Ferdinando Principiano Dolcetto d'Alba St. Anna 2017
Winegrower: Ferdinando Principiano
Region: Piedmont, Italy
Once you’ve travelled through a wine region and personally experienced it, every subsequent sip of wine from that region takes on greater meaning. The aromas and flavours bring back a flood of images. Picture medieval villages atop hillsides of sprawling vineyards fragranced with the aromas of truffles and vines – this is Piedmont. One sip and I’m underground in a hand-dug cellar with water seeping through the stone walls, watching a winegrower pour me a taste of his hard-won efforts into my glass. Traditional, classically styled wines like this 2017 Dolcetto from Ferdinando Principiano will do that to you. Given all this buildup you probably think it’ll be pricy, but it’s not. It is, however, scarce. Not only is little of this wine made but not much is exported, and even less arrives in Canada. Today’s offer is a robust and vivid expression of classic Piemontese ancient terroir, and easily one of the best Dolcettos I’ve enjoyed. It is a wine of great purity and focus; darkly concentrated but with fresh fruit aromas and plush, juicy fruit on the palate, and it is utterly delicious!
Ferdinando Principiano grows this Dolcetto in his Sant’Anna and San Martino vineyards in Monforte d’Alba, just outside the Barolo zone. His two hectares of 50-year-old vines cling to the hillside at 450 meters, a relatively high elevation for this region. The slopes face south-southeast and are composed of calcareous marls, clay and sand. The vineyard is lush with greenery between the rows; its wild with biodiversity and some vines have actually propagated themselves. The grapes were handpicked and fermented with indigenous yeasts. The wine underwent a long maceration of 3 weeks (long for Dolcetto) as well as a malolactic fermentation. It was then aged in stainless steel for 10 months before it was bottled unfined and unfiltered with no added sulphur. The result is a rich and vibrant Dolcetto with typical fruit and lots of savoury elements. Like all of Principiano’s wines: organic farming + indigenous yeasts + minimal handling + very low (or no) sulphur = a wine that’s easy drinking but has great depth, complexity and energy.
The Principiano family have been farmers and winemakers in Piedmont since 1700, but it wasn’t until 1993 that all of the family’s land was converted to vineyards. Previously it was a mixed farm that also made wine. Ferdinando took over the estate from his father the same year. After a ‘false start’ making modern styled wines, which he was richly rewarded with all sorts of high scores from the critics, he abruptly switched gears and started to produce traditional Barolos, Barberas and Dolcettos. He also became one of the leaders of Italy’s natural wine movement and hasn’t looked back since.
By now you’ve either accepted one of several popular definitions of ‘natural’ wine or come up with your own. The basic premise is to minimize inputs. This starts in the vineyard with the elimination of chemical fertilizers, fungicides, herbicides and pesticides. It then extends into the cellar by avoiding the hundreds of legally permitted additives and technology – think roto fermenters and micro-oxygenators – that change wine dramatically. Add to this the debate on sulphur: to add or not to add? And to eschew new wood and sometimes any wood at all during the aging process.
Ferdinando’s maturation as a winegrower is one of regression from a modern style in which the winemaking is dominated by technology to the traditional in which there is very little to be found. Many winegrowers have crossed the line from ultra-traditional to modern, but never the opposite. His first wines were modern, young drinking and souped-up to guarantee 100-point scores from critics. But after several years he realized they “didn’t age well, and they didn’t represent the terroir, my culture or history.”
In 2003 Ferdinando started to farm organically and by 2006 all his vineyards were certified organic. But he didn’t stop there. Ferdinando then eliminated the use of copper and sulphur and started to practice what he calls ‘deliberate benign neglect’ which resulted in untamed, Edenistic looking vineyards. From the 2004 vintage things started to really change; vineyard yields dropped by 40% leading to more structured wines with greater complexity, tannins and more intense aromas. He started to use only natural, ambient yeasts, fermented without temperature control and did only manual punch downs during fermentation. Old Slovenian oak botti and 400-liter barrels replaced the barriques, grapes were crushed by foot and no sulphur is added during the wine making process. Today, you will only find traditionally made wines of incredible purity and focus, ranging from his amazing Dolcettos to his majestic Barolos.
Ferdinando’s Dolcetto d'Alba St. Anna 2017 is a balanced, terroir driven beauty that will provide great drinking pleasure over the next four years. Serve in Bordeaux stems at 16˚ along with a really great mushroom ragu.