As committed Italophiles, Vinnie and I travel all over this beautiful country but I have to admit there are some areas that are less interesting than others. Travelling across the plain of the River Po, as flat as the proverbial billiard table, it is sometimes difficult to be enthusiastic although there are always stories to be found, even here. For example, in Italy’s agricultural heartland they grow kiwi fruit that are exported to New Zealand. However, if you know where to look then there are some little gems to be discovered even in this uninspiring landscape. Piedmont is renowned for the variety and quality of the wines that are produced in the south of the region but Vinnie and I are in the north – about 20 miles northeast of Turin, to be precise – in the area where they cultivate the Erbaluce grape. This is a variety native to northern Piedmont with written records going back as far as 1606. There are several convoluted explanations for the name that literally translates as grass light. However, looking at the ripe grapes with the sun behind them and the beautiful golden glow with hints of green, I am happy to apply Occam’s razor and settle for the obvious version.
Erbaluce di Caluso attained DOCG status in 2010 but production is still small with only a little over 200 hectares under cultivation and a total production of less than a million bottles per year. Nevertheless, it has acquired a cult following amongst the Italians. Within the DOCG appellation there are three wines, still, spumante and passito. Passito is a sweet dessert style of wine where the grapes are allowed to dry before being pressed and is particularly suited to the acidity of the Erbaluce grape.
To discover more, we visited the Santa Clelia winery, halfway between the small towns of Caluso and Mazze, where Sergio and Gabriella Dezzutto have been pursuing their dream of championing the Erbaluce grape for over 20 years. Here, on 10 hectares of land, they produce around 70,000 bottles of certified organic wine per year but, more than that, they do it with a regard for maintaining the biodiversity of their holding. The approach to the winery is across the typically flat fields of the alluvial Po river plain but behind the buildings the secrets are revealed. Firstly, there is the woodland that provides the diversity that Sergio and Gabriella value so much. But as you walk around there, you can feel the land starting to rise, for this is the edge of a glacial moraine that provides a sandy well-drained soil which is ideal for the Erbaluce vines. Emerging from the woods into the vineyards, the first thing that you notice are the traditional pergola canavesana, a method of training the vines that produces a green canopy at a height of around two metres that requires manual cultivation and harvesting.
Back in the modern winery, there is the chance to sample the wines that the couple have been devoting themselves to promoting over two decades. The first of two still white wines I sampled is called Ypa. Named after the legendary queen of the Salassi tribe who occupied this area before the arrival of the Romans, it is fermented and matured in steel, spending six months on the lees before being bottled. The bouquet was full of oranges and, in contrast, on the palate there were green apples with a gentle salinity. This is a wine that would go not only with fish but also with pork.
The second is called Essenthia and, again, this is fermented and matured in steel, spending a similar period of time on the lees but, as Sergio explained to me, the difference lies in a delicate filtration that enables a range of aromas to come through. The colour is yellow with hints of green and, on the nose, yellow peaches. The apricots in the mouth give this wine a full flavour that would go well with salami as well more traditional pairings such as fish.
The rules for this DOCG also allow for the production of a spumante and Sergio and Gabriella call their version Rigore because of the time and effort put into its production. Using the classic method, this wine spends four years on the lees and a further year in the bottle after disgorgement. The results are impressive, the colour is a brilliant shining gold that is simply stunning. The bouquet is a rich combination of brioche and honey which continues through to the palate. I could enjoy this as an aperitivo or, indeed, with a meringue dessert although I would avoid the strongly acidic flavours of lemon or lime.
The last wine that I sampled was a bitter-sweet dessert wine that the couple call Dus. In Piemontese this means sweet but can also be an acronym for da uve selezionata, or from selected grapes. The technique for making this wine is called passito which involves leaving the grapes for some time before pressing to allow sugars to develop and water content to reduce. This is a method used throughout Italy and within it there are many variations on the theme. Here, Sergio and Gabriella exploit the very particular climatic conditions that they have being on the edge of the Po river plain. The Piedmont autumn is famous for its dense fogs that bring with them the moulds that permit the wonderful flavours to develop in such culinary delicacies as culatello ham. Accordingly, the grapes are left indoors with the windows open until March so that the damp morning mists can envelop the slowly maturing bunches and allow the growth of the prized botrytis cinerea or noble rot. After fermentation, the wine is left in small oak casks for at least four years before it is bottled. Local tradition requires that on the birth of a son the proud parents buy a bottle of Caluso Passito, to be opened on the occasion of the boy’s marriage – which tells us all we need to know about the ageing potential of the precious nectar. The colour is deep, deep gold with a glorious bouquet full of oranges, apricots, and honey and then in the mouth there is the balancing bitterness that completes the experience.
These Erbaluce wines are essays on what can be achieved by harnessing the local grape and environment together to produce some simply wonderful flavours.