREISA AND ERBALUCE FROM OUTSIDE
Ferraris Agricola, Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato Clàsic
VARIETAL: 100% Ruchè
In the seven municipalities producing Ruchè, winemaker Luca was the first to thin the vineyards for quality, and the grapes for his “Clàsic” are carefully selected from the best-exposed vineyards on the estate. It ferments on the skins for 10-15 days to pull the most of the complex tannins the skins impart, and it goes through malolactic fermentation in traditional large vertical barrels from the region called tini, which are made from steamed oak, and not toasted. And the wine is aged 6-9 months in large oak barrels before bottling. This is a fairly big, rich wine, but with lots of complexity.
FOOD PAIRINGS: mild cheese, stuffed pasta (both meat and vegetable), risotto, light stews or roasts, truffles.
- Le Chiusure Erbaluce di Caluso, Favaro
VARIETAL: 100% Erbaluce
Le Chiusure is produced by Favaro, a winemaker based in the tiny northeast town of Piverone, working with the white grape varietal in the large appellation region of Erbaluce di Caluso at the foot of the Alps (see orange parts on the Piedmont wine region map). Le Chiusure is an estate operating on only a hectare (2.5 acres) of land on rocky soils about 350 meters (1,150 feet) above sea level, and the grapes are picked by hand. The wine rests of the lees in large barrels for about five months and then bottled and cellared for a month before release. This is an exclusive, tiny-estate wine made with lots of TLC. Choose carefully with whom you share it.
FOOD PAIRINGS: spicy chicken, cured beef, Gorgonzola cheese, salads, light seafood
- Chateau Musar Jeune
VARIETALS: Cinsault, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon
Founded by Gaston Hochar in 1930, Chateau Musar is Lebanon's premier estate, located 15 miles north of Beirut in Ghazir where the vineyards are planted on a limestone bed with gravelly top soils. The vines are 100–150 years old and the whites are planted at 1,200 meters (4,000 feet) and the reds at 1,000 meters (3,280 feet). The grapes are hand-picked, naturally fermented and are unfined and unfiltered. Each varietal is fermented and aged separately; and blended and aged for a minimum of four years in bottle before release.
FOOD PAIRINGS: Lamb, beef dishes, mature and hard cheeses, Moroccan tagine and spicy Asian dishes