Erbaluce: Piedmont’s Most Noble White Grape

Posted on Posted in Articles, Luigi Ferrando, Rosenthal Wine Merchant News, RWM Contributor


Piedmont, revered for the grandiose wines produced from the Nebbiolo grape, is home as well to an exceptional white variety, ERBALUCE, that is little known and barely appreciated.

The Erbaluce finds its home high up in the Canavese district, the lake country in the Alpine foothills north of Torino that sit in the shadow of Monte Bianco. Here in the Canavese, that northwesterly most area of Piedmont that sits on the western flank of the Alto Piemonte before the transition to the Vallé d’Aosta, Erbaluce produces the sole white wines of this region granted DOCG status: Erbaluce di Caluso, Erbaluce di Caluso Spumante, Erbaluce di Caluso Passito.

While Erbaluce plantings have leeched eastward into the Alto Piemonte, it reaches its zenith in the glacial basin surrounding the tiny town of Caluso with its sweetest spot being the swath of vineyards situated between Lago di Candia to the southwest and Lago di Viverone to the northeast. The soils here are part of a glacial moraine formed during and after the Ice Age birthing thin top soils, rich in minerals and texturally sandy providing excellent drainage. The naturally high-acid, late-ripening Erbaluce finds its ideal home here where it can show its multi-faceted personality to maximum effect. The distinction of this noble variety is perhaps less recognized because of its small footprint: the Erbaluce di Caluso DOCG encompasses a mere 188 hectares (compared to the more frequently encountered whites of Piedmont like Gavi [1460 hectares] and Arneis [970 hectares]).

Historical records show that Erbaluce’s virtues were touted as early as 1606. The name reflects the grassy, hay-like qualities of its flavors and aromas (Erbe … meaning grass or herbs) and its ability to capture and thrive on the light (Luce) from the sun that sweeps across these terraced hillsides in abundance throughout the growing season. Erbaluce is capable of real magic in these Alpine foothills, painting a vivid picture of the rocks, streams, flowers, herbs, and crisp air in which the vines thrive, and offering a range of full-spectrum expressiveness—from naturally sparkling to bone-dry to achingly late-harvest-sweet—comparable in its flexibility and drama to that of Chenin Blanc in the Loire Valley. As with Chenin at its best, Erbaluce’s ripping natural acidity allows it to maintain cut and poise even when picked ultra-late or dried in the ancient passito style (a very old tradition in Caluso), but its ability to deliver intense minerality makes for a particularly complete dry-wine experience. Further, in its youth it has a natural petillance that makes it an ideal candidate for rendering a serious sparkling wine.

No greater expressions of Erbaluce di Caluso exist than those by the Ferrando family with whom we at Rosenthal Wine Merchant have been happily partnered for nearly forty years. The Ferrandos are, of course, most famous for their Carema—a gorgeous, ethereal Nebbiolo wrought from the steep ancient terraces flanking the border of northwest Piemonte and the Valle d’Aosta. In fact, Erbaluce comprises a significant portion of their total production, and they approach the variety with a zeal and rigor that allows its innate complexity to ring out with striking depth, and revel in the textural lusciousness which expresses the mountain origins more vividly.

Incidentally, at the very outset of our relationship with Luigi Ferrando, we collaborated with Luigi and his friend, Massimo Pachié, an antique dealer, whose family’s estate on the shores of Lago di Candia was lush with Erbaluce vines. This collaboration resulted in the first import into the USA of the Erbaluce di Caluso. The elegant, dry white of Pachié, vinified and bottled by Luigi Ferrando, made its debut here in the States under our care with the 1981 and 1982 vintages.

We accompanied that cuvée with Ferrando’s Caluso di Passito from the Cascina Cariola vineyard owned by Vittorio Boratto, whose vineyards overlooked the magnificent Lago di Piverone. Both of these gentlemen have now passed away, but the memories of the discovery of Erbaluce in these magical surroundings remain and make us advocates of the noble Erbaluce. (Advice: do try to visit the arresting region of the Canavese dotted with lakes formed at the end of the Ice Age; its natural parks and quiet beauty are stunning).

Ferrando’s Erbaluce comes from a beautifully situated four-hectare vineyard of glacial moraine in the commune of Borgomasino, 25 miles north of Torino. These steep south-facing vineyards necessitate a great deal of manual labor, and machine-harvesting here is impossible—remarkable facts given the shockingly reasonable prices the wines command. The family produces a wide range of Erbaluce—from sparkling, to bone-dry, to late-harvest, to passito—reflecting the variety’s incredible versatility. For their intense, clinging mineral character, for their sizzling, penetrating acidity, and for their terroir-drenched mountain essence, Ferrando’s Erbaluce count among the most distinctive white wines in our entire portfolio; and, for their sheer value, they are perhaps unparalleled. Now is an ideal time to explore the many joys of Erbaluce, as its mineral-driven brightness is quenchingly welcome in the heat of late summer, while its complex flavors of mountain herbs and honeyed orchard fruits nod toward the impending autumn.

Erbaluce di Caluso Spumante “Metodo Classico” 2012
Technically speaking, any old grape variety can be transformed into sparkling wine. However, few approach the completeness and satisfaction of Erbaluce di Caluso made in the “classic method” (secondary fermentation in bottle, a la Champagne)—there is good reason it has its own DOCG, after all. Even in its still version, Erbaluce can convey a mirage-like hint of sparkle by virtue of its electrifying acidity. And, it is this vigorous acidity that keeps everything coherent and penetrating even when the long lees exposure of secondary fermentation and extended aging thickens the texture. The Ferrandos produce their Spumante from grapes picked at full phenological ripeness, rather than earlier-than-ideal (as is commonplace in certain sparkling-wine zones in order to preserve acidity), and they favor a secondary fermentation of 36 months at bare minimum—and often longer. The final product boasts a gleaming golden hue, and bursts with delicious tension between the still-intense acidity and the luscious underlay of honeyed orchard fruits. Happily, bubbles and lees contact do nothing to blunt the detailed expression of cool minerality and cleansing mountain herbs inherent in great Erbaluce. This tiny-production wine is a beautiful testament to the variety’s noble versatility, as well as the Ferrandos’ deft mastery of their craft. Further, it is disgorged without any dosage. NB: The 2012 Spumante (to arrive this autumn) spent 44 months on the lies and was disgorged in June 2018.)

2016 Erbaluce di Caluso “La Torrazza”
Certain wines show their place of origin with such honest intensity as to cause a sentimental response—a poignant gasp at their total lack of artifice. Ferrando’s flagship Erbaluce di Caluso “La Torrazza” is one such wine. What a beautiful evocation of the Alps this wine is: its shimmering, mountain-spring quality; its plethora of mountain herbs, of teeming solar greenness; its bounty of orchard fruits, picked fresh in the crispness of early morning, still dewy. The nose brims with quince and Alpine honey, with fennel fronds and sun-kissed jasmine flowers—an intoxicating array of nature scents. The palate reveals a heft and a structure, with an almost chewy sense of chalky minerality tempering the aromas’ airborne trajectory—still, there is immense lift, and the flavors dance. The finish id notably long and notably dry, with a lingering sense of solid rock that manages to stop short of austerity and leaves the taster anxious to repeat the ride. Vinified entirely in stainless steel, without malolactic fermentation, and bottled after eight months on the fine lees, “La Torrazza” comprises the majority of Ferrando’s Borgomasino plantings.

2016 Erbaluce di Caluso “Cariola”
Ferrando’s “Cariola” bottling comes from the choicest parcels of their Borgomasino vineyard, and in contrast to the pure-stainless-steel aging of the “La Torrazza” above, 20% of the wine is fermented and aged in 600-liter oak barrel. The skillfully worked oak is felt as a textural element rather than an aromatic or flavor contribution, serving to accentuate the lusciousness of the fruit, but not at all detracting from the wine’s inherent zing. “Cariola” offers more fruit-driven ripeness on the nose than “La Torrazza,” with a less-pronounced herbal streak and a Chenin-Blanc-like grace note of lanolin, and while it is more unctuous on the palate, it finishes with an even greater sensation of stony cling.

2012 Caluso Passito “Cascoma Cariola”
Few sweet wines on earth can approach the layered majesty of great passito-style Erbaluce di Caluso, and Ferrando’s version is the grandest there is. While many sweet wines lose their distinctive stamp of terroir in an overwhelming onslaught of residual sugar, Ferrando’s Passito di Caluso seems to distill and magnify its essential elements: green Alpine herbs still soar above the din; the dominant quince and apple notes are still crunchy and fresh; and a finely honed blade of acidity still slices through it all. A dense thicket of spice and smoke toward the finish suggests very expensive cigar tobacco, and the immense level of sweetness scans as lively and glowing rather than ponderous. To produce this unlikely nectar, the Ferrandos dry early-October-harvested Erbaluce in open air for a full five months. The meager amount of juice yielded by a gentle March pressing is then fermented and aged in small oak barrels for two years, followed by a minimum of two years of bottle aging before release. It is truly one of the greatest sweet wines on the planet, and it makes for a fascinating counterpoint to the family’s lovely dry Erbaluce. A classic “vino da meditazione” ….

Also available:
2010 Passito di Caluso “Cariola”
2009 Passito di Caluso “Cariola”
2003 Passito di Caluso “Cariola”

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