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A Pioneer of ‘Mountain Barolo’

Carema is northern Piedmont’s “heroic” wine
Andrea and Roberto Ferrando have taken on the challenge of continuing to farm pergola-trained Nebbiolo on the ancient terraces of the Carema appellation. (Robert Camuto)

By Robert Camuto

Jul 6, 2021

I’ll go anywhere Nebbiolo grows in northern Italy, such is the spell this elite Piedmont native casts. But until this spring, I’d never been to Carema, a tiny village and wine appellation in northwestern Piedmont, about 90 miles north of Nebbiolo’s most famous home, Barolo.

Carema nestles at the eastern edge of the steep Dora Baltea river valley, which climbs through the Valle D’Aosta close to Mont Blanc. It’s one of the most dramatic vineyard areas I’ve seen.

Ancient drystone terraces of granite soar from about 1,000 feet to 2,300 feet up Mt. Maletto’s lower slopes of glacial moraine soils; on these terraces, about 50 acres of Nebbiolo grow on tall pergolas in Lilliputian plots, erupting from the rock, with little sandy topsoil. Tractors, of course, are out of the question; the farming is all hand work.

“Nowadays they call this heroic viticulture,” says Roberto Ferrando, the 53-year-old winemaker at his family’s Ferrando winery. “But the heroes were the people who built all this.”

On the steep slopes above the village of Carema (pop. 800), the vineyard plots are only about one-third of an acre. (Robert Camuto)

A couple of thousand years ago, Carema sat on a strategic point on the military road to old Gaul, and it’s believed the Romans encouraged settlement by terracing vineyards.

“To create a place like this today,” Ferrando adds, as a morning rain falls on us, “would be impossible.”

True. Who nowadays would invest in this amount of terracing for such difficult vineyards? Luckily, Carema already exists as part of Piedmont’s patrimony. And the fruits of it are delicious—another unique take on Nebbiolo to go alongside those from the Langhe’s Barolo, other northern Piedmont appellations and northern Lombardy’s Valtellina.

Carema wines are made from a pair of local Nebbiolo clones, called Picotendro (or Picutener) and Pugnet. Appellation rules require the wines be at least 85 percent Nebbiolo, though the Ferrandos use 100 percent.

The results are light-hued and near-weightless wines that are nevertheless full of aromas and complex flavors. “The Nebbiolo here is less concentrated,” says Ferrando, who runs the winery with his brother and vineyard manager, Andrea, 56. “It tends to extreme elegance, and reaches its peak after about 10 to 15 years.”

That combination of intensity and weightlessness are evidenced in the most recent two Carema wines tasted by Wine Spectator: Ferrando’s 92-point 2011 White Label, aged three years, most of that time in large barrels, and its 93-point 2011 Black Label, a riserva aged in barriques.

Today, aside from Ferrando and a small local cooperative, there are only a half-dozen micro-to-boutique producers working in Carema. The U.S. is the biggest market for Ferrando’s roughly 650 cases of Carema, made from about 5 acres of mostly rented vineyards and vinified in a rustic, cramped, old blacksmith’s workshop at the edge of town.

About 10 miles south, in Ivrea, Ferrando’s main winery, housed in an old lumber mill, produces another 3,000 cases of northern Piedmont wines, including a Canavese Rosso DOC blend of Nebbiolo and Barbera, still and sparkling Erbaluce di Caluso DOCG whites and a sweet passito wine from the Erbaluce grape.

Managing Carema’s Nebbiolo vineyards, trained high overhead on chestnut posts, requires lots of hiking on steep roads and stone steps. (Robert Camuto)

The Ferrando brothers have deep roots here. Their great-great-grandfather was a 19th-century wine merchant who sold southern Piedmont wines in the Valle d’Aosta.

In 1957, their grandfather Giuseppe became the first in their family to bottle and sell Carema. Three years later, he began vinifying his own Carema wine from a purchased plot of about one-third of an acre (the average size in Carema).

Back in the 1960s, when the Carema appellation was founded, there were twice as many vineyard acres as today. Over time, the highest and most difficult slopes were abandoned.

“All the higher slopes where there are now forests were once vineyards,” Roberto Ferrando says, waving his hand upward. “Just to get up to some of those vineyards took people 40 minutes.”

Today, a small, paved road climbs partly up the mountainside. But cultivation requires a lot of hiking on narrow, crooked stone stairs that jut from terrace walls.

Carema has been called “Mountain Barolo.” No one seems to know who coined that term. But it makes sense. Piedmont literally means “foot of the mountain.” Carema looks and tastes likes where it’s from—higher up that mountain.