Italy 3: Wherein Nelson Finds Himself Mistaken

Allow me, for a moment, to summon what humility I can, and admit a prejudice. When I see a wine that is well known, consistent, and widely distributed, I imagine a modern cellar: rows of gleaming tanks, and beautiful botti. I know, as well as anyone, that much of the truly beautiful wine in the world comes out of what is best described as a dirty hole in the ground. But very little of it is every widely known, and even less ever makes it to Alabama. Boy did Franchino Gattinara make me look like a schmuck. Who would have known that behind this plain door, there was a time cellar making one of the most spectacular wines in the world?

My Friend Giuseppe is from Gattimara, or more properly, Lozzolo, and was kind enough to facilitate a meeting with Alberto, one half of the opperation at Franchino. We met at the Torre di Gattinara, an ancient tower overlooking the town. Alberto greeted us in english, but soon switched to Italian, by way of Giuseppe. He pointed out some of Franchino’s vineyards, and gave us a tour of the hill. To say that Gattinara is beautiful seems to be nothing less than treasonous understatement. If you believe in a god, this was where they showed off. Sunlight, hills, clouds, and the ever welcoming Piemontese meet in an alchemy beyond words.

After our rather proper introduction to the terroir responsible for the wines, we headed down to the cellar. Some cellars attempt to welcome their guest with a carefully crafted air of rustic winemaking; seeking at every turn to say “look how we haven’t changed” all while shuffling you past rows of modern equipment and gleaming stainless steel tanks. This is not that kind of winery. You enter through a simple wooden door off of a little piazza lined with trees. Once inside, you find a small courtyard with a tractor and a few fiberglass fermenting tanks. Alberto starts by explaining that everything is done by hand, a speech that I’ve probably heard from six hundred winemakers in one form or another. He then offers to show us his bottling room. We eagerly accept, and he opens a door to reveal an 8’X13’room with six hand bottling spouts and a manual corking machine. I’m not terribly surprised, as many winemakers have a mobile bottling line brought out once a year to save space or the expense of the equipment. I asked him if he had a bottling line brought in, or if he sent the wine off to be bottled at another cellar. You could have knocked me over with a feather when he told me that he, Alberto, bottled, corked, labelled, and packed ten thousand bottles a year, by himself. I hadn’t realized that when he said handmade wine, he meant it.

He led us through a small door into a very tight cellar stuffed with Botti. These would have been assemble in place as it would be impossible to get them into the cellar in piece. Close to the door, there was an old hand operated press. These are common decorations in Italian cellars, since everyone has them but almost none are in use. Alberto explained to me that this was still how they pressed all of their grapes. He and his uncle were of the opinion, and I tend to agree with them, that they had much better control with this type of press. Still, this makes their life so much more difficult.

We tarried in the cellar for a bit before going back upstairs to see the large concrete tanks (12,000lbs a piece, empty) that are use to naturally slow the fermentation process. After speculating about which one of us would have the hardest time climbing into the tank to clean them (I’m not as trim as I once was), we went up to his uncle’s dining room table to try the wine. For those of you following along at home with one of our cases, now would be a great time to crack open that bottle of 2015 Franchino Gattinara that we sent you with.

Again, this was the antithesis of the dog and pony show that so many wineries put on. One bottle of wine, the 2017 Gattinara, with the addition of one of Alberto’s personal bottles of 2015. But in that one bottle: magic. Gattinara has long been prized for its wine (far longer than Barolo), and the reason comes through with every sip. These are delicate expression of Nebbiolo. With a creamy soft body that is unmatched for the grape. Cherries and violets dance around the glass in a endless waltz aimed at captivating and delighting your tastebuds. And as with every great wine: sadness. Because with every sip, there is a bit less of it in the world.

Our visit was truly a joy. Alberto is an amazing credit to Piemontese work ethic and artisanry. I had come expecting some grand enterprise, but found a pair of humble winemakers doing things the same way as there great grandfathers had. On our way out, Alberto told me they were having some trouble getting wine out the door. Not selling the wine, that was never the problem with Franchino, but physically getting it on a truck. He explained that the truck can’t fit in the door, so he has to hand pack the boxes and load them onto the tractor, then take them down the street to load them into the truck. Next time you sip a glass of Gattinara, send a prayer Alberto’s way. Lord knows he’s earned it.