Today's post is a continuation of my travelogue from a springtime trip to Piedmont and, more to the point, is my contribution to Cory Cartwright's 32 Days of Natural Wine. Be sure to check it out there in its Saignéed form, and to follow along with the full 32 days of action.
Over the course of ten days wandering the Langhe hills this spring, little was spoken about natural wine, at least not with intention. Plenty was spoken about wine, of course. And plenty of wine was tasted, drunk and enjoyed, some of it over the course of visits with dozens of producers, some of it under more clinical circumstances, and some of it, most enjoyably, over meals with friends, some of them with those very same producers.... Whoever it was that first said that Northern Italians are "cold" clearly hadn't spent much time in Piemontese wine country.
Looking back on the contents of the notebooks I filled during the trip, I can't help but notice certain patterns emerge. For some winery visits, there are pages and pages of notes, from tasting impressions to details about vinification, to the specifics of a given blend or harvest. For others, there's surprisingly little, just some basic impressions, or a curious detail here and there. (Heck, there's always at least some detail; it was me asking the questions and taking the notes, after all.)
Maybe the name of a cat....
Or the provenance of an unusual piece of equipment....
Looking back on those notes, I can't help but realize that sometimes the visits where I wrote the least were those that I enjoyed the most, that flowed the most naturally.
No matter how strictly you choose to define it, I'm increasingly convinced that making natural wine — when it's done right, I prefer to think of it as growing wine — is more about following the rhythms of and respect for life and the land than it is about following any dogma, be it a "natural" or more technically proscribed formula.
When I asked Augusto Cappellano, who's now seen 37 years of age, when he got his start at the family winery, he responded that he'd been helping out since he was born (and doing it full-time since 2003). For him, wine growing was simply a natural first step and has continued, over the years, to be a natural progression.
One could argue that my visit, late on a Saturday morning, was a disruption to that natural rhythm. Hail had struck Cappellano's vineyards in Serralunga the day before, damaging as much as 30% of the set (pre-flowering) clusters. Later that same day, Augusto's mother, Emma Orsi, had fallen down a flight of stairs, breaking a tooth and suffering a mild concussion. Yet there was Augusto, pulling up to the winery gate in his muddy-tired SUV just moments after I'd arrived. I was still wondering if I was in the right place but he was ready to roll. For a winegrower, seeing guests is just another part of the natural, daily rhythm, and Augusto takes it well in stride.
Perhaps Augusto inherited that gift for dealing with natural events from his father. In 1989, after a mud slide took out a significant portion of Cappellano's Barolo vineyards in the Gabbuti cru of Serralunga d'Alba, Baldo decided to replant the roughly one-hectare plot with own-rooted vines of Nebbiolo Michet. That's ungrafted vines: "pie franco" or "french footed" as they're often called in Italy and as they're referred to on the label of the Barolo produced from their fruit. Twenty-plus years later those vines are still thriving, unaffected by phylloxera, even though the soil composition in the vineyard (only about 10-15% sand, along with 30% clay and 50% limestone/calcareous) suggests that it should never have worked, at least not for so long.
The pie franco vines, by the way, produce smaller leaves and berries than do their grafted rupestris cousins, yet the pips are the same size. Augusto therefore removes the seeds from the pie franco must after the first three to four days of maceration to avoid over-extraction.
Just as there was little acute talk of natural wine making throughout the trip, most producers were also not particularly predisposed to touting the merits of any particular approach when it came to cellar practices. What was practiced and believed would simply emerge, through the course of observation and discussion. At some estates, it was necessary to read between the lines or to probe for detail; at others, not at all.
Though I don't remember the word ever once being used during our visit, the cellar practices at Cappellano fall clearly and firmly in the traditional spectrum. Only a few wines are produced, all of them varietal.
The wines ferment on their native yeasts in a combination of steel, cement and wood tanks and generally undergo a two-to-three week maceration.
Both of the Baroli as well as the Barbera then spend at least three years, usually more along the lines of four to four-and-a-half, aging in old botti grandi, such as the 50hl casks pictured above.
Lest we overly fetishize the big old cask, though, it's important to remember that at a tiny estate such as Cappellano, with only 3.7 hectares of vineyards under vine, flexibility is key. There's not enough fruit produced in that single hectare of pie franco Nebbiolo, where yields naturally average only 16 or 17 hectoliters/hectare, vintage in and vintage out, to fill one of those 50hl casks. So you'll see botti grandi in the cantina, as well as smaller botti, both round and oval. You'll see foudres. And yes, you'll even see small inox tanks and barriques. Sometimes a barrique really is just a barrique, nothing more than a 225 liter vessel made from wood.
Likewise, farming on the property is entirely organic but Augusto still chooses, as did his father before him, to spray copper and sulfur in the vineyards when needed to defend against rot and mildew, both constant threats through much of the growing season in the Langhe.
Every year brings new challenges and new approahes. In 2009, Augusto took a different approach than usual with his Barolo "Rupestris." All of the wine went through its usual two week fermentation and maceration in steel. After two weeks, he moved half the juice from tank to large wooden fermenters (pictured above), put in a cap of skins, let that cap partially submerge, and then continued maceration with no pumping over for sixty more days. Malolactic fermentation occurred immediately following the primary ferment for the two-week batch but didn't occur until a month after the two-week-plus-two-month lot completed its fermentation and maceration.
As my visit drew to a close, we drank a little Barbera and Barolo, including a beautiful 2004 Barolo "Rupestris," poured from a bottle that had been sitting un-stoppered on the tasting table for two days.
And we finished with a vertical tasting of Barolo Chinato — originally invented by Augusto's ancestor, Dottore Giuseppe Cappellano, in the late 19th Century — going back to the 1905.
Hey, I had to sneak a little humor in there somewhere. Really, we just tasted the current "blue label" release; the rest of the bottles Augusto brought out, one at a time and with both loving care and a sense of fun, from the china cabinet in the winery's decidedly old school tasting parlor.
As always, there were things to be understood from the barrel and bottle, but much more was learned about wine, an entirely human endeavor, through spending a couple of hours with a man and his cat.