Proving once again the old adage that if you want something done properly you should do it yourself, the three Rosina sisters Paola, Francesca and Anna decided that to realize the true potential of their vineyards they would have to make the wine themselves. That wasn’t their original intention 21 years ago when they first bought a property in the Gavi DOC zone. It was their mother who wisely suggested that owning 5 acres of prime land in Monterotondo and not planting vines would be an unforgivable waste of a site that was ideal for the cultivation of the Cortese grape.
But even after following their mother’s advice and subsequently acquiring a further 32 acres, including existing vineyards of various ages, they outsourced the actual winemaking for the first few years as none of them had any cellar experience. Nor did they even have a business plan at the outset, perhaps for the best says Paola because had there been one the numbers on the spreadsheet would probably have dissuaded them from pressing ahead.
However the various professional backgrounds of the three of them were later to prove useful to a growing business.
After the first few vintages they really didn't feel like the quality of the wine fully reflected the potential of their vineyard sites and so, after the acquisition of a fully operational cantina at Tassarolo, they decided to plunge headlong into winemaking themselves.
It was a brave decision and now, with the passage of over 15 years, it’s something that Paola can smile about as she recounts those chaotic days of their first vintage, laughing as she describes having their oenologist, Massimo Azzolini, almost permanently at the end of the phone line when they were panicking about something or things didn’t seem to be going quite right.
Jumping in at the deep end was perhaps the fastest way to learn and they managed to avoid any real disasters during those years of apprenticeship. Each successive vintage furnished them with more knowledge and experience and when their wines started to win prizes, starting in 2013 with the Gambero Rosso Tre Bicchieri award, they also began to earn the respect of their initially skeptical Gavi neighbors, many of whom had been fully expecting them to fail.
The prizes and awards have continued to roll in, with several from the Slow Wine Guide in addition to Gambero Rosso, and praise too in the US with an article out of the blue a couple of years ago in the New York Times by its chief wine writer who included the 2018 INDI bottling in his list of 10 great bottles of Italian wine under $25. Paola attributes their success to being both patient and stubborn.
Our visit to La Mesma on a warm mid-September day coincided with the harvest. Despite the torrid summer heat and drought conditions across most of Italy this year, their grapes looked very healthy thanks to be some late rain in Piemonte that helped them fill out.
Apparently the high number of wasps milling around during the vendemmia this year is a sign of heavy winter snow to come and in Piemonte that is generally a good thing because the gradual melting in the Spring hydrates the soil much more efficiently than heavy rainfalls, which have a tendency to slide right off the hillsides without penetrating the clay soil down to the roots of the vines.
"Sotto la neve pane, sotto la pioggia fame" is an old country proverb of the Italian contadino that illustrates perfectly the advantage of snow over rain for many crops, vines included.
On the subject of vineyard soil, the area around Tassarolo is notable for its red clay (above) which is rich in iron and is more water retentive than the fractured calcareous soil of the Monterotondo location. As a general tendency the presence of calcium carbonate at Monterotondo brings forth more mineral notes in the wine whereas the Tassorolo flavors lean more towards fruitiness. Elevations in both areas range around an average of 1,000 feet.
Listening to Paola explain the practical winemaking philosophy at La Mesma it’s very clear straight away that although their approach is one of minimal intervention there is no dogma here. For example, when so many natural winemakers refuse to employ temperature control in the cellar (for reasons frankly that escape me) at La Mesma during fermentation they use evenly distributed refrigeration built into the glass-lined cement or stainless steel vessels to limit phenolic oxidation and better preserve the natural aroma of the grapes. Sulfites are added at the bottling stage but only in the minimum quantities necessary to ensure that the wine can travel safely to distant overseas markets.
La Mesma also has an interesting ongoing experiment that allows for a comparison between their wines made with the selected yeasts and those fermented with wild yeasts. Usually a winery will do one or the other but not both, but now with their INDI wine into its 7th year La Mesma is in a unique position to judge the difference between the two approaches because everything else in their winemaking process remains constant for both types of wine (except of course the specific vineyard sites).
The INDI wine comes from its own separate vineyard and by using a pied de cuve starter they can isolate the vineyard-specific wild yeasts so the fermentation proceeds using only the natural yeasts from that vineyard.
This pied de cuve process permits an already adapted yeast population that has initiated a clean fermentation to enter the entire fresh grape must from the same vineyard. In effect a safer, more efficient and completely natural method of spontaneous fermentation.
And while professional wine critics and natural wine enthusiasts these days are all gung-ho about wild yeasts I’m not sure that the vast majority of regular wine consumers care too much about the details of the process. They certainly care about organic farming, but once that box is ticked it’s all about how good the wine tastes and La Mesma is uniquely positioned to see if demand for their INDI wine outstrips their other wines by a sufficient margin to justify moving the entire range over to wild yeasts.
Over recent years we have visited many winemakers who use only selected yeasts and whose wines are both sensational and also very reliable, some of whom have experienced prior problems with wild yeasts and then switched back to selected, so it is by no means clear cut that one method is always and everywhere superior.
In the vineyard however the Rosina sisters have only one approach. They are firm believers in organic farming and are certified as such and they employ natural feeding for their vines using legumes for green manuring, known as sovescio.
Biodiversity has become an important aspect of growing healthy grapes and something that they take very seriously at La Mesma across their entire estate. Harvesting the grapes gently by hand is also key to their philosophy as we witnessed in person during our visit.
Their agronomist is Davide Ferrarese who we met last year at La Colombera and who also continues to apply his expertise at creating detailed geological maps of many of the wine zones of Piemonte.
Pruning is a subject that we never seem to discuss with winemakers but there is more to it than meets the eye and at La Mesma they follow the Simonit & Sirch system of pruning that protects the continuity of the natural sap flow through the vine and reduces the overall area of cut surfaces; this has the twin benefits of reducing the incidence of disease and prolonging the productive life of the vine.
The latest challenge in the vineyard is global warming, a problem for many winemakers today. Higher summer temperatures and prolonged drought has the potential to interfere with photosynthetic productivity and cell homeostasis, thus hampering growth and crop yield. One of the organic mitigations employed at La Mesma this year is the application of a kaolin clay based spray to protect the vines from the heat and excess luminosity. A safe and effective solution we've also seen used by organic olive oil producers for pest control.
Every possible type of Gavi wine is made by La Mesma and all of them are made 100% from the indigenous Cortese grape. Note that these wines are all quite delicate so the typical fridge temperature is often too cold to appreciate all of of their nuances.
(Many of the following wines can be purchased online in the USA from https://www.iolawines.com/ , a direct importer of French and Italian wines made exclusively by women winemakers).
Le Rose 2021 - Gavi DOCG (12.5% alcohol)
From the Tassarolo vineyards, fermentation and aging in stainless steel
In complete contrast to the Etichetta Gialla below, this shows much more of the classic lemony profile of the Cortese grape. It seems a little more punchy with a more pronounced flavor and we both came around to marginally preferring this wine; perhaps the heightened aroma characteristic of the Tassarolo vineyard is the reason. 6.50 euros at the winery is a great price.
Etichetta Gialla 2021 - Gavi DOCG (12.5% alcohol)
From the Monterotondo vineyards, fermentation and aging in stainless steel
White peach and orange blossom on the nose, followed by citrus notes and zest of apricot on the palate. Crisp, dry and refreshing with a long finish. A real thirst quencher that can happily be sipped without food. 9.50 euros in Italy.
Etichetta Nera 2020 - Gavi DOCG (13% alcohol)
From a 35 year old Monterotondo vineyard, fermentation and aging in concrete with 8 months on its lees.
Pale green gold in the glass, this has a precise laser-like nose of apple and lime that follows through on the palate in a very cleansing way. Crisp and well defined there's a notable saline minerality here from the calcareous soils of Monterotondo. Lots of fruit balanced by the correct amount of acidity and a lingering lip-smacking finish. A definite step up from the Etichetta Gialla, this is a very high quality wine at a bargain price of 13.00 euros in Italy
Vigna della Rovere Verde - Riserva 2018 - Gavi DOCG (13% alcohol)
From 50 year old vines in the Rovere Verde vineyard in Tassarolo, fermentation and aging (12 months) in concrete
Zest of orange on the nose with notes of perfumed honeysuckle, you are immediately put on notice that this is a richer and fuller wine than all the others in the La Mesma range. And so it proves in the glass with the apple and citrus flavors wrapped in a much more concentrated and more viscous wine. A very good wine indeed with a long satisfying finish that provides excellent value at 20.00 euros
INDI 2021 - Gavi DOCG (12.5%)
From a small vineyard in Monterotondo, stainless steel
Much more delicate on the nose than the Etichetta Nera but with the same saline minerality in evidence, reminiscent of a fine Chablis in many respects. It's still a little austere and reserved so perhaps needs a little more time to evolve fully. If this were a straight contest between the wild yeast of this INDI bottling and the selected yeasts of the Etichetta Nera then the Nera is the easy winner for us with the added benefit of being two euros less than the INDI, which is priced at 15.00 euros. The selected yeasts versus wild yeasts debate is far from over it would seem.
INDI Con le Bolle 2020 - Metodo Ancestrale
Col Fondo (12.5%)
Secondary fermentation in bottle with no disgorgement
Italian col fondo wines have so much more going on than a host of boring non vintage Champagnes that sell for four times the price and the La Mesma version is no exception. A very floral nose is followed by an immediate burst of kiwi fruit freshness and bitter almonds making for a fabulous aperitif or the perfect lunchtime wine. Give me this over a prosecco every time. 10.00 euros and worth every penny.
Spumante Metodo Classico - Gavi DOCG (13% alcohol)
Vintage 2015, Pas dosé
Yellow flowers on the nose and then a burst of flavor on the palate. Seven years of aging has made this spumante very smooth and silky on the tongue with notes of pear and bergamot and a hint of sage followed by a yeasty twang that comes from the extended lees contact. Still fresh with nice acidity it really revs up the appetite. A long finish makes for a very sophisticated aperitivo putting many vintage Champagnes to shame. A lovely wine for 25 euros.