A few days after finishing the harvest, Elena Pantaleoni (owner of La Stoppa) and Giulio Armani (her partner at La Stoppa, who also makes wine from his own Dinavolo vineyards) seemed relaxed.
Why? “Because if you understand where you are and make wine that is completely coherent with that,” Elena said, “the wines make themselves naturally. There’s not much to do.”
But it wasn’t always like that here. Elena’s father bought La Stoppa in 1973 from Mr. Ageno, a lawyer from Genoa, who had planted Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Back when he started, France was the standard of excellence then, so he chose French varieties.
“When Giulio and I first took over La Stoppa in the nineties,” Elena explained, “we had to work hardest to make the Pinot Noir. But making sparkling white wine, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc wasn’t much easier. What an effort!”
Over the last thirty years, Elena and Giulio have pulled out almost all of the international varieties to plant local ones like Bonarda, Barbera, Ortruga, Malvasia di Candia Aromatica. These local varieties flourish because they are perfectly suited to the local soil and climate.
We sat down to taste the what Elena calls “identity” wines, wines that express the essence of their terroir naturally. Both La Stoppa and Dinavolo are certified organic, use natural methods in the cellar and add only a tiny amount of sulfites at bottling. What else gives the wines “identity”?
We needed lunch to get into that, beginning with an aperitivo of organic bread, local artisan salami and parmesan cheese…
…paired first with Giulio’s Dinavolino Vino Bianco 2015 , a skin contact wine from a mix of native white varieties: 25% Malavasia di Candia Aromatica, 25% Marsanne, 25% Ortugo, 25% yet-unknown varietal. Giulio ferments the grapes in stainless steel in the La Stoppa cellar, but the grapes are grown a few kilometers away in very different terroir: sandy limestone soil at 300-450 meters with cooler temperatures than La Stoppa. It was fresh, dry and light (12% alcohol) but with complexity and a nice touch of aromaticity, perfect before the meal.
The 2015 (no label) had just been bottled and had barely gotten over its “angry” reaction to that process. The 2014 had settled itself nicely. Coming from a more cool, rainy vintage, it was more restrained and lighter (11.5%) but still delicate, aromatic, complex and wonderfully fresh.
With the tortelloni, we delved into La Stoppa wines. Elena pointed out that the Valley of the Trebbia has clay/limestone soil and hot, dry, sunny weather, almost like southern Italy. It produces wines with long aging capacity with the most famous and historic pairing being Bonarda/Barbera.
La Stoppa makes Trebbiolo (both still and sparkling), a version of the pairing meant to be drunk young even lightly chilled (an ideal summer red). But La Stoppa’s flagship for Bonarda/Barbera is La Stoppa La Macchiona Emilia IGT. Elena brought out a 2005: rich and complex but not heavy (13.5% alcohol) with lots of fresh acidity. It is what Italians call un grande vino, a great wine because of its elegance and aging capacity (and after 11 years, it wasn’t showing any signs of flagging). It comes from grapes grown on 60-year old vines, fermented in stainless steel with a 30-day maceration and aged for a year in large oak barrels and at least two years in the bottle.
Next, we tasted Barbera della Stoppa Emilia IGT 2006. Even though the variety is local, Elena is phasing out the single variety in order to use all of La Stoppa’s Barbera in the Bonarda/Barbera mix of either Trebbiolo or La Macchiona. The Barbera was delicious with dark fruitiness, noble tannins and lots of acidity, but it doesn’t fit her strict definition of an “identity” wine.
“Barbera is a variety that is most associated with Piemonte, but it’s considered secondary wherever Nebbiolo is king,” she explained,”Someone like Giuseppe Rinaldi doesn’t think about making ‘great’ Barbera D’Alba.” She continued saying that outside of the Barolo zone, there are winegrowers like Trinchero who make Barbera D’Asti as a ‘great wine’. In her opinion, Barbera from Emilia, no matter how good it is, can’t compete with Barbara like that any more than it compete with Cabernet Sauvignon made in Bordeaux.
After the reds, we finished with an astounding bottle of white: La Stoppa Ageno 2004, a skin contact wine with lots of structure and capacity to age. Made mostly with Malvasia and Ortruga, it was a rich glass of paradoxes: dry and tannic but aromatic and fresh. Elena pointed out that virtually the same grape varieties planted only a few kilometers from the Dinavolo vineyards produce an entirely different wine because of significant differences in soil, climate and altitude as well as choices in the cellar. While Dinavolino macerates 1-2 weeks on the skins and is made in stainless steel, Ageno stays 30 days on the skins, ferments in stainless steel but then ages half in stainless steel, half in barriques, followed by two years in the bottle.
Ageno, particularly after 12 years in the cellar, was ideal at the end of the meal with a plate of aged cheeses (while Dinavolino had worked perfectly at the beginning.) “Identity” wines at their best.