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From Barolo to Cinqueterre, Elio Altare & the Revolution

T. Edward Wines, New York wine importer/distributor, Elio Altare harvestElio Altare at Campogrande in Cinqueterre

When the godfather of Barolo, Elio Altare, purchased Campogrande in 2000, the vineyard had already been abandoned for 50-60 years. “Fifty or forty years ago,” he said, “there were 1,300ha of vineyards. Now, there are 80ha.” Trees were growing through the old pergola wires. “You had to cut the wires so they wouldn’t break the chainsaw,” said Greg Reeves, our Italian Portfolio Director who helped Elio clear the land. They had a helicopter drop in a mini-excavator, and it took three days to clear 2,200 meters of land. The soil was pure rock, each terrace held two to three rows, and the walls were two meters high.  Even now, the terraces require constant attention. Elio is always rebuilding them and this year he will rebuild another.

“I had a dream that I could help save the region,” said Elio of Cinqueterre in Liguria. “The region was completely abandoned, the same as my region in Langhe. If we had good success in Langhe, it’s possible to make success in Cinqueterre.”

“The problem with Cinqueterre is there are no full-time producers,” said Elio. “And you can’t make world-class wines part-time.” Spending his time between Campogrande and La Morra, where he revolutionized Barolo, Elio does everything himself. He goes twice a month to Campogrande, and often, he can go through the 2ha vineyard and pick all of the fruit on his own.

T. Edward Wines, Organic wine importer/distributor, Campograde, Elio Altare

Elio sought to revive Cinqueterre.  In 2004 he found a student, who was eager to open a cellar and make wine. “I advised him,” said Elio, “if you start in Cinqueterre, we’d be the first full-time agriculturist. I helped him. I bought some terraces and financed the cellar. But after three or four years, in 2007, he decided ‘This is not my life,’ and he abandoned.”  The next year, Elio started to make wines with his current partner Tonino Bonanni. Now, he is looking to create a younger winemaking culture in Cinqueterre that can sustain itself. In part, Elio Altare is searching for troubled kids to help, so that they might change their lives around. Thankfully Tonino’s nephew is studying viticulture, and in a few years he will probably take over the vineyards.

After 48 vintages of making wine, Elio has been ‘retired’ for eight years. But still, he makes wine. “I walk 1km before I arrive to my vineyard,” he said. “I work a full day and walk 1km with weight on my back. I’m tired, but I have enthusiasm.” Knowing that most villagers would rather rent rooms to tourists for profit, rather than farm the land or make wine, Elio said, “I want to continue because it’s my project and my dream, but physically, I can’t keep working like this.”

Not that Elio shows any signs of abating. He’s still the same son of a winemaker who traveled to Burgundy in 1976, because he’d heard that Burgundy was being sold for 10 to 50 times more than his wine. “First winery I visited was René Engel in Vosne-Romanée. I told him that I’d just arrived from Barolo,” said Elio, “and he said ‘What’s Barolo?’

T. Edward Wines, New York importer/distributor, Campogrande

“I asked if I could visit the cellar,” he continued. “He had a Porsche and was going to Cote d’Azur to sail his boat. I’d arrived with an old car that I was sleeping in. This was my life back then!” he added and laughed.  “I was volcanic. In the evolution, I started to make this war against my parents.” In 1974, Elio made his first vintage. 1978 He cut a green harvest in July. “I copied Burgundy. My father thought I was sacreligious. He was really religious. ‘Don’t touch what God has given us,’ he said. ‘What God has given us, it’s a gift from God.’ It was very hard with my father.

“In [June] 1983, I decided to destroy all big casks with a chainsaw. In August I was disowned. He died two years later in 1985. He didn’t speak with me,” said Elio. “It was a black moment in my life.” A moment that he salvaged and resurrected when he bought his father’s farm from his sisters and brother, so that he could make wine.

“This wine is natural,” Elio said, as we swirled and sniffed the Campogrande Cinqueterre Bianco 2011.  “95-98% of white wine (not including Burgundy) has residual sugar. If you drink with food this bottle, it’s easier to drink.” Elio then adds a pinch of sugar to the wine in his glass and chuckles. “This is now a more international taste.”

Savory with petrol minerality, bracing acidity and lemon and quince fruit notes, there’s a preserved lemon tartness that lingers long on the finish.

T. Edward Wines, New York wine importer/distributor, cinqueterre

Spending three days on its skins, as opposed to the 2011’s four days, the Campogrande Cinqueterre Bianco 2010 is waxy in texture with a touch of oxidized lemon rind, bright acid, and a salinity that won’t quit. It’s chalky, with soft jalapeno aromas and tart lemon curd. As a blend of 60% Bosco and 40% Albarola, we couldn’t get enough.

Lighter in citrus fruit but with greater petrol and chalk, the Campogrande Cinqueterre Bianco 2009 is more white stone driven, with an ocean-spray saltiness. The Campogrande Cinqueterre Bianco 2008 is much like a Riesling from Mosel on the nose, lean and savory with a soft stoniness on the palate, and the brightness of Elio’s 2011 vintage.

Quoting his father as we were readying for lunch, Elio holds family and vines close to the bone. “Live your life to put more credit in your morality,” he said. “Live your life in credit, not in debt.”

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