Thursday, June 7, 2018

Carema: A Whole New World


I hadn't expected it. It took my breath away. It was almost a spiritual experience. And I can't think of a better way we could have spent our last day in Italy.

This past Monday, we were in Carema, a small village on the border between the regions of Piemonte and Valle d'Aosta. Or, rather, we were above Carema, high in the terraced vineyards that have for centuries produced a lighter version of Nebbiolo that is far less well-known than those produced in southern Piemonte, especially in Barolo and Barbaresco.

Before us was the village, nestled in the valley, with the mountains that form the valley of Aosta in the distance. On the slopes above the village, like the folds of a cascading carpet of bright emerald green, were the terraced vineyards. Though the above picture is dramatic, it does not fully capture the vista that stretched out before my eyes. It does not express the sense of place I felt, the wonder, the incredulity, the deep feeling of instant connection to a place I had never seen before.

Ever since I first started seriously studying northern Italian wines, I have felt a special affinity for what I call Italy's "Alpine Wines"--those produced on the northern fringes of Piemonte, in Valle d'Aosta, and in the central mountainous regions of Trentino and Alto Adige (also known as Sud Tirol). This affinity drove my desire to use our extra day after the conclusion of our Piemonte wine tour to head north from Turin with our guide and translator, Piermaria, to explore Carema and Valle d'Aosta.


The skies were threatening. We had given up hope of seeing the Alps in all their splendor, but we were still hoping that we wouldn't get rained on and would have at least some visibility of the mountains. We had three stops planned. The first was a visit to a wine co-operative in Carema. We would then go on to the town of Aosta for a bit of a tour and lunch, and we would conclude our day with a visit to Feudo di San Maurizio, a small winery in Sarre west of Aosta that specializes in production of wines from varieties primarily only grown in the region.

Map showing the location of Carema (identified by the red pin) in connection to Turin and Aosta.

I guess part of the reason I have felt affinity for mountain wines is that I love the mountains, a love that first stirred when Mark and I made our first cycling trip together in the fall of 2012 and which has grown since. This love, which I have come to more fully understand and appreciate in the last couple of years, is a large part of what fuels my desire to cycle; and I suppose it is only natural that I be drawn to wine producing areas that are defined by and enveloped in mountain majesty.

We grew excited as we got our first close-up views of terraced vineyards that use pergolas. This picture was taken in Settimo Vittone, south of Carema, as we were stopped on the road waiting for a semi to back into a small side road. The region uses pergolas to catch the maximum amount of sunlight and heat for the vines and to withstand the weight of winter snow. 

But ... I hadn't realized just what would await me in Carema, and it was only by luck--or fate--that I was able to glimpse the panoramic beauty of the village's vineyards nestled at the feet of towering mountains.


Upon our arrival at the Cantina dei Produttori Nebbiolo di Carema--the wine cooperative for the 60-some growers of Nebbiolo in the area--we were met by Gianpaolo, one of the producers, and Selena, a young woman who is one of only two people employed full-time by the cooperative. Gianpaolo asked if we'd like to go up into the vineyards prior to our tasting to a place that offered a panoramic view. That was a no-brainer. He suggested we go right away because it was threatening rain, so we got back in the car and followed him up the mountain.

"Oh. My. God!" I exclaimed as we climbed the switchbacks above the village and the views grew. "Oh. My. God!" After a few minutes, we pulled off the tiny road behind Gianpaolo's car and got out. I've seen some pretty spectacular views on my cycling trips, but what lay before me definitely rated near the top.

"This is unbelievable!" "This is amazing!" The exclamations kept coming. As I wrote above, it wasn't just the view. It was much more than that. What my eyes were seeing combined with what my heart was feeling to produce a experience that bordered on euphoria. As my friend, Mandy, who witnessed my reaction, pointed out to be later on the plane home, I was having a "Stendhal Syndrome" moment: " ... I was in a sort of ecstasy ... Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty ... I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations ... Everything spoke so vividly to my soul."



It was as if the hillsides were ablaze with green instead of red.




Gianpaolo with my friends, Lori and Mandy, and our translator/guide, Piermaria.

It was with some degree of difficulty that I stopped taking a picture of everything in sight and tried my best to listen to what Piermaria was saying as she translated for Gianpaolo. He explained that most, if not all, of the members of the Carema cooperative each had very small plots of vines and were hobby farmers who do not produce wine for a living. Most are retired, and they do this to keep the wine tradition of their community alive. Their wine, though not remotely as well-known as that made in Nebbiolo-producing areas in southern Piemonte, is nevertheless highly regarded and seen as a good value.

From the website of the cooperative, one learns that:
"Vine growing in the valley of Carema is a millenary tradition and what results from hard work is a powerful Red wine which has received many acknowledgements over the centuries. The bottler of Pope Paul III born Alessandro Farnese, the author of a wine guide dated 1539, defined this wine 'an excellent drink, perfect for princes and lords.' A 16th century treaty, the “De Vinis Italiae”, made reference to Carema as a wine served at the table of Popes, of the Dukes of Savoy and served as “wine for roast meat” to the French Royals. Time has certainly not weakened the character of this wine, defined by Mario Soldati “strong and likeable as the sun and the stone”.
Carema Riserva 2011

At this point, I should give credit where credit is due. My friend Mandy had been on the lookout on her travels last year for this Nebbiolo, and it was her interest that resulted in me purchasing a couple of bottles of Carema Riserva when I was in San Francisco in December. We shared a bottle at Christmastime, and it was our delight with the wine that prompted our visit as part of our Piemonte trip. All we knew at that time was that we wanted to visit the winery where this wine was made; we had no idea it was produced in such a place that is almost unworldly in its beauty.


After we had been talking with Gianpaolo for awhile and taking pictures, we saw a older-model Fiat Panda wending its way down the road to where we were gathered. The car pulled over and parked, and a wizened older man with a stooped back got out and walked over to us. Gianpaolo smiled and introduced us to this man--whose name I have forgotten--as another member of the cooperative. In fact, we had been gathered amongst his vines.

From one end of Italy to the other, one of the things that is universal is talking with one's hands.


The other gentleman invited us to go to one of his other vineyards where the older trellis supports were used, but the weather was looking increasingly threatening, and we were on a schedule, so we politely declined. As it turned out, no sooner had we returned to the winery for a tour and tasting than it began to rain heavily.

Large botti used for aging wine.

One of the co-op members carved this monumental plaque that hangs behind the tasting counter.

We sampled several wines as part of the tasting, including their Nebbiolo Classico and Riserva as well as their "Villanova," a delicious Nebbiolo sparkling rosato made in the "classic method" (like Champagne, with in-bottle fermentation). I bought a bottle of that, determined that I was going to fit it in my already-full suitcases, come hell or high water. I did, and it made it safely home.


We talked about of lot of things during the tasting. Selena and Gianpaolo said they didn't get a lot of tourists in. They told the story of how one tour guide brought a group once and was totally disappointed that the co-op winery didn't look like something in Sonoma. We also joked, only partly in jest, about volunteering to help with the harvest, in which everything is done by hand. The grapes are picked, then put in plastic boxes which are hung from the shoulders and walked up the steep terrace paths to the roads where trucks are waiting.


As time drew nigh for us to leave and head on to Aosta, I told Piermaria that I had a totally off-the-wall question I'd like her to pose to Selena and Gianpaolo. I had seen what appeared to be a Christmas ornament/decoration hanging from an interior window frame. Since I collect Christmas tree ornaments as souvenirs of places I visit, I asked if they might perhaps have one they could sell me. At first, they seemed astonished, but as Piermaria explained why I was interested--that it would be a souvenir of my visit to Carema--smiles lit up their faces, and they said they would ask a co-worker to check upstairs to see if there might be one there.

A few minutes later, he came back with one that, like the one in the above picture, features the label from their Carema Classico. I asked how much it would be. They laughed and said, "No, no. It is a gift." It turned out that Gianpaolo's wife had made the ornaments. He laughed and said, "I'll have to tell her she should make some more this year to sell at Christmastime."

Selena, me and Gianpaolo ... and the ornament

I was very touched by their gift. I think they genuinely appreciated our sincere interest in their wines and their winery. The sense of profound connection to this place that I had felt earlier as we had stood up in the vines looking out over the valley had only been strengthened as we talked and laughed with Selena and Gianpaolo and sampled their delicious wines. Earlier up in the vines, I had felt a geographical connection; now I felt connected to these people as well. I felt like I wanted to get to know them, and the place, better. Thus, the idea of helping with the harvest, though in some ways "off the wall," rooted itself in my mind. We'll see. For now, I'm just grateful for the experience.

To be continued ...

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