Cantine Garrone: Saving grapes and a way of life

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Toppia trellises of grapes Toppia trellises of grapes

Against the splendid backdrop of the Alpine foothills in Domodossola, Nebbiolo grows by another name: Prϋnent.

Cantine Garrone is a winery with a mission. Brothers and co-owners Mario and Roberto strive to produce wines that express the fingerprints of their land and native grapes – a worthy and lifelong pursuit for any winery. But their dream is to preserve the past through wine, and regain its once central role in the valley and hillsides.

A land once rich in wine

The winery is located in Bisate near Domodossola, in Piemonte’s northernmost valley called Val d’Ossola. A hiking destination, its magnificent scenery is crossed with trails that wind up into the Alpine mountain range along Switzerland’s border. But not long ago, the forested terrain was covered in terraced vineyards. The remains can be seen in wild grapevines growing among the trees today.

Devero Alps not far from DomodossolaDevero Alps not far from Domodossola. Photo from Daniele, Creative Commons

The story is a familiar one to the northernmost wine producing areas of Piemonte, called Alto Piemonte. From 900 hectares at the end of the 1800s to just 30 today, winemaking declined through a mix of population decrease due to attractive job opportunities in nearby Novara and Milan; difficult conditions working the vines; and phylloxera that swept through the area, greatly damaging and killing many vines.

But the loyal caretakers of these hills still tend to patches of vineyards and continue to produce small batches of wine for family consumption. The microclimate provides an ideal grape-growing environment: cool mountain temperatures mitigated by nearby Lake Maggiore help to slow ripening, allowing the complexity of aromas to develop and grow. Vines grow on the sunny hillsides where the soil is rocky – excellent for drainage.


Restoring the past

The traditional cultivation style is the toppia, or trellises high enough to walk under,supported by ancient stone columns called sarizzo, carved long ago by stonemasons. A rare variety of Nebbiolo found only here grows like jewels: Prϋnent.

Toppia style, with several sarizzo, stone columns

The Garrone brothers wanted to preserve a way of life that once defined their area, thereby saving this unique grape variety. In 1994, they began their mission together with the Ossola Agriculture Producers Association. First, they needed to begin the transition from the family carafe to broader consumption. Their first task? Buy the grapes harvested by the small number of winemakers left in the area, none of whom produced enough wine to be worth selling.

In the beginning, it was not easy. “It wasn’t common practice for vine growers here,” says the son of Roberto who works in the winery, Matteo. “They were used to making wine for themselves, their families.” For their first vintage, 1994, Cantine Garrone produced just 30 liters of wine. But their idea grew, and today they produce 30,000 bottles of wine annually.


A hobby vineyard

The vineyards remain tiny, however – to use an Italian metaphor, they are just “tissues” of land, scattered squares as big as handkerchiefs. On average, a vine grower owns just 250 sq m; the largest piece of vineyard anyone owns is 1 hectare. Tending vineyards is hardly anyone’s main work. Rather, it is a hobby, albeit a difficult and time consuming one. Many of the vine growers are elderly – “Winemaking and vine growing have skipped a generation,” says Matteo – and these vineyards are necessarily cultivated by hand. With the traditional toppia so high, a person has to stand on the steep hillside with hands in the air to reach up for the grapes and leaves the entire time.

Grapes growing on the toppia

As difficult as it is to take care of the vineyards, they are tended to with care. “They treat them like gardens,” says Matteo. They take personal pride in their grape quality. A natural trust lies between Cantine Garrone and the area’s vine growers, and they sell excellent quality grapes.


A grape like none other: Prϋnent

The gem of Cantine Garrone’s production is the rare, unique clone of Nebbiolo called Prϋnent. Prϋnent has its own ampelographic identity, but can join the category of mountain Nebbiolos for its similar qualities. Its color is typical of a northern Nebbiolo, light ruby and less saturated than famous Nebbiolos of the south like Barolo and Barbaresco. It has high acidity and tannins, though well balanced; it is a wine for aging. Its complex aromatic profile has distinct floral and vanilla notes, and it is dry and savory on the palate. Overall, an elegant, fine wine.

Prϋnent: a way to get into heaven

The grape has been called Prϋnent for longer than anyone can remember, and it has always been the area’s most prized variety. The first documentation of it was in 1309, when a noble granted his Prϋnent production to the local church upon his death. It was a generous gesture, but also insurance for getting into heaven.

Cantine Garrone also produces wines from Nebbiolo, Barbera, Croatina, Merlot, and Chardonnay. Most of the wine is sold locally. Matteo spoke gratefully of the local restaurants, who believed in their project from the start, supported them, and now buy a large portion of their wines. The US does import a small amount; but Prϋnent is hardly on the radar after being sold abroad for just four years. Don’t think this bothers Matteo, though. “It would be a problem if it got too popular,” he said, only half-joking, “because we don’t make enough, and we favor the local restaurants first.” The trust and loyalty in this tight-knit community of producers and their supporters is apparent.


The future of Val d’Ossola wine

Cantine Garrone produces wine so that the vines are not abandoned, and hopes to inspire others to plant in the area. Fortunately, there has been a slow tendency over the years towards planting more. Unfortunately, several obstacles stand in the way of aspiring winemakers. Beyond the incredible energy required to tend these mountainside vineyards, new winemakers can’t expect immediate monetary recompense; in Val d’Ossola, a vine needs 5-6 years before it can start growing grapes suitable for winemaking. And the last is a classic Italian problem: would you like to buy three hectares of land? Be prepared to wade through mountains of land deeds and to track down just as many owners. Tiny parcels of land are divided among an increasing number of people as inheritances are split time and again over the generations.

The best way to get a taste of these wines that are helping to save cultural heritage and a native grape is to visit.

The winery has a bed and breakfast in Oira, called Ca’ d’Matè. In this restored house from the 1500s, they age three of their wines in the vaulted cellars and welcome wine lovers upstairs in the tasting room, outfitted in traditional Piemontese style. You may taste their wines paired with cheeses made from the traditional creamery, the Latteria Turnaria, where anyone in town may use the traditional cheesemaking equipment and age their own cheeses. Tour the restored medieval village of Canova below town, and walk through Oira’s streets and houses made of the very same stone from which its ancient vineyard pillars are carved.

Barrel of Prunent; Cà d'Maté; barrel room

Cantine Garrone 
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Last modified onThursday, 15 October 2015 16:10
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