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Carema: heroic viticulture, sudden demise, and a fervent revival

Some two thousand years ago, the first Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus, instructed the construction of Via delle Gallie, a significant road enabling Roman military and political expansion towards the Alps. Carema occupied a strategic position along the road, which intersected the small town at the southern end of the Aosta Valley. Some historians suggest the toponym Carema derives from the Latin expression ‘quadragesimum lapidem ab Augusta Praetoria’ (the fortieth stone from Augusta Praetoria— an ancient Roman town located inside the present-day city of Aosta), indicating Carema may have originated after the foundation of Aosta in 25BC. Alternatively, Carema might derive its name from Caremam, meaning ‘customs’, perhaps reflecting the town’s location on the major roadway. Scholars believe Roman settlers encouraged habitation in Carema by planting vineyards, encouraging industry and commerce, and providing retirement opportunities for battle-hardy Legionaries. Similar settlements were built along other major Roman roads, like Trezzo Tinella on Magistra Langarum, which was once a large city 150 kilometres south of Carema.

Winegrowing was customary in Roman settlements, not least to supply the empire’s expanding military with satiating rations; residents commonly grew vines, tended various crops, and reared animals for meat and dairy. Interestingly, contemporaneous scholars revered some Roman settlements for their proficiency in producing a single product or foodstuff—in many cases, the reasons why belong as much to chance as they do to concerted efforts. Carema’s steep, mountainous landscape made rearing animals and planting crops difficult; nearby towns had more flat, arable land and excelled in general agriculture. Conversely, these steep, high (as high as 750m asl) slopes—protected from the cold north winds and well-exposed in a natural amphitheatre—were ideal for grapegrowing, but not without ingenious adaptations. The vines are trained on terraces into trellises (‘topia’) and anchored by truncated cone-shaped stone pillars (‘pilun’). 

It’s unclear what the Romans planted first, but nebbiolo was widely planted in Carema by 1500, and possibly even earlier. In 1266, ‘Nibiol’ is mentioned as relating to the Rivoli area seventy kilometres south of Carema. In 1606, jeweller to the House of Savoy, G.B. Croce, in his on the excellence and diversity of wines that are made in the mountains of Turin wrote that ‘of the black grapes, the queen is said to be Nibiol … since it makes a vigorous, generous, and sweet wine again…. which is preserved for a long time’. In 1494, Charles VIII referred to the ‘soft [wines of] Carema’, and sometime between 1534-1549, Pope Paul III’s bottigliere, Sante Lancerio (who authored Wines of Italy, judged by pope Paul III and his bottigliere Sante Lancerio), wrote to Cardinal Guido Ascanio Sforza and philosopher, Andrea Bacci, that Carema (known then as ‘Ivrea wine’) produced an ‘excellent and perfect drink for princes and lords’. In 1590, Andrea Bacci reported Carema as a ‘delicious wine admitted to the table of the Dukes of Savoy and at the papal table’. In 1817, famous Italian botanist, Giorgio Gallesio, wrote that the most valuable of the Nebbiolo Canavesano are those of Carema, ‘where Nebbiolo is almost exclusive, as in Gattinara’, that its qualities there ‘have earned it a reputation since very ancient times’ and that ‘even in Turin the tasters give their friends wines from Carema … which appear as fine wines on lists’. In 1833, in an essay on the vines and wines of the Province of Ivrea and of Valle d’Aosta, the author wrote that in Canavese’ nebbiolo is the main vine of the province’ and that “Nebbiolo di Carema has a taste that you would say of raspberries”. These accounts demonstrate that notable figures revered nebbiolo grown in Carema and, by 1817, it was irrefutably the area’s principal variety.

Carema garnered a reputation for producing quality wine; by the early 1900s the area under vine was upwards of 120ha. But its population stayed small—never exceeding 800. Subsequently, the vicissitudes of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries harmed the region even more severely than Barolo and Barbaresco, which were more populated with larger wine productions. Economic struggle, the first Italian diaspora, the spread of powdery mildew (good exposure and constant ventilation saved Carema from disaster), the first World War, the Great Depression, phylloxera (which arrived late, at the end of the 1920s, but with an even more devastating effect), and the second World War devastated Carema. Consequently, by 1967 planted hectares had fallen to 38, and swathes of young men had left Carema to work in nearby industrial centres. By the mid-1960s, about 130 small, part-time winegrowers remained in Carema, tending just 0.33 hectares each on average. Unsurprisingly, Carema fell into relative obscurity and missed Barolo’s late-twentieth-century boom.

Nevertheless, on 9th July 1967, Carema became one of the first wines from Piedmont to attain Controlled Designation of Origin status. Winemaking had been kept alive by three wineries, of which two were particularly prominent, the Cantina dei Produttori Nebbiolo di Carema and Ferrando. The Cantina was founded on 30th November 1960 by ten members, who became 29 by 1967, when the winery was built. Interestingly, the cooperative (the Cantina avoided calling itself a cooperative) was set up strictly to manage the ageing and maturation of finished wines. It was only in 1984 that growers decided to hand over their grapes instead of finished wine, thus making significant savings in manual labour and chemical analysis costs. Today, 95 winegrowers belong to the cooperative. 

Three years before the Cantina’s formation, the Ferrando family—who had sold wine for five generations—began producing wine too, debuting with Nebbiolo di Carema. Giuseppe Ferrando’s son Luigi built a cellar in the municipality in 1964 and began exporting to England, Germany, Holland, Switzerland, the United States, Canada, Australia and even Japan. Then, between 1980 and 1985, Councillor for Agriculture Gianni Fabiole Nicoletto, wine technician Gaspare Buscemi, and Milanese wine merchant Luigi Gaviglio created a local wine consultancy where Buscemi met the winegrowers and analysed their wines in a purpose-built laboratory, demonstrating improvement opportunities. This collective endeavour was influenced largely by Luigi Veronelli. The consultancies experience helped to bring about Carema di Carema, the flagship wine of the Producers’ winery until the advent of Carema Riserva, introduced in 1998 by modifying the production rules. Despite these admirable efforts, the number of Carema winegrowers stagnated. According to a 2006 study, by then none were below the age of thirty, and 10% were over 75. Plantings fell sharply, too, totalling less than sixteen hectares in 2014.

Fortunately, nascent wineries garnered burgeoning industry attention elsewhere in Northern Piedmont (particularly in Boca, Lessona and Gattinara). Unbeknownst to them, their successes would motivate young entrepreneurs to risk it all. Beginning in 2012, a ‘new wave’ of producers—experienced and new, local and outsider—began a decade-long, spirited march to reimagine and revive Carema. Sorpasso (Vittorio leads an association of 20 young producers which broadcasts the uniqueness of the Canavese territory) and Muraje (local dialect describing the rock walls that retain) were first; followed by Monte Maletto in 2014; then, Chiussuma in 2016; and most recently, Sopravvento in 2019. Cantina Togliana and Cellagrande also began producing wine during this period. For these winemakers, Carema was the perfect bet

Gian Marco Viano (Monte Maletto) had worked as a sommelier in European fine-dining restaurants, then as a host at G.D. Vajra, before renting a small vineyard in Carema—the commune’s breathtaking landscape, and competitive land prices were a potent draw. Similarly, its elevated terrain and ‘heroic’ viticulture proved alluring for Gian Marco and his peers. While growers further south struggled with warmer temperatures and drought, Carema fared much better—pergolas and altitude shield bunches and preserve freshness. Matteo and Michele Melfa were drawn to Carema too. The brothers from Borgofranco d’Ivrea worked as sommeliers before starting Sopravvento—Matteo continues working at Hide, London. In 2019, Gian Marco Viano asked the brothers whether they would like to buy erbaluce fruit from him to make their own wine; Matteo Melfa studied with Gian Marco as a child. Around the same time, Michele began prospecting locals for land to purchase, eventually acquiring a small overgrown parcel in Carema. Shortly after, the pair purchased another overgrown parcel directly above their first acquisition, which they had to excavate to replant; extensive parcellation makes owning enough land to break even challenging. The brothers didn’t scrutinise the market too severely before buying fruit or land in Carema. ‘Our passion took over’, Matteo jokes, explaining how the pair’s intense pride and yearning to grow and make nebbiolo inspired them—a desirable climate and burgeoning industry helped too.

Against all odds, this new wave of growers has preserved traditional growing practices and varieties. Nebbiolo (the picotendro biotype/clone which shares its DNA with lampia), is still most planted; neyret, ner d’ala, neretto, pugnet, and erbaluce are popular too. Although most vines (c. 95%) are trained to pergola or espalier, vines lower on the slopes are more likely to be trained to guyot. Gian Marco had considered converting his pergolas to rows and guyot but soon changed his mind. Remarkably, despite the gruelling labour needed to cultivate Carema’s dizzying slopes, growers are also reclaiming abandoned vineyards. Matteo and Michele have planted 700 new nebbiolo vines and are still reclaiming and replanting; Vittorio and Martina (Sorpasso) expanded their holdings, now cultivating one hectare of vines; and Gian Marco has planted more erbaluce a short drive outside Carema. Scarce remaining veteran labourers have helped teach these newcomers how to manage the trellises and farm the sandy, acidic soils. 

Today, eight producers cultivate 22 hectares in Carema—eight more than in 2014. Half of these eight producers are ‘new’ winemakers. Unbridled by tradition, freedom and creativity abound. Growers bottle varietal wines and blends and produce single and multi-vineyard wines of all kinds. Sopravvento produce a skin-contact, orange Erbaluce macerated for 40 days, and Muraje vinifies their 176-bottle Erbaluce in demijohn. Nebbiolo is macerated with and without stems—Gian Marco adores Burlotto’s Monvigliero and wonders whether his ‘mountain Nebbiolo’ might benefit similarly from whole bunch vinification. Likewise, growers commonly extend maceration; Muraje macerates their nebbiolo for between 40 to 70 days on the skins in stainless steel, harmonising tannins, increasing pH, and leeching phenols and solids. Barrels for vinification and ageing are primarily second and third-pass 225-litre barrique, made of French oak or acacia—large botti are impractical for small growers. This octet of artisanal growers is unapologetically intrepid, and Carema is all the better for it. 

Wine journalism is replete with reports of rising stars and emerging gems. Occasionally, amid a torrent of simulants, a rare treasure is unearthed. In Carema, altitude buffers a warming climate, yielding fresh, elegant, aromatic wines; reasonable land prices and a convivial spirit attract young, audacious growers; unrestrained by tradition, travelled winemakers test boundaries, crafting varied, artisanal wines by whatever methods they wish; and compelling history, dramatic landscape and proximity to Piedmont’s famed communes make for gripping press. Eager importers, distributors and journalists are catching on to this. Gian Marco sold all his wine to a Japanese importer before bottling, and Sopravvento’s ‘Changes’ is allocation-only following a flurry of international interest. More recently, British speciality Piedmontese importer, Ultravino, invited popular Carema producers to London’s Michelin-star Hide, showing their wines to avid collectors. Alas, Carema won’t stay secret for long. Make haste, find a local importer, and fill your cellars. 

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