“If you don’t know where you’ve been,” Ferdinando Principiano asks rhetorically, “how can you possibly know where you’re going?” His philosophy of life and of making wine is deeply rooted in his respect for the Langhe, its history and the community here.
Ferdinando’s intense curiosity has led him to research nineteenth century letters written by the Count of Cavour and his farm manager as well as other historical texts to find wisdom about planting vines, growing grapes and making wine in Barolo. And why not? In the mid-late 1800s, Barolo wines won international prizes and wide recognition for its elegance, quality and long aging capacity. And that was long before the invention of pesticides, herbicides, chemical fertilizers or modern cellar methods.
When he first began making wine in the nineties, for example, he realized that if he stopped fertilizing the vines and pruning the leaves, the plants would find their own equilibrium. As a consequence, the Ph levels in his wine went down so much that bacteria couldn’t survive. Experimenting like this, he gradually changed to all organic viticulture and natural winemaking in the cellar. “I realized I simply didn’t need to use any of those techniques or additives,” Ferdinando explained. He went to all organic/natural methods in 2003.
And the experiments continue. He has chosen a small part of one vineyard to try eliminating treatments of copper and sulphur (allowed in organic agriculture). He is treating the vines instead with orange essence, algae, silica and bee propolis.
The Principiano vineyards are on the outside edge of the Barolo zone on the border between Monforte and Serralunga, a relatively wild area with the same vitality that Ferdinando exudes.
When he was a child, he played in and around this one on the (Ravera Hill) because his home was in the valley below (rooftops visible).
His top cru Barolo comes from this Ravera vineyard, unique because of:
– the extreme steepness that is atypical of Barolo (impossible to use a tractor),
– the age of the Nebbiolo vines (82 years old, planted in 1944), and
– the surrounding biodiversity.
He stopped to show me wild chamomile and mint that was growing spontaneously as well as this rosemary bush with a giant artichoke plant behind it.
He also pointed out this rare occurrence where an old vine had propagated itself naturally by dropping a branch into the earth to create a new vine.
In the video, he explains how different this “border area” is from the rest of Barolo. Notice that the exuberance of the birds in this rich ecosystem almost drown out his voice. (For subtitles in English, click CC)
We stood next to an abandoned cascina (farmhouse) at the top of the Ravera hill, like the one he grew up in down in the valley.
For generations, his family raised animals, grew crops like grain and corn, and also had vines to make wine. His father made the decision in the seventies to leave the livestock and farming along with the old house to grow grapes that were primarily sold in bulk. “Thirty years ago,” he recalled, “my father still worked the vines with oxen. The advent of the tractor was a historic change.”
At the abandoned cascina, the cages for chickens and rabbits along with wood for the fireplace recalled the way of life that era.
In a newer vineyard in the highest, southernmost part of Monforte, Fernando has similar biodiversity on a cone shaped hill with high altitude, optimal soil types, and exposure in every direction.
He has recently planted native grape varieties (Dolcetto, Barbera and Freisa) along with Nebbiolo.”I don’t ever want to let go of my roots,” he told me, explaining that for him it is important to make a wide range of wines with different varieties at differing price points. “Working people need to be able to buy good wine to drink daily at a decent price.” (The least expensive of his wines, a Dolcetto, sells for only 4 euro while his most expensive Barolo, is priced at about 40 euro.)
“And even if you could afford to drink Barolo every day,” he added, “you wouldn’t because you would grow tired of it. It is a great wine, a grand wine, that is meant for a special meal. It’s not an every day wine.” This philosophy is distinctly opposed to the prevailing practice in the area of tearing out any vines that are not Nebbiolo. (Nebbiolo yields a higher profit margin.)
The photo above shows that Ferdinando has not only planted other varieties but trees that will become woods (middle right side of photo above telephone wires). This is contrary to the widespread practice in Barolo of clearing woodland for new vines as a neighbor is doing in the top center of the photo.
We drove to a third vineyard, again on a very steep hill, near Ravera in Boscareto.
The pink line on the map is the border between Monforte and Serralunga and approximates the path of the narrow dirt road that runs through it.
It is pristine, surrounded by woods.
At the bottom of the vineyard, Ferdinando has planted the family’s vegetable garden.
And, he has fixed up an old spring house that now provides water for the garden or for mixing treatments for the vines.
He found out from an American geologist that some of the stones that had been used to make the pump house are fossils from the Cambrian period 600 million years ago when this land was under the sea. The honeycomb pattern is easily recognizable, and he began finding more stones like that.
The Principiano home, where three generations live, with the cellar below is near the town of Monforte. Ferdinando’s father, like many farmers initially sold grapes or wine in bulk before bottling. These are some of his early bottles from the 70s and 80s.
Ferdinando has a wide range of offerings described well on the website. I bought a selection to take home and have been slowly tasting my way along.
The first is one of Fernando’s creative experiments.
Principiano “Belén” Extra Brut Rosé 2014: a natural, sparkling Barbera with no sugar added. The second fermentation happens in the bottle with added grape must. The wine rests on the lees for a year before recorking.
The wine had a striking pale pink color, fine, persistent bubbles, and a lovely dry flavor. It is light enough for an aperitivo but structured enough to accompany food (12% alcohol). Unfortunately, Fernando only makes 3,000 bottles. If you are anywhere near Monforte, go to the cellar and buy some.
Belén is named for Fernando’s Spanish wife, who runs the winery with him.
Along with “Belén”, I tried two other Principiano wines in the lighter category:
Principiano Timorasso Langhe Bianco DOC 2015: an unusual version of wine made with this 100% native white variety, Timorasso. Ferdinando planted the vines in 2011 in white, limestone rich soil at 750 meters surrounded by woods in the Alta Langa. (There are very few vineyards in Italy over 600 meters.) The wine is a pale straw color and very crisp on the palate (because of the soil and altitude), but the aromas are soft and full, recalling all the richness of vineyard (herbs, fruits, flowers). Very few bottles produced. (13% alcohol)
Principiano “Dosset” Vino Rosso 2015 The less than 11% alcohol 100% Dolcetto (Dosset means Dolcetto in dialect) that is light and easy for everyday drinking. Dark purply red with grapey flavor. Made from younger vines. No added sulfites.
The next group of wines are the classic, Langhe varietals, the ones that represent the area and that Fernando won’t let go of even though the vineyards are part of the Barolo DOCG area. I chose to open the Freisa.
Principiano Chila Lanche Freisa DOC 2014 “Chila” means “She” in dialect. I loved this rustic classic. It has the tannic grip of a Nebbiolo wine but with wilder, woodsier aromas and flavors. I kept it on the kitchen counter for several days pouring a glass for various friends who dropped by, and it only got better. (13% alcohol) Again, only 3,000 bottles produced.
Of Ferdinando’s Nebbiolo wines, I opened:
Principiano Barolo Serralunga D’Alba DOCG 2012 Grapes from the younger vines in Serralunga vineyards of Boscareto near the family garden and pump house. Grapes ferment with indigenous yeasts and macerate for about 30 days before aging in large wooden barrels for 2 years. As is typical of Fernando’s Barolos, the wine was of medium structure (13-13.5% alcohol), elegant but authentically tannic with all the rich, wild aromas present in his vineyards. 20,000 bottles
As Fernando suggested, his top level cru Barolo Principiano Ravera Barolo di Monforte D’Alba DOCG 2012 is not an everyday wine. He makes only 2,000 bottles from the oldest Ravera vines (planted 1944). I brought a bottle home, but it will age for a while in my cellar to be opened on a special occasion. Until then, it will hold my memory of the riotous singing of the birds, the softness of the breeze and the warmth of the summer sun in the Ravera vineyard.
Ferdinando makes 100,000 bottles of wine a year that are mostly sold in Europe but some can be found in the States. He doesn’t attend wine shows or fairs, because he prefers to stay at home growing grapes and making wine. “My goal,” he said, “is not to become rich making wine for rich people. I make and sell wine that is accessible to all and that represents this place. I take care of the land for my son to inherit, but really, he and I are just stewards. The land is everyone’s inheritance.”
June 26, 2016
Via Alba, 47 – 12065, Monteforte d’Alba (CN)
Principiano on Wine Searcher