Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Contratto: A high-potential sparkling wine estate in Alta Langa DOCG

Alta Langa DOCG will need to ride the coattails of one or two highly successful producers to attain the prominence coveted by current industry participants  and to act as a magnet to potential market entrants. Contratto, with its lengthy history, savvy ownership, high-quality products, and the marketing muscle provided by its Unesco Heritage Cellars, is in a pretty position to play that leadership role.

I was introduced to Contratto wines by Giampiero Cordero, Sommelier at Ristorante Il Centro (Prioca d'Alba), and he was also instrumental in arranging my visit to its cantina. I used my Apple map for the drive between Alba and Canelli -- home of the Contratto cantina -- which turned out to be a white-knuckle ride up and down the steep hillsides which popped up early in the trip and did not end until a few minutes before its conclusion. I was dreading the ride back.

At the cantina we were welcomed by Luca Cigliuti who is currently responsible for sales to Asia and Latin America. Luca showed us around the cellar as he described the history of the establishment.

Contratta was founded by Giuseppe Contratto in 1867 with the express intent of making an Italian spumante metodo classico and, according to Luca, its 1919 Extra Brut was the first vintage sparkling wine made in Italy.

The Contratto cathedral cellars are absolutely stunning; so much so that they are designated a UNESCO Heritage Site. Work on the cellars began in 1872 and was completed after 3 years of labor by 200 workers. The cellars are more than 5000 m² and is built into the heart of the hill that protects Canelli. It is excavated to a depth of 32 m in the tuff limestone.

The estate was in decline when it was bought by Carlo Bocchini in 1993. Bocchini restored the cellars before selling to the Rivetti's in 2011. Prior to buying the property, Giorgio Rivetti had been providing winemaking counsel and had been using the facility to make a metodo classico sparkling wine using grapes sourced from the Oltrepo Pavese region.

At the time of the purchase Contratto produced sparkling wines under the Metodo Classico - Vini Spumante di Qualita, Piemonte DOC, Asti Spumante DOCG, and Asti Spumante Metodo Classico appellations with fruit sourced from vineyards in Oltrepo Pavese, Lozzola, Costigliole d'Asti, and Canelli.

This lineup of fruit sources did not align with the Rivetti vision. This vision was to be a player in the Alta Langa appellation using fruit sourced from its own estate. Vision-realization was a two-step process, the first accomplished in relatively short order, the second unfolding over a longer timeframe. The first step (2014) was to transfer the source of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Oltrepo Pavese to Alta Langa. The second step was the purchase of 45 ha of land in Bossolasco to serve as the estate-fruit-source for its Alta Langa DOCG wines.

The Bossolasco vineyard, acquired in 2015, is located just outside of the village of the same name. It sits at 750 m and has a southern exposure. The land was initially used to grow Dolcetto vines and, more recently, medicinal herbs. The vineyard is being farmed organically and, by 2021, will provide the fruit for all Contratto Alta Langa wines.

The winery poduces a couple of Moscato-based wines (De Miranda label) for its Asti Spumante offerings and three non-Alta-Langa metodo classico wines (Millesmate, Cuvée Novicento pas Dosé, Riserva Special Cuvée pas Dosé). The Alta Langa wines are For England Blanc de Noir Pas Dosé (100% Pinot Noir, 48 months on lees, zero dosage), For England Rosé Pas Dosé (100% Pinot Noir, 48 months on lees, zero dosage), and Blanc de Blanc Pas Dosé (100% Chardonnay, 48 months on lees, zero dosage).

With the exception of the Asti Spumantes, all Contratta wines share the same production process:

  1. Grapes are handpicked
  2. Selection in the cellar
  3. In the cellar, staged separately based on vineyard location
  4. Cooled down prior to crushing
  5. Gentle pressing (1 hour pre-press skin contact for grapes destined for the Rosé)
  6. First-run juice used for fermentation
  7. Indigenous-yeast fermentation in stainless steel tanks
  8. 8 months in tanks post-fermentation
  9. Bottled with liqueur de tirage for second fermentation (4 weeks)
  10. Minimum 36 months on lees
  11. Riddling
  12. Disgorgement (glace method)
  13. Aged in bottle 6 months post-disgorgement.

Parlo and Luca

At the end of our cellar tour Luca ushered us into a tasting room. Giorgio Rivetti was on premises because one of his relatives was getting married on the grounds later in the day so Luca invited him in to join us.

Giorgio Rivetti joins us for the tasting

The For England Blanc de Noir Pas Dosé 2011 showed white fruit, yeast and white bread. Tart apple and lemony character on the palate. Small bubbles. Sour finish.

The For England Rosé 2011 had a clean, unyielding nose with a subdued mousse, strawberry flavor, and a bitter finish. Bitter rose water on the palate with limited persistence.

The Blanc de Blanc 2011 was elegant on the nose with biscuit, citrus and yeast on the nose.  Mineral and saline on the palate along with citrus flavors. Persistence on the palate and tight finish.

The Rivetti purchase was consequential for both Contratto and the future of sparkling wines in Piedmont. First, the Rivettis know sparkling wine -- they are the largest Champagne importers in the area. Second, Giorgio is well respected as a winemaker in his own right. Robert Parker, Jr has described him as "One of Italy's most formidable winemaker/proprietors ..." who "displays a masterful touch." Third, the Rivettis have the vision and resources needed to make the estate a powerhouse in the region and the region a powerhouse in the sparkling wine world.

The Rivetti's will need to concentrate all of these positives in order to realize the full potential of this estate.

The ride back was even more harrowing than the inbound journey.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Alta Langa DOCG: Piemonte's burgeoning answer to Franciacorta?

During the Labor of Love pre-launch dinner party, Giampiero Cordero, the Sommelier at Ristorante Il Centro (Prioca d'Alba), introduced me to a sparkling wine -- Contratto Metodo Classico -- with which I was unfamiliar. The wine was intriguing so I sought out Giampiero later on in the evening, seeking additional information. He indicated that the wine was from a new sparkling wine DOCG called Alta Langa and promised to make arrangements for me to visit the winery on the Saturday post the dinner. He did make the arrangements and Parlo and I did make the visit. Before discussing the winery and its wines, I provide some background on the region.

The leading lights of Italian sparkling wine are Prosecco, Franciacorta, and Asti. If you confine your horizon to Piemonte, Asti and Moscato d'Asti are the most prominent. Alta Langa -- DOC in 2002, DOCG in 2011 -- is the new kid on the sparkling-wine block but the combination of its terroir, traditional Champagne varieties, traditional production method, skilled growers, and savvy producers bode well for the future.


Growers in the region have looked enviously at Champagne since the early 1800s. So much so that the Counts of Sumbay planted Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines with an eye to making a Champagne-like sparkling wine. The chart below summarizes the history of the effort to make a Metodo Classico wine in Piemonte.

The Alta Langa DOCG is spread over 142 communes in the provinces of Alessandria, Asti, and Cuneo. Given the geographic scope of the region, one encounters a variety of climates, exposures, elevations and soil types. In general, the soil is a mildly fertile calcareous clay marl.

Vineyards are required to be planted at 250 m and above on the region's steep, terraced hillsides. Allowed varieties are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and other non-aromatic grapes. Planting density is a minimum of 4000 vines/ha with the vines trained using the low espalier system and pruned traditional Guyot and spurred cordon. The maximum allowed yield is 11,000 kg/ha.

As is the case in Champagne, the Alta Langa producers -- 27 currently -- do not grow enough fruit to meet their needs. That gap is bridged with fruit from 80 growers who own their land and are guaranteed producer-payment for their grapes and labor.

Alta Langa DOCG covers a Spumante and Spumante Rosata, each built from a minimum of 90% Chardonnay and/or Pinot Noir and a maximum of 10% non-aromatic grape(s), fermented in the traditional method, and aged for a minimum of 30 months on the lees. A Riserva has to spend 36 months on the lees. An Alta Langa Rosso DOC has the same varietal requirements but no stated aging requirement.

Using Avezza Paolo's (one of the producers) practices as an example, the grapes are hand-harvested (a requirement) and taken to the cellar where they are crushed whole. Only the free-run juice is fermented.

Most of the producers ferment in stainless steel tanks but Bera Valter uses a mix of stainless steel and wood, with the majority done in steel. The base wine is placed under crown seal with the liqueur de tirage for the second fermentation (Bretta Rossa blends in a small amount of cuvée from the prior year's production.). The wine rests on its lees for a minimum of 30 months prior to disgorgement and dosage. The aforementioned Contratto always produces a vintage wine with zero dosage and a minimum of 48 months on the lees.

Franciacorta is the most significant Metodo Classico wine in Italy so some comparisons are in order.

Category Franciacorta Alta Langa
First Sparkling wine
Size (ha)
Grape sources Estates (104) Estates and Growers (107)
Soils Glacial morainic (4 types) Calcareous clay marl
Elevation “Gentle hills” Minimum 250 m

One of the things that I find disconcerting about Franciacorta is its richness. This stems from fruit ripening afforded by its relatively southerly location and acidity-robbing, low elevation vineyards. Alta Langa has the potential to produce a crisper sparkling wine given its more northerly provenance and its relatively high elevation.

The Piemonte region has a good track record in handling the Chardonnay grape. While not in the same geographic region, Gaja's Chardonnays take a back seat to no one and I am personally enamored with Aldo Conterno's Bussiador.

In most of the cases, the Alta Langa product is one component of a red-wine centric portfolio for both the growers and the producers. Contratto is one of the exceptions in that it is a standalone sparkling wine establishment within the broader Rivetti portfolio. The challenge for the region will be its relatively small size in a red-wine centric region where there will always be competition for attention and vineyard space vis a vis the the region's red wines.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Sunday, August 4, 2019

An exploration of selected Alto Adige wines

Orlando is a dyed-in-the-wool Napa Cab town but a small number of wine bars, retailers, and wine-services providers (Tim's Wine Market, Digress, Wine Bar George, and Slate Wine & Spirits Academy (SL&SA), for example) from time to time host tasting events aimed at the acid hounds among us. One such recent event was a SL&SA-hosted event titled Explore Alto Adige - Sudtirol Wine Region: Italy's Brightest Gem.

This is the fourth or fifth high-value, no-cost tasting that I am aware of that Jeanne K. Reilly MW has organized for her community of interest. Her modus operandi is to opportunistically engage a visiting winemaker, or other wine-aware personnage, and gaining a commitment from them to present their wines to her group. The "volunteer" in this case was May Matta-Aliah, DWS, CWE, the Alto Adige US Brand Ambassador. May led us in an informative lecture on the region and a tasting of six of its wines. I have previously reported on the region and will thus focus on the tasting in this post.

May Matta-Aliah, DWS, CWE

The wines included in the tasting were as follows (all wines were Alto Adige DOC):

White Wines
1. Nals Margreid Pinot Bianco Sirmian 2014
2. Elena Walch Sauvignon Castel Ringberg 2016
3. Castelfeder Gewürztraminer Vom Lehm 2018

Red Wines
1. Colterenzio Winery Lago di Caldaro 2016
2. Produttori San Michele Appiano Pinot Nero 2015
3. Cantina Andriano Lagrein Rubeno 2015.

White Wines
Nals Margreid Pinot Bianco Sirmian 2014
The current Nals Margreid is the end-product of the Kellerei Nals Cooperative, founded in 1932, and subsequent combinations with Magreid-Entikler (1985) and the remnants of the Schramsberg Coop (2007). The Coop is owned by 138 winegrowers farming a total of 145 ha (359 acres).

The grapes for the wine are grown in the Sirmian area, "... an authentic grand cru area ... within the Terlano sub-region where Italy's best Pinot Bianco are grown." The vines are, on avearge, 13 years old and reside on soils comprised of moraine debris and porphyry bedrock plus gneiss, mica, and marble inclusions. The vineyards are found at elevations ranging between 550 and 680 m.

The Pinot Bianco Sirmian was first produced in 1971. The grapes are fermented in stainless steel tanks after which they undergo malolactic fermentation and 8 months aging in 20 - 30Hl oak barrels.

Notes: A green floral note , sweet white flower, pineapple and pepper spice. On the palate, bright acidity, lemon lime, tartness, minerality. Persistence on palate and lengthy finish. Alcohol burn.

Elena Walch Sauvignon Castel Ringberg 2016
Elena Walch is a leading Alto Adige wine estate farming 60 ha in, among others, top cru vineyards Vigna Castel Ringberg (Caldaro) and Vigna Kastelaz (Tramin). Castel Ringberg, at 20 ha, is Alto Adige's largest cru. Its modestly steep slopes are mostly chalky moraine with loamy and sandy soils.

The Sauvignon is fermented 85% in stainless steel (with extended yeast contact) and 15 % in barrique with assemblage just prior to bottling.

Notes: This wine exhibited a nuanced complexity. Florality, pungency, rust, green papaya, green bark, green herbs. Broad on the palate. Not as bright as the Pinot Bianco. Spicy. long, hot finish.

Castelfeder Gewürztraminer Vons Lehm 2018
Castelfeder is a 60-ha estate located in the middle of South Tyrol's southeast vineyards. The vineyards are planted on medium-heavy clay and loam soils at 300 - 500 m elevation.

Grapes are handpicked and cold-macerated for 12 hours before being gently pressed and fermented in stainless steel. The wine spends 6 months on lees.

Notes: Gewurtz nose. Sweet barley, sweet sop, lychee and lifted aromatics. Light on the attack but weighty on the mid-palate. Slight pricking of effervescence. Juicy. Mineral. Bitterness. Long, hot finish.

Red Wines
Colterenzio Lago di Caldaro 2018
Colterenzio Winery was founded in 1960 when 28 winemakers left the historical Cornarono wines to found a new venture. Today the Coop has 300 winegrowers farming 300 ha at elevatioins ranging between 230 and 650 m. The estate's Schiava vines are planted on hillside vineyards sited on morainal soils mixed with sand and eroded porphyry deposits.

Grapers are gravity-fed from the receiving area to the destemmer-crusher area. Red grapes are destemmed, crushed, and transferred to stainless steel tanks for fermentation. The wine undergoes malolactic fermentation and four months of refinement in those tanks.

Notes: Floral. Faded rose, strawberry, and sweet red fruit on the nose. A lot more power than indicated by the color. Not a lot going on in terms of flavor complexity. Mineral. Metallic finish.

Cantina Produttori San Michele Appiano Pinot Nero 2015
Cantina San Michele was founded in 1907 in the land surrounding the town on the outskirts of Bolzano. A total of 340 families are involved in the cooperative.

The growing area experiences over 2000 hours of sunshine per year and significant diurnal temperature variation enabled by wartm ventilation from the south during the day and fresh breezes from the Mendola Massif during the evening hours.

Soils are moraine debris and limestone gravel at altitudes ranging between 400 and 550 m.

Notes: Darkest of the three red wines. Faded rose, dried herbs, spice, and elegance. Restrained on the attack but intensity increases as the wine makes its way to the back of the palate. Salinity. Thick and creamy. Gentle, late-arriving tannins. Rich, lengthy finish.

Cantina Andriano Lagrein Rubeno 2015
This estate was founded in 1893, the first of its kind in the area. It was absorbed into Cantina Terlano in 2008 but its operation and wines have been kept separate from the larger enterprise.

The estate's 70 ha of vineyards experience cooler growing conditions due to being in the sjadow of Mount Gantkafel and only being exposed to direct sunlight from early morning to mid-afternoon. Soils are eroded sedimentary rock of dolomitic rock and calcareous stone at altitudes ranging between 260 and 340 m.

Lagrein in this area dates back to the 17th century, one of the oldest in the South Tyrol region. The northeast-southeast exposed vineyards sit on red clay soil with gravel and stones at 250 m.

Grapes are handpicked and fermented in stainless steel tanks, then transferred to large oak casks for malolactic fermentation.

Notes: Deep, dark, brooding nose with earth and pruned dark fruit. Weighty, minty and licorice on the palate. Dark fruit with great acidity. lack of mid-palate. Sweet finish. Barkiness. Unfulfilling.

In general, the white wines were more appealing than the reds, not unexpected in that the region's whites are highly regarded. In the case of the reds, the Pinot Nero was attractive. In general these wines are high in alcohol but the diurnal variability ensures balancing acidity retention.

In terms of pricing, these wines represent good value for money with the highest priced (the Pinot Nero) coming in at $46. The whites average $23. I would purchase the Pinot Nero and any of the whites if the opportunity presented itself.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme