Maine's First Natural Wine Festival
Hanging out with Danilo in Umbria

My Wine Trip in the Foothills of the Alps

My Wine Trip in the Foothills of the Alps

Pictures, stories, and videos from High Piedmont!

Alto Piemonte

Hi Everyone
I just got back from an incredible 9 day trip in Italy, mostly up in Piedmont. Piedmont is a powerhouse of food and wine (Barolo, Barbaresco, and white truffles sound familiar?). Going into this I didn't truly realize how big and diverse Piedmont truly is. 1500 kilometers of driving back and forth fixed that! I'll be sending out a succession of newsletters with the stories of the people I visited and stayed with, but I'll wait a bit to send them as the wines arrive. 

Conveniently while I was away we got our new allocation from Cantina Sociale Cooperativa in Gattinara and 2 wines from the new Azienda Crus in Bramaterra arrived. Bramaterra and Gattinara are next door to each other in Alto Piemonte. Piedmont wine making is sort of broken into 2 primary regions: the hills of the Langhe, Monferrato, and Asti in the center of Piedmont and then on the other side of the Po river valley and it's fertile plane you have the foothills of the Alps and a whole slew of other unique wine regions there. The area is generally higher up, a little more exposed, and the soil has less clay and sedimentary material and more volcanic rock.

Wine Tasting at Monte's

Super conveniently I'll be doing a public wine tasting on Thursday the 27th at Monte's Fine Foods on Washington Ave in Portland from 4-6. It will of course be all Piedmont highlighting wineries I visited.

Azienda Crus in Bramaterra

Here's a view of the vineyards of Crus, in Bramaterra. Bramaterra is in Alto Piemonte up just above Gattinara on similar pink volcanic granite soil. Actually rock and rocky sand is more accurate than saying "soil". The vineyards are pretty crazy. They're very exposed and sunny and windy. Water drains quite easily which is actually a bit of a problem. The Alps are right there and help shelter Bramaterra from harsh storms.

Here are some raw notes I wrote on the plane

Davide was shirtless and hanging upside down over the edge of a fermenter with his wife holding his feet to keep him from falling in and asphyxiating. He was trying to break up the cap of fermenting skins by hand. He said it was just day two and it was too delicate to use a stick to punch down.

After he was out of the tank he explained that there are two parts of bramaterra: one that is predominantly old decayed volcanic red granite that breaks down into granular sand and then another portion slightly lower down that has a bit more clay to it. Davide has land in both parts and said that they really sort of balance each other out. A year that is good for one is often not as good for the other. One thrives on heat and has water retention in the soil while the other doesn't like heat and dry so much.

He bought this six hectare hilltop and slowly began planting a mix of nebbiolo, vespolina, Croatina, and Barbera. 2018 was their first vintage. His next step is planting inner vine rows on each terrace of the hillside for better water retention and heat resiliency. The outer row will shield the inner row a bit from the sun.

The winery is tiny but will eventually be an agritourismo. He has it set up so a lot of wine can can be moved with gravity from the first floor down to the cellar. Davide said he wanted to get a larger barrel at some point but it would be hard since the barrel would have to be built in the space.  

Bramaterra is defined by it's elevation, volcanic soil, and that the vineyards that are protected by the Alps. It was amazing what an effort he and his wife were putting in on their project. He was sort of quiet and clearly very driven and serious and maybe a exhausted by the effort of making the wines in primary, making the vineyard, and rebuilding the derelict building and taking care of their 2 kids all at once. 

Once we had toured the vineyards and the winery and tasted the wines Davide made me lunch. As Davide cooked and started talking about our backgrounds. He mentioned his family hadn't drunk wine when he was growing up because "They did sport". I asked him what he meant by "his family did sport". Davide responded "Do you know the Tour de France?" I said yes, I did know about the Tour de France. Davide answered "ok, my father won the polka dot jersey in 2007". The polka dot jersey is the jersey that each day of racing in the mountains goes the the cyclist who is the fastest on that mountain stage. At the end of the tour it is given to the cyclist who was fastest overall on the mountain stages. Winning the polka dot jersey overall means you are "King of the Mountains" and also therefore one of the top cyclists in the world. I asked Davide if he meant his father won the jersey for a particular stage or if his father was really the over all King of the Mountains. "Oh, yeah he won it over all" said Davide. "He was the King of the Mountains". "Oh" I said. "Now I understand what you meant by your family did Sport."

Mumbel is the name of his Bramaterra from the area with a bit more clay and will continue to be a more traditional blend of grapes. Colma Santa Barbara is his Bramaterra from the all granite zone and will be close to all Nebbiolo in a more modern expression


Davide looking out over part of his vineyard. It's a little rocky finger of a hill sticking out into the valley with steep drop offs on 3 sides.

Davide closing the door to the tiny winery he and his wife have bult out in the ground floor and basement of a derelict block in their tiny old hill top town. The second floor illustrates how really derelict the building was. Davide kept periodically saying "thank god for banks and loans!" 

You must admit: it's a beautiful little cellar he has!

But it is tiny. His total production per year of... I think 5 different wines is less than 1000 cases.

Azienda Crus Zaira Rose

Approx $35

We even have some of Davide's wines in stock! I could only get my hands on 6 cases of this, but it's fantastic! Priced somewhere in the low to mid $30s this isn't inexpensive but it's very good and special.

Aroma: strawberries, tart raspberry, fresh cherry. It's a bright cool aroma of fresh fruit and cool mornings. It's not particularly floral, the fruit flavors are pure and fresh, and sort of like dried fruit or the essence of fruit

Taste: beautiful dry cherry, and fresh raspberry up front. It's very elegant. There's nice acidity and then the mid palette expands into this thoughtful wider deeper salty cherry and dried raspberry. It lingers and has some touches of aromatic herbs like Rosemary and pine trees. It's extremely long on the palate and complex. The focus, the balance, the structure, the dry aromatic herbs all remind me of Bandol. Beautiful elegant fresh fruit up front supported by salt and Mediterranean herbs. It's absolutely delicious

Azienda Crus Pepun Rosso

Approx $25

This is a traditional blend of 60% Nebbiolo, 10% Croatina, 10% Vespolina, and 20% Barbera. We managed to get 12 cases.

Aroma: raspberry, black raspberry, it smells sort of brambly: Juicy and fruit forward but also a little bit woodsy. It's a pretty and fun aroma with just a little hint of aromatic flowers along the lines of lilac

Taste: nice bright crisp blackberry and black raspberry fruit up front, good underlying acidity gives it pop and uplift. Then it gets a little darker and the mid palate combines some plum, inky grape, and blackberry with some young pithy lip smacking tannins. It's a medium bodied red with bright energetic fruit balancing some firm structure. It's delicious, interesting, and a good elegant expression of Alto Piemonte.

You can find this at Maine and Loire, Blue Hill Wine Shop, Rosemont Market, and Sawyer's Specialties.

Then on to Cantina Sociale Cooperativa di Gattinara. Really, it looks like it hasn't changed since the 50s!

Here are my raw notes about visiting the Cantina Sociale:

I got to the winery just as the president, Franco Bercellino, was riding up on his ancient bicycle, probably returning from lunch. He was a man of few words. He gave me an appraising look over the top of his reading glasses. It was obvious I was the American who was coming so he waved me in, grabbed glasses and with a jerk of his head he motioned me towards a staircase. He looked like Dustin Hoffman.

He was all business and to the point but clear and thorough and passionate as he spoke about the old casks and the history of the cantina. They have 2 cellars, one is newer (from the 50s) and has botte for long term aging. The other is the old cellar and they have left lots of the old botte, but then have some new botte and stainless steel tanks for initial fermentation. Initial fermentation for the vino rosso takes place in concrete. They have a massive building-long row of concrete tanks built into one whole long wall of the Cantina. There must have been 10 tanks all in a row but only one was actually being used for this vintage. It had been a small vintage due to the heat and I'm sure that was increasing the financial pressure on him. I put my hand on the steel door and could feel it was a tiny bit warm from the fermentation inside. 

Franco spoke about how the cantina used to make much more wine and now it was hard because people had ripped up their vines, abandoned them, sold the vineyards to one of the big companies, etc. He was very frustrated about the cost of everything going up and the pressure it put on the business.

I drove up to see some of the vineyards and it was quite impressive. All red granite volcanic rock again. The hillsides are steep and form a little natural amphitheater. The granitic soil reflects heat and provides good drainage. It's clearly a fantastic vineyard. It's just so impressive that they're still going on making wine in virtually the same way they did over 100 years ago

One of the Gattinara cellars

Franco was all business. The Gattinara spends 2 years in cask before bottle aging; just like it has for the past century. The current release that just arrived is 2014!

I took a quick drive up to the vineyards

It was a twisted little amphitheatre shaped hillside facing west-ish. Like Bramaterra it was all pink granite.

Cantina Sociale di Gattinara Vino Rosso

Approx $19

This is the last of this vintage that will be available. This is a blend of Nebbiolo, Vespolina, Croatina, etc.

Aroma: cherry, but also bright, beautiful, vivid rose and raspberry! Now that this has had some time to open up a little bit this is a gorgeous wine! The aroma is a seamless blend of fresh ripe raspberry/cherry and flowers; this is a beautiful aroma.  

Taste: The wine opens with beautiful juicy ripe red raspberry and some red cherry. There's nice supporting acidity but right behind it there's some delicious salt. It gives the wine this delicious savory component while it's still bright and fresh. That's backed up by a little touch of tartness and then some more bright fresh compelling fruit wrapped in some dry tannins. This is really good right out of the bottle but some time to breathe makes this even better and helps it come out of its shell a little.

You can find this at Leeward, Craft Curbside, Wine Wise, Festina Lente, Vic and Whit's, and Table Bar

Cantina Sociale di Gattinara DOCG 2014

Approx $45

Unfortunately our whole allocation for the 2014 was just 14 cases. Franco ages this in barrel for at least years in those big old casks, then it's held in the bottle for another 2 years at least.

Aroma: dark, plummy, ripe red cherry, a little bit of currant, some beautiful red rose in the background, a little touch of dark baking chocolate. This is a beautiful complex aroma that's bright and fresh but also has these darker aromatic savory tones

Taste: dark lush cherry and blackberry fruit leads off followed by a deep mid palate with this delicious luxurious salinity underpinning some blackberry jam and a touch of blackcurrant. The finish has silky lingering tannins with a bit of red currant and then at the very end there's this pretty red raspberry. This is gorgeous serious old school high toned Nebbiolo.

You can find this at Monte's, Bow St Beverage and Market, Rosemont Market, Table Bar, Wayside Tavern, Vinolio in Belfast, Maine Meat, Riverside Butcher, Anju, Black Birch, The Danforth, and Vessel and Vine

Here's a video I made peeking into the cellars at the Cantina in Gattinara, plus a look at the vineyards!

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