In rare form
Drinking rare wine with Laura Hadland.
Illustration: Pierre-Paul Pariseau
Wednesday 25 May 2022
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Drinking one of the rarest wines in the world sounds like something that only the super-rich might do. Visions of crystal glasses raised by velvet-gloved hands arise in the imagination. Happily, rarity doesn’t always mean inaccessibility. Beautiful wines can simply fade into obscurity when our attention is distracted by the latest trends.
Uvalino: The Forgotten Grape
Uvalino is one such grape that has teetered on the verge of extinction. It is a thick-skinned red grape, grown in the hills of Asti in the northwestern Italian region of Piedmont. While Italy is famous for growing large numbers of native grape varieties, Uvalino had been forgotten at the expense of its more profitable neighbours - particularly Muscat, Barbera, and of course Nebbiolo, the sought-after grape of Barolo.
Once upon a time, every vineyard in the area had at least a few rows of Uvalino growing. It was used to make one of the most well-regarded wines of the region as a single variety or added to improve the quality of other wines. Uvalino would be brought out on special occasions or given as a precious gift.
It was also considered to be a folk remedy, with a small glass being administered to combat a range of maladies. This may not be as fanciful as it sounds. The grapes are high in stilbenes and flavonols, two of the polyphenols associated with the beneficial effects of drinking red wine. It also contains some 30 times the usual concentration of the antioxidant Resveratrol.
Pioneering Piemontese Producers
I walked up the sloping road of the unassuming azienda vinicola of winemaker Mariuccia Borio back in 2019, my last foreign trip before Coronavirus hit. Cascina Castlèt is a homely and neat building. Sunlight bounced off the spotless white-washed walls and accented joyful hanging baskets bursting with bright colour. An aloof farm tabby yawned as I passed on my way to meet Mariuccia, known to all as Maria, in her home’s rustic tasting room.
Maria remembered the special Uvalino wines from her childhood and was determined to revive this unique grape. In 1990, she began by working with the legendary oenologist Renato Ratti and the small plantings of Uvalino he had made on land just opposite her own vineyards. Those original rows no longer exist, and it took Maria a decade of dedicated work and self-funded research before she was finally able to produce a commercially viable wine in 2004. She has continued producing a single variety Uvalino wine each year since.
When I sampled her full range of wines, the comic label of Cascina Castlèt’s Barbera d’Asti stood out to me. It features a black and white photo of Maria and her cousins, playing on a Vespa as children. This sense of fun and heritage is the lifeblood of Cascina Castlèt.
The Borio family have lived on this property for generations, acting as custodians of vineyards planted by the Marquis Filippo Asinari of San Marzano, one of the pioneers of modern viticulture in Piedmont. Maria took over the estate from her father in the 1970s.
Her efforts to preserve Uvalino, working with the Institute of Experimental Viticulture since 1995, were rewarded in 2002 when Uvalino was added to the official registry of Italian grape varieties. Genetic analysis demonstrated it was an autochthonous grape - native to the area - and unrelated to anything else being grown locally. A compelling reason to save these vines from oblivion.
Crushing a Cup
Uvalino is a late-ripening grape, usually picked around the last week of October. It can be left hanging on the vine because it is robust, resistant to disease. The long hang time is when the phenolic content of the grapes dramatically increases. After harvest, a month of careful air drying takes place. The grapes overripen and shrivel slightly so that their juice concentrates.
The wine undergoes malolactic fermentation and is aged in 500 litre oak barrels for two years. The bottles are left to mature in the family cellar for a further two years at least before being released for sale. Maria is able to produce around 4000 to 5000 bottles each year.
All of these factors mean that Uvalino produces big wines, with a full body, high levels of acidity and tannin giving them fantastic aging potential.
Uceline Monferrato Rosso 2013
This wine is named after the “ucelli”, the little birds who love to eat the sweet grapes straight from the vine. This name is historic in its own right - used as far back as the 17th century in Asti as a romantic descriptor for these late-ripening grape varieties. The letters composing the name take flight from the label.
When I tasted Uceline in that small shady room, sheltered from the bright Italian sun, I was reminded of what I had learned from the WSET about judging the quality of wine. If an outstanding wine must have balance, length, intensity and complexity, then this is an outstanding wine.
Full bodied, warming because of the 15.5% alcohol content and bursting with rich layers of brooding flavour, this wine exudes black cherry, dried fig and sweet spice notes. There is plenty more ripe fruitiness besides. Blackberries, blueberries, blackcurrant and more. You will detect cinnamon, liquorice and toasty oak. The rich tannins and hint of sweetness give this decadent wine an almost vintage port-like quality.
Mario Borio has worked quietly and diligently in her beautiful Asti home, preserving a piece of her heritage. In doing so, she has saved an incredible wine for us all to discover. Diamond rings and velvet gloves optional.
Malolactic fermentation (ML)
This secondary fermentation process converts sharp malic acid into creamier lactic acid. It gives wine a softer mouthfeel and more complexity. All wine will naturally undergo this process unless the winemaker chooses to stop it by filtering, chilling or adding sulfur dioxide to the wine.
Most red wines and some white wines will be allowed to undergo ML. If you’ve ever wondered where a buttery Chardonnay gets those creamy notes from, then now you know!
Malolactic Fermentation meaning
“Malo” gives wine a creamy, dairy-like, buttery flavour and silky texture. Bacteria found naturally in the wine is allowed to “eat” sour lactic acid and convert it into malolactic acid.
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