The old world idea of terroir, that a wine or cheese or even an olive can express different characteristics depending on where it is grown, cannot rightly be said to apply to the Loire Valley as a whole. With its headwaters in the Massif Central and its mouth opening in the Atlantic Ocean it travels roughly 629 miles and covers many different soil types from ancient seabeds to flinty hard rocks. It passes through lots of countryside and many different grape varieties are grown there including Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir for reds and the very diverse tasting Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Melon de Bourgogne for whites. Even with all of the differences, history has shown that the river ties the region together in other ways. Not only did the broad agricultural region provide a giant garden with which to feed the city of Paris, but the ease of transport that the river provided helped make sure that the best wines of the area were traded widely and helped make the Loire famous for quality wines. As large of an area as the Loire is, it is still known for exceptional quality today, and farmers that are deeply committed to making wines that honor both tradition and respect for the earth that they live on.
Campania, the Southern Italian region centered on Napoli is the bread basket of the South. Originally settled by the Greeks it features warm sun dappled coastlines teeming with seafood and fertile volcanic soils that are home to fields of the world’s best tomatoes and citrus groves. Not far inland the land rises quickly and you find cool forests of chestnut trees. As you might expect, viticulture in such a place has not always focused on quality. Roman senators and Neapolitan nobles have looked to Campania for juicy table grapes and copious amounts of flavorful wine alike. But the bones of good winemaking have always been here: great biodiversity with grapes like Falanghina, Fiano, and Greco (and that’s just the whites), lots of wonderful microclimates that provide unique terroirs, and most of all a local pride in the produce. Whether it’s established masters like Marisa Cuomo growing vines in terraced cliffside vineyards on the Amalfi coast, or the Favati family making traditional mineral driven reds and whites at the feet of old volcanoes in Irpinia, Campanian winemakers are keeping a connection to history through this incredible land and their amazing indigenous varietals to make wines of a caliber rarely seen in the past. Producers like Bruno De Conciliis and Diana Basca of I Cacciagalli combine old-new techniques like biodynamics and sustainable energy with millennia of traditional growing and a love of gods grapes. It’s a region of diverse selections many of us are discovering for the first time.
In a number of recent wine press articles the Alto Piemonte, the region of northern Piedmont that abuts the Alps, is referred to as a new or even final ‘frontier’ for the wine world. It’s a similar miss-characterization as referring to the American West as a frontier because Europeans were ‘discovering’ it while ignoring the fact that there were already indigenous people there. The commercial wine world is just now remembering something that it forgot nearly a hundred years ago.
Historically parts of Boca, Gattinara, Ghemme and Carema had more land under vine than Barolo and Barberesco. Wealthy wine lovers from France and Germany sought out these delicious reds and the export market was strong. But beginning at the end of the 19th Century a whole string of misfortune began to befall the wine world at large and some historic areas such as Alto Piemonte were hit harder than others. First phylloxera, the American root louse began decimating all the vineyards of Europe. When we tell the story of this epidemic it almost always is a story of grafting coming in at the last minute to save everything. But this is only part of the truth. Like any natural disaster phylloxera may have hit all of Europe equally hard but recovery happened far faster for those with more wealth or resources. Poorer areas were not only slower to replant but commercial wineries having to replant all of their vineyards to American rootstock had to make choices about which vines were worth saving. Many grape varietals were removed from commercial production to make way for higher yielding more disease resistant plants.
As different parts of Europe recovered from this first epidemic at varying rates, two World Wars struck the continent and caused not only death and devastation but also led to huge disruptions to commerce. Vineyards can be forgotten when survival is at stake.
Following the wars people in Alto Piemonte as well as other parts of Europe found that the economic realities had changed. Industrial farming and globalized trade made it all but impossible for small country wineries to be a viable way to make a living, and young people began to abandon Alto Piemonte to move to Milan and other cities for steadier work. In many parts of Alto Piemonte the forests reclaimed the land and much of it’s history was forgotten.
Some small producers held on over the decades, modernizing in some small ways when possible, but more often continuing in the old ways even when they were harder or not profitable. Fueled by passion for the land and the produce it creates these people and the new generations that are returning to the land now have preserved a piece of history that the larger world can now discover as if for the first time. So perhaps instead of a frontier we should think of the Alto Piemonte as a time capsule; one that we forgot we buried but managed to unearth before it was lost forever. We can get a literal taste for a style of wine making and a way of life that maybe we were too hasty to leave in the past.
S & M Selections is proud to offer selections from Le Piane in Boca, Il Sorpasso in Carema and Villa Mercante in the Valli Ossolane.
On the rocky windblown slopes of the Gredos Mountains outside of Madrid, Las Moradas cultivates Garnacha from 50-100+ year old vines grown in old granite sand soil. These gnarled old bush vines, trained low to the ground surrounded by pine woods, holm oaks, juniper, rockrose and a wide variety of aromatic plants and other native vegetation. Dry cultivated in a climate with hot days and cold nights, organically grown with natural composting and minimal sulfur added, these terroir driven wines ferment naturally in a mixture of French and Hungarian oak under the guidance of winemaker Isabel Galindo. These wines are a pure and precise expression of both the character of Grenache as well as the soul of the land that they come from.
In the heart of the two largest and most important appellations (PDO) of Greece are the vineyards of the Nasiakos family. One is Mantinia in Arcadia and the other, the highest point on Nemea “Kotsi” in Corinth, Peleponese. Mr. Leonidas Nasiakos is the viticulturalist, wine maker and producer of his wines. Under the Nasiakos label 6,500 cases of wine are produced from indigenous varietals such as Moschofilero and Agiorgitiko. Nasiakos’ vineyard in Mantinia is 2000 feet above sea level while in Nemea over 2,700 feet. These very high elevations prolong the harvest time which ensures that sugar levels are at desirable levels.
Nasiakos Moschofilero is a wine that captures aromas of a field of fragrant flowers and a peach orchard, the pronounced flavors of dry mountain spices and the acidic tones of lemon zest.
I haphazardly visited Le Piane at a very good time. Christoph Kunzli, the brilliant winemaker and historian of his own vines, was busy with bottling before the 2018 harvest had begun. Yet he made time to drive me up winding, overgrown forest tracks in these cool sub-Alpine Northern Piemonte hills. We emerged from dense woods that used to be vineyards just 100 years ago and walked into sunlit vines older than the two of us combined. He encouraged me to try the different grapes from these rescued old family plots that he cobbled together into a vineyard. The vines were mostly Croatina and Nebbiolo but also Uva Rara, Bonarda and white grapes like Erbaluce. Some of the vines were planted so long ago that their names are no longer known. Rather than try to homogenize and streamline this incredible biodiversity, Christoph picks everything on the same day, and presses and ferments everything together. The end result is his Maggiorina: a glass of wine that contains not just incredible complexity and uniqueness of flavor but also a connection to the history and the families of a forgotten place and time.