Kate visits Piemonte and Bera
Arrived in Turin this morning, to a sky like murky sorbet. Grey, gritty and bitingly cold. We are here to visit various producers in the company of Christian, from Les Caves de Pyrene, so the weather doesn’t feel gloomy.
Our party is depleted, by idiocy (someone who did not apply for a passport in time) and the vicissitudes of small business life (Green & Blue demands the time of Jude, who had to stay behind), so there are just five of us instead of seven: three from The Grove (including Russell, the very talented chef from Colette’s) and Tony and me from G & B.
The minibus Christian is driving feels palatial and I am filled with a sense of profound relief and pure, fizzy delight in not having to deal with Italian motorists. True, sitting up front with Christian means that I witness at vivid first-hand their inimitable approach to incidental details like road markings, speed limits and other safety requirements but I completely do not care. Driving here makes me white knuckled and demented with stress but as a passenger I’m the very model of relaxation.
We have a lovely chat while Christian avoids ploughing into a selection of suicidal Italians. Things are going very well for Les Caves in Italy which is great news, and we have lots to talk about. He runs their division here, selling great French wines to Italians as well as keeping an eye on Italian producers.
H e gives me a run-down of the traditional food of Piedmont, one of the great gastronomic regions of Italy, a country where great dishes are not exactly thin on the ground. My prejudice is against this Northerly cuisine since it is much more a cheese, butter and meat place than fish, olive oil and vegetables, but that is before enjoying the next three days of some of the best food I have ever eaten.
Meat, served raw, filled pasta parcels, rabbit, 30 different official types of cheese, hazelnuts (Ferrero Rocher are from here), Finanziera – an offal soup/sauce ( there is much loud Italian argument about which it is when we reach Bera) made principally of brains and of course, Bagna Caude. This is a dish of such extreme pungency that it could readily be classed as a device of mass obstruction in the arena of sociability. Garlic – a LOT of garlic - olive oil and anchovies are fashioned into a sauce which is kept hot over a fondue flame. Raw vegetables and bread are dipped into this and much pungent happiness ensues.
Bera (pictured to the left) is our first stop - old favourites of ours although I have never visited them before. They are based in the hills of Cannelli and are a proper family affair with sister Alesssandra and brother Gian Luigi now in charge. After one or two wrong turns we wind our way up a narrow road and arrive at the family home perched atop a hill of moscato.
The Bera family farm five hectares here and five elsewhere in the region. Gian Luigi explains that it is difficult to have vineyards all in the same place as every suitable inch is already covered in vines, higgledy piggledy. We stand and look over the small valley where the Barbera is almost bare and entirely autumnal apart from, here and there, bunches of still fresh-looking grapes.
These are the second harvest, grapes known as San Martino, which traditionally were always kept for the family as the wines made from the ‘official’ grapes had to be sold for much needed cash. This used to be a region of many crops with farming families growing all manner of vegetables, wine being merely one of a host of cash crops. The first grapes would be harvested and fermented and then the skins kept back for fermentation with the “Johnny-come-lately’s.” This resulted in a wine which was more rose than red (such is the dilution of the second crop), with a maximum alcohol of 6% abv. By March, it was vinegar but until then, acceptable if well chilled.
We taste some berries off the vines. They pop with slightly sugary liquid in the mouth but no great flavour and the finish is too sharp. Clearly, the first-born have taken the talent.
There was a time when individual consumption was much higher – two litres a day on average - because food was scarce and men working in the fields needed the energy they could get from wine. Gian Luigi tells a story about a local family who produced wine and who sold 18 litres to someone living further down the valley. The father was commissioned to take the container of wine to the buyer and he set off, bumping into two friends on the way. Conversation ensued and at some point it was decided that it really would be best if the wine was tasted to ensure quality. The trio were found hours later, insensible in the vineyards. The 18litre container had been drained to the dregs and while they were not conscious they were also not dead, which would probably be the fate of many lily-livered modern consumers attempting to consume the same amount of modern, higher alcohol wine.
We move on to the Moscato vineyard (pictured to the left)) which slopes sharply downwards. Broad beans - excellent at fixing nitrogen – are planted between the rows on calcerous clay soils. All viticulture here is completely organic and the soils underfoot feel springy with life. This area was once under water and traces of fossilized whales have been found near here.
It is believed (by those that live here at least), that this is the birthplace of Nebbiolo although it is not now very widely grown. The first records date back to the 13th century, when it was almost certainly a perfumed, sparkling red. By the end of the 17th, it was finally accepted that Barbera did better here as it was more resistant to Odium and so Nebbiolo headed for the higher hills where the air is cooler and the threat is less intense.
When Alessandra and Gian Luigi’s dad was young (which is not a million years ago), they still made a sparkling Nebbiolo and for a time there was a move towards forming a DOC called San Martzano which would be for sparkling reds from Barbera, Nebbiolo and Freisa. Then the quality of Lambrusco, shortly followed by the image, fell off a cliff and suddenly no-one wanted to be associated with bubbly red. Tragedy!! I have developed quite a taste for it and can think of nothing more lip-smacking than a fizzy, aromatic Nebbiolo.
We move inside, up a flagstone staircase bordered by verdant pot plants and into a room which looks out over the Moscato hill. Here too is a tribe of plants in pots and although the floors are tiled, it is warm as toast and very comfortable as we take our places around a long table for a light lunch.
This means four instead of eight courses.
Moist, fat salamis and silky slices of ham with mounds of bread arrive first. The Italians are somewhat mortified that I do not eat such things and try very earnestly to convince me that lamb is in fact a white meat. The reasoning behind this is not entirely clear but I am resolute and so have a plate of fresh pasta with Sicilian olive oil and parmesan while everyone else has theirs with a lamb stew.
We taste the wines while we eat.
Of course we do.
We are in Italy.
We start with the Arcese, their very PIedmontese blend of Cortese, Arnies and Favourita. I have forgotten why we don’t stock this anymore but can only conclude that someone lost their mind. It is completely delicious. Floral, rich and fresh in equal measures – the Favourita gives texture, the Arneis a fresh herb and flower quality and the Cortese, a citrus edge. There is a marked fizz but that enhances instead of detracts.
I suddenly remember why we don’t stock it anymore. Too many people brought it back, complaining bitterly about the extra sparkle. Clearly, we did not do our jobs properly and took the cowards way out by reimbursing them rather than educating them. I resolve to remedy this forthwith on my return.
The La Verrane Barbera which we stock is having a very good day. The 2007 which we are drinking is slightly richer than the 05, but still with that thrillingly fresh edge that is so delicious. This too has a slight sparkle to it which, for me, makes it all the more delicious and certainly very food-friendly.
The conversation turns to Sicily where, on Etna, they have just had a calamitous harvest. We discuss Frappato and, being incredibly generous and civilized people, the Bera’s rush off and get a bottle of the same from a producer called Occhipinto. This is sensational and definitely worthy of tracking down. In a million years, I would not have placed it in Sicily. It is a wine of the north, all fresh elegance and aromatic complexity. Pomegranate, cranberry and freshly chopped herbs.
The Bera Ronca Malo Barbera comes out next and is having a great day too. All the wines are having a great day! In an earlier conversation Christian and I noted that in our experience it is often who you taste with and the general energy of the group that seems to have as much of an effect as a number of other factors.
We finish with Moscato D’Asti and Italian apple cake which is such a profoundly delicious combination that I eat and drink every last drop and crumb. The Bera Moscato is a slightly richer style, with delicously honeyed grape flavours, but the edge stays fresh and it is dangerously easy to drink.
We stagger down the stairs and onto the mini bus and promptly fall asleep. Poor Christian. The loneliness of the wine trip driver. I know it well. Determined though I was not to do what is generally done to me, the effects of the light lunch, washed down with a goodly amount of mid-day wine (always somehow more lethal than evening wine), is just too much.