Fifty years ago, being born into a farming family in rural Italy and growing up amongst a few acres of vines was probably not something that held the promise of a particularly interesting life or elicited any envy from your friends. Caring for vineyards all year round only to see the fruits of your labor blended with everyone else’s grapes and turned into mediocre wine by the local Cantina Sociale was not the sort of career path to put a spring in your step every morning.
But over the last 20 years as local winemakers have started to demonstrate the amazing potential of indigenous grape varieties in previously unfashionable locations, many of which contain old neglected vineyards, every passionate wine drinker has harbored a secret desire to stroll through their own vineyards and make their own wine.
Few people take the plunge however because as the old saying goes, the way to make a small fortune in wine is to start with a large fortune. To avoid that outcome, owning a vineyard has to be a business not a hobby and requires a healthy business acumen to balance the dream.
Paolo Baretta and Lidia Carbonetti were looking for a complete change of lifestyle after twenty years working in the financial sector in Milan but their dream was not to own a winery and employ experts to do everything in the style of gentlemen farmers but instead to become experts themselves and manage all the operations personally.
Furthermore, they were both determined to make not just organic wines but the most natural wines possible and every decision and every step in the process from vine to glass had to respect this overriding priority. Their philosophy stems from a belief that the less intervention the better, both in the vineyard and the cellar. But being radical in winemaking doesn't mean being casual about the process, as Paolo was keen to emphasize:
"Siamo estremisti radicali, ma non siamo approssimativi"
In 2008 they began their search for a suitable property and it was an underutilized patch of old vineyards of Dolcetto, Barbera and Cortese that caught their eye in Carpeneto, some of which dated as far back as 1955 with most of the rest on the 10 acre property planted before 1986.
Carpeneto is a small village at an elevation of a thousand feet located in the Alto Monferrato hills, which are in the south central part of Piedmont in the new Ovada DOCG zone. The town of Ovada itself is just a few miles away and this area of Piedmont historically looks south to the sea because the border with Liguria is very close and the Italian city of Genoa is much closer than Milan or Turin, being only 33 miles away. South of Ovada you quickly run into the higher elevations of the western Apennines so the 21 notable wineries of the Ovada DOCG are mostly to be found in a quite small area north and west of the town.
Buying the property in 2008 was the easy part, but then they were committed and had to become real viticulturists and winemakers. Lidia went back to University for three years to earn a Master’s degree in oenology while Paolo threw out all the chemicals and most of the machinery that came with the winery and started rejuvenating the old vineyards using a legumes based sovescio (the practice of green manuring) which releases nitrogen when ploughed under, probably the single most important nutrient for healthy vines.
For the first few years with so much going on they did little actual winemaking and in 2011-12 as Lidia was finishing her studies they completed a brand new multi-level cellar (below). Designed in fact by Lidia herself as her final project for the Oenology Master’s program it incorporates their philosophy on recycling, energy efficiency (no need for temperature controlled fermentation or aging) and water reclamation. It also allowed them to start their winemaking with completely fresh surfaces for the wild yeasts to populate thereby enabling spontaneous fermentation for all their wines.
Their winemaking philosophy precludes filtration, fining, clarification and temperature control and their extremely limited use of sulfites typically results in wines with less than 10 mg per liter, disclosed very precisely on all their labels.
Rocco di Carpeneto is certified organic and a member of the natural wine movement which started in France only 20 years ago and continues to grow rapidly. As well as the many more obvious requirements of natural wine, ie manual harvesting, no chemical sprays or additives and only native yeasts etc, the issue of sulfites is where things always seem to get complicated and controversial and I still don't really understand why this is always the battleground when there's so much more sulfur dioxide in packaged food products, including simple things like dried fruit.
Staying below 10mg/L as this winery does is well within any definition of natural wine which generally permits a range of 10-40 mg/L and only when used as a preservative at the bottling stage. One of the organizations to which they belong is Raw Wine, started by Isabelle Legeron (France's only female Master of Wine) which in fact permits up to 70 mg/L of sulfites but is remarkably inflexible in many of its other rules. The EU permitted maximums for organic certification are much higher at 150 mg/L for red wines and 200 mg/L for white wines. Most bottles of wine will simply disclose on their labels whether they contain sulfites or not but Lidia's labels are full of all sorts of useful information, including the specific quantity of sulfites in that particular bottle.
In the cellar they use a variety of containers because they produce a very wide range of red, white and sparkling wines, all of which employ only native Piedmont grapes. Stainless steel is used exclusively for fermentation, and aging takes place for most of the reds in old oak casks or barriques as well as terracotta amphorae. The white wines are typically aged in acacia wood.
Now, almost 10 years after the serious winemaking started here, their vineyards extend to 30 acres and their vines have got older and happier on their diet of green legumes, producing better fruit and Lidia has acquired plenty of winemaking experience. Their current production of about 40,000 bottles per annum now reach thirsty consumers in 18 different countries and such is the popularity of their wines that there were no white wines left for us to either taste or buy. A high quality problem for Paolo and Lidia I would say.
Paolo and Lidia are unconventional people who have a slightly idiosyncratic approach to aspects of their business, one of which is often to not specify clearly the type of grape used for some of their red wines. Think of it as a blind tasting with no answers. It achieves one thing however, which is to eliminate people's preconceptions about certain grape varieties. (A short time after I wrote this, as we were drinking our way through all the bottles, Elena pointed out that there are 3 large letters on the back of the bottle so it shouldn't be too hard to work out what the grapes are. She's right of course, but in my defense if I can miss it then others can too). The other slightly unusual thing you notice about their wine is that they mostly prefer to do their own thing rather than conform to the Ovada DOCG requirements so many of their wines are deliberately declassified.
As a result, of the following 9 wines that were available for us to buy during our visit only two are DOCG and most of the rest are mono-varietals from one of the following native Piedmont varieties: Barbera, Nebbiolo, Freisa, Dolcetto and Albarossa. Their website also provides good information on each wine with regard to the name and age of the specific vineyard as this is demonstrative of their individual cru approach to winemaking.
Andeira (lightly sparkling rosato made with Barbera grapes, 13% alcohol)
This was a little more frizzante than I expected given that it was sealed with a beer bottle cap so have a glass ready when you open it. Immediately appealing there's a fruity nose of wild strawberries and pink grapefruit but on the palate it's briskly dry and ever so slightly bitter. Paired perfectly with a mediterranean salad of chick peas, egg plant, tomatoes and cucumber. One of those wines that suddenly disappears because everyone likes it. Fairly priced at 13 euros.
Aur-Oura 2020 (9 months in concrete, from vineyards planted 1970-96, 9 mg/L sulfites, 14% alcohol)
This is a Dolcetto and it's a very good one because without any wood aging at all and despite being only a year old it is an immediately enjoyable wine with no hard edges. (The name of this wine in the local dialect means 'right now' so I guess they nailed that name!) There's a little funk on the nose that blows off quickly in the glass to reveal a jammy, plummy mouthful of ripe fruit and a little balsamic. Quite low acidity and only light traces of tannin make this a real pleasure to drink now. Excellent value at 12 euros.
Losna 2017 - Ovada DOCG (14 months in old tonneaux and barriques, 15% alcohol)
This Dolcetto is one of the very few DOCG classified wines in their lineup and it's showing very well after aging for 4 years. Notes of mature red fruit and slightly decaying dark flowers, the tannins are mostly well integrated and certainly with food not intrusive at all. Good acidity to balance the still bright fruit flavors, particularly cherry and a nice long finish. Good value at 13.50 euros.
Rapp 2018 (29 months in large botte, 15% alcohol)
BRB it says on the label so it must be Barbera. Another great food wine with invisible tannins but still vibrant acidity. Fruits, spices and quite intense both on the nose and the palate. Pair this with a classic ragù and it will sing for you. Excellent also on the second evening. Elena was in raptures (pun intended) with this wine and went as far as to say it was one of her favorite red wines of the entire year. As we will therefore need to buy more of it, happily it is a bargain at only 13.60 euros.
Rataraura 2019 (18 months in terracotta anfora, 13.5% alcohol)
This Barbera is a remarkably soft wine with good fruit but much reduced acidity which has to be due to the terracotta anfora aging. Too soft in many respects because it struggled to assert itself with food but a lovely wine to continue drinking at the end of the meal. Fully priced at 16 euros.
Reitemp 2016 (37 months in large botte, 15.5% alcohol)
This is from the original 1955 Barbera vineyard. The nose here is redolent of sweetly stewed plums but even after 3 years in large wooden barrels there's still plenty of acidity on the palate. But it's not a harsh young acidity, rather it's more in the direction of agrodolce because there's a little sweetness lurking here too. A very interesting and complex wine which shows a different side of the Barbera grape. It pared extremely well with a dish of bollito e mostarda di Cremona. Fairly priced at 16.50 euros
Ra Neira 2019 (22 months in old tonneaux and barriques, 13.5% alcohol)
NBL must stand for Nebbiolo. Much softer and a much lighter wine than all the Barbera and Dolcetto wines in the line-up. Straight out of the bottle this was very impressive with dark flowers, spices and abundant red fruits but it faded quite quickly. Perhaps wood is not the ideal aging vessel for this wine. Not the best value at 15 euros.
Steira 2019 - Ovada DOCG (22 months in old Burgundy barriques, 13.5% alcohol)
This is a remarkable Dolcetto in that it's in a great place at only two years old. No doubt the barriques did their job and the result is a round and balanced wine that is perfect with food. Notes of bitter cherries, rhubarb and also hints of nutmeg and bay leaf. There's still some tannin and acidity that you'll definitely notice without food, but Dolcetto is always a food wine so respect that. Fairly priced at 17 euros
Admura 2018 (22 months in terracotta anfora, 14% alcohol)
Albarossa is a crossing of Chatus and Barbera, developed in 1938 by Italian enologist, Professor Giovanni Dalmasso. This is quite a rare grape that we hadn't come across before. It produces the same purple wine as a young Syrah but there's so much acidity in this grape that it needs to be pared with very fatty foods to be enjoyable. It was hard to get past the acidity unfortunately and perhaps would have been better aged in wood rather than terracotta. It might just be a difficult grape to make great wine from, which would account for the very low acreage devoted to it.
Stop the press! For reasons that will become clear when our article on Daniele Parma of La Ricolla is published, we left half a bottle of the Admura open (without re-corking) for 24 hours because we have recently been told that terracotta-aged wines "make friends" with oxygen and are subsequently not easily spoiled by exposure to the air. A full day later we drank the remaining wine with a splendid all'amatriciana providing the requisite fat in the form of guanciale and pecorino cheese to balance the wine's acidity and came away with a much better opinion of this wine. Will I rush to buy more at 17 euros? Probably not, but I understand the wine better now and appreciate how much air it can take and what I should eat with it.