Reading Jill Barth’s delightful post about G. D. Vajra in Barolo made me home-away-from-home-sick for Piemonte. It’s a common experience for me, particularly when I recall the vivid image of Francesca Vaira bathed in the ethereal blue light the stained glass windows create as she describes to visitors the alchemy of fermentation that occurs in the room each autumn. Franciscan priest Fr. Costantino Ruggeri’s spectacular stained glass windows at G. D. Vajra complement the art that is the Vaira family’s wine.
No visit to the Vairas’ winery is complete without a walk through the tank room, with its towering stainless steel tanks where fermentation occurs, and the 26-foot-high stained glass windows the late Catholic priest and renowned artist, Father Costantino Ruggeri(1925-2007) created for his close friends, the Vairas. The tall, narrow windows with glass of varying shades of blue and splashes of other bright colors create a spiritual feeling inside the otherwise utilitarian space. The room is bathed in an azure blue light during the day, leaving no question that spirituality, faith, and a respect for nature and its Creator dominate the philosophy of this family in all they do. Everyone who works inside the room values the natural light from outside that creates the soothing blue hue reminiscent of bluebird skies on a clear autumn day. I’m told Aldo and Milena began dreaming of the stained glass windows in 1985. When asked why they installed these precious works of art in the winery, Aldo’s answer summed up the family’s philosophy of life and work. He said, “We always felt deeply that wine is a message of beauty and we would like all details, all actions, and all spaces of our work to resonate this beauty.” Aldo said that during the harvest, when so much work is done in the room through the night, the light from inside floods the exterior area in the same blue light workers inside enjoy during the day. In a later conversation, Francesca Vaira said, “The windows show a connection between the vineyards where the grapes grow and the room where they are transformed into wine.” I love that room and visit it often, albeit usually in my mind.
A visit to G. D. Vajra in Vergne, a tiny frazione of Barolo perched above the iconic wine village, provides nourishment for the soul as well as the senses thanks in large part to Padre Costantino’s magnificant windows. Come for the wine, stay for the art.
It has certainly been a momentus year for Barolo with the sale of a historic winery in Castiglione Falletto to an American businessman. Yes, it was definitely their choice to sell and no doubt a painful decision to make. For the good of the region and the selling family, we wish them all well.
But as the year winds down and rumors of a more painful sale of another Barolo family-owned winery — one not in my book! — fly everywhere, I opened Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piemonteto read again, and find reassurance in, the passionate words of Elisa Scavino of Azienda Viticola Paolo Scavino when I asked her about the possibility of the “Tuscanization” of Piemonte. Hers was not a unique answer to this question I asked of many families.
So, will iconic Barolo wineries remain in the hands of the Piemontese or end up owned by faceless, souless foreign corporations? No one really knows. The economy and financial considerations may be what dictate the future. What I do know is that I am even more dedicated to hearing the wine families’ stories and committing them to paper for all to read in years to come. Their history must not be forgotten.
Post Script (12/5/16): As the rumors of a seismic sale swirl around the hills of Barolo, it has become painfully apparent that the low birth rate in Italy (and all of Europe) could be the catalyst for sales now and in the future. If readers look at the genealogies of each of the 22 families in my book, they will see an unmistakeable thinning of generations over time, the reasons for which are many.
Of course, it only takes one to carry the estate forward into the next generation. However, when there are so few offspring — as we’ve seen in so many of wine families across Italy — the future of the estate as a family owned and operated entity relies on a near 100% occurance of the same passion to perpetuate the patrimony in future generations.
I’m optimistic that will be the case with the current generation of wine family women of Piemonte. Beyond the horizon, it’s anyone’s guess.
Friday, September 16, 2016, is the 90th birthday of one the wine world’s most precious gems, Giacomo Oddero, beloved patriarch of Barolo’s Poderi e Cantine Oddero. He served as a great inspiration for me as wrote Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piemonte. No doubt in his many years as a revered wine industry leader he has inspired many others.
I will be forever grateful to Giacomo Oddero, his daughters Maria Vittoria and Mariacristina, and granddaughter, Isabella, for the more than three hours they spent with me in May 2015, as they wove the story of the Oddero family through the centuries, and the many months of follow-up that lead to their chapter.
It was for Giacomo and his family, and all the other families who made Piemonte’s wine culture one of the greatest in the world that I wrote Labor of Love. Therefore, in honor of Giacomo and of his late wife, Carla, I am posting an excerpt from Chapter 7 of my book. Those who haven’t had the pleasure of meeting him will gain some knowledge of the man, his region, and the women in his life. Those of you who do know Giacomo will no doubt smile and thank God such a man has walked the planet for so long.
Here’s to many more wonderful years of life to Giacomo Oddero!
Carla Scanavino Oddero (1927–2003)
In the early 20th century, education was still not commonplace in the countryside, but Maria insisted her sons Giacomo and Luigi attend school in Alba. Luigi chose oenology at the famous Scuola di Enologica. Giacomo chose a classical education at the Liceo Classico, then studied chemistry and pharmacology at the University of Turin. To this day, Giacomo is known fondly for frequently quoting Shakespeare and the classics. His favorite writer is Alessandro Manzoni, the beloved 19th-century author of I Promessi Sposi, the most famous Italian novel of all time.
Cancer took Giovanni Oddero in 1951. Maria and her two sons continued to run the winery as Europe entered into a postwar era for the second time in less than 50 years. This time, unlike the decades when the Fascists ruled after World War I, the economy prospered. Giacomo remained heavily involved with the family business, marketing the wines and beginning his political activities. Luigi ran the vineyards and cellar. Together, they expanded their land holdings primarily in La Morra as they acquired coveted vineyards in the Barolo villages of Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga d’Alba, and Monforte d’Alba with help from yet another strong Oddero woman.
During their high school studies at the Liceo Classico of Alba, Giacomo met Carla Scanavino. Their shared interests brought them together and on the 19th of April 1953, they married. Carla, who died in 2003, was a determined woman with a brilliant mind, one of the first women of Alba to graduate from university. Carla had become a pharmacist in Alba, eventually buying the pharmacy where she worked. That clever acquisition led to many more crucial land acquisitions for the family when, through Carla’s hard work, the pharmacy became the funding mechanism of Oddero’s expansion. Her earnings funded an expanded cellar and acquisitions of more important crus that positioned the company for greatness.
Giacomo called the purchases of the most historically important and prestigious vineyards in the region Carla helped secure, “the greatest satisfaction I had in my life as a wine grower.” A particularly fond memory was their acquisition of the Vigna Rionda in Serralunga and Rocche di Castiglione vineyards. “I remember I went into the vineyards at night, all alone, to admire the land I had just bought, with no other light than the moonlight,” he recalled. “I was full of gratitude for the efforts we all made to put aside the money to buy these amazing pieces of land.”
Despite financing the real estate expansion, Carla’s name does not appear on any official ownership documents. It just wasn’t done in those days. The end of patriarchal inheritance, giving women full rights, did not occur until 1975. She is, however, very much a part of the winery’s story. “Our holdings today are only possible because of my grandmother,” Isabella explained. “Our riches happened after World War II as the result of Carla, Giacomo, and Luigi,” she said. Isabella is frustrated that despite her grandmother’s significant contributions in the expansion of Oddero winery, no one outside the family knows it. It’s the unsung heroines — like Luigia, Maria, and Carla — who inspired me to be their families’ scribe. It’s a pity the three women didn’t live to see their granddaughters, Cristina and Isabella, become internationally acclaimed winemakers. One thing is certain — their granddaughters and other wine women of the present generation know that without the courage, financial savvy, and wisdom of these long-departed women, their lives would be quite different today. Here in the Langhe, the women of the past will never be forgotten.
Giacomo Oddero (1926)
The Oddero story is not only one of strong women whose boldness and wisdom made their families prosper, but one of its male heroes, too. Giacomo Oddero is among them. Everyone familiar with Italian wine is familiar with the classification system, particularly the acronyms “DOC” and “DOCG.” What isn’t as well known is Giacomo Oddero’s contribution to this system created to protect the integrity and quality of Italian wines. His intimate involvement in the landmark legislation was a moment of great personal satisfaction for him and great pride for the family.
In explaining to me the need for the classification system, Giacomo divided Piemonte’s post–World War II years into two phases. In the first phase, immediately after the war, people fled the countryside’s poverty for cities where industrialization took hold. Fiat, the car manufacturer in Turin, and Ferrero, the producer of heavenly chocolate confections in Alba, were two of the industrial magnets that drew many from the agrarian life their families had lived for generations. Giacomo Oddero and his younger brother Luigi were among the Piemontesi who possessed foresight about the area’s potential and remained in the Langhe.
At the time, wine production was mostly unregulated, leading to a crisis of confidence in the region’s most precious commodity, one that held the key to its economic viability. As the postwar economy improved, focus shifted to quality for both producers and consumers. From the implementation of a system that assured quality standards, farmers finally could benefit more from the results of their work. Slowly, step-by-step, they built a better life.
Giacomo Oddero and other “historical producers” including Giovanni Gaja from Barbaresco and Giovan Battista Rinaldi from Barolo were champions of quality and the integrity of their denomination’s wines. Before Giacomo began his five-year tenure as mayor of La Morra in 1965, he advocated for the adoption of laws to protect the Italian wine industry’s integrity, specifically Barolo. For nearly two years, Giacomo met with farmers most nights to explain the system’s importance to their industry. The farmers were concerned that it meant only more bureaucracy, but Giacomo convinced them that the proposed quality assurance laws meant protection for themselves and their consumers.
In 1963, Law 930 was enacted, creating the Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC, or controlled designation of origin) system of strict rules governing the production of classified wines. That was a significant milestone in the history of the Italian wine industry, but it took several decades for the specific regulations for each DOC wine to be written. As the Cuneo and Asti regions’ vintner representative, Giacomo made frequent trips to Rome to meet with the Ministry of Agriculture, helping to craft the language of the new classification law as it pertained to Barolo.
By the early 1980s, industry leaders and government officials recognized the need for another, higher level of classification, the Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG, or controlled and guaranteed designation of origin). After producing a wine as a DOC wine for 10 years, producers could now apply for the DOCG, elevating the status of the wine with that one additional word “guaranteed.” Although some believe there are now too many DOCG wines, the philosophy is sound and its implementation was crucial in cementing Piemonte’s place on the world stage. From 1976 until 1992, Giacomo was president of the Cuneo Chamber of Commerce. During that time, he continued to help write specific regulations for other DOC wines of the region while continuing to champion quality and integrity in Barolo.
Giacomo is very proud of the system he helped create, ushering in what he calls the second postwar phase. He believes that the system built trust and halted the exodus of families and workers from the land. Farmers began returning to the hills, and the tide turned. Farmers who used to sell their grapes to negotiants, who in turn sold them to wineries, began producing wine under their own labels. This enabled them to send their kids to oenology school and travel the world to market their wines. “It was extremely important to the success of the region,” Giacomo said.
In 1985, Giacomo and other Langhe producers presented their wines for the first time at a wine expo in New York City. Giacomo laughed at how the French producers arrived with the French Minister of Agriculture on the Concorde, with the French national anthem “La Marseillaise” playing as they deplaned, while the Barolo producers had to scramble for posters of Verdi’s Aida to decorate their exposition. Although none of them spoke English, they succeeded in orchestrating a successful introduction of Barolo to the wine world, with Giacomo Oddero as a conductor. Beautiful wine like Barolo transcends language barriers. For Giacomo and many of his fellow Barolo vintners, it would be daughters, not sons, who would follow in their footsteps.
Oddero Women Crafting the Future
Cristina sees a bright future for Oddero and for the region. Looking back on the difficult years, the much-loved and respected Cristina Oddero reflected, “I feel good when I think about what I achieved after so many years of disagreements and difficulties I encountered on my way when I first approached business.” And her father is also happy to see his family strong, thanks to the indomitable spirit of its women. The winery will no doubt prosper under Cristina’s stewardship. She has the blood of Luigia, Maria, and Carla coursing through her veins.
Giacomo shared his thoughts about the ascendance of women in the wine industry. His wise, soulful words beautifully captured all that I witnessed over my years in Piemonte, watching the transition from a male-dominated wine culture to one inclusive of Piemonte’s strong women. Giacomo is happy to see so many talented women working together with their fathers as they prepare to one day inherit their family’s wineries. “The relationship between women and the Langhe wine industry is a brand-new typology of relations. This is a more deliberate way of working, with greater sensitivity and better attention to details. And small details make huge differences when talking about wine. Wine needs to be treated gently and with patience. These are characteristics inside women’s nature.” Long before Giacomo Oddero was born, women helped secure the future of his family. The inspiration and guidance born of his own mother’s character that he gave his daughters and grandchildren created a strong bridge to the future for the women and men who now follow him.
With 16 days left in myKICKSTARTER project, I thought today would be a great time for a sneak peek at this blessed vintner who is just a miracle or two away from sainthood.
The Last Marchesa of Barolo GIULIA COLBERT FALLETTI
With the reluctant permission of her husband and father, Giulia began to visit the prison frequently. The abuse she endured transformed into trust as Giulia befriended many women prisoners and led them to Christianity. Giulia traveled to England and across Europe to study the prison reforms that were under way. But it was not enough for Giulia to improve the hygiene and living conditions of the incarcerated women. She saw a dire need to provide the women with skills they needed to be able to contribute to society upon their release.
Giulia believed the cycle of poverty and sin these women endured had to be broken. She established a school for girls and women of all means to learn to sew and keep house. Giulia and Tancredi converted part of the ground floor of their grand Turin home into a kindergarten where working poor parents could leave their children in a safe environment to learn while they worked. Both within Turin and outside its gates, Giulia spread the love and money she could not lavish on her own children to those in need. By day, the ground floor of the Palazzo Barolo was a refuge and a place of hope for the needy, but when night fell, minds met above in Giulia’s salon.
In 1825, King Carlo Felice named Tancredi, who was then a state counselor, mayor of Turin. Tancredi’s piety and compassion for the poor and dispossessed that he shared with Giulia influenced his four-year tenure as mayor, during which time he pursued groundbreaking changes in Piemonte’s capital city. During the frigid winter of 1825 – 1826, Tancredi distributed bread and firewood to the poor. He established a bank for small savings and a free school for arts and artisanal crafts, paved roads, beautified the city with gardens and fountains, and pursued other projects to improve public hygiene and the well-being of Turin’s citizens.
Tancredi, like Giulia, was not content to provide the means for their charitable works. They were hands-on philanthropists. During the cholera outbreak of 1835, Tancredi fell seriously ill while caring for patients housed on the ground floor of the Palazzo Barolo. Three years later, upon the advice of her husband’s doctors, Giulia took Tancredi to the Veneto, where they believed the alpine air would aid his recovery. Tancredi fell seriously ill in Verona, so Giulia began the long trip home to Turin to arrange treatment for her husband. Alas, Tancredi never saw his beloved Turin again. On September 4, 1838, in Chiara, near Brescia in Lombardy, the last Marchese of the noble Falletti family of Barolo died in his wife’s arms.
Author’s note: I have Chiara Boschis of E. Pira e Figli to thank for the “introduction” to Giulia Falletti and Pierangelo Vacchetto for sharing his vast knowledge of Barolo’s history and the village’s beloved last Marchesa. Their contributions to my book – and my life – are precious to me.
I’m so humbled by the outpouring of support for my Kickstarter campaign to raise $13,000 to fund the second printing of my book Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piemonte.
Loyal friends and readers helped me pass 50% of my goal today with 18 days left to go of the 30-day all-or-none funding campaign.
Since I am offering the book as a reward, there are many opportunities to obtain it with free shipping (in the United States and special book rate shipping within Italy) and discounts for multiple books (rewards of 2, 4, and 6 books are available). There are also some exciting, unique opportunities for Piemonte wine family experiences and a ski day with the author in Beaver Creek, Colorado.
Giacomo’s grandmother, Luigia Borgna Oddero, was the wellspring of the family’s current landholdings, not through a landed dowry but through her savvy financial transactions. Giacomo described her as an “entrepreneurial spirit, a strong and smart woman with a tough character.” Luigia was born in nearby Albaretto della Torre in 1854. School attendance was not compulsory at the time, and literacy was almost unattainable for women, but Luigia’s enlightened parents paid for her reading and writing lessons. Their unconventional decision set the stage for their daughter to become a key figure in the Oddero lineage.
Following her marriage into the Oddero family, Luigia began purchasing vineyards while still in her 20s. Giacomo recalled that Luigia “lived her life with a lot of debts.” She would save money. She would buy more land. Luigia repeated the cycle many times from the 1870s until her death in 1943. In the late 1800s, Jewish families from Cherasco to the north, who owned most of the land below La Morra near the Oddero home, decided to begin selling their land. They sought buyers who could demonstrate an ability to care for vineyards, and Luigia convinced them to sell to Oddero. Over the closing decades of the 19th century, Luigia began acquiring parcels from these Cherasco families, securing important vineyards for the family business, including the highly regarded Bricco Chiesa cru. Giacomo credits his grandmother with vision and courage. “We must be thankful to Luigia for the land she acquired,” he said. His daughters and granddaughter nodded their heads in accord. It was a solemn moment of deep recognition for a pioneering ancestor.
Luigia possessed not only the financial competence to expand the family’s holdings at a crucial time when land was obtainable, but the instinct for an innovative collaboration with her husband’s uncle, Luigi Oddero. The “almost priest,” as the Oddero family refers to Luigi, studied at seminary and suffered a personal crisis before he could take his final vows. What that crisis was, Giacomo didn’t say. Luigi returned home to his enraged father, who forced him to work in the vineyards as punishment for not finishing his studies. After one week, Luigi threw down his shovel.
Want to know the rest of the story? Pre-order your signed, first limited edition copy of “Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piemonte” from my Kickstarter campaign today! Kickstarting my labor of love just one click away at:
What a great week it has been for my upcoming book, “Labor of Love: Wine Family Women of Piemonte.”
I’m not surprised to see so much interest in the stories of the families behind the bottles of wines from the Langhe, Monferrato and Roero regions of Piemonte. My book includes stories from 22 wine families – some very famous, some not, but all wonderful examples of the passion and courage it has taken over the centuries to turn this special part of Italy into one of the most notable wine regions in the world. I loved hearing stories their stories – and still do – and found it such a privileged to be trusted with telling them.
I recognize Piemonte is one of the largest regions of Italy and these are but three of the wine zones, but this is merely the beginning of my discovery and the telling of these stories. In addition to these three zones, Alto Piemonte and Gavi are brimming with stories. And that’s just Piemonte’s wine country. Wherever there is a wine family, there are stories.
My hope with “Labor of Love” is that my curiosity and prodding will inspire other families to begin their own exploration and preserve these precious stories that hold in them the traditions that have kept this region alive for generations.
I embarked on my labor of love odyssey intending to interview, research and write about 10 families in Roero and Langhe, the two places I knew best in Piemonte. That was March 2013. By the time I returned to Italy in June, the list had grown. In June 2015, when I finished the last of well-over 100 hours of interviews, I had the stories of 22 wine families of Langhe, Roero and Monferrato – plus a little something from Alto Piemonte – to share with the world.
Thousands of emails and countless hours since March 2013, when the clock struck midnight on December 31, 2015, my writing was finished. Now it’s time to introduce those I have carried with me day and night in my heart for nearly three years.
The Barolo Wine Families
The women of Barolo and their families who will come alive in ways Piemontephiles never expected are:
My Piemonte labor of love is progressing beautifully.
In seven months – God willing – I will introduce you to the women with whom I’ve spent so much of the last 30 months. Many of them are delightful ghosts who have been with me day and night as I labored to learn more about them, their families and the times in which they lived.
You will meet strong, brilliant women like Luigia Oddero, her daughter-in-law Maria and granddaughter-in-law Carla, all of whom played crucial roles in the success of their family’s winery in Santa Maria La Morra. I doubt, however, you would find their names in wine publications, something that saddens Luigia’s great-great-granddaughter Isabella Boffa Oddero. She knows how significant those women were to the patrimony of the Giacomo Oddero family.
After you read “Labor of Love,” I know you’ll be inspired to visit Monchiero Carbone in Canale in Roero. As you sit in the tasting room sipping their luscious wines, you’ll notice on the wall the black and white photo of Clotilde Valente Raimondo, known as Tilde, the woman who created the legacy of the wine you will enjoy there possible. The black, kind eyes of the petite woman will enchant you. You’ll want to ask about her daughter Francesca (Cesca). If you meet Cesca’s great-granddaughter Lucia Monchiero, you’ll be meeting the future of the winery.
In Barbaresco, you’ll discover a woman you may of heard of before – Clotilde Rey – because her name and that of her great-granddaughter Gaia were merged to create the brand name of the legendary winery’s Langhe Chardonnay – Gaia & Rey. But did you know about her crucial roll in her father-in-law Giovanni Gaja’s legacy? Clotilde died long before I set foot in Piemonte, but I can’t help but believe that to meet Gaia Gaja is to meet Clotilde Rey such is her great-granddaughter’s brilliance and drive.
On the ridge in Tre Stelle in Barbaresco you’ll find Giovanna Rizzolio of Cascina delle Rose. There’s a strong, formidable woman in her family whose story is known to so few, but whose life touched so many, particularly during the dark, brutal days of the German Occupation between September 1943 and May 1945. You can find the name of Beatrice Rizzolio inscribed on the wall of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
These are but a few of the women from the 23 different families that you’ll meet if you follow me on my labor of love. Sadly, these grandmothers across the generations are no longer here for me to interview, but their families have brought them alive for me and by extension for you. What a delight and an honor it has been to get to know them and have the opportunity to be their storyteller.
I live in Vail Valley, Colorado. It’s a very special gastronomic community filled with creative chefs and talented sommeliers. We are blessed to count Master Sommelier Sean Razee, Vail Resorts‘ Mountain Dining Beverage Director, among the oenological dwellers of our valley. That means whenever I am in need of oenological wisdom, Sean is my “go-to” professional. Needless to say, his tireless support of local charities in planning and executing their fundraising dinners is a delight to witness.
While writing a chapter in my book “A Labor of Love: Wine Women of Piemonte,” I got I stuck on a question regarding the differences between California Cabernet Blends and Barolo. My ability to explain the differences leads me, an attorney, to paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous line, “I know it when I see and taste it.” So who better to turn to than Sean for a more detailed explanation? No one in my universe is better at mastering differences between these two wines.
What I got was a 455 word education. And this is one education I definitely wanted to share. Sean graciously agreed to allow me to guest post his response to my question. I hope you enjoy the primer. I certainly did!
“How would you describe the difference between a California Cabernet Blend and Barolo?”
Immense differences exist between California Cabernet Blend and Barolo. These differences are apparent in the color, flavor profile and structure of the wines. Some differences are due to climate differences between California’s Napa Valley and the northwest Italian region of Piemonte(specifically the Langhe). Differences in vinification also make the wines distinct from one another.
California Cabernet Blend
I would describe a California Cabernet Blend (in youth) as a deep ruby color with black fruits (currant, plum, cherry).
There should be a whiff of green herbs (tobacco, mint) with dark chocolate and coffee. The oak on the wine is prominent, displaying new French oak barrels (smoke, toast, vanilla, baking spices). Earthiness is not prominent.
The structure of the wine is medium-plus to high tannin (silky) medium to medium-plus acidity, with medium-plus to high alcohol.
Cabernet is a thick-skinned grape of high color pigmentation. The vinification methods used in production extract large amounts of tannin from the skins. A fruity and a silky, smooth palate dominates the wine. The tannin in a California Cabernet Blend tends to be “fully ripe” which gives the wine’s tannin a silky feeling on the palate.
For Barolo (made from 100% Nebbiolo), the color is more garnet to light ruby with red fruits as opposed to black fruits (cherry, raspberry, pomegranate). The fruits are sometimes both ripe and dried (with some age). There can sometimes be notes of spice, anise, tar, leather, and balsamic. Notes of volatile acidity are common giving the wines a lifted, perfumey aroma. Some producers are using some new French barrels, adding the corresponding flavor profile of those barrels. However, the traditional production methods do not lend oak to the flavor profile.
Unlike a California Cabernet Blend, a Barolo might be bone dry, with high tannin, high acidity and medium-plus to high alcohol.
Nebbiolo is a thin-skinned grape with light color that contradicts the wine’s weight and aggressive tannin. It is highly aromatic and driven by non-fruit characters. Unlike the tannin in a California Cabernet Blend that possesses silkiness virtually upon release, the tannin in Barolo may need years to soften. This is historically why Barolo was required by law to age for many years before release. With today’s viticultural and vinification techniques though, this has changed a bit and Barolo is becoming much more approachable in its youth.
This last part of my Nebbiolo description (underlined) leads to why many people who like new world, California Cabernets do not like Barolo. For a person that wants a “smooth” wine, with high color, high extraction, high fruit content, high alcohol, silky tannins and some sweetness to the wine, Barolo is almost the antithesis of this model. Barolo is light colored, highly aromatic, is non-fruit driven, and has an aggressive tannin and acid profile.
I was delighted to read Will Lyon’s article in the Wall Street Journal – “Why Piemonte is the new Burgundy.” I’m always thrilled to see Piemonte get such positive, enthusiastic ink, particularly in the Journal. I’m even more delighted to see Punset amongst the list of recommended wines since it’s long overdue for feisty organic pioneer Marina Marcarino and her wines to receive such accolades!
So my hat is off to Mr. Lyons for such a nice article; I must respectfully demur, however, and note that Piemonte is not the new Burgundy. Nor the old. Piemonte is Piemonte. And, as Barbaresco producer Giovanna Rizzolio pointed out, it is Italian.
Piemonte has its own heart and soul that is reflected in its wines. And its heart and soul emanate from the cornerstone of the region – the wine families.
It’s a little sad – at least to me – that Piemonte’s wine families were not mentioned. Without their indomitable spirit and unyielding drive, the incredible oenological delights wine lovers are finally recognizing would not be possible.
The wine families of Piemonte are the source of the charisma and individualism of the region’s wines. Some prime examples include Chiara Boschis of E. Pira e Figli whose noble red wines reflect her spirit and passion;
Giovanna Rizzolio of Cascina delle Rose Barbaresco who fought a tsunami of opposition to be the first woman in Barbaresco to own and operate her own winery;
the Rocca sisters – Daniela, Paola and Monica – of Albino Rocca in Barbaresco whose own beautiful oenological signature was written on their 2013 Barbaresco, their first vintage to emerge on their own without their late father, Angelo Rocca.
and the Grasso family of Cà del Baio in Treiso in Barbaresco and Deltetto family of Canale in Roero;
…..and so on (it will all be in my book “A Labor of Love – Wine Family Women of Piemonte.”)
Incidentally, I don’t believe Piemonte is the “new Burgundy.” Piemonte is AND ALWAYS WILL BE Piemonte. I kind of feel passionate about that if you haven’t noticed!
Please never forget that the soul of Piemonte’s wines are forever tied to the families who create them. Their’s truly is a labor of love!
Many winery doors in Europe are thick, wooden barriers to domains through which centuries of winemakers have passed. On the edge of Barolo’s central district, on Via Vittorio Veneto just below sprawling Nebbiolo vineyards, there is one such door.
A black plaque with four large white letters affixed on the right of the door prominently displaying the name of the legendary wine family “PIRA” alerts visitors they’ve arrived. Press the button on the brass plaque to ring the bell that could easily wake the dead of centuries past. You’ll hear hurried steps – albeit maybe not immediately – lock turning, a bolt scraping open and finally the centuries-old door creaks open.
If your timing is right – the probability of which is improved dramatically if you’ve cleverly booked an appointment – Chiara Boschis’ bright, welcoming smile will be the first thing you see on the other side of the door to E. Pira e Figli.
On a cold March day shrouded in a light mist more akin to November than Easter, I met Chiara Boschis, E. Pira’s proprietor and winemaker. The door burst open and before me was a petite, smiling woman in leggings and a flowing skirt, bundled up in a puffy coat she clutched around her neck. I stood before her in jeans and a light, powder blue sweater and tee shirt, freezing. For some reason – as I stood there, slightly shivering – admitting it seemed out of the question. I live in the Rockies after all. We’re tough and rarely admit we’re cold.
Chiara greeted me as she would a long lost friend. Here before me was a much-loved woman who had successfully staked out her territory in Barolo’s male-dominated world and who was the subject of many laudatory articles in wine journals and blogs. But immediately I could see, despite her fame, she was no wine diva.
There was no period of uncomfortable formalities, only a warm two-handed handshake, a deep sincere look into my eyes and concern over my lightweight attire. Here was a woman in love with her craft and grateful for my interest in the women of Piemonte. I was humbled.
The conversation flowed effortlessly as we descended steep, concrete stairs, through another heavy wooden door into the maze of subterranean rooms of the centuries old winery. I was thrilled when we entered the warm barrel room where a humidifier bellowing steam transformed the space into a mild sauna. Low level lights shining up through the fog at the vaulted ceiling created an ethereal affect, giving the musty space a timeless feeling. I could see through the fog a small forest of large wooden barrels and smaller barriques where nature, guided by Chiara, was finishing its work aging and imparting aromas into her precious wines.
On later visits, I thought the cantina seemed the sort of place the ghost of sainted Giulia Colbert Falletti, Marchesa di Barolo – the 19th century mother of modern Barolo – would be comfortable. I believe she would have enjoyed Chiara, the woman who burst through gender barriers to become Barolo’s first woman winery proprietor and winemaker. Chiara draws inspiration from the Marchesa. Perhaps Giulia’s spirit guides Chiara and all the women who are her oenological legatees. I like to think so. But I digress.
A woman to the rescue
Once a rarity, women winemakers are taking their place in the Piemonte wine industry, particularly in the Langhe and Roero regions. Famous last names previously associated with men are now brands belonging to women winemakers and proprietors such as Chiara.
In 1980, following the death of Luigi Pira, Chiara emerged as the first of her gender in her family’s nine generations in Barolo to tend the vines and vinify the noble Nebbiolo grape. Luigi was the last male heir of the renowned centuries-old E. Pira e Figli winery in Barolo.
At Chiara’s behest, her father, Franco for whom she had worked at Giacomo Borgogno e Figli, bought the winery from Pira’s two sisters. The vineyards, including parcels in the prized Cannubi, and the winery would become the launching pad of Chiara’s meteoric career.
Chiara possess an innate talent for growing high quality grapes and making luscious wines from her vines’ bounty. A combination of swimming in the right gene pool and on-the-job experiences spanning a lifetime prepared her to successfully assume control of the operation in 1990.
New generation, new philosophy
On that first visit, Chiara poetically described her winemaking philosophy with words like “joy,” “passion” and “love” garnishing her language. The biggest change in her generation was not only women entering winemaking, but also giving more attention to the vineyards. “You cannot abandon the fruit in the vineyard during the growing season,” she warns. The work in the vineyards is 80% of the process. The other 20% is in the cellar. It’s logical that without the best fruit possible, nothing in the cellar will change mediocre grapes into stellar wines.
Chiara was one of the first to conduct a green harvest – crop thinning – in Barolo. If done correctly, as she does, the process of cutting shoots and bunches during the growing season produces quality over yield. Chiara strongly believes quality cannot be achieved when the vine is preoccupied and stressed with too much growth. It’s a delicate process, however, that is sometimes done three or four times as she monitors the vines’ development and the weather between June and harvest.
Her first green harvest, however, brought calls to her father from locals saying, “Chiara is crazy! She is cutting the vines!” She admits her father was also skeptical, but the proof of her logic rests in the high quality of her elegant wines.
Meteoric Rise to Fame
The splendid 1990 vintage was Chiara’s first on her own. She downplays somewhat the significance of the Tre Biccheri the Gambero Rosso awarded her her maiden vintage declaring, “It was a fabulous vintage.” True, it was, but she need not be humble about her achievement with that vintage. Four years later, with the release of the 1994 vintage, Chiara proved she was no flash in the pan.
In Europe, rain and mud were the hallmarks of the second half of 1994. Long before vines surrendered their grapes, the vintage was branded as poor. Although it gave only two out of five stars to the 1994 Piemontese vintage, Britain’s Decanter magazine noted, “Prolonged rain caused serious problems, although a few producers still made good wines.” One of those wines was Chiara’s cru from the legendary Cannubi vineyard.
As the winner of the sole Tre Bicchieri awarded for Barolo that year, her 1994 Barolo Cannubi proved she could make great wines even when Mother Nature was cranky. “Consistency is most important to success,” Chiara asserts. Weather can be changeable, but winemakers must always be at the top of their game to achieve consistently high quality wines. Since 1994, Chiara garnered numerous accolades for her Baroli that exhibit power, but with a Burgundian-like elegance, finesse and soft tannins, the signature of her wines.
In its 2013 Duemilavini wine guide, the Italian Sommelier Association awarded its highest honor, “Cinque Grapoli” (five bunches), to Chiara’s 2008 and 2010 Barolo Cannubi. So I’d say that now, as she brings in her 24th vintage as the head of Pira, Chiara Boschis has proven herself worthy of her winemaking heritage.
Chiara’s wines continue to garner praise across the globe. Her personality, devotion and talent emerge from each bottle of wine opened in lands far from the humble Piemonte village of its origins. No doubt, most days someone meets Chiara for the first time by merely sipping her vinous creations.
Looking To The Future
Chiara bridges the past and future through her devotion to preserving Piemonte’s cultural heritage, insuring future generations remain connected to region’s land and the culture surrounding all it produces.
Chiara is married to the land and protects it as she would her own offspring. As a certified organic wine producer who never exposes her vines to pesticides, she guards the environment and the health of her clients and neighbors. Her ardent belief – a view many of her peers share – is vineyards can survive without chemicals. A healthy future and continuation of centuries of Piemontese viticulture depend on farmers such as Chiara to protect the terroir.
With brother Giorgio who left Borgogno and joined her at Pira in 2010, she’s well into her third decade of creating beautiful, award-winning wines. Brother Cesare also left Borogono and now works with his sister and eight others in the “ethical” project to preserve the culture and production of Castelmagno in Rifugio Valliera. Together, the close-knit siblings are working to insure the region’s traditions remain a part of its fabric, leaving generations to come a bright future in Piemonte.