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 Wine, Italy’s great pride

Wine is a fundamental part of life in Italy, perhaps even a way of life for some. Wine is one of Italy’s great prides and is certainly the lifeblood of social gatherings: it is virtually unheard of to get through lunch, aperitivo or dinner with Italians without being offered un bicchiere di vino. Italians have great respect for viticulture (the art and science of wine production), with each region of the country proudly producing its own specialities from the local grape variety. Friends from all corners of Italy often proudly come to dinner proudly clutching a bottle of wine produced on their neighbour’s vineyard or from an independent enoteca stocked with unusual local wines. Indeed, there seems to be a desire among Italians to seek out new and emerging wine labels rather than returning to the household names. Wine buffs know that Italy is one of the world’s finest and largest wine producers, with reds such as Chianti Classico and Barolo achieving global fame and inclusion in wine lists around the world. Some of the oldest wine producing regions are to be found in Italy which has been producing wine for millennia, with evidence of production flourishing as early as 4,000 BC.

A country of huge inventiveness in viticulture and experimentation with a dazzling variety of grape varieties, Italy’s wine production spans the entire length of the peninsula thanks to the country’s favourable climate. And yet despite its global fame for a handful of internationally recognised wines, Italy’s real strength as a winemaking country lies in the secrets to be found in its lesser-known provinces. Every region from the snowy foothills of the Alps to the sun-scorched fields of Sicily is packed with small family run businesses which produce fantastic wines, often largely unknown beyond the immediate locality.

The area of Monferrato in Piedmont is one such region, producing exceptional wines that are only just beginning to creep onto wine lists further afield. The village of Castagnole Monferrato is perched on a small hilltop in an especially attractive series of rolling hills and woodlands between Milan and Turin which are almost entirely planted with vines. Alongside the vines are endless rows of hazelnut trees – another of Piedmont’s prized exports. The nearby towns of Barolo, Barbera and Asti are justifiably famed for their wines, but a short hop from those towns reveals some excellent lesser known wineries whose products can be just as intriguing.

Monferrato is part of a larger area of Piedmont designated in 2014 by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in recognition of its outstanding vineyard landscape and role in the development of vineyards and in Italian history. Its centuries of outstanding wine production result from superb wine-growing conditions: the vines flourish thanks to hot, dry summers, rainy autumns and cold winters which create the ideal climate for vines. The topography of the region is characteristically hilly while the rich clay-based soil composition is ideal for retaining moisture during the heat of the summer, producing sweet grapes that are rich in flavour due to the high sugar content.

Monferrato epitomises a profound and ancient expertise in wine making, gradually established over centuries of cultivating the native grapes of the region. Driving through the hills one is struck by the sheer volume of vines crammed onto every inch of land. The carefully cultivated hillsides are redolent of the respect for the natural environment and a testament to the steady improvements in wine making over the centuries. The result today is an area of sublime vineyard landscape and a superb vinous output which can hold its own throughout the world.

Undoubtedly the area’s most famous red wine – and the backbone of the local economy – is the Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato DOCG, grown from the grape of the same name and native to the area. It is so special, in fact, that Ruchè is only permitted to be grown in seven neighbouring villages in Piedmont, as dictated by a 2010 Ministerial Decree: Castagnole Monferrato, Grana, Montemagno, Portacomaro, Refrancore, Viarigi and the splendidly named Scurzolengo.

Ruchè wine is a light ruby red colour with purple reflections and is characterised by its intensely fruity nose with notes of rose petals and violet as well as red berries, ripe plums and black pepper – characteristics which have earned it the nickname of the ‘fruit wine’. Brilliant with cheese, meat and best of all with spicy, aromatic food, Ruchè is surprisingly versatile. An unpretentious wine, I remember being struck by its easy drinkability when I first tasted Ruchè, and there is now always a bottle or three stashed away in our house.

The name Ruchè is rumoured to come from the “rocche”, which refers to the steep hills on which the vineyards were planted, while others claim the wine takes its name from the Benedictine monastery of San Rocco which once stood in the hills of Castagnole where the vines are now planted.

Where better for a first taste of Ruchè than the Montalbera winery, one of the finest local producers, whose headquarters are situated on a dramatic ridge between the areas of Monferrato and the Langhe. Owned by the Morando family’s third generation of winegrowers, the Montalbera vines cover 100 hectares of land, the majority of which is dedicated to Ruchè. Indeed, nearly 60% of the Ruchè DOCG vines in the region are owned by Montalbera. Aged in steel tanks, the Ruchè “Tradizione” is the best-selling wine, with a production of 70,000 bottles per year. The winery’s meticulous care of the land and careful attention to reducing sulphites during the winemaking process results in a unique and celebrated Ruchè wine that can now be found on a handful of top Milanese restaurant wine lists.

Pop in for a tour of the winery followed by wine tasting in the elegant glass-panelled tasting room which offers panoramic views across the valley. I recommend a late afternoon visit on a clear autumn day for a spectacular view of the sun setting over the hills. Alongside the stellar Ruchè, be sure to also try Montalbera’s excellent Grignolino d’Asti, another lesser known regional grape which produces a fresh, dry red wine with hints of spice. A handful of contemporary bedrooms have recently been unveiled on site, enabling guests to stagger just a few steps post-wine tasting to spend a night among the vines.

Visitors to Monferrato are spoilt for choice where Ruchè is concerned; on the hillside beyond Montalbera the vines belong to the Azienda Agricola Bosco winery, managed by the charming Tommaso Bosco, another fine producer of Ruchè and Grignolino wines, while the neighbouring Luca Ferraris winery also houses a museum of Ruchè that is worth of a visit.

Italy certainly deserves its reputation for world class wine production, but global fame is yet to arrive for the smaller wineries to be found all across the country, many of which produce wines worth of considerable renown. And so, instead of a trip to the well-trodden area of Chianti, why not venture to the bucolic hills of Piedmont to discover the Ruchè wine, arguably the region’s best kept secret.

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