Hello almost August dog days...and so I've neglected the blog. Instead I'm posting some of my favorite stories I wrote in The Feiring Line in 2013. This was from my visit to Italy last spring to an iconic winery, just reemerging on the scene, Vallana. Please subscribe. That and a little peace on earth, is that too much to ask?
WHEN I said I was headed to Cantina Vallana in the Alto Piemonte—the northeast of the region—I saw the eyebrows arch. Then would come the “Why?”
After all, the Vallanas aren’t on the current list of hipster- approved wines. But from the 1950s to the 1980s—when I first encountered them—they had their celebrated moment. My friend Peter (aka the Young Collector in The Battle) discovered the wines while reading Frank Prial in The New York Times back in the late 70s. When we tasted them, we loved them for their sophistication, for their price and for their complexity and indestructibility—old-fashioned deliciousness. And then sometime in the late 90s they were gone.
I assumed wrongly they either went out of business or went barrique- crazy like the rest of Italy at the time. Now, thanks to Michael Skurnik Wines and the Rare Wine Company, the Cantina is back in the USA and still respectfully, unapologetically traditional: long bottle age, no perceptible wood, high on the acid, medium on the sulfur.
So, on my last night in Piemonte, I drove past the sea of designer outlets (Prada! Loro Piana!) and turned right into the parking lot under the imposing, flat signage.
Here’s the short overview of the Cantina: “Mummy,” Giuseppina Vallana, from the family’s 4th generation, fell in love with Guy Fogarty, a teacher from the UK. They married in 1980 and her father, Antonio, took his new son-in-law, who seemed to have a good palate and a love for the stuff, under his wing. Guy made the wines until 1996 when he died in an accident during the harvest, leaving two young daughters and a fifteen-year-old son, Frances.
The teenager started to work alongside his mother, bringing the number of winemaking generations to five. I have some knowledge of Guy’s wines, but it was mostly the grandfather, Antonio (third generation, if you’re keeping count) who’s glorious, indestructible vintages I drank too long ago.
While looking for Frances, I snooped around the deserted winery: Huge post war concrete vats, ancient destemmers...there was something untouched here, in that Lopez de Heredia way.
Hearing voices, I stopped snooping and climbed up the stone steps to find him, now 32, and Giuseppina preparing an extravagant tasting that was to stretch back to 1955. It was hard not to plunk myself down and taste, but with the sun still up,
I dragged him off to the DOC vineyards of Boca, beautiful, rural, rolling, and largely forgotten.
We drove to the rear of the 10 ha appellation where the sprawling Maggiorina trellising still thive.
Chemical farming also seemed to dominate. I wondered if this included my beloved Vallana.
I couldn’t really tell. Their vineyards in Boca had been grubbed up, awaiting replanting. But we arrived to the naked plot, isolated, on an incline overlooking the huge monastery. “See the different colored soils?” Frances pointed to veins of rose, red and white. He explained that the highly acidic, granitic porphyry soils might be why the wines have an even longer life than the wines of Barolo, where the grapes grow on limestone. Also the soil in Boca out- acids those of nearby Ghemme and Gattinara, perhaps the reason the DO rules requires the addition of the grapes vespolina and uva rara to soften up the wine and add gentle aromatics.
The soil lesson was intense, but I still wanted to see if Frances farmed as poorly as his neighbors. So I begged a trip to his vineyard in Gattinara, the most well known DOCG of this area that, along with Boca, includes Bramaterra, Colline Novarese, Fara, Ghemme, Lessona and Sizzana. Not exactly household names.
Ten minutes away, Gattinara is set at the top of rolling humps of hills. As we drove towards the Vallana vines, all of my worries were allayed. Frances’s massale selection vines were healthy, the soil so vibrant, as were the wines from this plot overlooking the Valley below.
Marina, Frances’s sister, says in their family “tradition is a religion,” and so this youngest generation still believes in the old-fashioned way of long bottle aging, natural malos and no other adjustments. Frances himself says that because they are small, they can take their time and give the bottles the aging they need. All oak used is ancient and if he had his way if it wasn't required by the DOC laws, he wouldn't use it at all.
But as traditional as all of this is, I do have some concerns about the future. Except for the Gattinara plot, the newly planted vines will be clones. And while I was snooping around, there was a package of organic yeast. Frances explained it away saying because harvest always happens in the colder weather, without temperature control he’s had experiences with irregular ferments, and so to pre-empt, he sometimes yeasts. And, as he says, “I don’t believe in dogma.
His mother laid out a little spread with savory cake and a neighbor’s cheese. As we started in, Frances couldn’t wait to show his first methode champenoise—a nebbiolo-based bottling. It was raspberry and fun. The next two wines seemed yeasted, but by the time we got into Gattinara 2004, I felt a more natural fermentation and felt more at home.
We went through three generations of winemakers in that afternoon. The wines were beautiful examples of the Italian bottles that lead me into the country decades ago. As we delved deeper into the older vintages, heading towards the 1955, Frances said with that family- inherited twinkle in his eye, “My grandmother used to complain that my grandfather Antonio never looked at her the way he looked at a glass of wine.”
And that 1955? It was a field blend of God knows what and from own-rooted vines, thanks to that high acid soil in Boca. It was certainly lively, changeable, leathery, a little pruney but juicy and frankly thrilling.
I do have my prejudices, such as my belief that native yeast ferments provide for more complex wines. But still, this is one case where I will just have to get over myself
Boca 2004 still has the old Boca vines and it is just luscious. Long acidity, cherry, strawberry, sage and licorice. Savory and a mile-wide finish. The taste of dirt in the best
of ways. The 2000 was beautifully evolved with a little bit of funk, with rust and blood, chocolate and spice. The 1997 went whoa! Nebbiolo! Acidity! The 1996 was Guy’s last vintage and Frances’s come to Jesus wine, his benchmark. It was far younger than the 2000,fleshy with a handful of Indian spices. Prices for new vintages of Boca seem to sit under $30.