My first time visiting Piedmont was a generation ago. At the time a winemaking revolution was in its infancy. The Italians had discovered small barrique and higher prices. New wineries were going up. It was the beginning of a cycle that only now is starting to make full circle. It was an exciting era for Italian wines and Piedmont. And they were getting world respect for their wines, like their cousins in Burgundy.
That initial visit we toured Barolo, Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga d'Alba , Diano d'Alba, Grinzane Cavour, La Morra, Monforte d'Alba and Novello. I also met winemakers and tasted in Neive, Treiso and Barbaresco. Somewhere between Bricco Faset and Rabajà I got religion. But it wasn’t until several years later that they let me in the church.
It happened when was traveling with a friend who I was buying wine from. He had talked to me about these three brothers and their dad who worked their vineyards between two areas, Montefico and Montestefano. We were on our way to visit them. Their land was called La Cá Növa, the new house. It had only been there for several hundred years.
Barbaresco can be a sleepy little place. I get a calmness when there, like this is the perfect place in the world for one of those life-changing naps. I’ve had a few of them in Barbaresco. But the wine is what really has changed some of my ideas about Nebbiolo.
I’m probably not the greatest devotee of Nebbiolo. Maybe it’s my California upbringing, possibly the wines from the South of Italy have influenced me. Perhaps the wines from Burgundy have also shaped my views about Barolo and Barbaresco. Somewhere between my tastes and my expectations is where I have compartmentalized my views about these wines. Nothing like having high expectations for the wines while allowing my palate preferences to limbo, easily, under the bar. It makes an interesting inner dichotomy. But then, we are in the land of Eco, so perhaps this is all part of the expectation of territoriality. I have come to peaceful terms with Nebbiolo.
What does that mean? An example. Recently I was in San Francisco having dinner with winemaker friends and some of their clients. One young lady was there and she was a lively Roman candle of energy. She told me in her Latin accent, “I reeealllly loooove Nebbiolo.” Apparently, they loved her too, for she was initiated into the Order of the Knights of the Truffle and Wines of Alba. Some kind of big deal. They never asked me. Maybe my secret initiation into the Cavaliere Del Vini Siciliani, way back when, disqualified me. Hmmph.
I asked her why she loved Nebbiolo so much. My understanding from her was that she had decided that it would be a good idea (for her career?) to find an important wine area and concentrate on all the wines from there, a fast-track way to expertise on a subject. Why hadn’t I ever thought of that? I could have saved all kinds of time. Who needed to trek to Salina and visit with Hauner, while he was still alive? What did it matter to carry our babies all across Puglia, visiting winemakers, now long gone? And Abruzzo and the Marche, minor outposts of wine, why would I spend so much time with such unimportant wines? I admit it, I am slow sometimes.
But lately, I have been spending more time in Piedmont, more than I really thought I would. And here is what I am learning.
There is something interesting between these two areas, Piedmont where Nebbiolo is made, and Burgundy where Pinot Noir thrives. Not to say I intend to draw parallels on the quality or style of the wines. Couldn’t care less. But there is something about the winemakers and the people who live in those lands that are curious to me. Biggest difference to me? The Côte de Beaune and the Côte de Nuits are relatively flat, compared to Alba and Barbaresco.For me, in Burgundy, it is all laid out for one to explore and absorb. In Piedmont, there is always a little Bricco around the corner with a secret.
That is what the three brothers and the old father at La Cá Növa have been to me, these past twenty years. They have been this little covert delight that only a few people know about. Sure, they share land with more famous producers, Gaja and Giacosa. And yes, their star doesn’t shine as brightly in the sky. But for the life of me, I cannot figure out why. The brothers at La Cá Növa make a most natural kind of wine, with little or no intervention in the fields. Forget small oak, those are for experimenting with. They prefer large Austrian botte. Their crus are Montestefano, Montefico and Bric Mentina, a gorgeous hilltop red. For Barbaresco production they farm 10 hectares, from which they make a paltry 30,000 bottles. They make joyfully delicious, headache-free, red wine.
I've long stopped collecting Gaja, Giacosa and Giacomo Conterno. I love their wines, but like overly large homes and German cars, I don’t spend money on things like that. Maybe it’s because I realize I'll never be as wealthy as folks who can afford those uber-premium items for daily consumption. Perhaps it is because I have been to those mountain tops and don’t have an appetitive for that kind of opulence anymore. Or maybe it is because I have found wines from simple and down-to-earth folks who understand what they are making from their land. And that is what I am wanting in my wine.
Or I could just blame it on the La Cá Növa, with its magic spell.