Places speak to their visitors in different ways. The ancient conical stone huts of the coastal plains of Puglia murmur in an archaic tongue that few now understand of the transumanza – that ancient seasonal migration of sheep from the freezing mountains of Abruzzo and the north to the warmer climes of the south in the Autumn and the return journey in the Spring. The paddy fields of Piedmont speak confidently of a land that is the biggest producer of rice in Europe. But the valley called La Versa, in that part of southern Lombardy known as Oltrepò Pavese, positively screams Spumante in a voice impossible to ignore. Travellers along the SP201, just outside the village of Roncale, are presented with a massive metal sculpture of a bottle of the sparkling wine. This is a land that knows what it does best and is not ashamed of it; they have been producing wine with bubbles in the traditional manner here since the 1860s. So to explore this topographical homage to the Pinot Nero grape Vinnie and I went to the Calatroni winery in the hills above Montecalvo Versiggia where they produce Oltrepò Pavese Metodo Classico DOCG.
Italy really only joined modern Europe after the Second World War when it shook off the shackles of fascism, dusted itself down and, with the enthusiasm of a newly founded republic, set about rebuilding itself. One of the many reforms was in agriculture and here the old system of sharecropping which gave a percentage of the annual crop to the landowner was outlawed. Enter Luigi Calatroni, whose family had been working the land under this feudal system for five generations. He saw the opportunity and didn’t hesitate. On the 11th November, 1964, he signed the contract that saw a little bit of Italy transferred to him and today, over 55 years later, the business is in the hands of his great-grandchildren, Cristian and Stefano. The winery now consists of 28 hectares and produces around 70,000 bottles of wine per year.
The phrase Metodo Classico refers to the way in which the brothers put the bubbles into their wine. After the initial fermentation, the wine is bottled with the addition of a solution of sugar and yeast – the tirage -that produces a secondary fermentation in the bottle. Sounds straightforward but care must be taken to avoid exploding bottles that are a very real danger when we are talking of bottles with an internal pressure of a very muscular seven bar.
Their Pinot Nero 64 – the 64 refers to the year great-granddaddy put pen to paper on that contract – is 100% Pinot Nero. After bottling, the wine rests while the yeast does its task of fermenting the sugar and then it remains on the lees for a total of 30 months, allowing the delicate flavours to develop. It has a bright straw colour with the fine long-lasting bubbles that the Italians refer to poetically as perlage, borrowing the French word for beadwork. There is a mixture of brioche and grapefruit on the nose and on the palate a crisp acidity that means that this will make not only a great aperitivo but will also pair very well with seafood pasta.
Poggio dei Duca is a wine that is pas dosé. This phrase refers to the topping up of the wine after the frozen plug containing the lees is removed. This is the final stage before the traditional cork and cage are used to seal the bottle. The removal of this plug obviously leaves a shortfall in the contents and so the winemaker has to replenish the bottle. He does this using wine that may have a little additional sugar to sweeten the final result. In pas dosé there is no additional sugar and for the purists this is the best way to fully appreciate the essence of the grape and the terroir that nurtured it. In this case, the vineyard is new to Calatroni, although the vines are around 40 years old, and at 550 metres above sea level it is much higher than the rest of the estate so this single cru has its own very individual characteristics. 20% of the must is fermented in Austrian oak before being blended with the more traditionally fermented wine and then bottled. It remains on the lees for four long years. The result is a sublime example of what can be achieved with the Pinot Nero grape. The colour is a straw yellow and the bubbles of the perlage are small and persistent, just as they should be. The colour is a straw yellow with hints of green and a bouquet redolent of the wild flowers of a spring meadow. Try this with turbot.
If you want to try something different then the brothers have something quite unusual – a semi sparkling red wine. This is a Bonarda dell’Oltrepò Pavese DOC that Calatroni call Vigiö which was their grandfather’s nickname. Made from 100% Croatina grapes, the sparkle is achieved by putting the wine through a second fermentation in a sealed steel vessel. On the nose bitter cherry predominates with background hints of cinnamon and cloves and on the palate there is cherry with light tannins. This pairs well with ham, salami and a variety of pasta dishes.
Azienda Calatroni is a real family affair and if you would like to sample some traditional cooking to go with the brothers’ wines then their mother Marisa makes her own pasta for the restaurant in the winery buildings.