As you head north from Turin the Alps grow ever larger on the horizon and the desire to explore them becomes almost irresistible. They mark the border between Italy and the rest of Europe and have always served to protect Il Bel Paese from incursions from the north. They were not always successful, as the invasion by Hannibal and his elephants bears witness to, but still Italians disparagingly refer to outsiders from the north as oltralpe, meaning beyond the Alps. But Vinnie and I resist the temptation of the mountains and instead take time to visit an area off the normal tourist trail. Lake Viverone is modest compared with the majesty of lakes like Maggiore and Como but because of this it does not attract so many visitors. Vinnie seems sceptical as I explain to him that this verdant plain was once the dumping ground for a huge glacier. Thousands of years ago it ground its inexorable way down from the nearby mountains and deposited its load of moraine thus creating the surrounding landscape and indeed the lake. On the north side of this immense geological amphitheatre lie the La Serra hills and on the south facing slopes we reach our destination, the La Masera winery.
Founded in 2005 by five friends, this small winery has only five hectares with an annual production of around 25,000 bottles but here we find a white grape variety called Erbaluce. 97% of this variety is grown in Piedmont and almost all in the north. This is a grape that has adapted to, and been shaped by, the land that gave birth to it. The origin of the name is obscure as erba means grass and luce light. It has been suggested that it in fact comes from albaluce or dawn light. However, whatever the origin, this is a variety that deserves to be better known. Piedmont is one of the biggest wine producing areas in the country and tends to be well known for its red wines but, in fact, 40% of its wines are white although Erbaluce production itself is small. At La Masera they produce a range of seven wines, namely still, passito, and spumante, and we will look at one from each of these.
The first is an Erbaluce di Caluso DOCG that the boys call Anima. It is 100% Erbaluce that is harvested by hand in September. After a gentle pressing, the must undergoes a three-week fermentation before maturing for six months on the lees in stainless steel tanks. After bottling, the wine rests for a further three months. The results are fabulous. The colour is brilliant straw with hints of green and on the nose there are green apples as well as the mild aroma of Amalfi lemons wrapped in white wildflowers like elderflower, On the palate there is the buttery feel that comes from being left on the lees, together with good acidity and a hint of almonds. Pair it with a meaty fish like halibut or swordfish.
Passito is a term that describes a wine that has been made using a method of drying the grapes after the harvest, before pressing and fermentation. La Masera makes a passito wine called Venanzia. The process starts in the second week of September when the finest bunches of the Erbaluce grapes are selected and then placed on trays in temperature- and humidity-controlled rooms and allowed to gently dry until the end of February. This decreases the water content and increases the sugars in the grapes which are then pressed and the resulting must is fermented in French oak barriques. The wine then spends a further 30 months maturing in barriques. All this time and care results in a wine of a deep straw colour with hints of amber. The bouquet is resonant with fruit in syrup but the real revelation is in the mouth where there is a sweetness that is full but not excessive with the flavour of raisins and the slight aftertaste of almonds that is characteristic of this grape. Enjoy this with desserts that feature almonds or hazelnuts or a mature cheese.
Spumante translates as foaming which exactly describes the wine. The La Masera version is called Masilé. After a slow low-temperature fermentation of about three weeks, the wine is left on the lees for six months. The process of making the sparkle begins at this point with a mixture of yeast and sugar added to the wine as it is bottled. After about three and a half years this delightful rendering of the Erbaluce grape is ready for its audience. The colour is a bright straw with golden hints with a bouquet reminiscent of summer days in a meadow full of wild flowers. On the palate it is dry and refreshing, perfect with hors-d’oeuvres.
With such a fabulous variety of styles all from one grape, La Masera and its wines is most definitely worth seeking out.