Monferrato: a region you should know about.
If you would like to read Dan's almanac on the wonderful people, wines and geography of Monferrato over a glass of wine - our Monferrato Pack includes four wines from the region.
If you were tasked with the job to stream a wine region Netflix-style, Monferrato might just be your guaranteed best-for-the-money subscription. Myriad creative voices, binge-able wines and immersive original content pedigrees the area. Scrolling through the categories of this poorly-known region confirms that Monferrato eschews formulaic wines, opting instead to flex oenosumptious algorithms and hyper-personal storylines to spit out a panoply of wine styles we don’t dare spit out when tasting. Monferrato promises relatable wines that speak the stories of the hands that made them. But can they meritoriously supplant the Langhe’s cause célèbre for quality of DOC/DOCGs? And will there be any more excessively-sized words in this show? Let’s look inside...
Monferrato, as seen by the roots
This episode tells the tale of why Monferrato wines trend berry, structured and mineral.
Grab your popcorn, because the relevant “modern” bits of Monferrato’s geologic and geographic action movie start a mere 24 million years ago with a fun little cinematic moment we like to call a ‘prolonged Calcium-rich ultramafic plagioclase feldspar effusion’...and thus the Piemontese continental mass was birthed. About 9 million years ago, in a literal twist of the plot, our noted chunk of continent twists and splits, separating the future Alps from the future Apennines. A valley forms in the middle, within which a shallow sea grows as the Mediterranean flows into the rift. Under the surface of this warm shallow sea, marine creatures with limey exoskeletons and cool names such as Bryozoans and Foraminifera thrive, party, and then sadly die from too much fun; eventually sinking to the bottom in their billions, forming a growing sediment of future limestone. At the same time as these deepening limestone sediments form at the bottom of this novel sea, the mountains on both sides continue to rise, in a process labelled with a just-as-cool (and not-dirty-but-it-sure-sounds-like-it) name of ‘synorogeny’.
Eventually the mountain-forming orogeny drains the sea away, leaving exposed the fertile valley from which tonight’s pasta likely came, a broad sweep of delicious plains known as the Po River Valley, home today to wheat, salami, and Parmesan cheese. To the south rise the myriad hills of our beloved Monferrato and Langhe regions built of those very same limestone marine sediments.
A selection of prominent rivers - Tanaro, Bormida, Scrivia - have etched these limestone-rolling hills into convenient divisions.
- Ringing the upper Tanaro is the Langhe, most famous for Barolo, Barbaresco, and some really cool castles.
- To the south, east and north of the middle Tanaro lies Monferrato, a much larger zone of southern Piemonte that reaches from the Po in the north to Liguria in the south.
Stay with us now as we graphically chop Monferrato up...
- The northern Monferrato is known as the Basso Monferrato, as these hills north of the Tanaro aren’t as pointy or elevated as those south of the Tanaro.
- Head south and uphill, you’ll head over the River Bormida up into the Alto Monferrato, the highest hills along the southern edge of Piemonte, a branch of the Apennine Mountains which form Italy’s “spine”. From up here you can stare down the descent to Liguria, home of fried sardines and some funky big-stone beaches.
Here is where our pilot episode resolves, setting the scene for Episode 2. Cue the sped-up footage compressing a couple million years into a few seconds, and we find ourselves in placid serenity, wide-stanced in a vignette of thinly-sliced forested hills fogged-in by elevation and the serendipitous rings of mountain. Today’s protagonists here - the grapevines - dig their curious roots into the clay, slicing down montmorillonite cracks, seeking ancient moisture amongst the long-decayed microfossils in the heavily-weathering limestone bedrock. These soils have long abandoned the raw and tannic potential of our ultramafic plagioclase blah-blah for the spongey alkaline gentility of this softer calcareous marl, a beauty spa of soil that creates wines of fruit-bound delicacy, perfume and that elusive ‘minerality’ which hasn’t yet been quantified by scientists.
On to episode 2...
Monferrato, as felt by the leaves
This episode is a long-take of a year in the life of a single vine, fixed to the earth in which it never asked to be planted.
Winter in Monferrato bring bleaks vistas of hanging grey skies that blur the horizons end-to-end. Fields of wheat stubble disappear into fuzzy boundaries of green or grey, and creeks bubble with waters on the move. Forests lie dormant, a brooding mix of twisted grey branches and the darkest of evergreens, huddling together for warmth as mists swirl in and out, occasionally revealing an even darker towering shadow of a dormant hilltop castle. Across the Tanaro, where the forests grow and thicken skywards, where the sloping vineyards struggle to avoid slipping into the ravines below, occasional snow blankets the ground about the stone houses and courtyards of the good folk of Piemonte. Peppering every curve and pocket of the tiny winding roads, each stone house reveals the waiting warmth inside, the laughter of contented families, the orange glow of fireplaces and the yellow of inside lights just a tiny bit too dim. Deep inside their cellars, raw unfulfilled proto-wines are resting in large format botés, semi-frozen in time, patiently waiting out the prolonged intervals required by the Consorzio to achieve their future DOC status. Meanwhile out in the fog, the snow, the drizzle and the drab, our vine lies deeply dormant, almost forgotten for most of winter, oblivious to the chattering of labourers and the whir of pruning shears rudely chopping off its fingers.
The first of spring brings cloudbreaks revealing stunning patches of blue amid bolts of bright sun slicing the chilly air, swarms of tittering birds, and the threat of frost. Storms are plentiful in spring, topping up the soil moisture beneath our awakening vine, who begs for more, the rains being the only water resource available to them all year - as irrigation is forbidden across Monferrato’s vineyards. With fresh green leaves creeping skyward, tractors crawl up and down impossible slopes of light-grey mud, tending to our vine. Our vine’s thoughts drift towards reproduction as hormones flowing equally from the roots and the tips meet right in the middle, forcing our vine to helplessly open up hundreds of flowers along complicatingly-branched inflorescences, as a useless but heady perfume wafts out into the world. In a tender scene, microscopic pollen grains grow through tiny openings towards the ovule, a union is made, and each berry sets itself to eventually become the grapes of these indulgent and brooding wines.
Summer is anyone’s game here, with no two seasons the same. Equally our vine could experience pleasant days, gentle breezes, scorching sun, hailstorms, mini-tornadoes, dumping rain, and every combination thereof. With plenty of these vines well over a hundred years old, these vines have seen it all before, many, many times.
Shortening days and cooler nights signal the end of summer, and the start of harvest. Human activity blurs the vista, whilst all about our vine the vineyard floor is littered with that pervasive symbol of harvest in Piemonte, the red picking bucket. First to go are the berries destined for sparkling sweet wines, Moscato and Brachetto. From here, as shadows lengthen further and nights get colder still, all kinds of whites and reds make their way in endless progression to the wooden doors of nearby wineries and caves. Our vine waits patiently as its grapes haven’t finished ripening just yet.
As autumn descends, so does the sky. Out goes the blue, replaced by a persistent heavy deck of low-resolution whitish-grey. Both cloud and fog, yet not quite either, this heavy cloak lies upon the skies and often upon the vines themselves, most notably for most of October. Dressed like a villain, it’s actually got a name - nebbia - and its arrival signals that it’s finally time for our vine to give up its grapes, for our vine is named after the nebbia: Nebbiolo, the last of the wines to be harvested, just as the first frosts lay waste to the distinctly yellow leaves of our friend.
What the locals see
This episode tells the tale of why Monferrato wines possess character and reflect long-forgotten patience.
It’s no small accident that the Slow Food Movement was born near here. The humans who populate southern Piemonte have shaped and been shaped by sparing the moment, in the moment, gracefully, over time. “Tranquillo!” is a familiar trope, whilst attention to viticulture is recorded monumentally in the sheer density of vineyard across this entire landscape. We’ve always been impressed by Italy’s desire to preserve their treasures - wine, food, antiquities, engineering - and the unfair allocation of DOC’s and DOCG’s peppering Monferrato underscores this human-led ambulatory perfection towards wine.
Italy is home to the lion’s share of indigenous grapevines, and it’s because their humans have dared to take the time to perfect that which was already pretty great. Monferrato today isn’t that distanced from the Monferrato of the past, except of course today there is a much lower chance that the House of Savoy and the House of Gonzaga will engage in a battle with flaming arrows and boiling oil about you whilst you’re enjoying your Grignolino and Bagna Cauda in a local castle’s wine bar.
Ancient villages, seemingly untouched by time, pepper this frolicking hilly landscape everywhere, interspersed by continuous vineyards on impossible slopes, only to be broken by remnants of extant forest that hide the mysterious Albeisa white truffle to all but the most cunning trifulau. Inside these villages reside the kindest and most welcoming of people, tied to the very hillside on which they grow their food and wines for generations.
These are the faces on whom we zoom in. Shaped by sun, wind, time, and contentment, we are met with smiles, laughter, wrinkles, more smiles, lots of “Allora!”s, and a story or seven over a 4 hour meal of food and wine that hasn’t travelled more than 100 meters nor changed in 100 years, to be there in front of you. They are proud of their craft and carry the knowledge of a dozen generations having lived in that very footprint.
[Slow pan out, belly very full]
[Takes a long nap for the afternoon]
Bagna Cauda - complexity at its simplest
The "Red" Wedding
In this thrilling conclusion, there’s some laughter, some tragedy, and wine everywhere in a concluding outro painted red and white.
It’s easy to fall in love with wine here. In fact, it might be a requirement of one’s visit. We did - well actually, not here. Cue the wavy lines of crossfade telling the viewer this next scene is a story from the past.
More than a decade ago, I was invited to Veneto in Italy’s Northeast to work with a local research facility, collaboratively-funded by a group of vine nurseries keen to improve the clonal genetics of a few of their most revered varieties. Clonal selection, propagation, viticultural analysis and microvinification was the order of the week, a rewarding and valuable opportunity few are offered. Cue to our final day, and we head up to Lake Garda to sit lakeside, eat local fish, drink some delightful wines, and laugh for hours as stories effused about us. It’s getting late - very late - when someone pulls out the aged Barolo. I ask (naively) “What’s that?” It’s Nebbiolo, but not like I had ever seen before. Amazed, I asked (again naively) if we can go visit the vineyards from whence this comes. The answer was a resounding yes, for the warmth of Italians to share their pride has no bounds, followed by a surprising “Let’s go right now”.
So we set off late at night to drive across the top of the country. That night, just as great TV would have it, we drove through not one but two monster hail storms, fought blackness for hours, until suddenly very twisty roads ate us up just as the caliginous night dissolved into a blueish glow. We pulled around the 95th sharp corner of those impossibly narrow partially-paved carriageways and rolled to a gravelly stop, as a yellow finger of light cracked open the curtain of day, warming our eyes to the majesty of a dew-covered vineyard refracting a million sundrops beneath the sombre presence of a brooding castle. This was Barolo. And it was magical.
It wasn’t long before we came back, this time with a plan and a sense of purpose, and our 18-month old daughter who we learned really likes white truffles. We were going to make Barolo wine. 14 intense, awkward, mind-messing, protracted, agonising, sun-baked, effluvious negotiations later, we finally succeeded in striking a contract to make our Barolo off those esteemed hills.
But this story isn’t about the Langhe. We got 4 good years in, before tragedy struck - the market for Barolo got so hot, that we were no longer welcome. 4 great vintages, 4 faces of Nebbiolo, none the same.
We parted ways with our beloved Barolo, mourning the death of the opportunity. Luckily, our esteemed colleagues had become our friends and our family, so we shifted operations just 40 kms to the east and deep into the hills to continue our exploration and fascination with the wines of Monferrato. We proposed to make our wines from a collective conscious, a marriage of our experience and their local knowledge, enhanced through sharing ideas of winemaking to eco-conscious farming to gastronomy.
[Scene fades to white, back to today]
Monferrato is for the oenocurious, where winemaking is just beginning to peel back the layers of flavour chemistry in rare and under-appreciated vinous actors, character roles bleeding versatile and award-worthy.
These wines are trending. Pedantically convoluted regulations of the various Consorzios continue to codify them into terrific and under-appreciated DOC / DOCG appellations such as Ruché di Castagnole Monferrato, Cortese Dell’Alto Monferrato, Grignolino del Monferrato Casalese, the original (and by far the best) Moscato D’Asti, Brachetto D’Acqui, Freisa, Nizza, Nebbiolo Monferrato, Cisterna d’Asti, and Timorasso, a personal favourite, to name but just a few*. The bulk of Piemonte’s appellate wines reside here in Monferrato’s zones. The spectrum of their character runs from the most tangential sparkling sweet red wines, to boney perfumed whites awaiting their moment on the big stage, to pale reds whose dainty appearance belie their lithic superpowers, to ethereal inky pleasuredoms of the loftiest ambition, to spicy strawberry-driven tantalisers, to wines of such classic brick- and-berry austerity they demand a triple-take.........and if we could, we’d make one of everything.
The list of hits is dozens deep. You’ll never be bored of wine in Monferrato, and you’ll never tire of the characters who got them there.
“That’s what I do: I drink and I know things.”
—Tyrion on how he knows dragons won’t fare well in captivity (his reason’s good enough for us)
Wines of Monferrato:
Ruché di Castagnole Monferrato - rose-perfumed, spicy, and quite tannic red wine; sparsely- planted
Cortese Dell’Alto Monferrato - citrus-aromatic white with almond and saffron characters, good acid and finish, lends itself well to skin contact
Grignolino del Monferrato Casalese - ancient local variety, acidic pale light red wine with herbal/floral aroma, can trend tannic
Nebbiolo - Rules the region, and rivals only Pinot Noir in its ability to amplify the subtlety of soils and microclimate in its wines, which are typically light in colour, acidic, tannic, ageworthy, showing any combination of roses, berries, fresh herbs, dried flowers, cherries, violets, liquorice, resin, brick, petrichor...
Nebbiolo Monferrato - reflecting elevation and cooler microclimate, 100%
Nebbiolo of dried cherry, fresh berries, perfumed, aromatic, notable acidity
Freisa - Intensely strawberry-and raspberry-driven light pink wine with some tannin, made dry or sweet, still or sparkling
Moscato D’Asti - lightly-sparkling, sweet aromatic white of honey, muscat, and pear aromas, delicate body, low alcohol
Brachetto D’Acqui - lightly-sparkling, sweet aromatic red of berry and herb aromas, delicate body, low alcohol
Nizza - the “Barolo” of Barbera, a new DOCG designation for the highest quality level of Barbara from a small region in its heartland, inky dark-berry characters with considerable weight
Cisterna d’Asti - dominated by the variety Croatina, dark colour, fruit-driven, approachable
Timorasso - floral, citrus-driven aromatic and nutty white requiring extensive on-lees contact, ageable and complex
Written by Dan Fischl