At the point where the mountainous norther region of Italy that is the Valle d’Aosta empties itself into the hills and flatter terrain of the Piedmont wine-making region, you find yourself in Carema, a small town with a long history of wine-making. Vittorio Garda is one of 10 wine-makers that makes wine in a DOC (1967) that has a very long history, but one that nearly disappeared. Today, the wine-making area comprises of about 25 hectares of planted area, or about 62 total acres of vines
The vineyards in Carema use a terraced system at the foot of the Valle d’Aosta using granite posts (now often switched to concrete), and wood beams. The rock terraces and mountainsides both reflect the rays of the sun, as well as store heat and help with maturation by extending the warmth of the day. Vittorio Garda, one of the young local wine-makers in this resurgent area, says that the terraces themselves go back for centuries, but they are constantly needing to be rebuilt. Storms and hard rains often wash the topsoil down into the valley, often destroying the terraces entirely. Vineyard owners then need to bring the soil back up the mountainsides after they have rebuilt the terrace walls – which seems to make this viticulture doubly heroic, given the already intrepid decision to grow grapes at the DOC required 300-600 meters in elevation (approx. 1000-2000 ft.) on the side of the Italian Alps.
The grape here, as in so much of the Piedmont region, is Nebbiolo, but the clone used is Picotendro, sometimes referred to as Picutener. It is a version common in the Valle d’Aosta, which has to some degree adapted a bit more to the elevation, the cooler weather, and tends to takes its time ripening in the mountainous region. As distinct from the Nebbiolo grown in the Langhe and other Piedmont regions, Picotendro is higher acid, less robust, a bit more delicate, and takes a bit more time in the bottle to mature. Carema reds must comprise 85% of this Nebbiolo, the remainder of which may consist of a maximum 15% of other authorized Piedmont red grapes. Age requirements are at least 36 months, of which 24 must be in wood, while the riserva must spend an extra six months in barrel.
Many of the current winemakers are young, and returning to making family wines, which went into steep decline, post-World War II, as Italy industrialized. They have day jobs, and often choose to make wines for more artisanal and stress-free reasons. Wine Decanter says that historically:
“Although the wine is barely known internationally due to its limited production, wine lovers have held it in great esteem for centuries. Carema sat on a strategic point on the military road to old Gaul, and it’s believed the Romans encouraged settlement by terracing vineyards. Winemaking in Carema was famous as early as the 16th century. By the early 1900s, the area under vine was upwards of 120ha. But political and economic woes of the 20th century shifted Carema’s direction. (https://www.decanter.com/learn/what-is-carema-ask-decanter-475667/).”
While the Barolos from the more well known regions of Piedmont are amazing in and of themselves, getting to walk the vineyards of Carema in the shadow of the last mountains that form the Valle d’Aosta is a special treat. Vittorio suggests that they will keep adding vineyards here and there, and, hopefully, just enough to make these wines a bit more accessible to the world, as they are very hard to find.
I often think how I like to find interesting and lesser known wine regions, and the educational opportunities that come from them. Carema is the perfect example of the places I like to discover, and the wines I enjoy tasting.