You find good wine even when you are not looking for it. We often have a harder time when we go off searching for great wine but, this time, Alessandra Bera found us.
Late in 2002, we received some exhuberant e-mails from a wine maker in Piedmonte, Italy telling us we had to work with her wines. She had been given our address by her good friends in France, like Pierre Breton of Bourgueil, Marcel Richaud of Cairanne, Jean-Marie and Thierry Puzelat in Cheverny and Claude Maréchal in Burgundy. All these French vignerons, vignerons we proudly work with, told Alessandra that her style of natural farming and natural wine would be a perfect fit for Louis/Dressner Selections.
Alessandra had our attention. We learned that she would be joining the festivities surrounding Catherine & Pierre Breton’s legendary Dive Bouteille tasting held every year the Saturday before the Salon des Vins de Loire in Angers. We told Signora Bera that we would see her there.
The estate dates back to 1785, when the Bera's ancestors originally purchased some of the land from the Knights of Malta. By this time, the cultivation of grapes -- and in this area particularly Moscato grapes -- was already well-established since the 13th century (and once again we are indebted to those reviled Crusaders for their faithful spreading of the word “Grape” to every corner of the known world they traveled to!). By the end of the 18th century -and continuing the 19th and 20th centuries- the fame of Moscato (read: Asti Spumante) spread worldwide -- and so did slipshod production methods. With few exceptions, the bulk standardization of this wine has been the norm ever since.
The Bera family is different. This was the first estate to bottle and market its' own wine in the Canelli region. The estate lies in Sant’Antonio di Canelli, within the region of Serra Masio, the most prestigious and ancient of the area’s Moscato production. The grapes are entirely Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains and are cultivated on steep, southeast slopes of calcerous marl (of ancient oceanic origins). All of the estate is cultivated in organic viticulture with an emphasis on creating an active, healthy ecosystem. All grapes are harvested by hand and their juice is fermented without yeast inoculations. All the winemaking is done by Alessandra's brother, Gian Luigi.
In addition to Moscato, the Bera family also grows the precocious white grapes Cortese, Favorita and Arneis which they blend to make a fantastic white wine called Arcese. For reds - all vinified with no filtering or fining - Dolcetto and Barbera are cultivated using the same careful techniques as the Moscato.
This interview with Alessandra Bera took place in Los Angeles in March 2011.
Tell us about the Bera estate.
We are a small estate, which is common in Piemonte. We own 10 hectares of vines in the commune of Canelli and for the last two years we've also been renting 2 hectares, also in the area. Our best known cuvée is our Moscato D'Asti and represents the bulk of our production since we are in a great area for this variety. Six of our hectares are Moscato. We also grow Cortese, Arneis and Favorita –with which we make the Arcese cuvée - in white, and in red we grow Barbera and Dolcetto.
You work with the rest of your family, right?
Of course! I work with my brother Gian-Luigi who does most of the work in the cellar and our father Vittorio who is the founder of the estate. He is still a very strong presence and oversees pretty much everything we do, especially in the vineyard.
In a way you are directly responsible for Louis/Dressner discovering many of the Italian wines we currently work with. How did that happen?
I've been working with my family for a long time now and over the years I'd befriended many French vignerons who were involved in France's natural wine movement. They were the ones, in particular Pierre Breton and Thierry Puzelat, who told me I should contact Louis/Dressner. This was around the time of the Dive Bouteille; Joe and Kevin were there and we were introduced. I then wrote them an email about wanting to work with them: they agreed and I think this was the inspiration for exploring more natural Italian wines. They asked me to organize a tasting with a small selection of estates I liked. We did this at my house and I brought in wines from Stefano Bellotti (Cascina degli Ulivi), Nadia Verrua (Cascina Tavijn) and Angiolino Maule. This served as a launching point for Louis/Dressner's passion for great Italian natural wine.
What's the work like in the vines?
Very simple. My father took over the estate from my grandfather in 1964 and continued working the exact same way. He once told me "Why should I poison myself? My father was able to work without chemicals so why can't I?"
We are working traditionally: everything in the vines is done manually, with the exception of the occasional plowing to get rid of weeds, which we do with a tractor. We've been certified organic since 2000, but as far as I'm concerned we work traditionally; the work methods are the exact same as my grandfather's. Some newer additions include the use of green fertilizers by planting selected legumes in the fall that help the flow of nitrogen into the roots of the vines. In the spring we bury them so they can be closer to the roots. Under no circumstances do we trim the vines, opting to tie them up manually.We use copper and bouillie-bordelaise to prevent mildew. We hand harvest.
And in the cellar?
We've been making entirely natural wine in the cellar for many years now: no inoculation and respect of terroir. For me the cellar work is secondary; the real work is in the vines. We are perfectionists in the vines because we want our grapes to be as pure as they can be. We have very low yields which obviously helps the maturing process. Once we get those grapes to the cellar it's pretty straightforward.
Moscato is a little more complicated because it is partially fermented: the tradition of this style of wine is to prematurely stop fermentation in order to reach 5.5%. This is a more involved process that requires technical skill, but again our Moscato is made in a traditional fashion. That's why our Moscato is so complex: we use very ripe grapes of the utmost quality, and by not manipulating it with chemicals in the cellar it remains bright and expressive.
For the reds, everything is done in concrete tanks; we don't use any wood. I find them to always taste alive and fresh. We prefer concrete to stainless steel. And even though we don't use wood, our reds are wine that truly benefit from aging in bottle. This helps them evolve, open up and be more expressive. We never filter the reds. Reds also spend a long time on their lees, 18-24 months or more depending on the cuvée and the vintage. My brother Gian-Luigi is an adept of lees: for him it helps the wines develop in structure and complexity. Never any racking, just a débourbage when we bottle. Very little sulfur, just a tiny bit at bottling to help preserve the wines because they have great aging potential.
How do you feel about your DOC, and more specifically how do your wines fit into the notion of "typicity" of a region?
This is a delicate matter. Just like in France we have problems with DOCs. We feel that we make wines at are typical of the region and truly reflect their terroir, their soil and their grapes. However our wines don't necessarily correspond to the image of our DOC. Our Moscato is always too rich, the color is too dark, something is always wrong! But with the exception of the Arcese, which is our only table wine, we fight for our wines to remain part of our DOC because we feel that Cannelli is the purest, most expressive appellation for Moscato. It would be disrespectful to renounce it. This is Moscato D'Asti, what it was then and what it can be now.
What's your stance on natural wine?
Again this is a bit complicated. In many cases, for wines made naturally, the proof is in the wines themselves. It has become a bit trendy as of late, especially in Italy where the debate on natural wine is very new compared to France. And people still aren't clear what "natural" wine really means. I think a lot of people fixate too much on sulfur, and to me this is a fake problem.
Speaking for myself natural wines are wines that reflect their terroir, soil, and vintage. Wines that aren't standardized, that aren't the same every year. I find the expression of different terroirs to be a beautiful thing. It gives the wine a character, an ability to distinguish itself.
How do you feel about your wines?
Wines from Piemonte are easy to drink. They are complex and structured but always fresh, with a lot of minerality. In such you can drink them at any point in a meal, and and it's fun to see what pairs well. The Moscato, on the other hand, is obviously a great dessert wine but I really appreciate it as an aperitif. With food, I think it pairs well with a stronger goat cheese or a blue cheese.
What are you favorite wines to drink?
I like all wines and I like all cuisines. There are no absolutes; I like to try everything. I obviously drink a lot of natural wine because I have a hard time drinking anything else! As long as they're easy to drink and inspire me to drink them again! If they don't disjoint the meal and work in harmony with food, I like it! And to be perfectly honest, I like drinking the wines of my friends!
This visit at Vittorio Bera & Figli took place in November, 2012.
Words by Jules Dressner, photos by Jake Halper and Josefa Concannon.
Our two day visit with the Bera family involved A LOT of food. We arrived to Canelli in the evening and jumped right into this Bagna Càuda.
This local Piedmontese dish translates to "hot dip", and consists anchovies and garlic in heated oil that you dip raw vegetables into. It was a welcome change from the HUGE QUANTITIES of meat and pasta we had been (joyfully) eating over the last few days, and it all felt pretty light. Except at the end where Alessandra started cracking eggs in the hot oil, cooking them in the process and forcing us to scoop them out with bread. Not to mention the humongous cheese platter and the "broth of 11 o'clock", a bowl of beef broth that supposedly makes you digest huge meals better. I'm pretty sure there was caffeine in it, because it woke me right up.
To pair with dessert, we ended the meal with a magnum of Raymond Boulard, the estate Francis Boulard used to run with his siblings.
It was surprisingly aromatic, low in alcohol and high in sugar, which many of us believed was due to an unusually high dosage. But the joke was on us, as it was actually...
Those crazy Bera tricksters! Because of this flub, the Master Sommelier Committee immediately stripped us of our SOMM badges, and re-edited the blockbuster SMASH Somm to not feature any footage of us.
The next morning, we set out the the vines.
The Beras own 12 hectares of vines, and we started by visiting the 5 that surround the house. These Moscato vines are 25 years old, South facing and planted on fairly steep coteaux. No fertilizers are ever used, so the vines are low yielding and much less vigorous that what has become the norm in the area.
The soils here are calcareous. As you can see, there is a lot of grass in the vineyards. They do the fava bean and grass in one row, plow the other row thing: this is a technique many of our producers use, the idea being to give one row the "year off" to rest and fully replenish itself. The estate is certified organic.
The lovely Knights of Malta brought the Moscato grape from Greece to this part of Italy in the 13th Century. The Bera family actually bought land from the Knights themselves! Moscato d'Asti's unique style is due to two major influences: before filtration techniques were introduced to cellars, bubbles were a natural way of preserving wine. Throw in the fact that the taste of nobility was for sweet wines at the time, and there you have it!
Next, we visited a recently acquired plot located very close to the house.
Barbera, Moscato and Sauvignon Blanc are planted here. The vines were owned by an old farmer who recently retired, are on average 80 years old and have been always been worked organically. Buying more land hadn't been in the works, but the proximity to the house and the age/sanitary state of the vines made it a deal too good to pass up.
Their cat Piccolito decided to keep guard in case of intruders.
As we continued our walk, we came upon this statue of San Giovanni the Evangelist, which looms over an ugly power plant.
After touring the vines, it was time to visit the cellar and have Gian-Luigi give us an official lesson on how to make Moscato. Get ready, this is complex stuff!
1. Harvest grapes in 20 k plastic holders.
2. Do a slow pneumatic press (3-5 hours)
3. Immediately rack the juice to stainless steel tanks.
4. The must is then clarified with a natural gelatin that dissolves in the juice and sinks to the bottom, nabbing all the dirty stuff along the way.
5. The clean wine is racked and separated from its lees. Must is then frozen and brought to a cold chamber, where it is kept for a later step. The risk in working this way is that the yeasts in the must (which are almost completely dormant, but not always), could potentially reactivate, thus wasting the must and natural re-fermentation.
6. At this point, Gian-Luigi filters ONLY if there are too many lees. In conventional Moscato making, a systematic and very strong filtration is done to get rid of live yeasts, then a "stimulant" commercial yeast is used to make the bubbles, as there is still a lot of sugar left in the wine at this point.
7. Wine is racked to a 5000 l thermal tank. Fermentation starts at 19 degrees. It's usually quite slow the first two days, but really picks up on the third. Normally, it takes no longer than a week for the wine to reach 5.5 alcohol.
8. When the desired amount of alcohol is reached, the tank is chilled down to block the fermentation. The wines stabilize for 10-15 days.
9. The wine is now softly filtered. This is not an easy task because the the wine is under pressure and still active. One tank takes a full day.
10. The wine is bottled, and you get to drink it!
Unsurprisingly, the old school way of making Moscato was way more primitive, and involved this contraption.
The wine was filtered through cloths (placed in those things that look like utters), then caught in a wool sack at the bottom. The fermentation would actually be blocked by the cold of the winter! 1973 was the last year it was used.
That night, we had a huge dinner with a ton of meat and a bomb risotto. Vittorio was very happy that our appetites were up to par.