Sunday, March 03, 2019

Erbaluce, where have you been all my life?

There’s nothing more enjoyable and illuminating than to rediscover a wine, a grape or a region as if I’d never had an iota of exposure to them. Such was the case with Erbaluce di Caluso from Piedmont last week while there for the food and wine workshop Gastronomix. It’s a spin-off of Collisioni, with Ian D’Agata directing the education.

I’d had some exposure to Erbaluce in my past life in the wine trade, but never went much deeper than dipping my toes in the lake. This was full immersion, with a real master class, taught by one with mastery of the subject, and over several days.


Tasting wine. Large tastings, where one goes from table to table, usually public events, where you stand and sip and spit, can be informative, and give one a quick view into a particular wine or region. But ultimately, for me it is an uncomfortable exercise. Its hard to dive in deep and really uncover the little nooks and crannies of a wine or a region.

That wasn’t a problem last month with Erbaluce. We came back to the wines, again and again, tasting them in groups of different producers. Enjoying them at lunch or dinner with food. Sitting among peers, discussing the wines. Going over the wines. That is what immersion is about. And at this stage of my life, I want that deeper encounter, that time exposure, to get inside a wine and find out why and how it became a staple and even an icon for the region in which it was born.
Still - Dry

A light went off. Here was a wine that I had a little experience with. But I really didn’t know the wine. I’m not sure I can say I really “know” the wine now. But I have a deeper insight into the nature of the wine and the character and the why of the wine. Why it grew up, matured and became an important part of the region in which it lives. And something the people who live there enjoy, over and over.

I experienced that when we first arrived to the area for the event. It was a Sunday and we took a walk from our hotel down the hill into the town, Ivrea, where we were staying. About a half mile down, we stopped for lunch. There was no sign on the front, but we saw people inside eating. It was simply called Ostaria Vino Cucina & Birra. I ordered a half liter of the house white. It was on tap, and slightly fizzy, what we once called frizzante.

Vitello Tonnato a la moderne
The wine was fresh, with good fruit, but in no way a sweet wine. It was dry. Bone dry. And it was the perfect wine to go with the simple seafood dishes we had. And isn’t that really the purpose of wine, ultimately? It set us up for a few days of Erbaluce immersion with Ian D’Agata, arguably the most informed Italian wine (and grape) expert in the world. In his ground-breaking tome, Native Wine Grapes of Italy, Dr. D’Agata had this to say about Erbaluce:
“Though nobody will ever mistake a wine made with Erbaluce for a blockbuster, when well made these wines are a marvel of balance, with minerally, crisp white flower and fruit aromas and flavors combining hints of chlorophyll and apricots. It’s true that poor examples can be marred by eye watering acidity, but this same high natural acidity has given us sparkling wines in increasing numbers. Made either by refermentation in the bottle in the manner of Champagne or by the Charmat method like Prosecco, these can be marvelous wines, and are underrated in my view.”
Sparkling

Erbaluce has a flexibility that one would be hard pressed to find in other grapes around the world. Awarded the DOC in 1967 (!) and DOCG in 2010. The base wine is still and dry. The metodo classico sparlking version rivals the Trentino and Lombardia sparklers, and the charmat style is in a world apart from Prosecco. And the air-dried, passito version, laden with botrytis, can be a life-changing occurrence. One can find these three styles from a singular grape in the Loire Valley, with Chenin Blanc and in the Marche, with Verdicchio. I’ve racked my brain to try and find other examples from grapes that produce a white wine (Chardonnay? Sauvignon Blanc? Carricante? Riesling? Garganega? Tokay?), but I’m still scratching my head. And under the same DOP! Erbaluce, where have you been all my life? Or at least, for the last 35 years?

So, I went off to my local wine stores, here in Dallas, Texas, starting with the Italo-centric Jimmy’s, which usually has everything Italian under the sun. One Erbaluce, but an aged one. Perhaps at one of the small wine stores, or maybe even one of the large chains, like Spec’s, I will find a newer one. But Erbaluce isn’t posing any impending existential threat to Prosecco, Pinot Grigio or Moscato. And that’s a bit of a shame.

The 3-tier opponents will offer up this dearth of Erbaluce to the dismal state of wine procurement in America. And perhaps there is a kernel of truth to this. After all, when Big Wine is stepping all over themselves to bottle their 16th iteration of Cabernet or Chardonnay, usually from the same tank, slapping a sleek and Instagrammably sheik label up for the influencers-for-hire, what chance does this meek, little grape have for expanding their base outside of Monferrato and Canavese?

Risotto
These are wines that sommeliers, retailers and Italian wine directors should take a plunge at. They are very drinkable and enjoyable, again and again (that which I can attest to). They are versatile, and they are varied in their flavor profiles to enjoy over different courses and seasons. Why isn’t America jumping on this wine? Maybe they are, in New York, L.A. San Francisco (for sure), Portland and Seattle. As for Middle-America, they’re barely a blip on a screen. And that’s really a damn shame.


Producers to be on the lookout for:
  • Cantina Coop. Caluso
  • Cantina Della Serra
  • Cantine Briamara
  • Cantine Corsio
  • Carlo Gnavi
  • Cellagrande
  • Cieck
  • Ferrando
  • Giacometto Bruno
  • Ilaria Salvetti
  • La Campore
  • La Masera
  • Orosia
  • Orsolani
  • Pozzo Elisa
  • Santa Clelia

Other links:
Still - Passito (sweet)


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2 comments:

  1. Managed to pick up a great Erbaluce in LA recently at Vinovore, as well as Tintillia, it was a lovely surprise to see such "unknown" varieties on show. Erbaluce is definitely one I'd like to explore more given the range of styles.

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  2. A grape I love and also surprisingly difficult to get hold of in the UK.

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