Whenever we think about the idea of terroir, we think of Carema. The word terroir is frequently used casually when talking about wine. Often a wine is labeled “terroir-driven” if it is viewed as a quality wine that has balance and a pure, unbroken expression of its agricultural beginnings. When asked to give a definition, most wine folks will explain that terroir is the combination of the following physical factors: geology (soil type and placement); grape variety; climate; and human intervention (farming practices and wine making). While these ideas do go a long way to describe what we mean when we talk about terroir, the typical list does not bring us all the way to understanding this often-used descriptor. For us, the missing component is the inspiration that makes us talk about terroir in the first place: specifically, the rare and profoundly unique wines whose character engenders the concept itself. The existence of singular wines from places like the steep hillside of Cornas, the fabled hill of Corton, and the limestone-rich vineyards of Vouvray are all responsible for inspiring this idea. Personality-filled wines like these are the root of terroir, their complex character begging for an explanation. For us, the underlying essence of these storied grounds go beyond an intermingling of environmental factors; rather they encompass a complex historical evolution that also includes time, luck, culture, and economics that slowly change these places into what they are today. Missing from the common understanding of terroir is the long-term evolution that turns a wine and its loyal producers into a cultural icon.
The wines of Carema are a textbook example of we are talking about. I can think of no better example of a wine so tied to its environment and history. Fans of this tiny appellation know that there is nothing else quite like it. Nestled on terraces above the small village of Carema, in the shadows of Monte Bianco, the mere 17 hectares of vineyards that comprise the appellation are just about the most northern climate for the Nebbiolo grape. In fact, Carema is the very last outpost in the Piedmont as you head up the valley towards Monte Bianco through the bucolic Valle d’Aosta. The vineyards of Carema are traditionally trained on pergola to give the grapes maximum exposure to the sun, and the majority of the vineyards are placed on small terraces which climb the steep mountain slopes that majestically rise above the village. It is a stunning place, making it immediately clear to anyone who makes the pilgrimage to these vineyards that this is a special environment for producing wine. The amount of work put into constructing the terraces and pergola alone are a testimony to its quality. The difficulty of reaching the higher vineyard sites and working on small, steep terraces means that the costs for growing the Nebbiolo grape here are 50% more expensive than those in Barolo, for example. No reasonable human would go to such agricultural extremes unless there was a payoff at the end.
Today we see that the reward is extraordinary. Carema stands alone and, as such, is a desired object of the Italian wine lover. The red wine made from these slopes communicates a unique and profound expression of the Nebbiolo grape. Much finer than the more well-known wines from the Langhe, the wines from Carema are widely regarded as the most graceful and perhaps purest expressions of this noble grape. Carema compensates for what it lacks in power and force with its complexity of flavor and mineral length, allowing this wine to develop and age as gracefully as the most celebrated wines from Barolo and Barbaresco. There is always a “Burgundian” character attributed to the great Nebbiolos of the Piedmont, and Carema brings this comparison front and center.
We are incredibly fortunate to work with the Ferrando family, the only producer to grow and vinify its own wine in this appellation (the only other wine is made by the local co-op). The family, having produced and traded in wine for five generations, first bottled their Carema in 1957. We first brought this wine into the country in 1980, near the beginning of Neal’s career, after he met and became life-long friends with Luigi Ferrando. Today Luigi has been joined by his two sons, Roberto and Andrea, and the family now controls 2.5 hectares of Carema, scattered among many parcels. Work here is difficult and yields can be quite low. The family produces between 4,000 and 8,000 bottles a year, allocating a majority of the production to us for distribution in the United States.
In mid-June, we are expecting to receive the 2013 vintage of the Carema “Etichetta Bianca” and “Etichetta Nera” from the Ferrando family. Roberto Ferrando feels that while the ’11, ’12, and ’13 vintages are all excellent, the ’13 is the most classic of the three. 2013 brought a cool growing season with a fair amount of rain during the spring, which led to a dry and balanced summer and fall. He finds the ‘13s have extraordinary balance, great acidity, fine tannins, and slightly sweet fruit that avoids the hints of “sur-maturité” that can come out in warmer vintages. Also declarative of the vintage’s greatness is the fact that “Etichetta Nera” was produced in 2013 – this wine is only made if the vintage merits it.
Carema “Etichetta Bianca” 2013
This cuvée is produced from a variety of plots that make up the 2.5 hectares of vineyards that the Ferrando family works. As is the custom, the ’13 was aged for more than three years in a combination of large and small barrels, all of a certain age. The wine was bottled in December 2016. For us, the “Etichetta Bianca” consistently captures the spirit of Carema best. The 2013 is no exception. The senses are battered on first approach with glistening, pure-cherry fruit. The fruit, which is not especially rich, unfolds across the palate to reveal a combination of earthy anise, mint-tinged spice and a clean, mineral backbone that adds depth, length and structure. The tannins in the ’13 are present but are (typically in this appellation) extremely fine and gentle.
Carema “Etichetta Nera” 2013
The “Etichetta Nera” is produced only in the best vintages from a selection of the family’s best parcels. Like the “Etichetta Bianca”, it was aged for 38 months before being bottled last December. The only difference between the two is that this wine is aged only in smaller barrels only a minor percentage of which are new. As the name implies, this cuvée has a much richer and darker tonality than the “Etichetta Bianca”. The fruit has a more concentrated and sweeter edge, with a darker color, slight animal undertone, and sweet, medicinal spice. The power of this wine might make one think that it lacks elegance at first, but there is plenty of mineral backbone to give this wine an underlying freshness and structure. The tannins are also a bit stronger in the “Nera,” but are sweeter and offset by the presence of greater material. While you can certainly drink this wine today, those who wait patiently will be rewarded for their perseverance.