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Boutique & Biodynamic: Adventures at Two Italian Vineyards

Worth’s Ethical Cellar columnists explore two Italian vineyards combining ethical winemaking with bespoke, luxury accommodation.

La Segreta Terrace. Photo by Em. Rambaldi

The night before we arrived at Locanda La Raia, a winery and boutique hotel just north of the tiny town of Gavi, we had dinner with two Italian friends at their Milan apartment. When we told them we were spending the next few days in Piedmont, their reactions were spontaneously enthusiastic. “It’s as beautiful as Tuscany but not yet as discovered.”

The view from La Raia the next day proved them right. Our gazes wandered past the pool and manicured herb gardens to the gently rolling hills crisscrossed with vines, views broken only by the occasional ochre-colored farmhouse and La Raia’s sculptures— which are part of their art foundation. The Locanda is in a neighborhood of magnificent villas. Next door is one of the most impressive, owned by the current head of Aston Martin.

The visionary behind La Raia is Giorgio Rossi Cairo, a successful Milanese strategy consultant. In 2002, after decades of loving nature, he bought a conventional vineyard that had previously sold their grapes, as many do in Gavi, to bulk winemakers. Rossi Cairo was convinced Gavi grapes (Cortese and Barbera) could go the “estate bottled” route and compete with better-known and appreciated northern Piedmont wines like Nebbiolo.

Photo by Deborah Grayson

He installed his daughter Caterina and her husband, a farmer, at the helm. She insisted the vineyard be Biodynamic—which they achieved and were awarded the hard-earned Demeter certification in 2007. Seven years ago, she passed the reins on to her brother, Piero, who had been an M&A lawyer in Milan. He told us, “I was very fortunate to have this as my Plan B.” Caterina now runs a school on the 180-hectare (445 acre) property, which Piero’s young son attends.

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Walking through the winery with its towering, stainless steel tanks and massive oak barrels, Piero explained, “We did DNA testing and found over 230 yeast strains on the skins of our grapes. We selected 45 and tried them individually on the same must. Based on the results, we selected the four best. Local yeast brings out the terroir while simultaneously giving us a consistent product.” The numerous awards each of the wines have won, proves him right.

Photo by P. Calamara

He continued, “we grow 40 hectares of Cortese [white] and 8 of Barbara [red] yielding 29,000 cases of wine. 80 percent is exported, mostly through Europe but our U.S. presence is growing. The rest of the land is in spelt, rye, bees, cows, chickens, and forest. This gives us the biodiversity we’re so proud of and encourages fireflies, deer, wild boar, and wolves.”

The desire for sustainability extends beyond the vineyard. For example, all the winery’s energy needs are supplied by recently installed solar panels.

As we discovered, a visit with Piero is a deep-dive wine tutorial. Whether you’re a guest at La Raia, or simply schedule a tasting, he (and constant companion, Jack the dog) will spend hours with you—walking through the vineyards and winery—before culminating in a multi-bottle tasting.

For example, he encouraged us to sample sulfited and unsulfited versions of the same wine, which was one of the most revelatory tasting experiences we’ve had. The unsulfited wines lacked finesse. The Cortese was rougher and, of course, slightly effervescent. The Barbera verged on barnyard. Natural wine purists may embrace this terroir exuberance. We applaud him for offering the option.

Piero observed, “there’s a common identity between all the wines. They are respectful of the soil and the fruit. They’re clean and delicate.”

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Whites (Cortese):

  • Gavi DOCG is their entry wine. It’s surprisingly rich and citrus-flavored with a smooth finish. Shines as an everyday choice due to its fresh, balanced minerality.
  • Gavi DOCG Reserva. The grapes are harvested later, and the wine spends longer on the lees, resulting in a creamier and more delicate finish than the non-reserva.
  • Gavi DOCG Pisé. This lightly oaked wine has sold out since its introduction. It’s only made from the best grapes and the oldest vines in exceptional years.

Reds:

  • Piedmont DOC Barbera. Garnet colored. With hints of berries and pepper, this is a medium-bodied, unoaked, enjoyable, and accessible wine.
  • Piedmont DOC Barbera Largé. Like the Pisé, this wine is only made in exceptional years when everything aligns. Oaked for 20 months, the aroma is broad and intense. Chocolate, spices, and blackberry linger on the palate.

Back at the Locanda, we rested in the communal rooms where Rossi Cairo artfully integrated Italian modern design with antiques; an ultra-modern Milanese lamp rested on the floor next to a villa-worthy antique marble fireplace. The rooms are similarly decorated. Ours had a 1600s armoire and 1800s chestnut dresser next to a modern glass-topped table and chairs.

Photo by P. Calamara

The downstairs level, with its original vaulted brick ceilings, houses a gym, spa, hammam, and indoor-outdoor pool.

La Raia’s kitchen is supervised by Michelin-starred chef Tommaso Arrigoni. Although the dining room prioritizes the guests staying at the Locanda, they easily fill empty tables with diners who come from as far away as Genoa. Our 5-course dinner included a parmesan souffle amuse bouche, a superb brandade plated in such a visually striking way it seemed sacrilegious to eat it, freshwater fish ceviche in a vinaigrette seasoned with their garden’s herbs, homemade pasta with wild mushrooms,  a rich fish bisque with calamari, and gnocchi with beef (from their farm) and mushroom ragu.

Breakfasts are lavish and include eggs from their chickens, along with house-made granola, yogurt from local goats, and juice from their own pear trees.

Photo by Deborah Grayson

La Raia provides full concierge services. Wine tours, cooking classes, horseback riding, and bicycle tours are just a few of their “off-campus” activities.

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The staff is welcoming and genuinely warm. We experienced true hospitality without a trace of formality. As Maurizio Toccalino, the manager, succinctly put it, “We want our guests to feel they’re in the elegant country home of close friends. We want them to come back… and they do.”

La Segreta: Luxury in the Umbrian Hills

We got our first look at Agri Segretum, La Segreta’s vineyard, at the perfect time of day. The setting sun was casting its golden rays over the just-picked vineyard located about 20 minutes north of Todi—a medieval gem.

Photo by Deborah Grayson

Lorenzo de Monaco, co-owner with his American-born wife Eileen Holland, had taken us to the fields to check on late-harvest grapes. He and Eileen met while they were students in Boston. After a long-distance relationship, they married. There followed years of leading bicycle tours through Italy before the step-by-step procurement of this land (much from the Catholic Church), the renovation of crumbling farmhouses on the property into their own home and rental villa, and the planting of 7.5 hectares (19 acres) of vines in 2008, which are dry-farmed and certified organic. They also employ many Biodynamic practices.

As these rigorous methods demand, no corners are cut in the field or winery. Lorenzo consults with agricultural biologists regarding soils, plantings, and pest management. “We have a small holding, so I know each row, each block. I know what the plants need to thrive. Climate change has kept us on our toes. The hotter summers with less rain have required a new approach such as picking earlier, leaving a cooling canopy of leaves, and pruning less so the sugar concentrations are not too extreme. Of course, the good news is the grapes have more focused flavors.”

Photo by Patrik Hedljung

For too long, this area was like so much of Italian vinifera, treated with less than the respect it deserves. Traditionally, farmers sold their grapes in bulk to either co-ops or global branded bottlers. Conventional farming put harmful chemicals into the soil. The goal was to make lots of wine, pushing yields to the limit. “It was a long road to reverse this way of life and get certified organic, to nurture each vintage and create the carefully crafted wines we now sell all over Europe and the U.S.”

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Borrowing words from the local dialect, they named their wines to reflect each wine’s personality.

  • Freghino (‘teenager’) is an accessible, non-oaked, as Lorenzo describes it “Monday wine,” sold in liter bottles to restaurants. Primarily Sangiovese, the grapes are picked early and fermented in stainless steel. Medium-bodied with hints of red berries.
  • Pottarello (‘little kid’) is vineyard block specific, again primarily Sangiovese. The fruit is picked later and spends more time in contact with skins before moving into stainless steel, then oak barrels. Full-bodied with tannins and hints of spice. A noted Italian guide selected this as their “red wine of Umbria.”
  • Marmocchio (‘rascal’) is their cru flagship wine, primarily Sangiovese Grosso mixed with Sagrantino (Umbria’s indigenous grape). It spends years both on oak and then the bottle. Full-bodied with rich tannins. Dark ruby red. Their recently released 2016 is already hard to find.
  • Cinino (‘Little’) is Pet Nat at its best. Fresh berries with cream, it sparkles on your palate. Redolent of the hot Umbrian summer. So successful, it’s on allocation.
  • Santino (‘Little saint’). A new offering, this delicious dessert wine is 100 percent Sagratino, late picked and dried on racks.

A fortunate few can share the La Segreta experience. Amazingly talented designer/decorator Eileen offers two housing options.

For the first, Eileen has turned two atmospheric farmhouses, connected by a grape-covered loggia, into a single lavish rental with up to five bedrooms. Couples can book just the smaller unit in the off-season.

Photo by Sven Hoogeland

Both buildings are extraordinary examples of Italian design. Restful, eye-catching, quality furnishings are framed by smooth floors and walls. Glass doors open to outdoor dining and nearby gardens which lead down to the pool. A fireplace will keep you warm in the fall and modern AC cool in the summer. “I was an art history major and came to Italy to study,” explained Eileen. “Even though I fell for Lorenzo in Boston, my passion for Italian design preceded my Italian marriage.”

Recently, Eileen worked her magic on La Casetta, an in-town 17th-century house, a few minutes away in the hilltop village of Collazzone. Here Eileen explained, “this town is an inspiration to us. But, like so many Italian villages, residents have moved to the cities, and the community struggles from population loss. Houses are empty which leads to stores closing. Services are reduced. For example, we’ve lost our bank.”

“Lorenzo and I wanted to create jobs for the local artisans while showing how these underutilized buildings could be restored to modern, in-demand habitats.”

We stayed in La Casetta. Spread over four creatively envisioned levels, every doorway frames a view of interest, be it a terrazzo sink or an old farm table, all in soothing earth tones. The bottom-level living room leads to an outdoor cooking and socializing area. Below is the pool, not technically an infinity, but looking like one, cantilevering to the surrounding valleys and mountains that go on forever.

Photo by Luca Giulivi

The upper levels of La Casetta have a well-appointed kitchen and 2 bedrooms each with an ensuite bath. Being at the top of the hill, we watched the sunrise from the living room and set from the kitchen.

The beds have fine linen sheets, not surprising since everything from the towels to the glassware are bespoke. Even the wooden doors and shelves are unique. Eileen reclaimed them from the ancient scaffolding the contractors used on the building.

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Being in town allowed us to walk to Al Leone, the town’s one restaurant where the owner can be seen making pizza in his wood-fired oven. Al Leone also has pastas and creative entrees like rabbit with olives and fennel…. plus, a La Segreta wine list.

La Segreta means “the secret” in Italian, Eileen and Lorenzo explained why….the property is hidden in the hills—or at least, it was. Now, wine lovers have discovered this most precious secret. And so have we.

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