Winefriend by David Way

Writing about the wines of Piemonte, Italy and France

Diary 42: rare varieties around Barolo

Barolo is of course made with the Nebbiolo grape but there are also rare varieties around the Barolo area. For me, the week of 18–23 July 2022 was devoted to Pelaverga piccolo, Gamba di Pernice, Nascetta and Croatina. With, naturally, some fine Barolo along the way. All of this research contributes to my forthcoming book, The Wines of Piemonte for the Classic Wine Library.

The weather was genuinely hot during the week. The temperatures rose as the days passed to a peak of around 39º C (102º F). As we live in strange times, the temperature was actually higher in the UK, if only for a day or two, with an all-time record of 40º C being set. But it still was hot. It was good to be tasting either lighter red wines or indeed white wine.

Rare variety 1: Pelaverga Piccolo, Verduno

Pelaverga Piccolo is strongly associated with the Barolo commune of Verduno. The DOC for it is called Verduno or Verduno Pelaverga. But this now being prime Barolo country (think the Monvigliero sub-zone), it is perhaps not surprising that less than 20 hectares are grown each year. But there is a place for the lightly aromatic, red cherry, thyme and pepper-scented wine with mild tannins. It can be chilled in summer and drunk as an aperitif or with lighter food dishes. It is a good cropper (as can be seen in the picture below) and fairly resistant to disease. Not surprisingly the top wineries of Verduno provide excellent examples: Comm. G. B. Burlotto, Castello di Verduno and Fratelli Alessandria.

Rare variety 2: Gamba di Pernice

There is absolutely no disgrace in not having heard of this rare variety around Barolo, a few kilometres to the north of the famous DOCG. In 2019, the plantings for Calosso DOC (minimum 90 per cent Gamba di Pernice) had risen slightly to 8.5 hectares. It genuinely is a rarity, if a beautiful one. The variety’s official name gives a clue, Gamba Rosso (‘red leg’) and its local name translates as ‘partridge leg’. It is called this because the stalk that holds the bunches of grapes is bent like a partridge’s leg and is a fetching shade of red. The wine is typically spicy (again) and tannic. Producers make different choices about those tannins. The pioneer who rescued the variety from oblivion, Valter Bosticardo of Tenuta dei Fiori, goes for full extraction and very, very long ageing. He thinks the wine begins to drink at 10 years of age! Others, such as Bussi Piero or Villa Giada handle the variety delicately for immediate drinking. The prolonged drought of 2022 has meant that the plants are very sparse in growth. Yields will probably be half the usual ones

Rare variety 3: Nascetta

For those who are really into their Barolo, Nascetta might not be regarded as a rare variety around Barolo. As it is from the Barolo commune of Novello, it has achieved a certain fame. I think it should be regarded as the Langhe’s best local white variety. It is semi-aromatic with enticing lemon and sage aromas and has a brilliant, lively acidity. It can be aged. Good examples can age in bottle for 10-20 years. It gains dried fruit and eventually mineral and stony aromas rather like Riesling. But there is still not that much of it. There are 13 hectares in the commune of Novello (where it used to be grown exclusively) and 45 for Langhe Nascetta grown outside of Novello. The fact that there are three times as much in the rest of the Langhe is testament to its quality. The variety is challenging to grow. Yields vary widely from year to year, which is why it fell out of favour in the past. It also puts on prodigious amounts of canopy that has to be tamed. The two best producers are probably still the two pioneer estates, Elvio Cogno and Le Strette. However, all 12 wineries of the Nas-cëtta di Novello association are worth trying. If you visit the area, the association’s shop is the perfect place to taste and buy the wines.

Rare variety 4: Croatina

Our final rare variety around Barolo is Croatina, planted in the denomination Cisterna d’Asti. This needs two qualifications. First, this area is 25 minutes in a car from Alba and therefore a bit further from Barolo. Second, Croatina is planted quite widely in Piemonte but no other denomination is devoted to it. Elsewhere the variety is either a minor contributor in Nebbiolo blends in Alto Piemonte or is the principal variety in regional denominations, such as Coste delle Sesia DOC Croatina. However, all in all, plantings are small. It does not make the list of the top 20 varieties planted in Piemonte. There is vastly more of it in the neighbouring Oltrepò Pavese in Lombardia. The plantings for Cisterna d’Asti DOC, which requires a minimum of 80 per cent of Croatina, are minuscule, around 7 hectares. The variety is a robust plant with good disease resistance. It produces deeply coloured, brambly wines which can be a bit rustic but also benefit from being aged in bottle. Wines to try include those of Vaudana and Vincenzo Bossotti. And, if you visit, you have to go to the wonderfully old-fashioned restaurant (with excellent food) in the town of Cisterna d’Asti, Albergo Ristorante Garibaldi.

The rather less than rare variety, Nebbiolo

Of course, it would be remiss to spend a week in the Langhe without tasting Nebbiolo wines. I also visited

  • the dynamic Sara Vezza in Monforte d’Alba. I felt quite pleased to arrive at 8.15 am by which time she had already been working in the vineyard and had packed her four children off to summer school;
  • the powerhouse that is Ceretto with winemaker Alessandro Ceretto, a brilliant winemaker who can explain not only what he does but why;
  • the historic sparkling wine house, Contratto, these days as much producing Pinot Nero/Chardonnay traditional method wines as tank-method Moscato.

The final day was spent rather further afield, re-visiting Valsusa DOC, in an Alpine valley on the way to France, to meet Franck Thollet of Casa Ronsil. The rare varieties here are Avanà and Becuet. And here you can taste the rarest of rarities, ice wines made from those varieties. These were first made as part of the cultural activity around the Winter Olympics, Turin 2006. All in all, this was a great week of rare varieties around Barolo.

This set of visits, typically four a day, was much enlivened by my travelling companion, Allan Stinson. Allan always sees the best in any situation, even if it is fraught, is a meticulous planner, loves his wine and discovered that Piemonte is a gastronomic delight! Thank you, Allan!

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