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Sunday, April 29, 2001

Tradition and mother nature make classic Piemonte wines


Staff writer

Poor Piemonte. Tucked away in the northwest corner of Italy, its gentle slopes have produced grapes for over 2,000 years and extraordinary wines for nearly two centuries. Yet, for many wine drinkers, Chianti is the only Italian wine they will ever know. Pity.

Pio Cesare makes bold wines that can't be found elsewhere.

The Nebbiolo grapes that dot the Langhe area of Piemonte yield some of the finest wines in the world: Barolo, Barbera, Barbaresco, Dolcetta. And they are found only there.

"In a world with Cabernet, Merlot, Shiraz, Chardonnay -- all of which are great varieties, and I love to drink them -- we have something unique," says Pio Boffa. "We produce something that is inimitabile (inimitable)."

Boffa is understandably enthusiastic. He is the head of Pio Cesare wines, the fourth generation of his family to head the 119-year-old concern. Pio Cesare produces some of Italy's biggest, boldest and best wines. Boffa was in Tokyo recently to celebrate the opening of L'Operetta, the new Italian restaurant of his friend Mauro Radice, and took some time to talk about his extraordinary wines.

Like the Pinot Noirs of Bourgogne, Piemonte wines are made from a single grape. No blending is allowed. The wine bears the name of the specific area it comes from. No wine can claim to be, say, a Barolo unless the grapes are grown in the 1,200 hectares that are specifically defined as Barolo. That means that there will be only 6.5 million to 8 million bottles of Barolo each year, no matter how good the vintage.

And some of the vintages are very good. Barolo is a hearty red, with big shoulders, that goes well with game and other meat. The most famous wine of the region, Barolo is always a treat; Boffa says the '98 will be spectacular.

Barbaresco is another one of the region's great wines, but less well known than the Barolo. It is one of "the greatest mistakes in the world" to call Barbaresco the little brother of Barolo, says Boffa. "We prefer to say that Barolo is king and Barbaresco is queen."

Piemonte also produces the Barbera, a much underrated wine. Altogether, Pio Cesare makes seven different wines, producing 30,000 cases and 350,000 bottles. That is a middle to low quantity compared to other Piemonte wineries. "People believe we are much bigger than we are," Boffa says with a laugh.

That is probably not an accident. Pio Cesare exports about 70 percent of the wine it produces. (The company has a long history of conquering foreign markets: The company was one of the first in Piemonte to export, and Boffa proudly notes that the passports his relatives had, which were issued by the provincial government, were numbers three and four.)

Although Pio Cesare is available in every major wine market in the world, Japan is one of the most important destinations. "Japan was the fastest growing market in our history," says Boffa. But the slowing economy and a huge inventory buildup in 1998 has forced importers to slow down. Patience is now the key, as Boffa waits for the economy to recover.

Eighty percent of the wines that bear the Pio Cesare label come from the company's own vineyards and estates. They have five in Barolo and two in Barbaresco.

The remaining 20 percent come from growers who grow grapes for the winery and have done so for over a century. It's an intimate relationship, Boffa explains. "There are no written contracts. We work closely together. We tell them when to start picking. They deliver grapes to us without knowing the price. They have complete faith in our family."

The family -- the one constant in a changing industry -- is the foundation of Pio Cesare's success. Being president of the winery is not just a job; it is a source of real pride to Boffa that he is the fourth generation of his family to head the company.

"We oversee everything because it is our family name on the label. We can't just put liquid inside inside a bottle; we have to put in a little bit of our way of life."

Since no blending is allowed, there are limits on what a winemaker can do to the taste. Ultimately he has to trust the land. "The wine is just the expression of the soil," explains Boffa. "Mother nature is responsible for 51 percent of the taste. The project, aim and style of the winemaker is the other 49 percent."

Over four generations, it would appear that a successful collaboration has been achieved in the vineyards of Pio Cesare. Fortunately for wine lovers, it won't be changing its course any time soon.

As Boffa puts it, "We are 119 years old. We cannot be like a flag that follows the wind."



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