Piemonte 6 : Colli Tortonesi : 21 – 24 October 2021

Thursday 21 October 21 

We left Gavi at 08.15, heading east towards Novi Ligure to pick up the motorway for Tortona; leaving via the toll just north of Tortona and weaving east through acres of industrial estate (and MacDonald’s) until we found a kindly woman in charge of a fuel station willing to tackle our soft tyre problem. 

The drive through the fog spoiled any chance of a view as we eventually began to climb into the Colli Tortonesi arriving at I Carpini at 10.00 to meet Paolo Ghislandi

His holistic, back to nature approach was seriously researched and underpins the whole enterprise, begun in 1998, by buying a house and a hill and slowly planting vineyards in sympathy with the boschi and the prati… and using a row of cabernet sauvignon on the edges of the vineyards to discourage the cinghiali! (I have allies!) 

All spontaneous fermentation, and lots of waiting – on the lees, in the tanks and ceramichi, (note: not cementi) and in the crates, un-labelled until sold. So many bottles kept for years… la Banca! 

I thought his Brezza D’Estate – still – and Chiaror sul Massi  – sparkling – are the most delicious!  I Sette Zolle (seven sods or chods) is their best seller, made from Barbera grown in the first vineyard planted in front of the house. It is held for four years in tank; then four years in bottle before dispatch. As I said – lots of waiting! 

This was the first occasion we heard the popular distinction drawn between ‘ elegante’ and ‘sensuale’ in relation to particular wines; in this case Bruma de Autonno – a fabulous 10 yr old Barbera versus Terra D’Ombra, another rosso. 

I noticed very socievole Paolo modify his initial descriptor – ‘sexy’ into ‘sensuale’. Italians are very subtle with language, especially where gender sensibilities are involved. Best behaviour when in company and all that; there’s a lady present… 

We left Paolo and headed to Vigneti Massa where Walter had made himself scarce by darting into the cantina as we arrived. He is reputed to have rescued the neglected and undervalued grape Timorasso and launched it very successfully on an unsuspecting world, thereby putting the Colli Tortonesi firmly on the ‘must have’ map. 

He is a very interesting man: self-assured to the point of narcissism while appearing genuinely introverted. He called himself ‘egotista’ with a shrug after responding with one word: ‘me!’ to David’s question about where the future of the region lay. One day he may sell his Timorasso under the newly proposed DOCG… but we’ll see…

 His manner with employees in the Cantina seemed abrupt and even harsh; he is not a man to delegate easily. We tasted from fermentation tanks at various stages of the process, as he strode around checking on his workmen’s progress. 

We went for a very bumpy ride round the vineyards in his elderly Land Rover before returning to his patient wife who had cooked a simple but delicious saffron risotto for us all to eat in their very traditionally furnished home above the cantina, along with the famous local and traditional Montebole cheese and salumis. 

On hearing we were staying in Totona, without further consultation he phoned the Maitre-di (and husband) of Anna Ghisolfi who has lately established a very sophisticated ristorante in an de-consecrated church, to book us in for supper; and then sent us on our way with a very large and heavy atlas of Piemontese wines. 

Cantina di Tortona 

After Vigneti Massa the visit to the cooperative Cantina di Tortona was a very different experience! The team made us welcome, a little unsure about speaking English, and were visibly relieved when we replied in Italian. They sat on one side of the large table divided by a very tall perspex screen, and we on the other, tasting their considerable range of wines, and listening to the their account of the Cantina’s history

La Colombera 

As the evening approached we met Elisa Semino; Lively and loud; warm and obliging. She gave us a quick look at the enormous sweep of vineyard and we met various family members briefly – brother in a tractor, trying not to mow us down, and a grumpy zio (uncle) later on.. 

We tasted Timorasso, of course, and sundry fierce Barberas and some other big do-er coming in at 16% plus, while she served a number of people who just dropped in on the way home from work to buy a bottle or two; as you do…  

As we had not yet been near Tortona she kindly led us to via Montebello to park nearby the very stylish B&B Villa Sironi. Formerly the residence of a prominent silk manufacturer called Setoria Sironi it is a very fine town house – elegantly furnished in sophisticated traditional style in keeping with its architecture – available to all (see website) at reasonable cost, maintained by a charitable Fondazione and used by the consorzio and other businesses. 

Supper was at Sara Ghisolfi on piazza Guilia beyond the duomo, booked by our lunch time host. A converted church – stylishly done with vast stainless steel tubes taking away the kitchen smells in the open plan nave (reminiscent of River Cafe but smaller and very stylish!) Elegant and contemporary – finger food starters; pigeon done perfectly and a v superior pasta and faggioli. We went back to our room needing to do an hour’s preparation for the next day despite feeling very tired.  

Friday 22 October 21 

Quick dash after breakfast to put  0.50 centesimi (in change) on the car for parking until we set off at 09.00 for a short drive to Claudio Mariotto, a traditional and not yet re-constructed azienda producing exceptional wines.  

Claudio briefly, and then his assistant, Simone, presented their wines – various versions of Derthona: Bricco san Michele, Cavallina, Pitasso – all Timorassi; and the ’16 and ’18 of L’imbevibile (‘Undrinkable’) – almost orange wines (see photos)  

The reds were Barbera with the same clear, simple but stylish labels: Territorio, Vho, Poggio del Rosso; increasingly dense but the first passage of oak is not  conspicuous; instead the odours of mediterranean macchie – rosemary, sage, mint. Now – count the bottles below – and add some!

Timorasso é la moglie (the wife) e Barbera é l’amarante (the lover)…’

the ‘mad hatter’ as his assistant called him, was good-natured if contrary… this is clearly a popular joke about the contrast between Barbera and Timorasso (see Paolo Ghislandi above) 

Claudio returned to more humorous speculation in response to David’s question about the future:

His answer? ’chi sa??’ Who knows??

Our contrary host then sprung a blind tasting of two older vintages… and we passed with flying colours as I went for Barbera in cement c 2007 and David clocked the older oaked Barbera which was 2000. He was very impressed! Phew! 

I’m sure the reader will be able to translate the following taken from the label (etichetta) on the right:

Dedicato questo etichetta a mio padre che mi ha trasmesso la passione per la terra ed il vino’

Quite a morning I thought! And it only got more eventful… 

On to Vignetti Repetto … but very slowly ! This was perhaps the low point of all our journeys. 

We spent over an hour, driving on very minor roads round and round, following google’s instructions … fortunately we had some slack, but we grew more tense as each attempt failed.

As the strade bianche gave way to a grass track we found ourselves in a dark wood … and eventually stopped as it shrunk to a narrow footpath. Dantesque… 

While in one clearing I looked up and saw across a valley a recently bulldozed hill and a newly built winery and wondered if this was our intended destination. It was. And only 500 m away. But unattainable. We turned round and headed several kilometres back in search of houses. 

We were saved by a workman who told us we were ‘seriously lost’ so we needed to go round the hill – sempre destra… o sempre sinistra… (non importa). His saving idea was to go to the agriturismo Montegualdone to where the old winery had been. As we approached it, by a happy chance I noticed an A4 sheet of paper with Vingneti Repetto flapping from a fence. Two in fact… but very small…

As we followed the sign and headed up the newly created wide gravelly building-site road, (on the right, below) our anxious host met us. Google maps are wrong, he said… Yes, we know – but why only tell us now?? 

Gianpaolo Repetto is the President of the consorzio, and we sat down for lunch with his family in the newly built tasting area, with fine views all around.  He has engineering background, and personally oversaw the moving of 1000s of tons of earth from the Colle in order to to build 25 metres downwards to create a winery on three levels, and using gravity at each stage of the wine making. The earth was then replaced around the new build, to leave only the top level visible. 

The huge tanks, brought from the old winery, were only put in place and the necessary licence granted, just days before this year’s harvest. (We meet examples of these enormously ambitious building projects over and over again. Italians think big and build ambitiously)

It is awesome. But a conversation is badly needed with Google! 

 We then travelled to bijoux Oltretorrente close by to meet Chiara, who with Michele her husband had moved from Milan to develop a winery from scratch.

They now have 7.5 hectares scattered through land on the village edges, and have lately moved into a small cantina, with hand-me-down cementi,  having previously used a very basic and small cellar in the village, where they still keep some wine.  

We tasted in her home, while her children were playing at a friend’s house nearby, and while Michele was busy in the cantina. She is a charming and informative hostess, and helped us realise just how hard this business is, coming from a standing start. 

Finally the sun made it through the clouds as it began to set, as we travelled to Castellania to Marina Coppi where the cyclist Fausto Coppi had lived; the grandfather of our host whom David had met in London in mid January 2020 at the Liberty tasting shortly before lockdown began. 

Francesco had help from his grandmother (Coppi’s widow) in setting up the winery. We tasted Marine (a play on the name of their first daughter, and his grandmother, both called Marina); Fausto ‘18; Grand Faustó and Sant Andrea. 

We tried to catch the beautiful autumn light from the balcony over the almost monopole (single, continuous vineyard) where vines and forest are turning golden; orange and red. 

The drive back from Castellania on the old via Tortona was much less demanding than the daytime journeys. A very typical long straight road through miles of small settlements and  industrial estates, via Carbonara… but not stopping at the highly recommended Pizzeria there. 

 Instead we returned to the Villa Sironi and headed to a very close Pizza takeaway. Elise‘s jar of peaches served as dessert. I fear the food didn’t do the grand surroundings justice…

Saturday 23 October 21

It took 25 minutes to drive south to Carlo Lorenzo Bottaci at Monterosso, on via regione moglier 57, just north of Tazzano, to meet one of David’s fellow MW students –  Lorenzo – whose family estate of 75 hectares has 10 of vines, and 4 more are planned.  

We have learned that Timorraso is a dense plant with second shoots everywhere (hence Walter Massa’s assault on a wayward stem) which need regular thinning in order to create space and good air flow; it also needs a good exposure, good drainage and plenty of sun. Not overly fussy then!! Here the soils are 30 % clay, and the rest is limo (limestone)  and gypsum. 

We tasted some fantastic high acidic, high alcohol Timorassi which Lorenzo considers of Cru standard – partly the altitude, exposition, air and sun . Also Bric dei Serpenti 2015 – a Barbera of course; highly alcoholic but elegant and fresh. 

The fog thwarted Lorenzo’s desire to show us the fantastic views from the borgo at the top of the hill, whose main house until recently was occupied by his late uncle. It had been the site of a monastery and Lorenzo has hopes of its restoration. The Cedar of Lebanon died recently at 220 years old, and is still a wonderful if sad sight. 

On to Ezio Poggio high up in the hills where we met Mary and Enzio, sister and brother, with four children between them, all maintaining an interest in the future of the winery. Enzio is a reserved but assured man whose pride in his wines is justified, and Mary is a keen communicator. There several were crates of drying grapes in the cantina. 

We tasted their spumante and metodo classico; a rosso with Barbera and Bonnardo di Piemonte, some lovely Timorassi and a vino passito, and enjoyed a simple but delicious lunch.

We met Mary and her husband again that evening at our second visit to the ristorante Sara Ghisolfi.

Luigi of Boveri Luigi was waiting for us at 15.00, after a slow but straight forward journey through the interior of the southern section of the hills to the north of the territory, to near yesterday’s meeting with Chiara at Oltretorrente. The nebbia (fog) had lifted a little but it was a damp afternoon and the stove was a welcome sight inside the cantina. 

His young blond son (one of twins – he blonde, she very dark-haired  – so many twins round here!) hung around a little, with his long blond curls..

His room temperature Timorassi were a mixed bag: 2019 a little green and still arriving; 2016 had a strange medicinal taste, and the 2012 very reminiscent of honey. 

Our host enquired after life in the UK; not the first to interrogate us about covid, Brexit’s consequences and the fuel shortage. Our italian neighbours watch our chaos with incredulity.   

Luigi is passionate about the distinctive wines of his territory and despairs of those who come to cultivate without reference to the traditions of each place. It is hard to disagree with him – in every sense. 

Barbera, he tells us,  is relatively easy to cultivate and vinify well. But Croatina, very much part of the region’s story, is seriously tough! Such high tannins and high acidity.

We drove back to Tortona, and sorted ourselves out for the next phase starting tomorrow in the Langhe, based in the hotel I Castelli, the very convenient if expensive central hotel in Alba – with an underground car park. And then we went out for supper again, fortunate to have been shoe-horned into the popular and stylish Anna Ghisolfi once again. 

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