Thursday, August 3, 2017

Vineyard and winery visit with the irrepressible Silvia Altare of Elio Altare (Piemonte, Italy)

We were scheduled to visit with Silvia Altare (of Elio Altare) on the Wednesday of our Piemonte week and, upon our arrival, we were greeted in the courtyard by a smiling Silvia (I swear that she did not drop that smile for the duration of our visit) and her brand new puppy. Once we were able to extricate ourselves from the peppy pooch, we walked into a bright, sunny tasting room/office/kitchen overlooking the vineyard and begun to attend to all the little nips that the pup had bestowed upon Ron.

Silvia is unique among Piemontese winemakers based on her journey to this position. She worked summers as an au pair -- beginning when she was 14 years old -- for the Krankels of Sine Qua Non fame and this extensive American influence is demonstrated in her speech and attitude. She is lively, vivacious, exuberant, and voluble but does not take herself too seriously. Silvia studied economics at the University of Turin and, upon graduation in 2003, was gifted a membership in the farmers union by her father (Labor of Love). Silvia joined Elio at the estate upon graduation. She is now officially the proprietor of the estate, working down the terms of a contract that she has with her parents (terms that include her conduct with the Mauro Veglio family who share the cul-de-sac with the Altare family).

But the winery is not yet about her. It is still about her father Elio and his role in redirecting winemaking at the estate and in the region. Elio was one of the Barolo Boys and his efforts in pursuit of their goals led to permanent schism with his father.

Giuseppe, Elio's father, came to La Morra from Dogliani in 1948 and bought the 5-ha plot on which the winery stands. The estate was planted to the most popular regional vines but the profit centers were the peach, hazelnut, and apple trees which shared the land.

Elio traveled to Burgundy during the late 1970s and was impressed with the lifestyle and winemaking practices of the vignerons. So much so that he came back home determined to adopt some of the observed practices in the family winemaking environment. He began green harvesting in 1978, much to the consternation of his father, and also stopped using pesticides and fertilizers. He replaced the traditional casks with barriques in 1983 and, for his father, this was a bridge too far. He wrote his son out of his will. Elio was able to go out on his own and, over time, purchase the estate from his siblings.

Elio's success in the industry is attributable to his single-minded pursuit of elegance, finesse, and balance in his wines through "low-yield vineyard practices and application of new vinification and aging techniques.

After some time on the back deck overlooking the vineyards, Silvia invited us to take a walk through the vineyard. As we walked, she spoke.

Silvia discussing the Arborina vineyard

Ron and Silvia
Elio Altare is a small company, she said; basically her father and five employees. There are 5 ha of vineyard around the house and, in addition, they purchased almost 1 ha of the Cerretta vineyard in 2016. They also lease 4 hectares. The Elio Altare fruit sources are shown in the figure after the picture below.

Walking the Elio Altare Arborina vineyard 

In terms of terroir, the climate is inconsistent. It is not as stable -- and inherently more complicated -- than it used to be. The soil in the Arborina vineyard is primarily sand and clay.

All of the vineyard and winemaking practices employed on the estate have been formulated by Elio. The vineyard is farmed organically -- Silvia is currently pursuing certification -- but she reserves the flexibility to act in the best interests of the grapes in extreme situations. Copper and copper sulfate are used to combat mold and cow manure is used as fertilizer. The trellising system is guyot and planting density ranges between 4000 and 6000 vines per ha. Vine age is as much as 90 years, with yields of 20 - 60 hl/ha depending on variety. The estate practices fastidious pruning and thinning of the vines and does a green harvest in the summer. The distribution of vines on the estate is as follows:
  • Nebbiolo -- 40%
  • Dolcetto -- 25%
  • Barbera -- 26%
  • Cabernet Sauvignon -- 5%
  • Other red varieties -- 4%.

"This is not a monoculture"
We went back inside after the vineyard walk and descended into the cellar. One of the first things that you notice is that the Altare family are avid wine collectors as evidenced by the personal collection which includes hard-to-come-by bottles of Sine Qua Non. They also have an extensive library of their own wines -- 10,000 bottles covering 65 vintages -- and demonstrate their farm chops by storing and displaying meats sourced from farm animals.


Salami and panchetta from pig killed at Easter

Elio Altare library
Harvests at Elio Altare are manual ( 7 - 10 pickers) with selection conducted in the vineyard. After leaving the crusher-destemmer, the grapes are placed into temperature-controlled rotary fermenters where they macerate for between four to five days in the presence of indigenous yeasts. The rotary fermenters are thought to provide a more efficient extraction while allowing less of the bitter seed tannins to be included in the mix. The wine yielded by this process is racked into stainless steel tanks for blending and then onto barriques for spontaneous malolactic fermentation and aging.The wines are neither fined or filtered and are aged for 18 - 24 months  on 20% -  30% (Barolos) or 100% (Langhe Nebbiolos) new oak.

After our cellar tour, we went back upstairs to taste some wine, beginning with the 2013 Barolo Arborina sourced from two parcels, one planted in 1948 and the other in 1989. This wine is massive and will need a lot of time. Baking spices and tar on the nose along with a lifted florality. Tamarind, salinity, earth, dark fruit, and power on the palate. Lengthy finish.

The 2013 Unoperuno is sourced from the 1948 parcel and is destemmed by hand, berry by berry. According to Silvia, this wine contains the "most premium ingredients." This vintage was a farmer's vintage. They lost 30 - 40% in 2013 and 2014 due to bad weather. Elegant and restrained. Salinity, tar and spice.

The 2011 Cerretta Vigna Bricco is sourced from a vineyard that is known for limestone and chalk, according to Silvia. This wine showed a florality but also notes of iron, petrol, liver, tamarind, and blackpepper. The 2013 Cannubi was floral on the nose along with red fruit, spice, and blackpepper. Beautiful weight on the palate and excellent finish.

The 2013 Barbera Larigi showed red fruit, earth, and baking spices on the nose. Red fruit, acidity, salinity on the palate. Harmonius. Approachable. The 2008 Arborina Langhe showed florality, red fruit, and tar on the nose. On the palate Sweet red fruit, blackpepper, and salinity. Lovely finish.

This was a wonderful experience for us. Silvia was so engaging. She offered to come drive us out in the evenings when we were going to dinner after she heard that we were calling in taxis from Alba. Of course we demurred. But she suggested that we should go to dinner that night at Vinoteva Centro Storico but warned us off ordering Jaques Selosse (This was going to be difficult for us as we are all passionate about that Champagne.) if we did not want to be labeled as tourists. Anyway, she promised that she would come meet us at the restaurant that night; and she did. We had a wonderful time. She introduced us to everyone and we made a bunch of new friends.

Thank you Silvia, on behalf of our entire group.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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