Did you know that there is another fantastic Nebbiolo-producing zone just a few kilometers northwest of both Barolo and Barbaresco? The only thing really dividing them is the Tanaro River, which today looks fairly serene and non-threatening. But that wasn’t always the case.
Geology shows that 250,000 years ago, a major earthquake shifted the course of the Tanaro River southeast towards the present-day city of Alba. The sudden flow changes of the river left in its wake steep and sandy fortress-like cliffs called rocche in Italian (or ròche in dialect). But the folklore of the area says that a demon came out of the Tanaro River and created the sheer cliffs and dramatic landscape that we see today.
Either way, the region I am referring to is called Roero. Not long ago, the global wine community mainly identified Roero with its white grape, Arneis. But in recent years, more and more of the wine world has recognized that Roero also produces high quality and age-worthy red wines made from Nebbiolo and Barbera.
While Roero is situated only a few kilometers from its famous cousins to the south, its soils are very different. In Barolo and Babaresco the soil is predominantly clay and limestone. Roero’s soil is composed largely of sand and sea fossil material (also varying amounts of clay and limestone in parts) and is considered younger than that of Barolo and Barbaresco. This sandy soil contributes a telltale fragrant bouquet found in most Roero wines. In the case of Nebbiolo you often find scents of citrus, vanilla, and rose; Barbera is usually characterized by bramble, forest, herbs, spice, and dark fruit.
Today the Roero zone is an intricate mix of cliffs, forests, farmlands, and vineyards. People often refer to it as “wild” because of both its ancient history and its more recent past during the 18th and 19th centuries involving witchcraft and bandits. Unlike the
“polished and sprawling fantasy land of the castle-topped hills in Langhe”, Roero is uncharted and less explained. For this reason, Roero is alluring to me and I am drawn to it.
While I’ve visited Roero many times, I am always aware that there is a lot more to explore. During my last trip to Piemonte (autumn 2013), I met a handful of new producers. But two in particular stood out from the rest. It wasn’t because their estate was the most beautiful, or because their wines necessarily surpassed the others. They stood out because they illuminated the rustic, untamed, and wild side of Roero—not a “partying” wild, but an authentic side of Roero: the actual lives of present day Roero winemakers. They struck me as real, genuine, and fun.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate a formal tasting in a well-appointed tasting room. I would be lying if I said I preferred to stand in the mud while contemplating fine wines. But sitting outside at a picnic table, next to the jar of indigenous yeast starter that the winemaker began the day before, because (as of yet) there—is—no—tasting—room, gives you a special taste of what is involved in making his wine. Doing a tasting in a family’s dining room on a weekend morning, before the winemaker runs off to his daughter’s soccer game, makes the experience undeniably sincere.
The guys behind the two wineries of which I am speaking, Valfaccenda and Pace, live and breathe their passions—and it’s contagious. They are genuine. They’re not just making a token appearance for praise and they haven’t sent anyone to meet you in their stead. They epitomize the most exceptional of Piemontese winemakers: they are just as comfortable on a tractor as they are swirling wine in fine glassware.
And what’s not fun about sitting outside with Luca Valfaccenda in the brisk wind, discussing landslides, hillside vineyards, and winery construction, at least when you’ve got a glass of wine in your hand? Joking around with the three guys behind Pace, Dino, Pietro, and Lorenzo—even if it is a partially understood mix of Italian and English—is the way it goes when you are in someone’s house and you’ve got a vertical of Arneis or Nebbiolo in front of you. Why wouldn’t it?
What I came to realize is that these are the exact elements that I experience when I am out “in the wild,” hiking or backpacking.
When I’m hiking through the forest, nothing around me is cultivated, controlled, or organized. I take what comes my way. It’s reality. The experience is genuine. It’s not like walking through a manicured flower garden in London. Not knowing what is around the next turn is fun. You are guaranteed a surprise, and usually, it will be a pleasant one.
So besides visiting wineries, I set out onto the wild pathways of Roero. In previous years my explorations sent me past the site where the Masca Micilina (witch named Micilina) was burned alive and where Francesco Delpero, the most famous of all bandits, committed the bloodiest homicide in recent history. But this time my goal was to find the largest chestnut tree in all of Piemonte, the Castagna Granda. The Sentiero della Castagna Granda (path of the large chestnut tree) led me for a couple of miles through farmlands, vineyards, and narrow forest pathways until suddenly I found myself upon a serene clearing, deep in the woods. I knew I had reached her.
Towering over other ancient chestnut trees, sits the 400 year old, 40 feet tall, Castgana Granda. Her base circumference is the most impressive of all, at 48 feet around!
Ascending out of the low chestnut meadow gave me some of the best views of the rocche across Santo Stefano Roero. Just northeast of the Santo Stefano Roero ridge, past Roero’s main city of Canale, is the little collina (hill) where the two wineries, Valfaccenda and Pace, both coincidentally sit in the borgata of Madonna di Loreto.
Like nearly everyone who makes wine in Piemonte, Luca Valfaccenda comes from a long line of winemakers in the area. In Roero, his family dates back to 1750. But in his case, he wasn’t handed land, nor was he given a winery. His father had to abandon the winemaking business when his health failed and Luca was still a young boy. But today, with a good education under his belt, and experience abroad, Luca has started anew, in the same location that his family has always been, Valle Faccenda, now called Valfaccenda.
The way I came to find him is two-fold. Although if it hadn’t happened this way, I am sure it would have happened another, given that his stylish, retro labels can now be spotted on nearly every enoteca (wine shop/bar) shelf in Piemonte.
When it comes to Roero wine, I always take the advice of my friend Giuliano, whose experince at Ristorante all’Enoteca in Canale allows him the opportunity to taste nearly everything from the area. When he introduced me to the Valfaccenda Roero (100% Nebbiolo), I thought I had better go check out the winery.
On a nearby day, I received a call from my dear friend Liliana, who was pouring Renato Corino wines for a Saturday tasting at Cantina Communale in La Morra. She told me that she had just met a girl, also a sommelier from the Bay Area, who was working harvest in Roero this fall. “Would I like to meet her?”
“Sure,” I said! I admit. I was curious. So I invited her to come tasting with me at Deltetto and Valfaccenda. And we discovered them together.†
Roero Arneis 2012. Roero Arneis DOCG. Arneis 100%. Sourced from two vineyards: 70% from the east-facing vineyard across the street in Valfaccenda in the Madonna di Loreto subzone close to Canale and 30% from a 60 year old vineyard in Santo Stefano Roero, a sandy vineyard with a southern exposure. The blend makes a dynamic wine. Maybe it was the cold and wind of the day but this Arneis smells refreshingly light and pure. On the palate, there are notes of hay and pear, but it is not shy on the finish. Aggressive spices keep it lingering on the tongue. ★
Roero 2011. Roero DOCG. Nebbiolo 100%. I believe this is Luca’s first Nebbiolo and especially for the first bottling, it is fabulous. The fruit comes from Valmaggiore, one of the best places for Nebbiolo in Roero. The wine rests in 500 L tonneaux where it undergoes malolactic fermentation for a few months following harvest. It is then bottled in January or February of the next year. So this one was bottled about 8 months before I tried it. Wild, fresh strawberries and cherries with notes of green fig. Lush and bright on the palate; a touch of silty tannins balance out the fresh and aromatic fruit. ★★
Arzigh 2012. A special, experimental bottling that Luca was kind enought to let us try. Arzigh in Piemontese dialect means “risk,” as making this wine was a risk. Here is why. This is 100% Arneis from the aforementioned 60 year old Santo Stefano Roero vineyard. But I guessed after tasting: it macerates sits on its skins (for 3-10 days). Doing this for white grapes can extract ephemeral aromas, flavors, and can give a unique body to the wine. Having a bit of experience with this now after visiting Alto Adige, Friuli, and Colli Tortonesi, where it is common, I could taste it pretty easily. Rich, ripe pear on the nose, but on the palate, a fino sherry quality of white flowers and toasted almonds. ★☆
One night during my travels, the opportunity presented itself to try many Roero wines (lucky me!) and out of the producers whom I did not yet not know, Pace stood out. The Arneis was great but the Pace Roero (100% Nebbiolo) was my favorite. So I booked a visit to the winery.
Two brothers, Gino and Pietro Negro, own Azienda Agricola Pace. Pace, in Italian, means “peace” but the winery is actually named after the site in which it sits. As I said before, within the borgata of Madonna di Loreto sit Valfaccenda, Pace, and another site called Mompellini. In addition to the two brothers, Pace has a third member of its team, the enologist, named Lorenzo. Together they manage 22 hectares of vineyards, mostly in Pace. They also maintain a small plot of Nebbiolo nearby to where Monchiero Carbone grows Nebbiolo for its wine, Srü (Roero DOCG), one of my favorite go-to Roero wines. The guys at Pace are friendly and full of information. I highly recommend adding them to your must-visit list in Piemonte.
During my visit we focused on verticals of Arneis and Nebbiolo. The Arneis rests in stainless steel on its lees for about 6-8 months before bottling. Age was evident as the vintages went further into the past, but none were unpleasant. I tend towards the lighter and fresher whites so I preferred 2012 and 2010 but someone else might prefer the older ones. Either way the quality is there.
Roero Arneis. 2012. Fresh and bright with scents of ground up limestone, green apple, and acacia; on the palate, honeydew melon, pear, and almond. ★★
Roero Arneis. 2010. Perfumed with tropical aromas. A little tart on the palate, lots of mineral but somehow I can still taste nuances of wildflower honey and spice. ★☆
Roero Arneis. 2009. Quite floral; a lot of vanilla. In the mouth this vintage seems almost vivace (very slightly sparkling). I’m not sure why. Some might see this as a fault but I find it extremely refreshing and I’ve noticed some of the Favorita from the area are made in this way. So, bonus! On the palate it seems a little sweeter than the younger ones but still maintains some youthful spice. ★
Roero Arneis. 2008. Scents of caramel, vanilla, and acacia flowers. Fruitiest and richest of the four.
The Nebbiolo for the Pace Roero Riserva ages for 1-1.5 years in barrique (French barrel), of which 30% is new, 30% is 1 year old, and 30% is 2 years old. The Nebbiolo is specially selected, varying by vintage, with roughly 80% from Pace and 20% from offsite (near the Nebbiolo for Srü, as I mentioned before). What stands out most to me about this wine is its purity in flavor and structure. In fact, I learned the Italian word for “purity” during our tasting: purezza. With a memory of Pace Nebbiolo in my mind, I don’t think I will forget it.
Roero. 2009. Roero Riserva DOCG. Nebbiolo 100%. Ripe red cherries, forest floor, sweet baking spices, cola, and a great deal of lovely rustic tannins. Purity at its best! ★★☆
Roero. 2008. Roero Riserva DOCG. Nebbiolo 100%. 2008 is a classic vintage for Nebbiolo across Barolo, Barbaresco, and Roero. The wines exhibit ephemeral aromas, notable fruit, and a serious structure, indicating a long life ahead. This was no outlier. Perfumed and delicate bouquet with tons of fresh strawberry on the mid-palate and firm tannins on the finish. (Tannins like the 2005 but fresher fruit.) ★★☆
Roero. 2007. Roero Riserva DOCG. Nebbiolo 100%. Oh lovely 2007! How alluring you are! Warm cherry pie, fresh roses, and vanilla bean—captivating fragrances make way for supple red fruit, a hint of mint, and a harmonious ending. ★★
Roero. 2006. Roero Riserva DOCG. Nebbiolo 100%. Bursting with sweet red cherries and autumn spice, but layered with refreshing minerals and the smell of deep underground cellar floor. Expressive and amazing. Ready now. Fully balanced. ★★★
Roero. 2005. Roero Riserva DOCG. Nebbiolo 100%. A little austere but not unlikeable. The most masculine of all the vintages: smoke, dust, gravel, and tar but also a good deal of ripe red berries. The chalky, dry tannins are a bit aggressive but it could still evolve in time. ★
At this point, I feel the need to point out some of the other outstanding Roero wines from my trip in the autumn of 2013—all outstanding wines, just didn’t make it into my story.
Deltetto Extra Brut Rose. Nebbiolo 50%, Pinot nero 50%. ★★★
Deltetto Riserva Braja 2009. Roero Riserva DOCG. Nebbiolo 100%. ★★★
Monchiero Carbone Cecu D’la Biunda 2012. Roero Arneis DOCG. Arneis 100%. ★★★
Monchiero Carbone Monbirone 2011. Barbera d’Alba DOC, Barbera 100%. ★★☆
Monchiero Carbone Srü 2010. Roero Riserva DOCG. Nebbiolo 100%. ★★☆
Monchiero Carbone Printi 2009. Roero Riserva DOCG. Nebbiolo 100%. ★★☆
Az. Agr. Negro Nicolon 2011. Barbera d’Alba DOC, Barbera 100%. ★★★
Az. Agr. Negro Sudisfa 2010. Roero Riserva DOCG. Nebbiolo 100%. ★★☆
Of course, I cannot wait to get back! Ma spero solo che loro mi aspettano …
† Come to find out, Erin used to be the wine manager at À Côté in Oakland, a wine bar I used to frequent. But it took a trip to Piemonte for us both to meet! We met again during our respective trips for some wine tasting in Barbaresco and again, finally in California, in San Francisco in December. Il mondo del vino è piccolo!