Alessandra Bera has the same natural energy and vitality that characterize her family’s vineyards in Canelli, near Asti. She, and her brother, Gian Luigi, with help from their father, Vittorio, make wine from vineyards purchased by their ancestors from the Knights Templar of the Order of Malta in 1758. They are in the limited area that ideal for growing Moscato Bianco grapes for Moscato D’Asti, once one of the most precious wines in Europe.
Bera’s version is nothing like the cheap, industrial version that has flooded the market in the last thirty years. For centuries, Moscato D’Asti came only from this small area where every family had vines and competed to see who could make the best. Then, in the seventies, industrial practices spread, and farmers began selling their grapes in bulk. Quantity paid more than quality.
But Vittorio Bera Bera never followed the crowd. When he took over the estate from his father in 1964, he made a conscious choice to follow historic practices and favor quality over quantity. Bera Moscato D’Asti Spumante is as elegant as it was historically: fresh and crisp with light touch of sweetness. Why is it so different from the plonk that bears the same name?
First, the Bera vineyards are on a steep south facing slope (which can only be worked manually), with lots of ventilation and limestone rich soil that drains quickly and gives lots of minerality to the wine. Unlike neighboring areas like Barolo, the surrounding area has biodiversity with woods, fruit and nut trees, and other crops along with vineyards.
Even though the vineyard is on a hill, it is at relatively low altitude (200 meters), which is warm enough to allow the grapes to develop fully and have a high sugar content. The combination of high acidity in the grapes, minerality in the soil and enough sugar to give the wine body and structure is unique to this area.
Add to that the fact that Bera’s vines are 40-45 years old. (“No, we don’t have old vines,” Alessandra told me!) And, then, there is the family’s longstanding respect for the land and the vines. They have never used weed killers, pesticides, chemical products of any kind in the vineyard. They don’t trim the vines, but roll them gently along wires instead. This allows the plants to find their own equilibrium.
The vineyard is full of herbs like mint, flowers, and all kinds of vegetation.
The farm is certified organic and uses practices found in biodynamic agriculture like sovescio “green manure”, but as Alessandra says in this video, the soil is historically and naturally rich and full of vitality. She explains that a recent study documented all the richness and diversity of plants, insects and animals in the soil and in their vineyards whereas a conventional, industrial vineyard nearby had soil that was completely dead with only one type of spider (that typically lives in the desert). (Click on CC for English subtitles.)
Alessandra, her two children, her brother, Gian Luigi, who works the vineyards and manages the cellar, and Vittorio all live on the upper floors of the cascina (farmhouse) with the cellar running all along the main floor. There was no underground cellar for aging because the Moscato D’Asti was made in the fall, stored through the winter, then, sold in the spring.
As in the vineyard, Gian Luigi Bera uses no chemicals or industrial processes. Before the wine ferments spontaneously with indigenous yeasts, he sets must aside so that the second fermentation can occur naturally as well. No sugar or commercial yeasts are added. Fermentation occurs slowly and is blocked by chilling the wine.
Alessandra showed me the old part of the cellar with hooks in the ceiling where for hundreds of years large cloth sacks were hung. The wine was poured through the cloth to filter it and stop fermentation while there was residual sugar in the wine.
In the late 1940s, the “modern” method was developed whereby wine was poured into a vat about these spouts, which had large cloth sacks below them.
The filtered wine drained into this large marble vat.
The last thing Alessandra showed me in the cellar were two bottles of wine with unusual labels and even more unusual wine inside. Keep reading to find out what they are.
After seeing the vineyards and the cellar, I followed Alessandra up to her part of the house, which was once a hayloft. She left the farm and Canelli to go to university, then, to begin a career in international politics in Brussels. The farm and the land called her back, however. “These are my roots, and this is home,” she said.
She enthusiastically carried all the fresh food that she had bought at the market that morning. I watched as she unpacked and began preparing lunch for Vittorio, Gian Luigi and me.
First, she whipped up a goat cheese torte made with organic, local Robiola.
She pressed her dough into the pan, cut and laid out the cheese, poured in some cream…
Chopped up herbs from her garden…
And in no time, she was slicing the torte at the table.
We ate it with the Bera Bianchdùdùi Vino Bianco 2000, the first “surprise wine” and the larger of the Chinese symbol bottles pictured above, but shown here without a label. It was a dry Moscato Bianco, a “mistake” that occurred when one tank was forgotten and fermentation completed. The wine, 16 years old, was crazily fresh, elegant, aromatic and structured (13,5% alcohol. It was like sensual colors painted on the white canvas of the cheese torte.
The next course was a classic of Le Langhe, carne cruda condita (raw chopped beef with lemon, garlic, salt and pepper). That was followed by pasta in a sauce that Alessandra made from sausages and tomatoes. For these dishes, she poured Bera Ronco Malo Barbera D’Asti 2013 DOCG.
The grapes grow in north facing vineyards that, because of the shape of the hill, are cooler but still bathed in sunlight.
The same natural methods in the vineyard and cellar combined with the minerality of the soil give the wine vitality and a nice crispness that cleared our palates perfectly with the meat dishes.
Full from lunch, Alessandra and I took a walk to see the Knights of the Order of Malta convent that is just down the road. It was abandoned long ago but remains a reminder of the wealth and status of the Templars, who prized Moscato sparkling wine for centuries.
As I was leaving, Alessandra gave me the second “surprise” wine. It was a half bottles of Bera Tao Vino Bianco 1995, one of only 600 bottles made of a wine that can never be replicated because it “made itself”. In 1996, the Beras decide to try making a small batch of Moscato passito. As the grapes dried on the vine, they developed noble rot (botrytis). The Beras picked the grapes, pressed them and put the wine in demijohns under the stairs outside the cellar, where they were forgotten. Year after year, they were subjected to heat and cold, as is madeira wine. One day, Alessandra found the wine, assumed it was vinegar and took some up to the kitchen. But it wasn’t vinegar at all.
I brought it home to drink with friends. At sunset, the color of the wine perfectly matched the houses in the village. The wine was nectar from the gods. We drank it as a vino di meditazione with no food before dinner. It was slightly oxidized and very rich, but its freshness was astounding. I sat looking at the sea and was carried along on waves of the most elegant and intense range of aromas and flavors. The wine was the concentrated essence of all the vitality of a place and its history.
I’m already looking forward to going back to the Bera estate to try their other wines.
Find Bera wines on Wine Searcher
Az. Ag. Bera Vittorio & Figli
Canelli (Asti), Piemonte