During my last weekend in Novi Ligure, my cup runneth over. I was surrounded by good people, good food and plenty of great wine. On Saturday, thanks to a friend of a friend (who was once just a cousin of a friend), I had the chance to spend the day at Terralba in vineyard-dotted hills of Bertzano di Tortona.
Terralba is a vineyard that’s not generally a tourist stop, and there’s no easy way to get there by public transportation. Sonia was working at a biological market that day in the nearby town of Tortona, where the winemaker’s fiance Yolanda kindly offered to meet me. She exuded an instant warmth. As we walked through the fair, she offered to buy me a brioche. She commented that she didn’t need any herself; “I am fat.” She wasn’t fat. Turns out she was, however, 4 months pregnant. I asked if she craved gelato and pickles or other odd combos of guilty pleasures, but her cravings were actually wholesome…fresh fruits, veggies and the ceci (chickpeas) she bought on our way out. She drove us up to a hillside vineyard where we met the winemaker, another Stefano.
To use the term I’ve hung onto since my days in Thailand, this vendemmia was “same same but different” as Cascina’s. A group of about ten people, most in their twenties and thirties, were clipping grapes into plastic bins. There were a couple of Italians and a lot of Romanians. Apparently, going to Italy to make money for a few years or even a season is the thing to do these days in Romania. There was also Lorenzo, Stefano’s nephew/twelve year-old tractor driver. Illegal perhaps, but precious. Lorenzo had a sweet face with olive skin, big brown eyes and a bit of baby fat still on his cheeks. Helping out at the vineyard was clearly his most treasured weekend activity. You could just see how much this kid admired his uncle. Yolanda told me he’s even got a sophisticated palette, and, as I witnessed soonafter, enjoys a nice glass of wine with lunch.
We wandered around the different sections of the vineyard, from the Timarosso vines and the very, very pretty Barbera grapes.
Terralba’s not officially organic, but they operate with great respect for nature and minimal manmade substances. Yolanda pointed out to me the rosebushes which line the rows like brightly colored bookends. They’re a decorative, natural way to monitor parasites and pests (keep an eye on the roses to know if the grapes might be in trouble). As we walked by bountiful rows of untouched grapes, I was struck by Stefano’s selectiveness. There were rows of plump, deep purple grapes that looked impeccable to me, but which Stefano deemed “unpickable.” They weren’t sweet yet, so he would pick them in a couple of months and use them as table grapes. I asked Stefano how he determined which ones made the cut. When Stefano began making wine, relinquishing city life and returning to his parents land in his twenties, he would test the grapes to measure things like the sugar content. After a few years, he could simply judge by taste.
Terralba’s cantina was a slightly bigger, more modern version of Cascina’s. The vats were bigger, requiring a climb up a ladder for the rimontaggio (putting a big hose in to facilitate fermentation by mixing up the juice with the skins). After taking care of things upstairs, Stefano and I went down to the cellar to try his whites. They all shared a refreshing, dry, smooth mineral quality. Stefano tried to describe flavors and scents in English, and I tried to do the same in Italian with mild success. My dictionary helped, but it was missing important words like “biancospino,” the thorny plants with little white flowers that Stefano smelled in the Derthona (dialect for Tortona) Timorasso 2007. In spite of our hindered conversation, shared appreciation wasn’t hard to communicate. Swirl, smell and sip and smile.
The cantina was also a little house with a kitchen and dining room, where we ate lunch with the workers, Yolanda, Lorenzo and Stefano’s mother, who lives across the street and was the vendemmia chef. Handmade, meat-filled agnolotti (a scaled-down ravioli typical of Piedmont) in broth to start, followed by a pot of spizzatino, a meat and potatoes mix reminiscent of a marasala-free brisket. And of course, wine. Then, tiramisu. This was my first tiramisu of the trip, so I was just as excited as Lorenzo was for it. I asked Stefano’s mom if I could take a picture of her with er masterpiece, and she quickly agreed, removing her apron for the photo opp.
Tired from the feast and wine, I was relieved to take a break and walk with Yolanda before tasting the reds. After we’d walked fifteen minutes, she suddenly said, “Let’s say hi to my father,” and called out to the man approaching in a tractor. Her dad was on his way back to work at another vineyard. Fifty meters later, we were in her parents apartment, where her mother had just finished serving a meal for fifteen vendemmia workers. Yolanda and I went outside with her mother, and after a few minutes a smaller version of Yolanda’s mom slowly descended the stairs from her apartment. Grandma sat down and we all had some coffee.
Feeling rejuvenated and pleased to have been part of the casual family reunion, I was ready for the reds. Now this was a treat. We went back down to the cellar and drank a sample extracted directly from each barrel, moving from to Barbera, from youngest to oldest. The standout here was the 2007 Barbera. This was a “Wow!” out loud kind of wine. Long, long gambe and the sweetness of cherries and aged balsamic. “This was a great year for Barbera. We say it’s like a meal and a drink together.”
They sent me on my way – and by sent me on my way, I mean Yolanda was sweet enough to drive me back home – with a bottle of the 2006 Stato and Terralba 2004.