Piedmont is an enchanted place. There are few places on earth where you can find such a conjunction of beautiful landscapes, warm – but not too warm – climate, all of the recreational pastimes anyone could ever want (including some of the most reliable skiing in the world), world-class food, the best wines in great profusion and – perhaps most importantly – wonderful people with a tradition of great warmth of hospitality and a great connection to their land and soil. Alexis Lichine once wrote that where great wines are made, you won’t find great food. Bollocks, if you’ll pardon my French, and Piedmont is the ultimate disproof of that sentence. Piedmont is addictive; once you’ve tried it, you will come back again and again.
No wonder, then, that Danes with a sense of great food and wine would be attracted to this place. I have friends for whom the wines of France – Bordeaux and Burgundy in particular – are the epitome of greatness in wine, but who have bought second homes in Piedmont. And so it is with my most recent acquaintance, Ulrik Marxen. Ulrik has been passionate about wine since about the age of 16, and like so many others, he started out with cru classé Bordeaux. This was the line he stuck to until he met Ingrid Nymann, who nourished a passion for Italy and all things Italian. Gradually Ulrik was lured into the wonderful, quirky World of Italian wine, and it was not long before the couple were looking around Italy for a house in which to spend their free time. The search took them to many corners of Italy, including the great lakes in the North and Tuscany. However, in 2003 they succumbed to the spell and purchased a traditional Piedmontese farmhouse, a so-called cascina, on a hillside in the utterly beautiful area of Loazzolo, near Canelli.
With the house, Cascina Allegra, came about half a hectare of vineyard, partly planted to dolcetto and barbera, partly with old-vine moscato. Moscato is traditional to the Loazzolo area, which boasts one of the smallest, most exclusive DOCs in Italy. Loazzolo is a botrytized moscato passito wine with obligatory ageing in small wood, and is among the greatest sweet wines of Italy. Dolcetto in particular, but also barbera, have been the staple wines for the Piedmontese for centuries. Obviously, the vineyard had to be put to good use, and so Ulrik and Ingrid began making their own wine in a neighbour’s very rustic facilities. According to Ulrik, the resultant wines were drinkable, but little more, which seemed a pity when the vineyard itself was so ideally positioned, and so the ambition was born to actually start producing good wine.
To this end, Ulrik enrolled in a three-year distance learning winemaking programme at UC Davis, and while still doing that, they started buying proper modern winemaking equipment and refurbishing the cellars of Cascina Allegra. Ulrik is the founder and owner of a consulting company in Copenhagen, and so you can imagine the amazingly hard work it must have been for him to both successfully manage his company, study at UC Davis and refurbish cellars, harvest grapes and make wine. This speaks of a dedicated, passionate person, and so he strikes you when meeting in person. Ingrid is an engineer with much project management experience, but now spends a large part of her time managing her own company, CasaREOS, which chiefly buys, refurbishes and sells old stone farmhouses in Piedmont. Her background and frequent presence in Piedmont must have been enormously important for the successful accomplishment of all that.
Ulrik graciously let me taste two red wines from 2011. 2011 is the first vintage where the couple have made commercially available wine in their new facilities, and so while there have been previous trials, this is in reality their first proper wine. 2011 was a very hot year, so while Ulrik’s preferred style of wine in Piedmont is fairly traditional, the vintage did not lend itself well to a classic, somewhat austere interpretation. On that background, one would hopefully be forgiven for thinking that in tasting the wines, perhaps a measure of leniency would be required, and a steep learning curve perhaps be prescribed. Not so:
Cascina Allegra Vino Rosso Insieme 2011
This is about 70% dolcetto, 30% barbera, from their own vineyard. The grapes were picked very ripe, subjected to full-on winemaking and the wine spent about 9 months in barriques. Around 600 bottles made. Rather powerful, sweet-fruity berry nose with blueberries, liquorice, hints of flowers and exotic spice. Medium weight, astounding intensity of fruit, juicy, with a well-balanced, slightly dry hit of tannin. Long and quite intense, with juicy berries, violets, slight spice and a slight hint of barrique coffee. A really accomplished wine, still quite young and in evolution, but a miracle of a first ever wine. Not very classical – as expected – but not overdone in the extraction or barrique department either. Bravo!
Cascina Allegra Vino Rosso Insolito 2011
This is 100% barbera, from a nearby old-vine barbera vineyard where the couple were allowed to select and pick the grapes they wanted and let the rest hang. The grapes were picked late, and since they had been fiercely selected for ripeness and integrity, had rather high sugar weights and concentration levels. Ulrik tells of an amazing liquorice aroma in the non-fermented must, which had been transformed into a very strong sense of cloves upon fermentation. The wine spent about 18 months in new and old barriques. Around 600 bottles made. Slightly reductive nose with juicy and intensely fruity cherries, minerals, violets and strong oriental spice. Medium weight, intense, very juicy with good acidity, somewhat cloves-bitter, and with a slightly dry wood tannin that is not quite integrated into the wine yet. Good length, intense, with cherries, the sort of coffeish hints barbera can achieve when the grape pips are very mature, violets and minerals. Well made, intense and promising wine, not yet entirely integrated among the constituent parts, but clearly with the fruit in the ascendant and a very promising future.
These are two very accomplished wines, with no hint that this is a first commercial trial, and I am rather impressed. Ulrik and Ingrid have a 2011 moscato passito on its way, and have recently bought half a hectare of nebbiolo vineyard in Barbaresco. I can’t wait to taste the results.