This past Wednesday during our tour of the Piedmont, Doug and I made the hour or so drive to the Orsolani winery, right near the Valle d’Aoste, from Alba. We were of course looking forward to our appointment, but we had no idea just what was in store for us.
We were greeted by winemaker Gianluigi Orsolani, and he began to tell us what he had planned for the day, but when we expressed interest in Carema, where their Nebbiolo, “Le Tabbie'” comes from, he immediately and graciously switched gears, and we hopped in his station wagon to make the drive to see the historic Nebbiolo vineyards in this region.
As you can see, these were completely jaw-dropping, and having an experienced guide like Gigi, as he is known, was invaluable. These old Nebbiolo vines are trained pergola style very, very high, an effort to keep the vines warm in this marginal wine climate. As you can see in the photo, the old concrete posts that hold up these elaborate trellises are taller than a lot of people, including me! After scrambling up the old stone steps to see higher and higher terraces of vineyards, Gigi very kindly led us back down using the road instead of making us climb back down on those (I use this term loosely) steps. Otherwise, the trip back down could have ended in disaster.
Then it was on to touring the winery and tasting. We went on an extensive tour of all of the traditional winemaking equipment. This place is old school! The highlight was the equipment used to disgorge and cork the sparkling wine made from Erbaluce here. Gigi disgorged a bottle right in front of us! We’d never seen that done by hand before, and we even got to taste it. Even without dosage, it was delicious – as fresh as it gets.
When it was time to taste, we were greeted by the patriarch of the family, who treated us to delicious cheeses and a traditional sausage made from potatoes blended with the meat mixture. Doug was so enamored of regional delicacy that I thought he might ask me to put what remained in my purse!
One of the fascinating things about a winery like Orsolani is that it shows the diversity of one single grape. Aside from their Carema Nebbiolo and an everyday red blend, all of Orsolani’s wines are made from the traditional white grape Erbaluce. Like the Loire Valley’s Chenin Blanc, Erbaluce is a fascinating regional grape that, while it doesn’t get as much attention as international varietals like Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio, is much more versatile.
We tasted the still whites, including La Rustia, which we’ll have on tasting this weekend. Crisp and clean, but at the same time an aromatic change of pace, this is a wonderful, affordable white that shows real regional character. Most interesting was the comparison we got to do between the finished bottles released to market that are fermented with the more reliable cultured yeast, and the ‘experimental’ wines that are being fermented with wild yeast. Though the wines fermented with cultured yeast feature bright, fresh, clean fruit flavors that are sure crowd pleasers, the wines fermented with traditional yeast produce wines with more minerality and secondary flavors. Both are wonderful, and Gigi said that they may someday blend the two.
The sparkling wines were also delicious, but what really blew us away were the sweet wines. The 2006 Sula was one of the most balanced, drinkable, and just flat-out scrumptious dessert wines we’ve ever had. Though it contains a whopping 185 grams of residual sugar per liter, you’d never know it to taste this balanced and poised wine. Stay tuned for that one!
The fun wasn’t over yet, as Gigi took us to a fabulous, traditional country restaurant where we tried bagna cauda, which we nicknamed ‘fish fondue.’ Like fondue, it’s served warm, but rather than melted cheese, the dip is made from anchovies, olive oil, garlic, and sometimes cream. You eat this delicious concoction with raw and lightly cooked vegetables and meat. Most delicious of all was the screamingly fresh cows’ milk cheese that you dipped into the already creamy, decadent anchovy mixture. Outrageous!
As if the day hadn’t been incredible enough, on the ride back, Gigi learned that Doug didn’t have a saber to use on sparkling wine. So, before we left, he gave him one! It made it back to the US and is now proudly on display at the shop. So far no one has been brave enough to use it, though.
Speaking of bravery, on the drive back we hit a freak snowstorm coming back into Alba, making the drive a little more interesting than we would have liked!
We can’t thank the Orsolani family, and especially Gigi, enough for the incredible, educational, and fun day we spent there. This kind of generosity and warmth of spirit is what makes the wine business so wonderful. What’s in the glass is important, but it’s really the people that make this job so rewarding.