Boutique & biodynamic: adventure at two Italian wineries

Worth Ethical Cellar columnists explore two Italian vineyards that combine ethical winemaking with bespoke, luxury accommodation.


The secret terrace. Photo by Em Rambaldi

The night before we arrived at Locanda La Raia, a winery and boutique hotel just north of the small town of Gavi, we had dinner with two Italian friends at their apartment in Milan. When we told them we were spending the next few days in Piedmont, their reactions were spontaneously enthusiastic. “It is as beautiful as Tuscany, but not yet as discovered.”

The view from La Raia the next day proved them right. Our gaze wandered past the pool and manicured herb gardens to the gently rolling hills criss-crossed with vines, views broken only by the occasional ocher farmhouse and La Raia’s sculptures – which form part of their art foundation. The Locanda is located in a neighborhood of magnificent villas. Next door is one of the most impressive, owned by the current boss of Aston Martin.

The visionary behind La Raia is Giorgio Rossi Cairo, a successful Milanese strategy consultant. In 2002, after decades of love for nature, he bought a conventional vineyard that had previously sold their grapes, as many do in Gavi, to bulk wine producers. Rossi Cairo was convinced that Gavi grapes (Cortese and Barbera) could go the “estate bottle” route and compete with better known and appreciated northern Piedmont wines such as Nebbiolo.

He put his daughter Caterina and her husband, a farmer, at the helm. She insisted that the winery was Biodynamic – which they achieved and were awarded the hard-earned Demeter certification in 2007. Seven years ago, she passed the reins to her brother, Piero, who had been an M&A lawyer in Milan. He told us, “I was very lucky to have this as my plan B.” Caterina now runs a school on the 180-hectare property, which Piero’s young son attends.

Walking through the vineyard with its towering stainless steel tanks and massive oak barrels, Piero explained, “we did DNA testing and found over 230 yeast strains on the skins of our grapes. We selected 45 and tested them individually on the same must. Based on the results, we selected the four best. Local yeast brings out the terroir and at the same time gives us a uniform product.” The many awards each of the wines has won prove that he is right.

He continued, “we grow 40 hectares of Cortese [white] and 8 by Barbara [red] gave 29,000 cases of wine. 80 percent is exported, mainly through Europe, but our American presence is growing. The rest of the land is in spelt, rye, bees, cows, chickens and forest. This gives us the biodiversity we are so proud of and encourages fireflies, deer, wild boar and wolves.”

The desire for sustainability extends beyond the vineyard. For example, all of the winery’s energy needs are supplied by newly installed solar panels.

As we discovered, a visit with Piero is an in-depth wine tutorial. Whether you are a guest at La Raia or simply planning a tasting, he (and constant companion Jack the dog) will spend hours with you – walking through the vineyards and winery – before culminating in a multi-bottle tasting.

For example, he encouraged us to try sulfited and sulfited versions of the same wine, which was one of the most revelatory tastings we’ve had. The sulphified wines lacked finesse. The Cortes was more raw and of course a bit fizzy. The Barbera bordered the barn. Natural wine purists can embrace this terroir’s abundance. We applaud him for offering the opportunity.

Piero noted, “there is a common identity between all the wines. They respect the soil and the fruit. They are clean and delicate.”

White (Cortese):

  • Gift DOCG is their gateway wine. It is surprisingly rich and citrusy with a smooth finish. Shines as an everyday choice due to its fresh, balanced minerality.
  • Gift DOCG Reserve. The grapes are harvested later and the wine spends longer on the lees, resulting in a creamier and more delicate finish than the non-reserva.
  • Gift DOCG Pisa. This lightly oaked wine has sold out since its introduction. It is made only from the best grapes and the oldest vines in exceptional years.

red:

  • Piedmont DOC Barbera. Garnet colored. With hints of berries and pepper, this is a medium-bodied, raw, pleasant and approachable wine.
  • Piedmont DOC Barbera Large. Like Pisé, this wine is only made in exceptional years when everything is right. Aged for 20 months, the aroma is broad and intense. Chocolate, spices and blackberries linger on the palate.

Loconda interior. Photo by P. Calamara

Back at the Locanda, we rested in the common spaces, where Rossi Cairo artfully integrated Italian modern design with antiques; an ultra-modern Milanese lamp rested on the floor next to a villa-worthy antique marble fireplace. The rooms are furnished in the same way. Ours had a 17th-century wardrobe and a 19th-century chestnut chest of drawers alongside a modern glass-topped table and chairs.

Upstairs common room. Photo by B. Bassanelli

The level below, with its original vaulted brick ceilings, houses a gym, spa, hammam and indoor-outdoor pool.

La Raia’s kitchen is overseen by Michelin-starred chef Tommaso Arrigoni. Although the dining room prioritizes guests staying at the Locanda, they easily fill empty tables with diners coming from as far away as Genoa. Our 5 course dinner included a parmesan soufflé amuse bouche, an excellent brandade plated in a visually striking way it seemed sacrilegious to eat it, freshwater fish ceviche in a vinaigrette seasoned with garden herbs, homemade pasta with wild mushrooms, a rich fish bisque with calamari and gnocchi with beef (from their farm) and mushroom ragu.

Breakfast is sumptuous and includes eggs from their chickens along with homemade granola, yogurt from local goats and juice from their own pear trees.

La Raia offers full concierge service. Wine tours, cooking classes, horseback riding and bike tours are just a few of their “off-campus” activities.

The staff are welcoming and really warm. We experienced genuine hospitality without a trace of formality. As Maurizio Toccalino, the manager, succinctly put it, “we want our guests to feel like they are in the elegant country house of close friends. We want them to come back… and they do.”

La Segreta: Luxury in the Umbrian hills

We got our first look at Agri Segretum, La Segreta’s winery, at the perfect time of day. The setting sun cast its golden rays over the newly selected vineyard, located about 20 minutes north of Todi – a medieval gem.

Lorenzo de Monaco, co-owner with his American-born wife Eileen Holland, had taken us out into the fields to check grapes that were harvested late. He and Eileen met while they were students in Boston. After a long-distance relationship, they got married. Years of leading bike tours through Italy followed before the incremental purchase of this land (much from the Catholic Church), the renovation of crumbling farmhouses on the property into their own home and rental villa, and the planting of 7.5 hectares (19 acres) of vines in 2008, which is dry-farmed and certified organic. They also use many biodynamic methods.

As these rigorous methods require, no corners are cut in the field or vineyard. Lorenzo consults with agricultural biologists on soil, planting and pest control. “We have a small farm, so I know every row, every block. I know what the plants need to thrive. Climate change has kept us on our toes. The warmer summers with less rain have required a new approach such as picking earlier, leaving a cooling canopy of leaves and pruning less so the sugar concentrations aren’t too extreme. Of course, the good news is the grapes have more focused flavor.”

For too long this area, like so much Italian vinifera, was treated with less than the respect it deserves. Traditionally, farmers sold their grapes in bulk to either cooperatives or global branded bottlers. Conventional farming puts harmful chemicals into the soil. The goal was to make lots of wine and push the yield to the limit. “It was a long road to turn this lifestyle around and become certified organic, to nurture each vintage and create the carefully crafted wines we now sell across Europe and the US”

Borrowing words from the local dialect, they named their wines to reflect each wine’s personality.

  • They freghino (‘teenager’) is an accessible, non-oaked, as Lorenzo describes the “Monday wine” sold in liter bottles to restaurants. Primarily Sangiovese, the grapes are picked early and fermented in stainless steel. Medium-bodied with hints of red berries.
  • Pottarello (‘little child’) is vineyard block specific, again primarily Sangiovese. The fruit is picked later and spends longer in contact with skins before being moved to stainless steel and then oak barrels. Full-bodied with tannins and a hint of spice. A well-known Italian guide chose this as their “red wine from Umbria.”
  • Brat (‘rascal’) is their cru flagship wine, primarily Sangiovese Grosso mixed with Sagrantino (Umbria’s native grape). It spends years both on oak and then the bottle. Full-bodied with rich tannins. Dark ruby ​​red. Their recently released 2016 is already hard to find.
  • Cinino (‘Little’) is Pet Nat at its best. Fresh berries with cream, it sparkles on the palate. Redolent of the hot Umbrian summer. So successful, it’s on allocation.
  • Santino (‘Little Saint’). A new offering, this delicious dessert wine is 100 percent Sagratino, late picked and dried on racks.

A lucky few can share the La Segreta experience. The incredibly talented designer/decorator Eileen offers two housing options.

First, Eileen has transformed two atmospheric farmhouses, connected by a grape-covered loggia, into a single opulent rental with up to five bedrooms. Couples can book only the smaller unit during low season.

They are extraordinary examples of Italian design. Relaxing, eye-catching quality furniture is framed by smooth floors and walls. Glass doors open to outdoor dining and nearby gardens which lead down to the pool. A fireplace will keep you warm in autumn and modern AC cool in summer. “I was an art history major and came to Italy to study,” explained Eileen, “Although I fell for Lorenzo in Boston, my passion for Italian design preceded my Italian marriage.”

Recently, Eileen worked her magic at La Casetta, a 17th-century house in town, a few minutes away in the hilltop village of Collazzone. Here, Eileen explained, “this town is an inspiration to us. But like so many Italian villages, the inhabitants have moved to the cities and the community is struggling with population loss. Houses are empty, which leads to shops closing. Services are being reduced. For example, we have lost our bank.”

“Lorenzo and I wanted to create jobs for the local artisans and at the same time show how these underutilized buildings could be regenerated into modern, in-demand habitats.”

We stayed in La Casetta. Spread across four creatively imagined levels, each doorway frames an interesting vista, be it a terrazzo sink or an old farmhouse table, all in soothing earth tones. The lower level living room leads to an outdoor area for cooking and socializing. Below is the pool, technically not an infinity but looking like one, cantilevered to the surrounding valleys and mountains that go on forever.

The upper levels of La Casetta have a well appointed kitchen and 2 bedrooms each with their own bath. Being at the top of the hill, we watched the sunrise from the living room and the sunset from the kitchen.

The beds have fine linens, not surprising since everything from towels to glassware is custom made. Even the wooden doors and shelves are unique. Eileen reclaimed them from the old scaffolding that the contractors used on the building.

Being in town gave us the opportunity to go to Al Leone, the one restaurant in town where the owner can be seen making pizza in his wood fired oven. Al Leone also has pasta and creative entrees like rabbit with olives and fennel…. plus a La Segreta wine list.

La Segreta means “the secret” in Italian, Eileen and Lorenzo explained why… the property is hidden in the hills – or at least it was. Now wine lovers have discovered this most precious secret. And so do we.

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