Oltretorrente

Who: Chiara Penati and Michele Conoscente

Where: Paderna, near Tortona, Piedmont

How many bottles: 15,000

What grapes: Timorasso, Cortese, Barbera, Dolcetto

Key facts: A young wine-obsessed couple from Milan and their two kids are starting a new organic farm in sleepy Paderna. So far the results are really exciting!

Oltre Torrente


OLTRE TORRE NTE


 

Paderna is almost in Liguria. At lunch the influence is obvious, the minestrone is thick and doused with pesto. Chiara would prefer I arrive on a different day. But Monday is my only option. I realize that embarrassment is the origin of her preference. Their new rented cellar is a big anonymous concrete structure just outside of Paderna, with busted windows and no amenities for winemaking. Cleaning (necessary after almost every step) takes forever. She thinks I will mind watching them clean up the mess. The floor isn’t slanted to allow liquids to flow to a drain. There are no grated drains of the type you see in almost every other cellar in the world.

Still, it’s an improvement on their former cramped space, now used exclusively for ageing wine. Judging from the 2014’s (the first wines assembled in the cellar) the facility is not holding Oltretorrente back: the wines are brilliant, in both senses. Tasted at lunch and then again at dinner with the WOOFers (see below) Cortese, Timorasso and Rosso showed cleaner, brighter, fresher, better than ever before. It was a troublesome vintage that played to the personal tastes of Chiara and Michele, yielding lighter wines with lower levels of alcohol.

Now I’ve eaten at every restaurant in Paderna. There are two. The second may have opened since my last visit. It is willfully contrary: the first place focuses on fish, the new one meat. Their wine lists both mine heavily the 30 estates of the colli Tortonesi, with no overlap. It’s silly, and frustrating to Chiara.

It is hard to overstate how much I like this person. Chiara has an incredible smile, she tells interesting stories (and is really funny) she frets about the present-and-future of this little start-up winery in a way that I live her pain and stress. They are replanting 1,000 Barbera vines a year in their fields, planta that were dead before Chiara and Michele arrived. They fight to get Italian restauranteurs to pay for the wine they receive. The attitude of the proprietors (particularly of the better places) being, “there is someone else in line behind you, pester me and I’ll shove you out of the way.” They borrowed a little money from parents to start the place, and I think a grandparent takes care of their two small children (aged 5 and 3) during harvest and other stressful times, but in effect Oltretorrente have done something exceptional: struck out on their own, started something new.

Walking through fields to see new plantings of Timorasso (and lamenting the ever-present creep of flavescencia) I feel incredibly connected to Chiara. I share her dream. It is essential to me that it succeed. Have you ever met a person that dragged your jaded existentially-wandering self to the very moment you are inhabiting, that gave off such a wallop of real vibes that you were forced to be in the present? She does that. Intensity. Honesty. She’s real, and you feel it.

I see Chiara’s struggle, and for some reason really feel it. These people are talented like few others. They will make it. Michele has been awake for three days, watching the crush of Cortese. He fell asleep in a lawn chair before lunch, as French helper Rafa (another great, positive guy) cleaned out orange cassette.


 

The cellar is an example of inefficiency at its finest, three tiny old stone rooms stacked on top of each other, with disconnected spaces around the village for bottle storage. Soon they will move the warehousing of wine to one larger location. “Right now we have wine everywhere in Paderna!” Chiara says. The small cool underground cellar that houses the remnants of last year’s vintage will become a room for keeping reserve wines. Currently they have no space to age anything, in a few days when Michele bottles the 2013 whites and 2012 reds the room will be totally filled up.

Chiara is from Milan. The choice in 2010 to move to Paderna was a little random: they considered Oltrepo Pavese, (“too expensive!”) Le Marche, many more. I think it’s clear Colli Tortonesi is the right choice, even if hoped-for funding from the local authorities never materialized. “We thought they would give us (a grant) to start something new in Paderna. Now that seems unlikely.” In spite of nonexistent financial backing, the couple managed recently to purchase an additional hectare of 100-year-old vines, and will probably buy another small north-facing parcel from an old farmer who currently rents it to them. “He keeps threatening to rip up the vines,” which is an unsubtle rural negotiation tactic. Today Oltretorrente has 5 hectares to utilize, and will make about 15,000 bottles this year. That’s up from 5,000 in the first year, 10,000 in the second… the goal is to get the estate to 30,000 bottles eventually. Ambitious, but it’s a good size, and I think they’ll make it.

They had to pick a farm somewhere. Chiara had studied at the university in Milan, got her PhD and took a year-long spot at a university in the Netherlands. It was clear to her that positions in academia in Milan were unlikely to be forthcoming. Perhaps the school retains one too many tenured professors teaching conventional viticulture from a different era. And Michele was always making wine elsewhere in Italy: the couple needed to find a place of their own.

Chiara likes raising two small kids in a village where all the locals eat lunch together in the only restaurant. “Everybody knows your business (and has opinions) but you would never starve.” And the kids still see plenty of Milan, diverse perspectives to absorb.

We talk about everything: it’s pretty easy with Chiara. I’m on their side. Through lunch and a nice walk up steep north and south facing Timorasso, Cortese, Barbera and Dolcetto vineyards I get closer to her philosophy. They use minimal sulfur, around 30mg per liter for their white wines. One day they might experiment with an orange wine, but she says lower sulfur “is like playing Russian roulette in reverse. Occasionally it works out but usually….” I pretty much agree. A tiny amount of sulfur strikes me as reasonable, not dogmatic or dangerous.

They are organic in the vineyard. Honeysuckle is in full bloom on the ridge road separating their north and south facing vines. The south-facing ones border the cemetery, so I make dumb zombie jokes. Chiara says she is more afraid of working there because of wild boar. The cellar has a couple rows of 5-hectoliter concrete tanks. There is squeaky-clean stainless steel upstairs with new white (and red) wine in it, and a small stack of mostly second and third use barriques in the cellar. They make all the reds as individual crus, then blend. The 100-year-old Barbera is ridiculously fruity, the 60-year-old Barbera parcel is more structured, with secondary flavors of smoke and spice. It’s an estate of 10+ tiny parcels, so blending them together is the only sane way to make the wine.

They are young, they don’t really have any money, and they make wine in a place probably smaller than your garage. I can tell Chiara really likes Paderna, and it’s easy to do business with people who share your viewpoint and aesthetic. I see Fugazi, Iron Maiden and Fela Kuti cds on the shelf of their apartment, which is attached to the side of the church at the top of Paderna. It’s a house with amazing views in every direction and architectural potential that doesn’t exist where we live, as far as I can tell.

I can’t really get more excited about an estate without needing a brown paper bag to breathe into. The Timorasso is a special wine, saline and bright and ripe. We will sell lots of their richly appley Cortese and a cool, clean vino rosso, but for some of you Timorasso will become wine crack. I know I will have a hard time letting go of it, except I want to create a scarcity of these wines in their cellar and in our warehouse. Awesome people, youngish, full of energy, working 24-7 with two little kids in tow. They are going for it and trying not to think too much about how crazy this project is. Because Michele and Chiara are really obsessed with wine. They collect it like you and I do, it’s a mission/life’s work, the path they are on. It probably feels like the thing they have to do. This place really is the best. And there is a badger on the label.


Wines We Import

Oltretorrente Cortese Colli Tortonesi DOC
[Grapes] Cortese
[Soil Type] Limestone, Clay
[Elevation] 300m [Bottles Made] 2,500
[Method of Fermentation] Whole grape clusters put in the pneumatic press, fermentation in temperature controlled tanks. 8 months aged in steel tanks, 3 months in bottle before release. No malo.

Green apple with really pronounced minerality, this wine is snappy, bright but not thin. It’s a really “complete” wine akin to top-tier Chablis in style. Many types of fish are appropriate with this one: I had it with a rare tuna steak recently, milder white-fleshed fish like Dover sole in traditional French preparations works well, too.

Oltretorrente Timorasso Colli Tortonesi DOC
[Grapes] Timorasso
[Soil Type] chalky, clay
[Elevation] 250m [Bottles Made] 2,500

[Method of Fermentation] Whole grape put in the pneumatic press, fermentation in temperature controlled tanks. No malo.

The Timorasso ramps up the flavor complexity. Oltretorrente’s Cortese is completely satisfying to me, but the Timorasso asks more questions. Unfamiliar flavors are woven into this one, it’s harder to pin down with descriptors. In a basic sense it tastes more fancy, expensive, and subtle than 90% of the wines we import.  I’d serve it with a simple meal, maybe roast chicken and potatoes, and let the wine take center stage.

Oltretorrente Rosso Colli Tortonesi DOC
[Grapes] Barbera and Dolcetto
[Soil Type] Limestone, clay
[Elevation] 300m [Bottles Made] 7,000
[Method of Fermentation] Grapes harvested and separated by field to preserve different field characteristics. Once destemmed the grapes are naturally fermented in temperature controlled cement tanks at 28°C. Skin maceration lasts 10-15 days.

Made from Barbera and Dolcetto, fermented separately (by vineyard parcel) in cement tanks. Fermentations occur at 28 degrees Celsius. Maceration on the skins lasts for 10-15 days. Malolactic fermentation happens in concrete tanks. The wine stays on frequently-stirred lees for the duration of its time in tank.

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