Borgo Moncalvo

Who: Andrea and Luca Elegir, and their parents

Where: Loazzolo, possibly the smallest DOC in Italy, south of Canelli in Piemonte

What grapes: Moscato, Brachetto, Barbera, Dolcetto, Pinot Noir, Cortese

How many bottles: 20,000

Key facts: Borgo Moncalvo power their estate entirely with solar panels, and use solar energy for their hot water. Many of their vines were planted in the 1920’s.

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Borgo Moncalvo Metodo Classico Rose’ DOC

100% Pinot Noir, matured on the yeast for 20 months. The wine is made with only the natural grape sugars of the fruit, including the second fermentation. From high-elevation Guyot-trained old vines.

Organic: Certified Organic
Soil type: terra bianca limestone-rich clay soils
Elevation: 350-400 meters above sea level
Grapes: 100% Pinot Noir
method of fermentation: Matured on yeast for 20 months. Natural Fermentation
Bottles made: 3,000

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Borgo Moncalvo Dolcetto d’Asti DOC 

Fruity and fresh like a cru Beaujolais, or a lighter Loire red. From high-elevation hillside vines planted in limestone-rich soils. Hand-harvested, macerated for a week before fermentation. The wine stays in cellar for 6-8 months before release. 

Organic: Certified Organic
Soil type: Limestone-rich soils.
Elevation: 350-400 meters above sea level
Grapes: Dolcetto
Method of fermentation: In most vintages, spontaneous natural yeast fermentations in stainless steel.
Bottles made: 3,000

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Borgo Moncalvo Barbera d’Asti DOCG

Made from high elevation vines planted in the 1950’s. These vines are scrupulously thinned to lower yield and create a more intense wine. Hand-harvested, pressed immediately and fermented at cool temperatures. The wine has a long maceration period before racking, then at least a year in oak before bottling. The estate generally keeps its Barbera for several years prior to release.

Organic: Certified Organic
Soil type: mix of Calcerous marls and Clay Limestone
Elevation: 350-400 meters above sea level
Grapes: Barbera
Method of fermentation: Fermented at cool temperature, a long maceration period before racking. One year in oak before bottling.
Bottles made: 1,500

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Borgo Moncalvo Brachetto d’Acqui DOCG 

Frizzante, low alcohol, a lighter take on dessert wine. Also great as an apertivo. Guyot-trained hillside vines planted 300-450 meters above sea level. 

Organic: Certified Organic
Soil type: terra bianca limestone with clay
Elevation: 300-450 meters above sea level
Grapes: Brachetto
method of fermentation: cold-stabilization to retain natural sweetness and delicate fizz
Bottles made: 1,500

Visiting farms I am usually first greeted by dogs. Alex the basset hound met me in the long driveway, near an appealingly laden cherry tree. The cherries were a swirl of white/pale yellow and cherry red. I waited until they were offered… unsurprisingly they were more enjoyable than the kilo of cherries I had purchased roadside, fruit that basically sustained me for a week while meandering from farm to farm. Alex lives in Loazzolo, a tiny, steep valley in the southern Italian Piedmont. It’s a good dog’s life, plenty of space to amble among forest and vineyard, and time to greet the infrequent visitors who arrive down a precariously winding narrow road that clings to the valley’s sides.

After Alex’s welcome, Andrea Elegir emerged from the family home and cellar. Andrea is the young winemaker at Borgo Moncalvo, a 7-hectare organic property (5.5 ha of vines plus forest). He is also talented and motivated enough to make wine in the cellar of his closest neighbors. Andrea speaks French; he summoned by cell phone his brother (and Alex’s owner) Luca Elegir, who studies Spanish and English in Turin, and is unsurprisingly a Juventus fan. The dog is named after Alex Pirlo, the great Italian midfielder, recently an essential part of the championship-winning Juve side. Fine. I asked Luca why he wasn’t a Torino fan, mostly to be contrary. An entertaining torrent of derisive commentary concerning (mostly) the fans of Turin’s second (by a long margin) soccer team was unleashed. I like understanding people’s other passions.

We communicated mostly in Spanish while trekking the impressively steep vineyards around their home. It was a lively four-language discourse, an interesting moment in a shrunken-by-travel-and-technology world, a cloud of partially-learned nouns and poorly conjugated verbs trailing away in a tiny remote valley that Andrea claims is the smallest DOC in Italy. I believe him, but do not really know for sure.

How steep is steep? We talk about steep quite a bit. Here’s my metric. I slipped several times just trying to walk up the vineyard path, a dry rocky track that was probably only suited to hiking boots. I’m no mountain goat but similar balance difficulties have only afflicted me along the slate-strewn and dizzying Mosel.

The Elegir family is farming vines planted in the 1920s and the 1940s, the oldest parcels in the DOC, with the help of all family members and one hired worker. Their vines grow in a mix of terra bianca calcareous marls and terra rossa clay-limestone.

Borgo Moncalvo is small but ambitious. The cellar and estate run on solar power. The wines are certified organic. Borgo Moncalvo is sustainability at its best. A small farm maintained by generations of the same family, producing a high-quality regional product in a setting that allows space for the natural world to coexist.

And they seem to be having a good time doing it, too! As we tasted through many young and some old wines in the Elegir’s living room, Luca and Andrea’s mother introduced numerous plates of delicious food: a lemony chicken dish, local cheeses and salamis, cherries of course, and an excellent dessert of berries macerated in Brachetto. I should have eaten more, not to be rude, but there was so much to be had! My attention was distracted by a Cortese, leesy and ripe and note-perfect with the chicken, then by a subtle, refreshing Dolcetto and substantial Barbera. The fruity, fizzy wines were great, too. I left their hidden home in a fine mood. This encounter really felt like finding great wine made by the right people way down at the absolute end of the road.

Spring 2014 update

This is a story about an awesome walk in the wilderness that almost did not happen. Luca Elegir had the flu. I learned this distressing news moments after we shook hands. Yikes. I should have known something was wrong: he was green. He seemed wrung out, muted, diminished. Luca reported two previous bouts of the same illness this winter. The man was shaken. Pierluigi entered, clearly suffering the same malady. His farmer skin was somewhere between yellow and beige, not the picture of rude health I’d grown accustomed to from this man of the mountains. This was not to be a typical gregarious tasting at Borgo Moncalvo. But we tasted wines: good as always, actually steadily better. Andrea Elegir (the winemaker, Luca’s brother) is exceptionally talented, his talent is beginning to unwind; he is stretching out even in this early stage of his career. I get a sense he is about to blow past the pack of talented young winemakers thriving in southern Piemonte today. Amazing wines will come from Borgo Moncalvo one day soon.

Luca’s mom was a tolerant nurse during my visit. The men of the house were pathetic, needy. As the tasting sort of wimpered to its shaky conclusion, I made an off-hand comment about how beautiful the vineyards are on a sunny spring day. Really, Borgo Moncalvo’s fields must be seen to be believed. I’ve never visited another site like theirs in the southern Piedmont. Fantastic. Steep, remote, high above sea level: they look down on everything, a big part of why the wines are elegant even in the warmest vintages. The soil is stony, calcerous, visibly infertile. My out-the-door remark sprung Pierluigi into action. Suddenly the man is up, and wants to go for a walk! I couldn’t believe it. Luca looked flabbergasted. His father had influenza. The duo were taking industrial doses of prescription medication.

Our walk was spectacular. Maybe to vanquish his demons, Pierluigi seemed determined to go up and up and up, past nearly vertical vines, up narrow stone steps carved into rocky infertile fields planted between 1940 and 1945, through small stands of oaks planted as a catalyst for black truffles (Pierluigi’s semi-retirement hobby/job), and eventually to an old empty farmhouse above their top vineyard. Paradiso. This was the original dwelling of Pierluigi’s family. When his father died, Pierluigi’s wife (who is from Rome and therefore a city lady not down with living in a hermitage) refused to occupy it. I’d move there. I could write novels in a place like that. Nobody would pester you, that is for sure.

The views are truly stunning. The only sounds were water running in ancient cisterns, birds, and the rustle of a forest in late winter. Residents of Paradiso live life among the wild boar and deer, an ascetic, remote existence.

The Elegir’s current home is only barely less removed. Maybe views of the hamlet of Loazzolo across the valley ease isolation. In reality you wind down one-lane switchbacks through vineyards for many kilometers to reach the farm. Wandering back down from Paradiso to the cellar we passed the family’s vegetable garden and traced the route of the modern aquifer that supplies their home. Their water is a real treasure, still pure. It passes through many strata of calcerous rock and then down the colline through their organic farm to the house and cellar. Few people have water like this, and it surprises me that its value is not widely recognized. The stuff of life, after all.

My visit was switched to spring this year, and I think I’ll keep it that way in years to come. The farm really comes alive in March. And I can happily relegate to history concerns of getting stranded on the snowy tiny road to Borgo Moncalvo midwinter. I hope the guys are feeling better: the real heavy lifting of the viticultural cycle starts soon!

Winter 2013 Update

Escape from Borgo Moncalvo in snowy winter is perilous. Comprehensive inspection of my snow tires convinced Andrea to lead me out of their steep valley. He was concerned. His American importer needed to make it back to America mostly intact. I waited too long. It was hard to leave at a prudent time because food prepared by Luca and Andrea’s mother was abundant and good, and a corner of the farmhouse contained tiny newborn puppies, cute and not available as trip companions. And it had been six months. There was plenty to talk about.

The ground between vines had been getting whiter all day, and now roads were beginning to disappear into hillsides. 2012-2013 was a real winter in Piedmont, good for the water table and a solid reminder that Piemonte means foot of the mountains. The climate is  continental in comparison to most of Italy.

I love time on real small farms. Fruit trees, errant chickens clucking around, resting equipment and the silence that follows strenuous physical work. The stress drains from my body. I see the risk in what they do, the challenge of making a living with nature as an unpredictable ally and the economics of the food trade untethered from agricultural reality. In real time this farm is a palliative. My nerves untangle.

I am relaxed at Borgo Moncalvo because they have wines that resonate with my personal taste and find a groove in our small import catalog. This vintage’s Dolcetto has an unsettlingly pure and appealing violet color and high-intensity floral aromas, preamble to way more pure dark fruit than would seem likely. The reasons for this really good wine are a little bad, if predictable. Variable spring weather and hot August days led to a small harvest of perfectly ripe, unblemished fruit. Andrea did the rest.

Save space in your fridge for a bottle of Borgo Moncalvo Cortese. The 2012 is leesy richness and multiple levels of flavor appeal. It is wine you can love at a price level where most bottles are only just fine.