To borrow a joke that can apply equally to quantum physics, Greek politics or the festering appeal of the Kardashians:
‘If you claim you understand the wines of the Piedmont, it’s because nobody ever explained them to you.’
Location-wise, Piedmont—Piemonte in Italian—forms the left side of the fold-over on a Puss In Boot-style boot, and wine-wise, everything that Piedmont is known for is the polar opposite of everything else it’s known for.
Contrast Barolo (brooding, blackish ink filled with tannins and savagely dark flavors) with Asti Spumante (the lilting, lyrical libation that encapsulates the sweet sparkle of summer), then put either one against a Barbera d’Alba (a mid-palate powerball with tame tannins and aggressive acidity to bookend lush cherry fruit) and you’ll see what I mean.
In terms of taste, tradition and trajectory these wines strike you as being less from different appellations as from different galaxies.
As a result, it seems like there never a shortage of thing totally new Piemontese to discover: Wines I’ve never heard of made by winemakers I don’t know of using unfamiliar varietals, and often in wine zones (Piedmont has three dozen) that are completely unknown to me as well.
Blow all the brass Burgundian bugles or Bordelaise buccinas you want, but that’s something you simply can’t say about France’s heavy hitters.
So, it was with delight rather than surprise that I tried a couple of newbies at my favorite bodega last Saturday:
Vigne Marina Coppi from the far east of Piemonte in the DOC of Colli Tortonesi.
‘Colli’ is an Italian word meaning ‘hills’—file that for future reference—and in this case, it refers to undulated landscape of Alessandria province, extending from the Monferrato to the Oltrepò Pavese. It’s a region that rarely made quality waves willing to wash ashore in Winetopia, being primarily known for simplistic sparkling wines made from the Cortese grape and affordable Barbera and Dolcetto which hardly stood out from the Piemontese pack.
But as happens more and more frequently in such hinterland of wine regions, one winemaker decided to raise the bar and see what came out of the barrel.
To Americans not obsessed with professional cycling, the name Fausto Coppi means little. But to Italians, he remains ‘Il Campionissimo’—the ‘Champion of Champions’, winner of Giro d’Italia five times (1940, 1947, 1949, 1952, 1953) the Tour de France twice (1949 and 1952) and the World Championship in 1953.
Coppi died young (of malaria), before his grandson Francesco was born, but twelve years ago, his grandson Francesco re-purchased a handful of acres that Fausto had once owned in the village of Castellani:
It became Vigne Marina Coppi, minuscule in size but massive in quality and innovation.
I was fortunate to stumble across a bottle of Vigne Marina Coppi ‘Marine’ ($40) 4,500 miles from Colli Tortonesi; fortunate because these rare regional masterpieces do not often stray far from home. The wine is built around the local varietal Favorita, a grape that shares the same sort of genetic relationship to Vermentino as Francesco Coppi does to Fausto.
And as Vermentino can be an underrated wine, so may Francesco be considered an underrated champion when he works with Favorita. He maximize the flavor profile in this somewhat simple grape by allowing an extended hang time, picking at late-harvest sugar levels, then fermenting dry.
The resulting wine is highly concentrated with a bouquet of dried wildflowers, with chamomile and sage as predominant features. But the wine is called ‘Marine’, and there is, indeed, a briny quality to the aromatics—unusual to encounter in a land-locked appellation. I’d say it is the power of suggestion and attribute it to the wine’s inherent minerality, but plenty of pros assure me that ‘minerality’ is also the power of suggestion, so I’m sticking with my ocean spray descriptor. Additionally, the wine shows rich undertones of ripe pear and a peculiar dichotomy: Dry honey.
When reviewing a wine made from an unfamiliar grape, the nature vs. nurture balance is always in question. Colli is organic and biodynamic, but in this far-flung region, nearly everyone is, certification or otherwise.
More familiar, perhaps, but even scarcer is Vigne Marina Coppi ‘Sant’ Andrea’ ($28), a Barbera-based red which features a ten percent blend of Croatina—another indigenous variety that has some resemblance to the easy-drinking Dolcetto. In Gattinara and Ghemme, Croatina is often used to mellow the tannins of Nebbiolo, but when combined with Barbera in a similarly late-harvest style, Coppi produces a wine with deep grapey richness, fun and fresh but with a great sense of depth.
For me, these wines from Coppi’s championship bloodline put Colli Tortonesi on the map, but alas, with a scant eleven acres to work with, producing 1600 case annually, the availability question is essentially moot.
But at the very least, figure that we now have a ready answer if some dingbat asks what wine to serve with Wheaties.