Piedmont is full of secrets. And I’m not talking about the rare white truffle that at this time of year hides under the withered leaves on the ground. I’m not talking about the famous reds either. They are no secret. Instead, I think of some of the other grape varieties. They tend to get overlooked behind superstar nebbiolo, but that’s a shame. Take for example the red grapes dolcetto, grignolino, ruché and brachetto. Or the white Arneis, Cortese and Timorasso. (You can read more about Timorasso wines in this Forbes article.) But today it’s time for erbaluce, a little-known white wine from Piedmont that comes in many styles.
Caluso, with 7000 inhabitants, is not a high place of tourism. Guides usually say “it’s near Turin and Milan”. It’s almost on the outskirts of Turin, 35 kilometers away, just a half hour drive away. But it is the center of one of Italy’s DOCG wine regions, Erbaluce di Caluso.
The beauty of the region is its location, right at the foot of the hills. Or rather, the foot of the Alps. Matterhorn is just 90 kilometers north, one of the highest peaks in the Alps at 4477 meters. Much of Erbaluce di Caluso’s vineyards are found on the more modest foothills where the Alps begin to flatten out towards the Po plain.
One of the reasons erbaluce is so little known is that there are only between 300 and 400 hectares planted in Italy. The majority of them, 242 ha, make up the Erbaluce di Caluso appellation.
But another reason is that, in this very small area, it is a bit of a chameleon. It can be dry and it can be sweet, it can be calm and it can be sparkling, so it can be difficult to pin down the unique characteristics of the varietal and the appellation. But this diversity also means that you can find a lot of variety and find something to your liking.
Erbaluce generally makes a fairly light and elegant wine, with flowery aromas, with fresh and crunchy acidity. The almost fragile characteristics of the grapes force the winemaker to extract the flavors from the grapes. In some cases, made in a less ambitious way, the wines can be light and refreshing but without real personality. Some winegrowers experiment with additional skin contact which gives wines another dimension, without going so far as to make orange wines. Maybe more wineries should explore this technique.
There are three different DOCGs that come together in this family of Erbaluce wines:
Caluso DOCG or Erbaluce di Caluso DOCG
These are the classic dry and elegant wines of Erbaluce. More delicate than full-bodied, more flowery than dense.
Caluso DOCG Passito
The region has a tradition of making sweet wines from Erbaluce as well. This is done using the so-called “passito” technique, ie the grapes are picked and then stored in a well-ventilated dryer for three to five months. The grapes dry out and the sugar in the must becomes more concentrated. Sometimes the grapes are affected by noble rot. The grapes are then pressed and fermented. But since the sugar content is so high, the fermentation stops before all the sugar is consumed by the yeast.
The wines are concentrated, sweetly greedy with notes of honey, apricot marmalade, candied fruit… They must be at least three years old before being placed on the market and can age for decades.
Caluso DOCG Spumante
The sparkling version of Erbaluce di Caluso is always made using the “traditional” method, classic method, with the second fermentation in the bottle. They are usually light and elegant refreshing sparkling wines. They are sometimes made like vintage wines which can have a lot more depth, perhaps thanks to a prolonged time on the lees. Some specimens are aged on lees for 80 months or more.
So, let’s dive in and give you some wineries and wines to try:
“Classic” dry white, Erbaluce di Caluso DOCG
Cantina Produttore Erbaluce di Caluso, Flordighiaccio 2019: light, flowery, slightly aromatic, apples
Cantine Crosio Primavigna 2019, Erbaluce di Caluso: light, elegant, touch of fragrance, good body, fresh fruit, clean
Cantina Roletto Erbaluce di Caluso 2019, Erbaluce di Caluso: very light, slightly smoky (a little reduction?), flowery, strong acidity with a little astringency, green apples
Orsolani La Rustia 2019, Erbaluce di Caluso: more body with ripe fruits, touch of honey, yellow apple.
Cantina della Serra Ramblè 2019, Erbaluce di Caluso: light, fresh, green apples. Cantina della Serra is a cooperative of 230 members (also making wines other than Erbaluce).
Cantina della Serra “60” 2018, Erbaluce di Caluso: light and elegant, white flower, William pear, elegant fresh fruit
Cantina della Serra “60” 2016: more full-bodied, a slight touch of reduction and CO2 (nothing negative there), a little more astringent, with a dry finish of steel
Cantina della Serra “60” 2015: fairly full-bodied, good structure
Cantina della Serra 2019, Erbaluce di Caluso: An experience with a little skin contact (10 days), much darker color, a touch of “skin astringency”, yellow pears, good acidity, quite full-bodied. A beautiful wine with an added dimension.
Azienda Agricola Cieck, Vigna Misobolo 2018, Erbaluce di Caluso: light and elegant, mineral, unique vineyard
AA Cieck, “T” 2010, Erbaluce di Caluso: good body, round, fairly supple, but with good acidity, very nice, a little woody touch in the vinification
AA Cieck, Ingenuus 2017, Erbaluce di Caluso: quite dark color (compared to other erbaluce), distinct touch of skin maceration, good body, character, experience with 6 days skin maceration during fermentation and aging in old wood
Soft white, Caluso DOCG Passito
Cantina Giacometto 2009, Caluso Passito: nice copper color, caramel, slightly burnt notes, spicy, candied fruits, good balance
Cantina Gnavi, Revej 2007, Caluso Passito: very good balance, dried fruits, caramel, mellow, good acidity
Azienda Agricola Cieck, Alladium 2006, Caluso Passito: lighter and elegant, but with a good hold in the mouth, gingerbread (sweet and spicy Christmas bread), dried fruits, long, intense.
AA Cieck, Alladium 2013, Caluso Passito: fresh with good acidity, nice fruit, good balance, fresh apricots.
Sparkling, Caluso DOCG Spumante
Cantina Briamara Berenice, Caluso Spumante: Their sparkling is in an unusual style, slightly oxidative, bringing a different smoke dimension.
Cantina della Serra Caluso, Spumante: Classic, flowery
Cantina la Masera Masilé, Caluso Spumante: light, fresh, citrus, white flowers, mineral touch
Azienda Agricola Cieck, Non dosed 2016, Caluso Spumante: Aromatic, flowery, dry, good body, fairly discreet but long aromas
AA Cieck, San Giorgio 2017, Caluso Spumante: Fresh fruit, citrus, mineral (which for me means a combination of a very good level of acidity, some astringency, and very dry), good balance.
AA Cieck, Caliope 2016, Caluso Spumante: More body and volume, touch of honey, good length.
Three other erbaluce producers to look for:
Azienda Viticola Orsolani
Cantina Carlo Gnavi
And if you’re even more of an explorer and want to uncover more Piedmontese secrets, try baratuciat, another Piedmontese white grape you may not have heard of before.