28 November 2011

n.d.p. in piemonte: stefano bellotti & cascina degli ulivi, novi liguri

Throughout the recent trip to Piedmont, the Native Companion and my friend J's wife C would ask us before each scheduled visit to a vigneron whether we thought it would be worth their coming along. What they meant is: would visiting vigneron X be better than a dip in the pool? Would it be better than thirty pages of a novel? Would it beat viewing certain rural churches?

Unfortunately, since it was our first time in the region, J and I could offer them only the Gump-like but invariably true answer that you just never know what you are going to get, visiting vignerons. Sometimes you never see the vigneron and a cellar hand just explains what fermentation is. Sometimes it's an all-business experience and you leave after fifteen minutes clutching a price list. As wine geeks we continue to nose around wine estates because oftentimes it's better than that. As much as can be learned from books and the internet and copious tasting, there's just no substitute for the ambient knowledge that gets transmitted when you visit winemakers in their element, and hear how they themselves feel about their wines and their methods of production.

I had an inkling it would be worthwhile visiting pioneering Gavi producer Stefano Bellotti at his Cascina degli Ulivi estate in Novi Liguri. It wasn't a convenient trip from Monforte - almost two hours by car - but J and I were both fans of Bellotti's wines, and furthermore we were curious to meet one Italy's premier biodynamicists. In retrospect I can say that, while Gavi is kind of remote, and the rest of the region's wines have yet to interest me in the slightest, a visit to Cascina degli Ulivi is indeed a rewarding and inspiring experience, an entry into a freewheeling ecological community that, among other achievements, makes some utterly enchanting wines.

Upon arrival we met Sonia, who since 2009 has performed a multivalent role managing the estate, and B, formerly a sommelier at the legendary Noma restaurant in Copenhagen, now a kind of itinerant wine student, who had apprenticed himself to Bellotti and Cascina degli Ulivi after coming to know the wines back in Denmark. I was amused to learn that he'd come to Bellotti partly out of contrarianism; all his sommelier friends in Copenhagen were obsessed with the Loire, and B sought something different. He'd been at Cascina degli Ulivi four months when we passed through, learning about biodynamic winemaking, and quite a bit about biodynamic farming, as well.

"The animals think they're just for decoration," Sonia joked. 

Cascina degli Ulivi is so named because its founder had intended it as an olive farm, before reality intervened in the form of climatic unsuitability and two world wars. The estate had been in Bellotti's family since the 1930's; it was in 1977, at age 18, that he began working the farm's 1ha of vineyard. Since then the estate has expanded, now encompassing a total of 35ha, of which 22ha are vineyard, with 16ha of those presently in production. There are also 10ha of a rare local variety of spelt, which we were to taste later in the bread at dinner.

We made a pretty extensive tour of the vineyards, with Sonia explaining how they plant grass between rows, tilling every other row each year with horses.

Bellotti has been able to expand his vineyard holdings partly via trust arrangements with elderly neighbors, who give him free reign of their small parcels in exchange for a portion of the resulting wine.

From the buffeted, windswept deck above the small cellar, Sonia pointed out several magnificent fruit trees planted amid old-vine Cortese in the "Montemarino" vineyard.

(Incidentally, if the NC and C were not yet already convinced it had been a good idea to come, this was the moment that would have convinced them. The sun was beaming in a God-like horizontal over the vineyards and the wind was such that leaping into the air and flying out over the cascading rows of vines seemed appealingly possible.)

We then descended to the ground-level cellar room. Most of the estate's red wines are wood-aged, either in ex-Barolo foudre or in acacia barrels made by a local cooper.

Most of the whites are aged half in steel, half in 35HL bottone. The wood is only steam-cleaned between passages; no chemicals are used. Whites see a very light filtration at bottling.* Sonia cheerily told us she reserved for herself the task of hand-macerating two barrels of extremely old-vine Dolcetto, destined to be bottled as "Nibio Pinolo," because she took great pleasure in the sensation of being arm-deep in warm fermenting grapes.

Some marc, thrown back into the vineyard. 

Upon returning to the estate for dinner we were delighted to hear that Bellotti would be joining us, despite being ill with a cold. We all sat down on a big open-air deck with the whole volunteer crew of the farm and winery, about seventeen people or so. In the wintertime there is just Bellotti, Sonia, a secretary, and two others, but seasonal workers come every year, and the farm's population swells to thirty-five during harvest time.

Prior to this dinner I'd only ever tasted Bellotti's basic white and red, the Bellotti Bianco and Rosso, made from Cortese and Dolcetto / Barbera, respectively. I find both to be reliably delicious and soulful wines, rich with fruit and energy but delightfully agile on the palate. Retasting the 2010 Bellotti Bianco with aperitivi beside the estate's other Corteses revealed common traits among them, specifically what I'd describe as a certain oriental orange peel nose, like a Chinese restaurant in heaven.

The "Filagnotti,"sourced from vineyards we'd walked through earlier, displays a richer nose, owing partly to its elevage sur lie for one year.

Beside the Bellotti Bianco the 2009 showed quite same-just-more-so: everything is in sharper focus, with an almost liquoroso intensity, despite the wine's normal alcohol levels.

Bellotti produces two whites that could loosely be termed "orange wines," in that they see skin contact during fermentation. The "Montemarino," from 100% Cortese, is the lighter of the two, seeing 4 days maceration.

The 2008 was rounder and broader than the other two monovarietal Corteses we tasted, with a lemony, Pigato-like focus.

Then there is the "A Demûa," a five-varietal blend of Timorasso, Riesling Italico, Moscatello, Verdea, and Bosco. It's fermented on the skins, with no punching down of the cap.

The 2010 had a notably funky oxidative nose; on the palate it was chewy, with peach-apricot flavors, and a familiar oxidative nut-skin tang.

We tasted all these wines as bread and antipasti were passed around the table, all sourced from the farm's own ingredients. The bread made from their rare form of spelt was outrageously flavorful, which was all the more surprising since throughout the trip my friends and I had been lamenting the overall poverty of Italian bread-making.**

It was even better when used as a platform for a keenly refreshing raw red pepper spread, a particular favorite of Bellotti's, such that he referred to it as his crack cocaine.

As we'd all already tasted the Bellotti Rosso, we began with Bellotti's 2005 Barbera "Mounbé," named for the local dialect for "monte bello," or "beautiful mountain."

The nose was much fresher than I expected for six-year-old Barbera, still very primary and Ribena-like. On the palate the tannins were beginning to show their age, getting murky/silky, with alcohol showing through. The wine spends 2 years in foudre, and one year in tonneaux.

Like with the other natural Piemontese vigneron with whom we'd tasted that trip, Giorgio Barovero, at Cascina degli Ulivi it's paradoxically the Dolcetti that are the real bruisers. Bellotti bottles two versions, a normale and a very-old-vine, using the local term for the grape, "Nibiô."

The basic 2006 "Nibiô" we tasted was brutally hard - you needed a steak-knife. It was like the Sagrantino of Dolcetti. I think it was made for palates other than my own.

The 2007 "Nibiô: Pinolo," on the other hand, played a rich hand very well. I would describe it as being like a "Nibiô" that works. Tannins, while still strong, are much more elegant, with firm, Syrah-like fruit.

Homemade lasagne. Dark iPhone photos do justice to nothing. 

Homemade pasta. 

The tasting finished with two very experimental sweet wines. The first, "La Merla Bianca" from 2006, was a late-harvest blend of Sauvignon and Gewürztraminer, a wine he'd planted as a bet with another winemaker. The cuttings came from a friend in Alsace.

Big, umbrella-size white flower aromas yielded to a slightly fruit-salady palate that tasted as though there'd been some skin maceration.

The last was a 2006 "Il Passito," a - you guessed it - Moscato passito. The key idiosyncrasy in the wine's production is that, after fermentation on the skins, it's left to age in an un-topped up barrique, with the aim of achieving a controlled oxidation. Bellotti just leaves it there until he decides it's done. The wine itself was strangely not as aromatic as "La Merla Bianca."

Homemade fig and pear sorbets then appeared. Night had fallen, dark as a drape. By this time the key lesson we had learned, in visiting Cascina degli Ulivi, is that one must by all means just stay the night in the bed and breakfast and not plan to drive back two hours on the sad anonymous autostrada with idyllic pastoral tableaux crowding your head and the taste of great Cortese still ringing on your purple tongue. But that is what we did, as we had appointments early the next morning.

* I found this curious. Almost all other methods employed at the estate are very much in keeping with Bellotti's anarchist reputation. And then, at the end, a dainty little filtration. I'm sure there must be reasons other than sparing the fussier clients a little schmutz in their glass.

** Bread in Italy is paradoxically bad. How is it the nation that invented pizza can almost never ace baguettes, or morning pastries?

Cascina degli Ulivi
Strada della Mazzola
15067 Novi Ligure Alessandria
Tel: 0143 744598

Related Links:

N.D.P. in Piemonte: Trattoria della Posta, Monforte d'Alba
N.D.P. in Piemonte: G.D. Vajra, Vergne
N.D.P. in Piemonte: Giorgio Barovero, Monforte d'Alba
N.D.P. in Piemonte: Case della Saracca, Monforte d'Alba
N.D.P. in Piemonte: Walter Porasso at Bovio, La Morra
N.D.P. in Piemonte: Vinoteca Centro Storica, Serralunga

A short profile of Cascina degli Ulivi @ Louis/DressnerSelections
A very simplistic 2004 endorsement of Bellotti's "Filagnotti" by Edward Deitch @ MSNBC
In one of those reviews you suspect are written immediately following consumption of the entire bottle of wine in question, Alice Feiring compares the "Nibio" Dolcetto to a booty call @ TheFeiringLine
A 2011 review (in Italian) of the "Filagnotti," including some good photos of Bellotti @ L'Arcante

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