In the province of Torino, pinned beneath the border to the Val d’Aosta sits the tiny DOC wine zone of Carema. In this northern clime, where ripening the picutener grape (a local form of the nebbiolo, from picciolo tenero, tender stem) is a constant challenge, vines grow on terraced hillsides along trellises which are supported by stone pillars to better expose the leaves to the sun. These pillars, along with the stone walls which reinforce the terraces, absorb the warmth of the sun and continue to radiate this warmth after the sun is gone, creating a microclimate in the vineyards in which the fickle nebbiolo grape can ripen just enough to produce lean, subtle and earthy wines with tremendous complexity. These are not wines for the cocktail party. The average modern wine drinker’s palate, more accustomed to the sweeter fruit found in Californian and Australian wines won’t immediately understand Carema. Its acidity can be quite bracing on its own, but pairing the wine with the richness of braised pork or veal can really be enlightening.
The local enthusiasm for Carema is manifested in the stubborn maintenance of these vineyards. Landslides from heavy winter rains, as well as the powerful winds in the Dora Baltea valley can rub out an entire vineyard, such that growers are constantly rebuilding their trellises and terraces.
The Carema DOC encompasses slightly less than 40 hectares of vineyard. That is less than one tenth of the total vineyard space in Barbaresco, which in turn is about a quarter of the space in Barolo. Many feel that if nature permitted a larger growing zone for Carema, it would be considered on of Italy’s greatest reds, but the limited supply of these wines makes it instead one of Italy’s best kept secrets.
Further south, in the lower hills of the Canavese glacial basin, the white erbaluce grape is grown for the production of Erbaluce di Caluso. There are many different takes on this DOC, some still and dry, some sparkling and some deliciously sweet. The drier versions are refreshing and elegant with mineral and citrus notes and the sparkling versions, while rare in our market can be bright and tart. The varietal really starts to strut though, when made either as a late harvest (weather permitting) or in the passito style, by which grapes are left to dry before pressing.
Finding these wines can be a challenge. Look for enlightened Italian Wine Merchants (pun intended) who stock an exciting and interesting selection of Italian wines, rather than the type who has an assortment twenty or so Pinot Grigio, and a few token reds on their shelves. The Ferrando winery makes some of the best and most readily available examples of these wines. Especially look for his Carema Etichetta Nera(black label), which is made from the best of his harvest and only in the best years, as well as his Erbaluce Passito “Solativo,” which is an absolutely delicious sweety. Another Carema producer to look for is the cooperative Produttori Nebbiolo di Carema winery. For Erbaluce, look also for Cieck or Orsolani, whose excellent wines exist in our market, even finding them requires a little hunting. It’s worth it.