Cascina Degli Ulivi in Piemonte: Humble Farm, Exceptional Wine

Stefano Bellotti’s biodynamic farm in Piemonte is a humble place that yields wines as exceptional as he is. They exude personality and authenticity distilled by intelligence and experience.

Some years ago, those characteristics drew Stefano into battles with authorities. He became an outspoken critic of bureaucratic rules that claim to protect the purity of wine but actually punish vintners like him, who are not using industrial methods. He has changed the classification on most of his wines from DOC or DOCG to Table Wine (Vino Rosso or Bianco). And, he is a leader in Renaissance Italia, affiliated with Nicholas Joly in France.

Even though he vastly prefers farming and winemaking to politics, he is featured in Jonathon Nossiter’s new film Natural Resistance

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On a late summer afternoon, I turned into the farm drive. Only five minutes before, I had been passing through the outlet malls of Serravalle off the highway between Milan and Genoa.

I was in another world, under a lace canopy of oak branches.
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The simple sign invites visitors in to the farm and the bed and breakfast,
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With its homey entrance…
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And summer camp style dining room for meals,

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And a few simple bedrooms, each with an inscription. This one says: “The trees, the leaves and all the birds last as long as they have strength to live.”
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Cascina deli Ulivi (Farmhouse of the Olive Trees) has been Stefano’s home since he was 18. At the end of that summer that year, he stayed behind at his parents’ farm. He wanted to harvest the grapes instead of driving an hour back to Genoa where his parents worked and he was finishing high school.

At that time, the farm only had one hectare of vineyards. Now there are 22 hectares (about 45 acres) of vines (native varieties primarily Cortese, Dolcetto, Barbera). (Note the rooster and hens running through.)
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10 hectares of other crops (tomatoes, potatoes, greens, leeks, etc.)
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(The vegetables I brought home.)
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About 1,000 fruit trees, honey bees…
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Ducks and geese…
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Sam, who roams free as if he were one of the farm dogs…
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Cattle…
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And dogs.
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Stefano’s philosophy of farming, grape growing and winemaking is to “listen” and give the plants what they ask for. He explained:

Following a set of rules doesn’t work in a living system. Not listening to the plants damages them. Humans are cultured and can talk and not being heard damages a person. Can you imagine for a plant that has no culture and can’t talk? It’s much worse. When you listen, the plant is so grateful. It’s incredible what she gives back.

The grapes were looking luscious in all of the vineyards.

Cortese in the vineyard near the house
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Old Dolcetto grapevines in one of the Talassoro vineyards.
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Barbera vines in Talassaro
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Stefano uses biodynamic farming methods including sovescio or “green manure” where legumes, mint, and other herbs and vegetables grow between the vines, then are cut down and left to fertilize. Otherwise, he doesn’t cut the grass on the vineyards.

He doesn’t trim the tops of his vines either, allowing the vine to find its own equilibrium. (Many growers do to force the plant’s energy into the grapes.) “That would be a violent act, a violation of the plant,” he said.
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Biodynamic farming changes the soil fundamentally (read more). It becomes less compacted, crumbly, and full of micro-organisms. As he famously showed at the end of Natural Resistance, his soil (on the right) is very different from the soil of the conventional farmer next door (left).
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Stefano’s cellar is as humble as his house and vineyards.
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Inside he does very little.
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The grapes simply ferment with indigenous yeasts, most in very old, very used large wood barrels.
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Stefano led me through a tasting of most of his wines. Each has a special character and story. “I already have too many wines, but if I could, I would make a different wine for every row of every vineyard,” he said, “because each has its own characteristics and personality.”

But all are similar in three important ways:
-Biodynamic growing methods
-Fermention with INDIGENOUS yeasts
-NO added sulfites
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Dinner was fresh from the farm: Summer Squash soup with homemade bread
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And Stuffed Vegetables with Tomatoes, (Meat dishes are available, but I chose veggie.)
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Semplicemente Bellotti Vino Bianco 2014
Gavi DOC 2014
Stefano ferments 100% Cortese grapes in large wooden vats, then afterwards chooses the vats with more structured wine to become Gavi and the lighter, more aromatic to become Vino Bianco. Both are fresh, with subtle fruit aromas and flavors, meant to drink young.
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Filagnotti Vino Bianco 2013*
Filagnotti Gavi DOCG 2006

Made from 100% Cortese grapes grown in the Tallasoro vineyard, which has clay soil, this version of Gavi can age. Stefano ferments in large, used acacia wood barrels, then, leaves the wine for a year on the spent yeast (the lees). “It’s only possible because the wood breathes. The wine is in constant dialogue with the external environment,” he explained.

Both vintages were clean, linear, full of minerality. The 2006 was a richer color, however, and was simply more profound, more subtle and more layered. “You can only get this kind of profoundness with natural growing and cellar methods,” Stefano said.
*In 2013, Bellotti went to Vino di Tavola classification after being fined in 2012 for “fraudulent” labeling of DOCG and DOC wine. Why? He used only the Demeter biodynamic certification seal instead of both Demeter and organic (which he was entitled to). And, he had too many peach trees in his vineyard. (Read more)
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Montemarino Vino Bianco 2011
From 100% Gavi grapes grown in a different vineyard, Montemarina, near Tassarola but facing the sea (18 km away on the other side of the mountains) with clay/limestone soil, unique to the Gavi region. The grapes macerate for three days on the skin, ferment then rest on the lees for a year, all in large, oak vats.

More minerality and even saltiness compared to Filagnotti, but because of the oak, also fuller and slightly rounder. Like Filagnotti, a wine with long aging capacity.
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A Demûa Vino Bianco 2013
A mix of white grapes from 100-year old vines in the Tassarola vineyard (Riesling, Verdea, Timorassa, Moscatella). Stefano had always made A Demûa as an “orange wine”, but in 2013, he experimented with leaving the grapes on the skins for 9 months (a pregnancy term) instead of 3. Surprisingly, the skins pulled color and structure out of the wine.

“Making wine is intuitive. Wine is feminine. In 40 years, I had never tried this, but it was the right moment.” I would have to agree. The wine was extraordinary. The structure and tannins of an orange wine were there, but the wine seemed to have more personality, more lightness, more femininity.
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Nibiô Vino Rosso 2011
Made with 100% red-stemmed Dolcetto (a particular kind of Dolcetto) from both the Tassarola and Montemarino vineyards. A sassy, complex version of Dolcetto with smooth tannins and crisp freshness.
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Mounbé Vino Rosso 2008
85% Barbera with 10% Dolcetto and 5% Ancellotto. Grapes ferment in large wooden vats, spend 35 days macerating on the skins, stay 7-8 months in the vats then age another 7-8 months in large, used wooden barrels. More structured, more tannic and more robust than Nibìo.
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Mounbé tastes smoother when paired with meat or cheese or heavier dishes, but I drank a glass with Stefano’s young team, who had been working all day in the fields and vineyards. Pairing rules are meant to be broken.
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Étoile Du Raisin Barbera Piemonte DOC 2007
“Once it happened that the vintage was so extraordinary that I changed the name from Mounbé to ‘Étoile du Raisin’, which means ‘Star of the Grape’ in French.” The natural harmony of the wine was remarkable to begin with. After 8 years of aging, the wine was full of vitality, as if it were dancing in rhythm.

C’era Una Volta Il Passato Vino Bianco
Stefano has to call his passito a “passato” (meaning “past”) because the labeling authorities claimed his 100% Moscato wine did not conform with the DOC regulations. Rather than fight them over a technicality, he calls his wine “passato”. Not too sweet. Rich with flavors of figs and honey.
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Breakfast
The next morning, breakfast was laid out like a still life, almost too beautiful to eat. The fresh bread and yogurt were just out of view.
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Cascina Degli Ulivi
Strada della Mazzola, 14
Novi Ligure (AL) 15067
info@cascinadegliulivi.it

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