It’s very rare to find a winery and vineyard that is able to transport you back in time; a winery that feels like stepping into a beautifully preserved black and white film photograph. That is what La Borgatta achieves; not because they’re creating something atavistic, but simply because this is how they’ve always done things — largely unchanged since the 1960s.
The wines are the definition of timeless; these are classical beauties; yet ones made without restraint. This is like drinking the thinking of decades gone by, transported into today’s world.
LITTLEWINE spoke to Emilio for this piece, with the kind help of Modal wines for translation and photographs
Meet Emilio and Maria Luisa
The winery and farm, 'La Borgatta,' has been in the family since the mid 1940s, when Italo, the father of Maria Luisa, moved to Tagliolo. The majority of the vineyards were planted in the mid 1940s, and he began to make wine in 1949. Emilio Oliveri, meanwhile, is originally from Campo Ligure in Liguria, but moved to be with his love Maria Luisa in 1963, which would become his first official vintage at La Borgatta. He remembers,
“At that time, I still worked for a textile factory nearby, so I split my time between the two. I was fascinated by the work in the vineyards, and it quickly became one of the most important parts of my life. When Maria Luisa's father eventually passed away, I took over the estate and continued the same tradition and the same methods that had always been used since the 40s.”
That year was 1980. Now in their eighties, things have remarkably pretty much stayed the same since, although they have had to downsize the estate over time:
“We have sadly had to reduce the estate over the past 10 or so years. We used to have nearly four hectares, but it became unmanageable for Maria and I… we no longer have youth on our side! We have just under two hectares now, and plan to remain that way.”
In many ways, the vineyards and life at la Borgatta represents a pre-technological era. Things here remain in black & white, and they’re simply better that way. Emilio says,
“When I started working with Italo, the approach in the vineyards was very simple. We used sulphur and a little bit of copper when necessary, and we worked the soils to control weeds and grass, though again only when necessary. I saw how well this worked for us, so I never saw a need to change our methods.”
There’s the saying, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and here that really rings true. Why change their methods when they work, or their philosophies when they’re central to their way of life? He continues,
“Having grown up close to nature and to the land my whole life, something really did not sit right with the idea of spraying strange products onto the soils, products that had been engineered and manipulated in a laboratory, and products that mostly seemed to have destructive effects. We used our common sense and stuck with what we knew had worked for decades. We also had no desire to look for shortcuts or to simplify our workflow. The manual work in the vines is one of our favourite activities, and we cherish it. Plus, we couldn't really afford any fancy products! In our gut, we knew the chemical way was not the true way. We must protect our earth at all costs. For us, without this land, without our plants and our vines, there is no reason to live. We have been caretakers of this small but cherished piece of land for decades. It is a part of us, it is home.”
They have also remained dedicated to the varieties that they initially planted, largely unphased by trends and what their neighbours were doing. This means that while other producers sometimes see Dolcetto as an inferior grape variety, destined for entry-level cuvées, La Borgatta has always taken it seriously and given it just as much attention as their other varieties. Emilio says,
“We've always worked primarily with Dolcetto, as this is the grape that this area is known for. However, we've always farmed a tiny plot of Barbera as we are big fans. For many years we also tended to some old vines of Cortese, but we lost the majority of these to a terrible frost in 2017, so we decided to rip out the very few remaining vines.”
Although both Piemontese grapes, he explains that Dolcetto and Barbera are quite different from one another. He says,
“We treat them mostly the same in the vineyards, although typically Dolcetto (in our area) is more sensitive to issues such as powdery mildew, whereas Barbera is more resilient. Barbera ripens later — it is the very last to be harvested — and comes in around two weeks after the Dolcetto. The grapes themselves are quite different, too — Dolcetto produces bigger berries and the bunches are less dense. The berries are also an absolute joy to eat as table grapes when they are ripe! Barbera is a bit different; the bunches are much more dense, more tightly packed, and the berries are a touch smaller. They are also less enjoyable to eat as they tend to be much more acidic, at least until the very point when we pick them.”
Despite their differences in characteristics, they maintain the same winemaking style for both varieties, providing us a transparent view into their true personalities. Emilio explains,
“We make both varieties in the exact same way, although the wines have distinct differences. Dolcetto tends to be more immediate; ready to drink much sooner. Although we personally choose to the age the wines for between three and five years in bottle, generally the Dolcetto is actually ready after a year or two. That said, it continues to improve for many years. Barbera, on the other hand, always needs more time. It is more tense — more edgy — a bit more serious… and it needs those extra years to soften. We rarely release our Barbera before it has aged for five years.”
In terms of their technique, much like in the vineyards, things remain unchanged. Emilio tells us,
“The way that Italo made wine in the 40s is the same way that I make wine today. He is the one who taught me how to make wine, and I have never felt the need to change it. We've seen lots of trends come and go, and it is fascinating to see more and more winemakers going back to the styles of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers. The approach is very simple... first, maximum hygiene is the number one aspect, and something we are very particular about, especially as we work naturally. Second, we only ever use healthy and mature grapes, and do a strict sorting. I am quite a bit stricter about this than Italo was, and I can see the massive difference it has made.”
The grapes are destemmed, and the wines ferment naturally in the same concrete vats that have been used here since the 40s. After fermentation, they press, and the wine is racked into steel tanks where it stays on the lees for one year or so, after which they bottle the wine. They typically add 20-30mg/L of sulfites (very low) just before fermentation, and they never add any after that. By the time they analyse, the wines are typically at around 15-20mg/L total.
“A couple of times, I tried the reverse of this: adding SO2 [sulfites] only at bottling, and I felt like the wine changed and took longer to become what it was in the tank… so I went back to the old way. Of course, we only work with natural yeasts, and all the wines are never clarified, nor filtered.”
We ask simply: why? Is this down to philosophy, or because the wines taste better, or both? He replies,
“Well, it is the only way that I know. I have no experience working any other way! In the same way as the viticulture question, if it's always worked for us and given us wonderful results, why change it? And to me, filtering or clarifying wine means removing a part of its soul. It alters the aromatic profile, it alters its textural qualities.... I just really don't feel the need to do this, nor have I ever felt it to be necessary. I'm an old man...” he smiles. “I won't start changing things now!”
We’re grateful to them; these are such gorgeous wines that shouldn’t ever change. Plus, it takes conviction to stay true to yourself during a period in which so many other routes were available. We tell him that the wines move us, and ask him what he and Maria Luisa feel when they drink their wines. He says,
“To be sincere, the wine we make, it is everything. When we open a bottle and it is drinking perfectly, it is a special feeling. The drink in the glass, it is the fruit of our labour, it is the sacrifice of so many years, the sweat and the tears, and a reminder of the passion that has gone into every single bottle. It is a reminder of why we continue do the backbreaking work, the long hours, and the stress that comes with being at the mercy of nature. One sip of a special vintage or of a new release immediately makes it all worth it. And then seeing other people enjoy our wines takes it to another level.”
They are beautiful, sincere words that represent how wine can build bridges between history and the future, which respecting Mother Nature, and we’d be fibbing if we said the wines and their story didn’t bring a tear to our eyes… To Emilio and Maria Luisa, grazie.