Exhausted, excited, and uncertain, it was time to venture out into Italy and try some wine. I was admittedly apprehensive. Would we be hassled by the police? What kind of reception would we have traveling to a country just now trying to dig its way back out of the trenches of the ‘Rona? One thing was entirely certain: it would not be like any other trip I had ever experienced. But I did have one consolation in the form of my friend Giuseppe. For those of you who don’t know Giuseppe, he is an exporter of a number of fabulous small producers in Alto Piemonte, and a dear friend. Some of you doubtlessly remember his trip to Opelika at the old Ampersand, and those of you who don’t will surely know the spectacular Boca from Poderi Garona that he’s sends us (more on that when we visit them in a few days), and is included in our Italy case.
He had sent Mary Katherine and I to the little town of Briona. A village of less than two thousand that is apparently well known for its rice. We arrived about an hour before the winemaker was set to arrive, so we took a walk around the town before taking our little convertible Fiat as far up the mountain as it would suffer (they own Jeep now, so it’s the same thing, right?). After our stroll and my completely expert off-roading in an entirely appropriate vehicle, we headed back to the gate of the winery.
We arrived to find a Sri Lankan woman tending to their little shop. Every surface that wasn’t covered with wine was covered with awards. She addressed us in Italian, and I made a genuine pitiful attempt at a reply. After a few minutes of trying to explain why we were there, I asked if she knew Giuseppe and that seemed to get us somewhere. She ran into the back and found Cecilia. She didn’t speak a lick of english, my italian is beyond awful, and our translator was moving between her second and third languages. But in wine there is truth, and passion is one hell of a translator.
She took us into the tasting room upstairs for a coffee (we were looking more than a bit jet-lagged), before taking us back downstairs into the winery. We entered through a small door to find an aging room with several Botti (the all important large slovenian oak casks that are central to modern piemontese wine making) and a selection of barriques. After we made our way through an explanation of some of their oaking regiments, it was onto the vinification area. I was genuinely amazed how many tanks they managed to squeeze into such a small facility. Wineries in Europe are often much smaller than their new world counterparts, but this seems almost immaterial to Italian winemakers. They are going to make what the want, in whatever space they have.
After a bit brief tour of their awards (seriously, these people beat the French in their own rose competition, see for yourself https://www.vignetivalleroncati.it/riconoscimenti/), Cecilia sent us with her oldest son up into the vineyard. The trees were thick, and the vineyard seemed to spring up out of nowhere. Nebbiolo, Barbera, Vespolina, Uva rara, and Erbaluce are the grapes of choice, and great care has been given to their placement.
Vigneti Valle Roncati is a true gem. Not because of the awards or the fanfare, but because there is such integrity in everything they do. They seem to make choice in a total vacuum; devoid of any outside influence. And the proof is in the glass. After the trip up to the vineyards, we returned tasting room to try their wines. Of course coffee came first, then a smattering of local salumi, with the Italians being particularly entertained with the fact that I knew what each of them were, and requested Lardo to go with it, which was excellent and soaked in Nebbiolo.
We started wit the sparklings, two positively mesmerizing concoctions of indigenous grapes. The bianco, 100% Erbaluce, was dry, grippy, and lavishly perfumed. And the rose? Hold onto your dicks, this stuff is easily the best Charmat method sparkling wine I’ve ever had. The mouthfeel on this wine is a masterclass in elegance, and the distinctively savory finish is addictively lovely. Seriously folks, if you see this, buy it.
Normally I hate having a truly great wine at the beginning of a tasting, few winemakers can play the whole eighteen, but this was just the beginning of what can only be described as a relentlessly good lineup. We moved onto the 100% Erbaluce white wine, tasting both the current vintage and an unbottled sample from the tank. This wine is a revelation. Erbaluce is often thought of by the wine world as a curiosity: a nice grape with a good story. But these were complex, elegant, structured, and criminally smooth. With three samples of wine, Cecilia had changed my entire perspective on piemotese wine.
It was already feeling like quite the tasting when we made it to the reds. Roncati grows only classic varieties of red grapes; Barbera, Nebbiolo, Vespolina, and Uva Rara. We began with the Barbera, a powerful wine with a decadent character. Uva Rara (a type of Bonarda) was next, it was rich and lush on the nose, but delightfully restrained on the pallet; this wine was begging for food. And one last stop before the Nebbiolo: Vespolina. Vespolina is a wine with a notoriously forceful character. Dark, tannic, and earthy, it seems to fly in the face of those detractors of the region who would complain that the reds are always too light. And this was a really excellent example of the breed.
Finally it was time to taste the Nebbiolo. I won’t beleaguer you with a play by play of each one, but rather offer a broad comment and insight, as it seems more appropriate. Nebbiolo has frustrated the greatest of vintners and winemakers. Everything you do to it has a measurable on the wine in the glass. And these are not subtle differences that you need to be some brilliant wine snob to catch, they are front and center. The best producers embrace this characteristic to make unique and varied wines with a strong sense of place. Roncati has done an excellent job by this measure. All of the wines have excellent body, alcohol, tannins, and acidity. But every single one is its own little expression of Nebbiolo’s seemingly inexhaustible variety of flavor. Were I to have to choose one, the Ghemme would be very high on the list. I was just so elegant. But I honestly don’t think I could, they were just all too lovely.
Our last adventure before setting out with Giuseppe was to take pictures. I let slip that I have recently started riding motorcycles, and that I enjoyed Moto Guzzi. This caused quite a bit of excitement, and the insisted that I came downstairs. That’s when they brought out the positively stunning Guzzi 250 you see in the title image. I was smitten, and overjoyed to snap some pics with such a beautiful old bike. After many long goodbyes, it was time to hit the road. Our wild ride through Italy, anything but over.