14 September 2011

n.d.p. in piemonte: luigi ferrando, ivrea

I'm not yet so established as a wine writer that I don't still feel a residual bit of outsidery shame at contacting estates and asking busy winemakers to make time for someone with no purchasing power. Writing about wine estates can do them a valuable service - I wouldn't do it if I didn't believe this - but the estates that interest me most are rarely those that need much promotion. As such, in preparing for our Piedmont sojourn, I just sent a carpetbomb of emails to the region's most interesting winemakers, explaining that I was a wine writer traveling with my friend J, an actual wine buyer, and asking could we perhaps pop in for a visit?

To my disappointment, I received no response from the Luigi Ferrando estate, by whom we were to pass on our car journey from Sierre to Monforte. Ferrando produce arguably the greatest Nebbiolo outside of Barolo or Barbaresco, under an appellation called Carema in the Canavese, a psychotically steep alpine region abutting the Valle d'Aosta. Both J and I had previously had notable success selling these wines in California, where they're distributed by Neal Rosenthal

It was a good thing J had the good sense to just phone up the estate with almost zero notice from where we stayed in Switzerland, non parlo italiano be damned. We wound up with an appointment the next day, not with current winemaker Roberto Ferrando, who had just left for vacation, but with his father, the man himself, Luigi Ferrando. 

On the way through the alps J and I had been asking ourselves whether we'd ever tasted any other Caremas. We both had vague memories of seeing the cooperative Cantina dei Produttori Nebbiolo di Carema's wines at some time or another in the states, but no others. This seemed a mystery, given that the Ferrando wines, while not by any means widely known, are basically fixtures on any fine Italian wine list in the states. High up in terraced mountainside vineyards of the Canavese, the Nebbiolo grape assumes a personality quite distinct from its incarnations in Barbaresco and especially Barolo - generally somewhat crisper, pitched higher, more wiry. These attributes are catnip to a certain class of wine geek, and you'd think there'd be more names serving this market.

Seated in the small tasting room, woozy and hungry from the car ride, we got the explanation from Ferrando himself, ably aided by his occasional employee Ivan Zanovello, who had kindly donated some of his morning off from work at a nearby wine bar (until recently part-owned by the Ferrandos) to provide English translation.*

It turns out the reason one doesn't see more Carema is the appellation consists of just Ferrando and the local co-op Cantina - and there had even been some drama between the two back when the D.O.C. was decreed in 1967. Apparently the co-op Cantina was collectively of the mind that the region's wines would compete best on the market under a single brand name, and had actively discouraged the Ferrandos from bottling their own.* (Later during this trip we were to make a pit stop at the tasting room of the Cantina dei Produttori di Nebbiolo di Carema and for now suffice it to say that this experience attested to the Ferrandos' wisdom in going it alone.)

The tasting began with Ferrando's dry white range, one sparkling and two still wines, all made from the versatile local Erbaluce grape. These we were told are vinified on premises in Ivrea, whereas the Caremas to follow, due to strict D.O.C. regulation, are completely aged and vinified within the Carema zone, some ways north, where we had just driven from. It bears mentioning here that all the Ferrando wines are négociant, from what I understand; the Ferrandos, who started as wine sellers in 1901 before switching entirely to wine production in mid-century, have a circle of eight or so growers with whom they have worked closely for generations.

The only one of Ferrando's dry whites that seems to make it into the states in any quantities is also, happily, the best in my opinion, a steel-fermented Erbaluce di Caluso called "La Torrazze," from vineyards in Borgo Massimo. About 25,000 btls are produced annually; a peculiarity of this wine is that, unlike many Italian whites, it tends to show better a year after the vintage. I hadn't tasted it for four years, but the 2010 was as delicate as I remembered, fresh as the arctic, with all the grape's characteristic herbal flavors of thyme and tarragon riding a lovely keen acidity.

It was my first time tasting Ferrando's Erbaluce di Caluso Spumante (a 2006), and also his selection-level Erbaluce "Cariola" (a 2009), but in neither bottle was the grape's natural personality on such vivid display. In the former this seemed to result from the lees contact inherent in metodo classico production; in the latter it resulted from a percentage of the wine having been aged in barrique. Both were delicious, competent wines, but as far as dry Erbaluce goes, I suspect that less is more.

We tasted through the 2007 Caremas, both the classic "Ettichetta Bianca" and the reserve level "Ettichetta Nera." These wines' production methods have been described exhaustively elsewhere; I will only add that these 2007's, and in fact most of the 2007 Nebbiolos we were to taste during the remainder of the trip, were showing surprisingly open, somewhat advanced fruit, considering they were fresh releases.

Ferrando - and everyone else we later spoke to - described the vintage as having been very powerful, regular and consistent, so I'm not certain where this kinder / gentler effect is coming from. The "Etichetta Nera," in any case, was in fine form: spice aromas tall as a skyscraper, marvelous side-palate acid. The unexpected extra fruit only improved a wine that has in the past often struck me as a bit forbidding.

Ferrando also produces a late-harvest Erbaluce, and a passito version, both made in vanishingly small quantities, such that I'd never tasted either before that day. The late-harvest, called "Solativo," is ordinarily picked around the beginning of November, twenty days after the Nebbiolo for the Carema, and some fifty days after the dry Erbaluce. The 2009 we tasted was delicious, like an infinite apricot, but displayed a touch lower acid than I anticipated on the basis of the one other sweet Erbaluce I've ever encountered, a heavenly passito by Orsolani.

Ferrando's own 2005 passito, which we tasted last, surpassed even my memories of the Orsolani, and confirmed for me that Erbaluce's true calling is as a dessert wine. Ferrando's passito is a frankly symphonic wine, stone fruits and caramel and cigar smoke and various other flavors all seeming to hover tirelessly in mid-palate. A key feature of the wine is its longevity: Ferrando explained that it was the local tradition for a grandfather to make an Erbaluce passito when a grandchild is born, with the bottles destined to be given to said grandchild when he or she turned eighteen. Even then, the wine would be young - Ferrando testified that they'd recently opened bottles from 1907 and 1917, and both had shown beautifully.

Racks of Erbaluce grapes destined for passito production, drying out. 

By the time we finished tasting it was well into the afternoon, and the Native Companion and J's wife C were threatening to faint from hunger.

Noting that nothing decent would be open in Ivrea at that hour, Ivan offered to open up the nearby wine bar he managed to fix us a plate of charcuterie and cheese. We gratefully accepted, and were marveling at the awesome hospitality that one encounters in Italy, when Luigi Ferrando outdid even this kindness, by picking up the phone on his fax machine and ringing up his friend Roberto Conterno, thereby netting us a much-sought appointment at that legendary Monforte estate for the following Monday. Evidently a maestro of sprezzatura, he waved away our thanks and told us he'd see us at the wine bar, since he lived above it and was headed in that direction too.

* In fact we got along okay in the end, because Luigi Ferrando, like many non-Anglophone winemakers we were to meet in Piemonte, speaks reasonably fluent French. 

Via Torino, 599A
10015 IVREA
Tel: +39 125 641 176 633 550

Related Links: 

A brilliant and wonderfully pictorial 2009 visit to Ferrando's Carema vineyards @ Saignée
A 2009 lunch with Luigi Ferrando @ ViadiVino
Some mentions of Ferrando's Erbaluces in a 2004 article @ TheWineNews

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