I am Me, and You are You.
“I am me, and you are you”. That’s what reads on a shirt my dry cleaner made for his dad. I tell you, little bits of wisdom all over these Greenpoint streets!
The three guys in the photo above are all connected because they are winemakers from Piedmont who are brought into New York by the same importer, and along the way I think they’ve become amici. The importer is called Domenico Valentino (my alma mater), an intriguing portfolio mainly developed and operated by Jim Hutchinson, my former boss and favorite mentor. These producers were in town a few weeks ago and I was so happy to have the chance to catch up with them. An evening in their company got me thinking (as I have thought before) of all the wonders that their region has to offer.
I’ve recently heard it said (actually, I’ve read it said) that Piedmont is the next Burgundy. Maybe this is old news, but I was struck by the idea. I get the correlation- lots of small family growers who care for property in the region’s crus. Vineyards that are becoming more and more appreciated for their particulars- their soil composition, the way the quality of wines they yield bring us to (maybe unexpected) layers of elegance and subtlety.
Trying one cru Barbaresco next to another, and another, and another, and another, for example, will guide a taster on an absolute journey of terroir. To understand what you’re getting in these bottles, one has to delve deep into the details of the land and its shepherds. It is curious and cool- a combination of an area so rich yet diverse in soil, aspects, and producers, many of whom, at their core, live to craft beautiful wine. Wines capable of inspiring a philosophical quest to understand the why and how and ahh of such complexity.
Still, Piedmont is not the next Burgundy. Its latitude is off. Its history is its own. Its colors and customs and stories and sayings are unique. Drawing such a comparison is like saying that green is the new black, or nautical stripes are the new black, or Liberty prints are the new black. And I can’t stand it when people say stuff like that…sometimes I say stuff like that. Anyhow, you know, black is the new and old and one and only black.
Aside from nebbiolo, Piedmont has so many grape varieties; they are regional, contextual, rare. So many DOC’s, and DOCG’s; it is dizzying. Natives are often unaware of what is made from one town to the next. Oh-so-special.
The winemaker on the left in this picture is Gianluigi Orsolani. He is the fourth generation head of Orsolani, his family estate in Caluso. He works closely with a grape called erbaluce which he makes into still, metodo classico, and passito style wines. Orsolani has accumulated some awards and recognition for being the first to do this and the best to do that, but I don’t think that’s what matters. What matters is that his erbaluce, in all of its forms, is brilliant- like sub-Alpine sunshine. There are some stories, some tales that surround erbaluce and Caluso and the valley where it lies, Canavese, but now that I think about it, they are sort of silly and maybe more the kind of stories to be told over a meal along with too many bottles of wine.
Orsolani makes a few other wines from the vines planted on his land aside from erbaluce- blends including grapes like barbera and uva rara. Orsolani also has a little bit of nebbiolo planted to the terraced vineyards of Carema, an area reaching up into the slopes of the Valle d’Aosta. He is one of just three producers of Carema.
The man in the middle is Stefano Daffonchio. I like to say his last name because it sounds like an early 90’s hip hop group or something- Da Funk Yo! Stefano owns Terralba, which is located in Colli Tortonese, close to the border of Lombardia’s Oltrepo Pavese. There Stefano farms bonarda, moradella, barbera worth a second glance, and a few other local varieties. His most notable wines are made from a grape called timorasso. There are very few producers of timorasso these days. Much of the vine was wiped out by a phylloxera epidemic in the late 1800’s. Cortese, a less difficult grape to cultivate, was mostly planted in its place. Easier, yes. As interesting? Definitely not. Those who have stuck by timorasso’s side, who pull back the vine’s self-strangling tendrils every morning, who give it the proper time to age (it can be fierce, tannic, intense) are rewarded with a venerable white wine that is made to become more and more sophisticated with the years. Like chardonnay from Burgundy, or chenin blanc from Savienneres- but not like those at all because it’s timorasso from the Tortona hills.
I also must mention that Stefano’s mom whips up the very best egg noodles in the whole entire world.
The producer on the right is Luca Ferraris. Luca and his wife, Chiara, run Il Salotto del Ruché, passed down from Luca’s grandfather, Martin. The winery is located in the Monferrato Hills, between the towns of Asti and Alba. Luca is a champion of native Castagnole grapes like ruché. There are 28 producers of ruché, much of whose wine does not make it too far from their hometown. Ruché is so exotically aromatic that you may not believe it is made from grapes. But it is. Every grape sings a different song.
I think much of the reason that lesser known regional wines remain lesser known and regional is because, often, they are not exactly products of quality winemaking. A producer like Luca proves otherwise with a dedication to doing his very best. Luca takes grapes like ruché and grignolino (another grape indigenous to this area- a small berry with thick skins and many seeds), and has really figured out how to make them into not only interesting, but good wines. Taking a high sugar grape like ruché and understanding that it needs a long fermentation, or a grape with an imbalanced juice/tannin ratio like grignolino and understanding that the skins need to be removed from the tank part-way through fermentation. Giving these varieties a little love, making something to speak of, putting his town on the map, great things can happen when somebody cares.
All three of these producers have their own methods of making each of their wines. They are based on what they were taught, traditional styles, innovation, and as in anything, a little bit of wingin’ it. They are just three of the many, many excellent and interesting Piedmont producers. None of them make a Barolo or a Barbaresco or Gattinara or any of the other wines that inspire comparisons to Burgundy. Piedmont could certainly swallow you wholly into the folds of its culture of vine, cuisine, fashion, and past. There is so much to be discovered and celebrated. Burgundy is Burgundy, Bordeaux is Bordeaux, and Piedmont is awesome.