Piemonte - Past and Present

Piemonte - one of the most prized wine regions in Italy and home to the world famous Barolos and Barbarescos. The varietal to know here is the Nebbiolo, a high tannin grape that sets the stage for wines with qualities of red cherry, herbs, and rose petals. Known for its chameleon-like ability to present different qualities for each subregion, this grape is incredibly versatile and grown almost nowhere else outside of Piemonte.

The two main regions within Piemonte you tend to hear about (for good reason) are Barolo and Barbaresco.

Both regions grow the prized Nebbiolo grape, but with slightly different styles. The Barolo region, located on the southern facing hills southwest of the city of Alba, produces brick red wines. Don't let the lighter color fool you though - these wines are bold, with tight tannins, and an usually high alcohol level for Italian wines. The Barbaresco wines are grown on the south-facing slopes located northeast of Alba, but the main difference here is the soil. These wines are grown in limestone-based soils, giving them a lighter mouth feel and less tannins. Typically these wines all show best with about ten to fifteen years of age when the qualities of spice, roses, and figs begin to develop and the tannins have been tamed.

I'll admit that I've always been intimidated by Italian wines. Not in terms of drinking them of course, but in terms of studying and understanding the thousands of different grape varieties and hundreds of regions. How could you possibly remember the difference between a Barbera and a Barbaresco, or a Verdicchios from a Vermentino, when there are so many to keep track of? When faced with daunting wine regions like Italy, it's generally a good rule of thumb to simply match your wines with the corresponding foods of the region, but what should you do when presented with a huge wine list at an Italian restaurant? Hopefully you’ll be rescued by a great sommelier and steered toward the perfect pairing, but without help it can certainly be difficult to decipher!

Vineyard in Boca, a small region in Northern Piemonte.

Our recent trip to the small town of Ameno in Piemonte was on a bit of a whim. We’d spent the past three weeks in Switzerland and in all honesty we were simply tired of the rain and had our fill of Gruyere. Our hosts in Ameno, an accomplished author and a modern artist, embodied everything we came to love about the region and the community. Their passion for the unique culture and history of the area was simply contagious. What I found so special about it was their interest in keeping the past out of museums and textbooks. Rather than romanticizing the past as something separate from their daily lives, they were busy at work making sure that it would be maintained. They worked tirelessly to ensure that the best parts of the past were dusted off and refurbished so that they could be relevant and enjoyed by the world today. 

Eager to properly introduce us to Ameno and the surrounding area, our Airbnb host Davide was instrumental in helping us learn about the local wine region. He made arrangements for us to visit what was believed to be the best winery in the area, Le Piane - located in the nearby town of Boca.

For reasons ranging from government policy to the globalization of food and soda, winemaking in Boca had been largely ignored and nearly forgotten for sometime. Fortunately for all of us wine lovers, the region was recently brought back to life in large part due to just one man. In our visit to Boca we learned the story of how this one man convinced the town's remaining winemaker to not let their unique wine region be relegated to the history books. He convinced the old winemaker, and essentially the entire town, to allow him (an outsider!) to carry on the story of making Boca wine into a new and exciting chapter. 

The site of Antoino Cerri's original vineyard in Boca

Christoph Kuenzli, an Italian wine importer of Swiss origin, first visited the Boca region in the 1990s at a time when the local wine community was shifting their interest toward other industries. In its prime, the Boca region had been one of the largest wine producing regions in Italy, yet by the time he visited it was nearly unknown to the larger wine world and the vineyards had been broken up and sold off.

According to Christoph, the locals weren’t even interested in drinking wine by the time he arrived.

Nevertheless, Christoph was enchanted by the history and potential of the area. And, perhaps emboldened by a bit of Nebbiolo, he decided that he would return this region to its original splendor himself (despite having never actually operated a winery).

Given his lack of experience at actually making wine, not to mention the fact that he wasn’t even Italian, it’s not surprising that the last prominent winemaker of the region, Antonio Cerri, was not enthused by the idea of passing on the torch to Christoph. In fact, the region was in such decline that the Antonio had decided it would simply die with him. He told Christoph that he was crazy to think he could just step in and run a winery himself - and that he was even crazier to think he would get help doing it.  

Sadly, Antonio suffered a stroke and realized he was no longer able to tend to the vines himself. Christoph knew that watching the vineyards fail during his lifetime was not part of the winemaker's master plan, so seeing an opportunity to try again, he was finally able to convince Antonio to allow him to try and save the winery himself.

Christoph Kuenzli, standing proudly in front of his restored vineyards in Boca.

In restoring and growing the winery, Christoph decided to start with the original vineyard and then slowly began the process of purchasing tiny parcels of land back from the locals that had gone fallow over the years. In the vineyards he made sure that the right grapes would be planted in the proper areas of of the vineyard and in the right ways - no matter how difficult that might be. In accordance with tradition he trellised one of the vineyards in a unique old style to create a regional “field blend.” This style of trellis resembles something like a small tree and is meant to capture the most sun exposure in a rocky soil. These “trees” are a combination of 13 varietals all planted together, and all worked laboriously by hand. 

Christoph ensured that the winery would continue to focus on small yields to produce the highest quality of wines possible and that they would take advantage of the unique volcanic soil by patiently allowing the grapes to reach full maturity before picking. Christoph may have been a novice at running a winery and making wine, but his dedication to tradition, incredible precision, and an unrivaled work ethic has enabled him to restore the quality of wine from Boca - arguably bring the region to a new level of excellence.

Different varietals are planted and trellised together to create a unique field blend.

Of course not all traditions are worth maintaining. Perhaps my favorite story of the day was about how farmers used to shoot cannons into the sky to fight the hail storms. Understandably, a hailstorm is a nasty opponent to face in battle (and can completely ruin the grapes on the vine), but I can’t help but laugh at the thought of hearing giant “booms” from the cannons flying valiantly toward the evil clouds above on a regular occurrence.

This illustration of a "hail cannon" appeared in a French newspaper circa 1900.

On the drive back to the winery we enjoyed comparing my previous career as a classical ballet dancer with Christoph’s experience as a winemaker. We agreed that there are certain passions in life, whether they are wine or ballet, that require years of dedication and training in order to create the finished product that you want to show the world. In order to “play in the cellar,” as he put it, he needs to know the right techniques in the field - to understand the lessons that have been passed down and refined for generations - and he must follow them with dedication and discipline. Through our different paths in life we were both able to come to the realization that with enough training and hard work we were able to create something worth sharing with others, and something that speaks to the world today. It’s a process of weaving the past into the present, and if you are lucky, creating something that will inspire others to continue the same pursuit into the future.

Our day together ended on a perfect note when Riley turned to Christoph and asked, “So what’s next for you? What are you focused on going forward?” Unsurprisingly, Christoph looked him straight in the eye and said quite simply, “To be better.”

Christoph pouring me a taste from a typical large barrel used in Piemonte.

If you’d like to try Christoph’s wines, you can find them at a number of Italian restaurants in San Francisco such as Locanda, Delfina, and Acquerello, as well as at K&L wine shop. He believes that he does well in the Bay Area because “we” are so open and curious to learn about other regions and traditions, and we’re excited to find new high quality wines. He admitted that there are a lot of other things that might not be so great about Americans, but that this quality is quite admirable - and perhaps Europe could even learn from it!

Additionally, if you find yourself in Northern Piemonte, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better place to stay than with our Airbnb hosts. You can find the listing here - https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/2832806.