Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Boca ~ From Noah to Moses

There are those places on the wine trail in Italy that really pay homage to a glorious past. But sometimes they don’t have to shout. All it takes is a whisper, a caress, a memory. So it was we made our way back into the snow and ice to the hilltop town of Boca in Piemonte. Not in the Langhe anymore, but a place that more people have forgotten about than remember.

Christoph Künzli is a modern day Moses for this area. Technically a foreigner, from nearby Switzerland, over 20 years ago he came here and fell under the spell of Antonio Cerri.

Antonio lived from 1915 until 1997. Imagine if you can a young man of 25, starting out his adult life. Maybe he had a lifelong love. I know darn well he had a passion. It was what was left of the vineyards of Boca, which in their heyday were all pervasive in the zone. And then the 2nd World War hit the world and the area and Antonio’s life got put on hold, as was the case with most folks in those times. The region was a partisan stronghold in opposition to Fascism, Hitler, and Mussolini. Still to go straight from dream to war in youth is a hard pill to swallow. And then to spend the next 25 years putting one's life, land and work back together, one vine at a time. I never knew Signore Cerri, but he, like I, was brought into this life in the service of the vine and wine. All those years he made wine on the hill, with nary a colleague in which to move the quality of the wine forward after it had fallen so far from the pinnacle it had reached. Cerri told Künzli, “When I die, Boca dies with me.” How sad is that? I don’t know about you, dear readers, but that just breaks my heart. A person spends a life trying to resuscitate a wine once recognized the world over for greatness, only to have to go it alone and then feel like when it’s over, it’s all over. It might actually be the perfect existential attitude regarding life on earth. Still, as I prepare to leave Italy and head back home to Texas, it saddens me a little.

The good news is that Christoph isn’t going to let Boca die. And if our jaunt in the ice and snow today was any indication, there are other folks in those hills, young folks too, who are not going to let Antonio Cerri’s life’s work disappear.

We tasted one of Cerri's last wines, the 1990 Boca. It was a balsam for the soul. Mellow, light color, delicate aromas but not a weak wine. It was fully mature, reminding me ever so slightly of older Monfortino’s I have had. When Cerri died, Christoph had barrels of his wines going back to the early 1980’s. He has bottled them up as a living library for the memory of a man who worked his whole life though many adverse times, as a respectful legacy for his efforts. Bravo, Christoph.

And today the vineyards are being renewed, next to hundred year old field-blend vineyards with their particular trellising system, called Maggiorina, where four vines emerge from a center point and wind, forming a cup. Designed by the architect Antonelli, who hailed from Maggiora in the Boca wine region. Not technically modern, but still many of the older vines live and thrive in this manner. They are very old, but surprisingly they look younger than their years.

We did have a little bad luck in the snow and the ice. Christoph, in his enthusiasm to show us the Le Piane vineyards, crushed his vintage Toyota 4 wheel drive along one of the walls of the property, sliding off the snow and the ice. Luckily he slid toward the wall and not off the ledge. It was a long, cold, slippery walk back to safety and rescue. I fell on my camera and broke something. But it can all be fixed, all is well.

We forged on ahead and barrel sampled all the way back to the 2007 vintages. And then we went to bottles and headed all the way back to Christophe’s 2004 Boca before we finished with Cerri’s 1990.

Not the Langhe, but part of the trip and this report. It has seemed shorter at some times and longer at others. I leave Italy this time with a sense of wonder at the next valley, the next curve, whether it be sunny or icy cold. I know this sound Pollyanna-like of me, but how can folks say Italian wines are complicated? The landscape and her people are complex but they are generous and forgiving and the food and the wines define a dynamic culture that refuses to stand still. That’s what I (and my friends) see and love on the wine trail in Italy.


Peter Bernstein said...

Christophe has done yeoman work but it is not true that Boca would have died with Cerni. The Vallana estate, though fallen on hard times for a while after Bernardo V. lost his mojo when his son died in 1968, is being re-energized by his grandchildren. Many of those legendary Spannas were based on wine from Boca though he did have contract growers all over Alpine Piemonte. Two Spannas were truly cru wines of Boca. After the advent of DOC these became DOC Boca. His alleged addition of wine from southern Italy has been explained to my satisfaction by Marina Vallana Fogarty (long story; ask her). I think that people could not understand how those Spannas of the 50's and 60's could live so long. But you know that Alpine Nebbiolo has a very long life, even longer than Barolo due to the acidic soils. Bernardo was a very talented wine maker and the wines, whatever you believe, are proof.

Unfortunately Kunzl's wines are also awfully expensive and in limited distribution. I cannot get them here in New Jersey. Only when I go out to dinner in NYC or at VinItaly am I am to taste them.

Peter Bernstein said...

Firstly, I apologize for spelling errors in my previous comment.
I should relate what Marina Vallana
Fogarty told me regarding the alleged addition of wine from the South in the Spannas of her grandfather. According to her (and Bernardo's widow, her grandmother, is still alive and going strong @ 90.

Bernardo had two business and two different and distinct cellars. Indeed there were bulk wines which were sold sfuso for strictly local
clients (this was a poor area) who could not/would not pay for the Nebbiolo based wines of the area. Even apparently for the Vespolina & Bonarda Novarese. Then as today Vallana wines were destined for export

Alfonso Cevola said...

Thanks for the comments, Peter. Thankfully, Vallana is now re-energized. I loved the old wines from way back and am exceedingly happy Boca won't die. Hope the next time to visit Vallana, an iconic label if there ever was one.

Thomas said...

"...how can folks say Italian wines are complicated..."

Indeed. The beauty of Italian food and wine is in its simplicity. It's like when a performer does something so effortlessly that you forget how much sweat it took to get that good.

And yes, Peter, the Boca Spanna wines of long ago were special. I wish I could recall them completely, as I was young and inexperienced when I got to taste them, but I certainly recall my reaction to them.

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