Two years ago, on a similarly dreary day in Piedmont as our recent visit to Ca’ del Bric, we stopped for an excellent lunch in Gavi at Osteria Piemontemare which serves such traditional local dishes that even a Tuscan like Elena had to ask a few questions of the waitress. It's at times like these that a foreigner like me realizes that one lifetime is just not enough to fully understand Italy.
Given the chill in the air and the hearty food on offer we looked for a local red wine instead of the famous white wine of Gavi. We chose the Ca’ del Bric Tre Lustri 2007, knowing nothing about it, purely because it was already 12 years old and with it being a Dolcetto we knew enough to realize that young Dolcetto wines can sometimes be quite tannic.
It was a sensational wine that stuck in the memory but unfortunately two years later when it came to researching wineries to visit in this part of Piedmont, the name of the winery didn’t stick in the memory quite as well. Because there are just too many Ca’ di somethings and Bric or Bricco names in this part of Italy, just as there are too many Poggio di whatevers in Tuscany. But then Elena’s habit of never deleting a single photograph yielded an image of the Tre Lustri bottle in the restaurant hidden among photos of hundreds of other bottles of wine and the problem was solved.
By the time we reached Ca’ del Bric it was getting late on a Sunday afternoon and it was already too gloomy for photographs because the clocks had just changed but there was enough light left to appreciate the charm of this part of southern Piedmont, with its medieval castles, unspoiled villages and empty roads. It was enough for us that Giuseppe Ravera had graciously re-arranged his appointments to give us some of his time at short notice.
Just five minutes after meeting him and hearing him explain his winemaking philosophy it was clear that he is a person with an impressive wine intellect who managed to solve a very difficult winemaking problem. Just about all of the winemakers we meet are passionate about what they do and these days many of them also produce organic wines (whether formally certified or not) and pay close attention to biodiversity; we also notice more wineries going the extra mile and embracing biodynamic farming and winemaking practices.
Giuseppe was one of the first organic winemakers to address the issue of sulfites head on. Helped by the fact that he is a highly qualified scientist with a degree in biology and a master’s in viticulture and oenology, he totally eliminated the addition of sulfites to his wines about 10 years ago. To understand the importance and difficulty of this I will have to digress a little at this point.
First a quote from a published wine writer: “Sulfites are among the most helpful compounds around—and without them, some wines would taste like a microbial stew,” says Karen MacNeil author of The Wine Bible “Sulfur is a natural anti-microbial agent. It's a terrific aid to winemakers—and ultimately wine drinkers, because it destroys bad microbes.”
She’s not wrong and most winemakers will agree with her but it’s a little more complicated than that. And in any case she’s a wine writer whereas Giuseppe is a winemaker who had a Michelin starred restaurant customer who had specifically requested wines without added sulfites. Giuseppe took on this challenge by applying himself scientifically and it was this challenge rather than any pre-conceived philosophy that drove him. In his own words:
"Ho affrontato la scelta da biologo, osservando la natura e la scoperta è stata che c'è un potenziale incredibile"
Ignoring the fact that very small quantities of sulfur dioxide are a natural by-product of the fermentation process, what we are discussing here is the addition of sulfites, often at the bottling stage, as a preservative and anti-bacterial agent.
There’s typically a legal limit for sulfites which varies by country, a lower limit for wines labeled organic and an even lower limit for biodynamic and so-called natural wines, but again often differing according to country of origin. In all of these cases there will be a disclosure on the label mentioning the existence of sulfites. Adding no sulfites at all however is extremely difficult to achieve with any confidence that your wines will continue to taste the same and survive for as long as they would otherwise.
When you read the fine print on websites you often discover that many wines described as sulfite-free actually use minimal amounts rather than zero, others qualify their blanket statement by disclosing that only their red wines are sulfite free and not their white wines (the tannin in red wine offers some protection), and in another quite typical example the St Emilion Grand Cru Chateau Barrail Saint Andre has two 100% Merlot wines on their website. The regular one will continue to improve for 10 years they say but the identical wine bottled with no added sulfites they recommend to drink within two years.
That fundamental difference between the two otherwise identical red wines highlights the unreasonable sacrifice in quality often involved in making wines with no added sulfites which is why you won’t see many winemakers taking this approach.
Giuseppe believes unequivocally that his wines have the same flavor profile and same longevity as before, but eliminating sulfites requires very healthy, organically farmed vines and close attention to every single detail in the cellar.
The vinification process at Ca’ del Bric starts with the use of dry ice for cryomaceration and then fermentation is initiated through inoculated yeasts rather than allowed to happen spontaneously. This is followed by malolactic conversion and filtration of the wine before bottling. All of these choices are to enable winemaking without the addition of sulfur dioxide.
And this is where the major disagreements start because many biodynamic winemakers as well as the 'natural wine' movement believe that filtration and innoculated yeasts are worse sins than adding a minimal amount of sulfites and a few that we have come across recently also believe that if biodynamic practices are followed in the vineyard, good wine is perfectly capable of being made without either filtration or added sulfites. The latter approach however will always produce cloudy wines, not that there is anything inherently wrong with that, but from our experience not all of these 'extreme' wines are clean tasting and the common complaint about many sulfite free wines, especially those that are also not filtered, is that there is sometimes a funky aspect to their flavor that is unappealing.
From a personal standpoint the small amounts of sulfites permitted in organic wines have never bothered us which is why we've never written about sulfites before and as they are added to just about every food or drink that is packaged in any type of container, this is not a topic that applies only to wine.
However, there are more than a few people who complain of headaches, purportedly from the addition of sulfites, and so there is now at least one high quality winemaker whose wines they can buy with confidence if they believe that sulfites are the problem. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Giuseppe has lots of customers who buy directly from his website.
Leaving aside the possibility that a headache after wine might simply be from overindulging, there is some recent research by Sophie Parker-Thomson that she presented in her dissertation for the Master of Wine qualification in 2021 that suggests in a fairly scientific way that headaches from wine are more likely caused by biogenic amines (which include histamines) rather than sulfites. Cellar practices that result in a lack of inert gas in the tank headspace (ie too much oxygen present) coupled with a lack of filtration can leave pediococcus in the bottle to start producing these biogenic amines.
With regard to this point Giuseppe is rigorous with the use of inert nitrogen gas to eliminate oxygen whenever wine is being moved from one container to another container specifically to preclude oxygen and in addition he employs filtration for all his wines.
Parker-Thomson's research went on to suggest that a small addition of sulfur dioxide to the grape juice before fermentation begins is enough to impede the devlopment of bacteria that produces biogenic amines. In her words: "This single step then affords the winemaker stylistic freedom to employ techniques which have traditionally been identified as increasing biogenic amines such as malolactic fermentation, spontaneous fermentation, skin contact and lees ageing. In my research it became clear that wines with no added SO2 or only late-added SO2 were likely to have the highest levels of biogenic amines".
There's a certain irony to the results of her research because much of the 'natural wine' movement precludes the addition of any sulfites at the pre-fermentation stage and allows them in small amounts only at the bottling stage. But Parker-Thomson's research suggests that late-added sulfur dioxide does nothing to alleviate the true cause of headaches and nor of course does the elimination of sulfites altogether.
Parker-Thomson is a wine producer and wine industry consultant in her native New Zealand and concluded by saying that this is an area that requires further research but her paper certainly didn't win her any friends in the 'natural wine' movement, for whom sulfites have always been the enemy. I'm not qualified to weigh in with an opinion here but I'm sure this debate will rage on in the wine world because there are strong views held by both sides.
It should be emphasized however that many (but not all) of the organic and biodynamic certified winemakers we have met have no fundamental problem with adding sulfur to their wine but they do so in very small amounts and certainly well below the permitted levels for certification. Finally on this issue, it should also be noted here that people differ as to their ability to metabolize histamine and other biogenic amines.
Giuseppe isn’t the only clever one in the family because his wife Erika graduated with a degree in Environmental Science so you’d better believe that these are two people who care deeply for the soil in their 17 acres of vineyards and the purity of their fruit.
Ca’ del Bric is located in the small village of Montaldo Bormida, which is in the far southern part of Piedmont close to the town of Acqui Terme. Less than 30 miles from the Ligurian coastline it’s a part of Piedmont that culturally, historically and linguistically was more connected to Genoa than the more distant Piemontesi cities to the north.
The Ovada DOCG was created in 2008, elevated from its previous DOC status which had been granted back in 1972. The winemakers here were a little tardy forming a Consortium to promote their wines but they made it happen in 2013 and Giuseppe is now the Vice President of this local organization, which does not surprise me at all because there is a restless energy about him. Impressively, a full 40% of the wineries in the Ovada DOCG are now certified organic, which is more than twice the national average
For Giuseppe the winery represents a return to his family’s roots because his grandfather was from the nearby town of Strevi and childhood summer holidays were spent among these hills. In 1991 Giuseppe’s parents first caught sight what is now the Ca’ del Bric property but which at that time was a dilapidated ruin surrounded by 5 acres of abandoned vineyards. After further research they discovered that earlier generations of their family had been sharecroppers on this land, part of the estate of the local Schiavina nobility.
Ownership had passed into the hands of a lawyer in Turin and in due course he agreed to sell it to them. A few more years were to pass before Giuseppe and Erika, on completion of their studies, were able to rebuild the property and completely replant and rejuvenate the vineyards. That was 20 years ago and now Ca’ del Bric is a thriving business producing about 45,000 bottles per annum across a wide variety of grapes and different bottlings.
All of his wines have been given interesting names drawn from local history, which they explain on their website, and I wouldn't have expected anything different from someone whose family connection to this territory was strong enough to awake something dormant inside him and draw him back to take on a challenge that must have been quite daunting at the beginning.
This is a winery to put on your list to visit and on their website you will also find a choice of tours that they offer, including a pre-tasting mountain bike ride through the rolling hills of Alto Monferrato led by Giuseppe, which sounds like something I should do on our return visit. This is the land of some of the great legends of Italian cycling history like Fausto Coppi and also Costante Girardengo, who ironically was for a brief period the coach for Coppi's great rival, Gino Bartali.
Gavi 2020 - Gavi DOCG (100% Cortese, 12.5% alcohol)
Aged on its lees in stainless steel and bottled in the Spring
This wine was something of a surprise. Very different to every other Gavi wine we've had both in the US and Italy, all of which have been enjoyable but very much on the lighter side. This wine is a bit more serious and definitely a food wine with notes of green pear, peach and beeswax on the nose yet extremely dry on the palate with nice minerality and almonds on the finish.
We've described many of the Italian white wines we like as having bracing acidity and being refreshing. This is neither, yet it is very cleansing on the palate which makes it so good with complex flavors like mushrooms and it has a different flavor profile to most other Italian white wines we've come across. Good value at 9.90 euros
Reusa dij Vent 2019 - Gavi DOCG (100% Cortese, 13.5% alcohol)
Aged on its lees in stainless steel and bottled in the Spring.
Interesting nose of kiwi fruit and on the palate it's very soft with flavors of tangerine, coriander and white pepper. I could use a little more acidity in this wine but malolactic conversion is the price to pay to avoid sulfites. I preferred the previous Gavi and it's hard to say why they seem so different. Not expensive at 11 euros but I would much prefer to buy more of the one above at a lower price.
Mansur 2018 - Barbera del Monferrato DOC (100% Barbera, 13.5% alcohol)
This wine could be described as a Barbera for people who aren't big fans of Barbera, but therein lies its appeal because I say that in praise not criticism. The famous acidity of Barbera is much reduced and it's a soft, approachable wine despite only seeing stainless steel. However this wine is the 2018 so it has also had over two years in bottle to mellow and the result is simply scrumptious with lots of red fruit pumping up the volume.
The puzzle of wood versus stainless steel continues with the next wine but whatever the reason for its sublime drinkability this is a red wine I would be happy adopting as my regular house red at the bargain price of 10.80 euros.
Mayno Zero 2018 - Dolcetto d’Ovada DOC (100% Dolcetto, 13.5% alcohol)
I struggle to understand why I prefer this to the Bricco Trionzo which is three years older and has matured in wood so by reasoning should be softer and much more approachable. This wine on the other hand has only seen stainless steel and I find it much less tannic with better and fresher fruit and therefore at 11 euros it's a real bargain.
Balot 2020 - Monferrato DOC (Barbera and Merlot, 13% alcohol)
This is a strange grape combination that doesn't really work for us because both grapes are so different and seem incapable of gelling. The Merlot was deliberately picked in an overripe condition to balance the Barbera acidity but the two very different grape flavors can still be detected separately rather than as an integrated whole. However it's a wine that can be consumed immediately and is an interesting experiment because if you don't try these things you never find out; all part of a winemaker's journey. 12.50 euros
Bigat 2019 - Monferrato DOC (100% Nebbiolo, 13% alcohol)
Already quite soft and round, this is drinking well now with no hard edges. Notes of violets and red fruits on the nose that carry through on the palate, this is very well balanced , fresh and easy to drink. It needed just a little aeration in the glass to show at its best. Fully priced at 14 euros.
Cosa Seria 2020 - Piemonte DOC (100% Nebbiolo, 12% alcohol)
This is the color of a blood orange and has a similar aroma too with hints of white peach. On the palate it's quite full with a little tannin and some pleasant bitterness. Refreshing notes of golden delicious apple and watermelon, it was perfect with home made pizza. Fully priced at 12.70 euros because rosato is a very competitive category in Italy.
Mon Blanc 2020 (100% Chardonnay, 13% alcohol)
Aged in small oak barrels for 8 months
It's always interesting to try Italian Chardonnays because they all seem to be quite different from those from other countries. This one is pure golden delicious apples on the nose with aromatic herbs and notes of bitter almonds. Despite the wood aging and the malolactic conversion there's still sufficient acidity here and none of the softness or vanilla tones you would normally expect. In fact it's quite an austere wine and extremely dry with a slightly sour apple finish that makes it a good food wine. At 14.50 euros it's fully priced.
Quattordici.02 2016 - Monferrato Superiore DOCG (100% Barbera, 15% alcohol)
Aged for 2 years in large French oak barrels
Barbera at 5 years old with two of those spent in large oak barrels seems like the sweet spot for this grape for me. Mature cherries and soft spices on the nose with hints of cacao tell you straight away that this is not going to disappoint. The acidity and tannin have both softened enough to be perfect with food and there's real depth to the fruit that comes through on the palate. A real Goldilocks wine for me that's well worth the 18 euros price tag.
Bricco Trionzo 2015 - Dolcetto d’Ovada DOC (100% Dolcetto, 14.5% alcohol)
Aged for 2 years in large French oak barrels
Lots of spice on the nose with notes of cooked plums. Full, rich and round on the palate with flavors of black fruits this shows the potential of the Dolcetto grape in the right winemaker's hands. There's a touch of vanilla from the wood and still plenty of tannin which is surprising given its age. On the second evening the fruit and spice hadn't faded at all. Fully priced at 17.50 euros.
Il Conte di Gelves 2018 - Ovada Riserva DOCG (100% Dolcetto, 14% alcohol)
Aged for 2 years in large French oak barrels
This is definitely one of the best wines in the whole line-up. The nose is quite powerful with noticeable spice and mature red and black fruit and on the palate there's a rich flavor of blackberry pie and the rich liquor you find at the bottom of the pot. It's very soft with low acidity and negligible tannin after the wooden aging. Dolcetto is a grape that needs wood to soften its tannins and these large barrels are much less intrusive than the smaller French barriques and impart very little to the wine as they do their job. Dolcetto can certainly accommodate the notes of vanilla that you find in the background here. This is a high quality wine with some punch to it that Shakespeare's Falstaff would love. Well worth the 18 euros price tag.
Tre Lustri 2011 - Ovada DOCG (100% Dolcetto, 14.5% alcohol)
Made only in the very best years (2007, 2011, 2016) and aged for 5 years in large French oak barrels. 2,761 numbered bottles produced in 2011
Surprisingly, both in the glass and on the nose this wine was not even close to old age. Aromas of spice and mature red fruit mingled with a touch of vanilla and balsamic belie a still vibrant wine with good structure and acidity. Already 10 years old this has plenty of life left in it but it's a pleasure to drink now. The second evening it opened up even more but there are no tertiary notes just yet and certainly no fading of flavor. Lovely wine and worth its price tag of 25 euros, but I think it will develop further.