This is a story about an obscure and underappreciated grape, a local priest who preferred his tractor to the pulpit and a headstrong young man who abruptly quit the local Cantina Sociale when they refused to pay him a premium for his top quality grapes.
That young man was Marco Crivelli and the year was 1979 and with the passage of time and experience he became the acknowledged master of that little known local grape, Ruchè. Now his son Jonathan has seamlessly taken over the vineyard and winemaking responsibilities, having learned his craft well from his legendary father who continues to keep an eye on everything.
The Crivelli family has been cultivating vines in the small town of Castagnole Monferrato as long as Italy itself has been a nation. Equidistant from Milan and Genoa, only 32 miles east of Turin and close to the famous wine town of Asti, Castagnole itself is now forever linked to Ruchè and one of only 7 Asti villages producing in total a mere 500,000 bottles a year within the Ruchè DOCG zone.
Back in the 1960s, more than a decade before the 26 year old Marco was butting heads with the Cantina Sociale, a new parish priest by the name of Don Giacomo Cauda arrived in this small community of a thousand people. As was the custom at the time he received 10 rows of old vines as his ‘parish benefit’ and with it his destiny and his future legacy were set. Don Cauda was a country man from peasant stock so he could easily turn his hand to winemaking and so enamored was he with the quality and balance of the resulting wine that he planted additional Ruchè vines and began to spend more time extolling the virtues of this almost extinct grape to local farmers than he did administering to their spiritual needs.
Many years later, after one too many wedding and baptism ceremonies where he arrived late and disheveled coming straight from the vineyard still wearing his muddy boots, the Church authorities persuaded him to retire from the wine business and concentrate on his ministry. But by then his famed Ruchè del Parroco, the first Ruchè wine to be sold in bottle, had inspired a new generation of local farmers and aspiring winemakers, first and foremost among them being the young Marco Crivelli.
Marco was a man on a mission and at the same time as embarking on his career as a winemaker, he significantly increased his vineyard acreage, including the prime location of the hill of Montio, and added Grignolino and Barbera red grape varieties to his new vineyards. Today, Jonathan farms 25 acres planted to all three grapes and though Ruchè is perhaps the grape most associated with the Crivelli story, their Grignolino is just as revered by those who know and appreciate the lesser known grape varieties of Piedmont.
And in another interesting connection between Piemontese wine and the Church, when the current Pope, Francis, was elected in 2013 he wasted no time in expressing his love for Grignolino wine. While the world’s press scrambled to find out what on earth he was talking about, the Piemontesi of the area all around the Crivelli vineyards, north of Asti and Alessandria, smiled with quiet satisfaction and appreciation that they had suddenly and unexpectedly acquired a new champion, someone with impeccable credentials no less.
The reason for the new Pope’s affection for this wine was that, though born and raised in Argentina, his family was originally Piemontese from the town of Portacomaro, just down the road from Castagnole Monferrato in fact. His grandfather owned a vineyard nearby producing Grignolino and the young Jorge Bergoglio grew up in Buenos Aires enjoying frequent shipments of this wine from Piedmont.
The most authoritative expert on Italy’s indigenous grape varieties, Ian D’Agata, who spent 13 years tramping through vineyards all across the country while researching his opus magnum ‘Native Wine Grapes of Italy’, wrote recently: “over the years I have met many talented wine people, and one such person that sticks most in my mind is Crivelli. His Ruchè is a marvellous wine and if not the best single Ruchè wine then one of the two or three best, and his Grignolino d’Asti is even better, simply one of the most delightful and delicious light red wines of Italy”. He went on to say that “Crivelli is little-known to the general public but in fact, just about every grape he works with he manages to turn into a wine that if not the best in its category is certainly in the top three”.
Other than being in agreement with that sentiment, my main observation is that he refers only to Crivelli and does not qualify it with the addition of a first name. The article from which the quotation was taken listed a wide geographical variety of mostly 2019 Italian wines that he was recommending so it is clearly a confirmation of the quality of Crivelli wines currently being made by Jonathan because for several years now he has been in charge of winemaking operations while his father concentrates on marketing and sales.
We made the three hour drive to Castagnole Monferrato from Lucca early one morning at the end of October when temperatures in Tuscany were still pleasantly summery, comfortably in the 70s and autumn just approaching its zenith. Later that same day in Piedmont at only 800 feet of elevation the mercury never rose above 45 degrees, autumn was already fading into winter and the famous fog (nebbia) of Piedmont for which the most renowned grape of Piedmont, nebbiolo, is named, refused to lift at all.
Welcome to the north of Italy I guess, so unfortunately there are no photographs here of the rolling vine covered hills of Castagnole with the Alps rising up steeply in the background, but Jonathan and his charming wife Sara described their daily vista with such clarity and emotion that we pledged to return when clear skies allow us to fully appreciate this unique and less travelled wine country.
However, the change of season after the harvest when the fog rolls in heralds the start of truffle hunting in Piedmont, beginning with the highly aromatic and much sought after white truffle. And it came as no surprise to us that people as closely connected to the land as the Crivelli family know exactly where to find them and the freshly dug up ones in the photos above had that delicious and unmistakably powerful aroma that only the best quality tartufi possess.
Jonathan Crivelli is ‘old school’ in the best sense of the term. Someone who we warmed to immediately because he’s clearly at his happiest in the vineyard, can’t be bothered with publicity and I couldn’t even find a single entry for Crivelli in any of the various thick Italian wine guides that we use as our primary reference sources. Just tracking him down was difficult but these are always the people we most enjoy meeting.
He lets his wine do all the talking and having started exporting to European and American markets way back in 1990 when Ruchè was barely even mentioned in Piedmont itself, Crivelli now has a loyal and well established following among discerning wine drinkers both inside and outside Italy. That must be why the back of his labels are written entirely in English.
Jonathan is also now a man of considerable experience having known from an early age that this was his future path and he holds strong opinions formed by this experience as well as the irreplaceable knowledge that can only be acquired by decades of seeing how these wines develop over time.
Together with his father they have at one time or another tried every type of container for their wines and for them stainless steel is the only one that really works, which is why he is adamantly opposed to the introduction of a wood-aged Ruchè riserva proposed by the local wine Consortium.
He is also very critical of any new expansion into unsuitable locations within the DOCG because Ruchè is an aromatic grape variety that to show at its best requires soils with a mixture of sand, clay and chalky limestone that are not too heavy.
These soils are present here but they are not everywhere and the location and aspect of the site have to be selected carefully. In fact even within his own acreage there are various sites that Jonathan won't plant to vines because they are less than ideal so he cultivates hazelnut trees instead, the fruit of which is sold to the local chocolate makers in Novi Ligure and turned into my favorite Italian chocolate bars.
The story of Italian wine is replete with examples of mistaken expansion into poorly suited areas and erroneous use of wood so when you come across a winemaker who understands these potential pitfalls and already owns one of the prime sites for these native grape varieties then look no further, just buy his wine every year and you’ll never be disappointed or succumb to someone else’s clever marketing story.
Marco Crivelli, as President of the local wine Consortium, was the person most responsible for obtaining the coveted DOCG designation in 2010 so naturally Jonathan has a deep personal as well as professional interest in seeing that there are no short term financially driven decisions taken by the Consortium that will result in a reduction in the quality of Ruchè wines that proudly display DOCG on their labels.
The Crivelli enterprise remains very much a family business. Marco popped in to say hello as we were chatting with Jonathan and is clearly actively involved with customers. Sara has her own set of responsibilities within the winery and their eldest child Davide is being taught the business and has both a father and grandfather available to pass on their knowledge to him so he is a very fortunate young man. Together they can mostly handle the approximate 65,000 bottles of annual production themselves with a limited amount of outside help, mostly at harvest time when the labor intensive demands of completely manual grape picking require many more pairs of hands.
A few years ago with everything running well and as under control as viticulture ever can be, Jonathon planted a single row of Syrah grapes after a period of study as to its suitability with regard to soil and climate. And then as a result of one of those practical necessities of winemaking, he was forced to combine the Syrah juice with Ruchè in a barrique because there just wasn't enough fermented Syrah to fill it otherwise. And in a flash he had a new and interesting wine on his hands because this accidental 50/50 blend met with enthusiastic customer approval and as we couldn’t persuade him to part with his last bottle of Agoghè on the display shelf we left empty-handed, without even having tasted it. Another reason to return.
Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato 2020 - DOCG (15% alcohol)
My first ever Ruchè and only Elena's second so our opinion here is formed by immediate impressions without any real expectation of what it should taste like. This wine will divide people into two camps for sure because it has quite pronounced and unusual characteristics. Normally when someone begins a description in that manner it's code for something the writer would rather crawl through a sewer to avoid having to drink again, but not in my case however because I really liked this wine and over the course of two evenings I liked it more and more. Sophisticated flavors are often like that.
On the nose there's an intoxicating aroma of roses with herbs, spices and dried fruit in the background and just a hint of cherries. Describing the taste is harder and at the risk of confusing anyone who didn't grow up in England, this reminds me of an unsweetened version of dandelion & burdock (an English drink from the Middle Ages combining fermented dandelions and burdock roots) particularly the Ruchè's pleasant slight bitterness on the finish. Despite the generalisations that I've read about Ruchè, the Crivelli version is not at all tannic or particularly acidic despite this bottle being extremely young. We decanted it for an hour beforehand and found it very balanced with plenty of red and black fruit. And the second evening it was even better.
Hats off to Don Cauda and to Crivelli padre e figlio. A lovely wine for 13 euros and if you're our sort of curious wine drinker, track down a bottle and try it for yourself.
Grignolino d’Asti 2020 - DOC (13.5% alcohol)
Grignolino is a lighter more delicate type of Piedmont red wine, especially compared with the more aggressively acidic Barbera and tannic Nebbiolo wines and it is typically ready to drink very young.
This is a beautiful wine to look at in the glass. Bright ruby red, even scarlet I would say. Red fruits on the nose with a touch of Mediterranean herbs. On the palate it's immediately appealing with no tannin and no aggressive acidity but good fruit and a little herbal bitterness. Not a wine to be chilled but a few degrees below room temperature is perfect and it can be enjoyed with or without food. It may be a light red wine for Piedmont but it's certainly not a rosè type of wine. Italy is not overly blessed with lighter red wines that can be enjoyed as soon as they're bottled so this fills a gap for us. Very good value at 10 euros.
Barbera d’Asti Collina La Morra 2020 - DOCG (15% alcohol)
I was sure that a Barbera as young as this was going to be hard work with lots of rough edges but not a bit of it. The nose is a little subdued straight after pulling the cork but on the palate it's a cascade of bright red and black fruits. Very fresh with the natural high acidity of the Barbera grape softened by the use of large oak botti. I'm not sure I've ever called a wine with 15% alcohol 'light' but the freshness makes it seem that way. This is a gorgeous wine that can be drunk very young with hardly a trace of tannin. At 9 euros this goes straight onto the list of top red wine values in the whole of Italy.