Suzanne Hoffman
Behind the Scenes
Vail, CO Colorado

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April 7, 2013
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Vail Daily column: Behind the Scenes: Tied to the terroir

Editor's note: This is the second part of a two-part series. Visit www.vaildaily.com to read the first installment.

Once a rarity, women winemakers are taking their place in the Piemonte wine industry, particularly in the Langhe and Roero regions. Famous last names previously associated with men are now the brands of women winemakers. Chiara Boschis, of E. Pira e Figli, is one of those women. In 1980, Boschis emerged as the first of her gender in her family's nine generations in Barolo to tend the vines and vinify the noble nebbiolo grape.

Although her father, Franco, purchased Pira in 1980, the splendid 1990 vintage was Chiara's first on her own. She downplays somewhat the significance of the Tre Biccheri the Gambero Rosso awarded her that year saying, "It was a fabulous vintage." True, it was, but she need not be humble about her achievement with that vintage. Four years later, Boschis got her chance to prove she was not a flash in the pan with the release of the 1994 vintage.

In Europe, rain and mud were the hallmarks the second half of 1994. The vintage was branded as poor. Although it gave only two out of five stars to the 1994 Piemontese vintage, Britain's Decanter magazine noted, "Prolonged rain caused serious problems, although a few producers still made good wines." One of those wines was Boschi's cru from the famous Barolo vineyard, Cannubi.

As the winner of the sole Tre Bicchieri awarded in Barolo that year, her 1994 Barolo Cannubi proved she could make great wines even when Mother Nature was cranky.

"Consistency is most important to success," Boschis claims.

Weather can be changeable, but winemakers must always be at the top of their game to achieve consistently high-quality wines. Since 1994, Boschis garnered numerous accolades for her Barolos that exhibit Burgundian-like elegance, finesse and soft tannins, the signature of her wines.

In its 2013 Duemilavini wine guide, the Italian Sommelier Association awarded its highest honor, "Cinque Grapoli" (five bunches), to Boschis' 2008 Barolo Cannubi. So I'd say that now, as she enters her 23rd vintage as the head of Pira, she has proven herself worthy of her winemaking heritage.

Community: 'Essential for survival'

Winemaking generations come and go, but it's the land that remains. And it's the land and all the traditions involving its care that gives Boschis the most joy. She showed her utmost love and respect for nature when she became one of the first in Piemonte to obtain organic certification. No pesticides touch soil or plants on the 16 acres that produce the grapes for her 30,000-bottle annual production. It's something she is immensely proud of, given she lit a fire in Barolo that motivated others to follow her lead in organic viticulture. Today, Boschis lovingly tends her vines with her father, who gained his knowledge from a lifetime of experience, and another agronomist, whom she refers to as "more modern and scientific." It appears she's found the perfect combination of science and tradition.

The culmination of months nurturing the vines is the harvest, or vendemmia. Boschis equates it with happiness, describing the harvest as a "joyous moment when everything comes together after the hard work of the year." The importance of the harvest as a cornerstone in Piemontese culture is something I picked up from each family I interviewed last month. Traditions are the glue that holds families together and is why regional loyalty transcends national pride in a country once comprised of frequently warring principalities. The traditions surrounding the harvest are some of the most enduring - and endearing - of all.

Boschis believes the camaraderie that results from families working together in the vineyards and helping each other in crises is "essential for survival in a place where life can be difficult." In 1994, when her cellar was flooded from a landslide, family and friends throughout Barolo helped her remove the mud. "It's a beautiful thing when people help each other," she sighed, "Now, people sit alone with computers talking with people on the other side of the world, yet don't talk to their neighbors." She makes a good point that neighborly communication is what anchors people to their communities and their homes.

Pairing wine and cheese

In 2007, Boschis and five other winemakers from the Barolo area, two architects and three professionals, took their love of nature and tradition into the high pastures deep in the Valle Grana. Having just completed a vineyard planting in Cape Verde Islands, the group was searching for another "ethical" project. Over dinner, they discovered it: the revival of an alpine village in the commune of Castelmagno, home to the world-famous cheese by the same name, once so famous it was used as a currency.

One of the villages in Castelmagno, Valliera, was virtually abandoned and its centuries-old buildings in decay. Generations of migration to cities in search of better lives all but emptied the region of inhabitants and threatened with extinction a culture of cheese making that dates to 1000.

To preserve it, the group of like-minded friends formed the Societa Agricola Valliera and purchased a run-down farm in Valliera. They set off not merely to build a mountain home but to spark the renaissance of a culture on life support. Their trademark, "Des Martins," is derived from the Martino families that sold them the property.

But SAV's work is not limited to masonry, carpentry and such. Since their first experiments in 2007, they have been making cheese. To make cheese you need cows. The group's herd of Mont Beliarde and Bruna Alpina cows has swelled to 70. More than 60 sheep and goats share the "alpeggio" (high mountain pastures) with the cows. Boschis laughed, saying, "Some people buy expensive cars and go on vacations. I buy cows."

The cows are walked each summer to the alpeggio in a centuries-old procession, the "transumanza," or transhumance, the seasonal migration of livestock and those who tend them. It's another one of those land-centric traditions Boschis dearly loves. The families join together to walk with the cows to their summer home where they will graze on tender grass and flowers, the stuff of great milk to make great cheese.

Two employees tend the cows and "margari" milk them twice daily in the alpeggio, which is about as fresh as one can get. Between June and October, the expert "casaria" uses the milk to make Unique Alpine Valliera, their stepping-stone to the strictly regulated Denomination of Protected Origin Castelmagno cheese. This is a process that even the children enjoy. Chiaras' niece Vittoria Boschis participates in all aspects of the summer activities, including cheese making. It's something that warms Chiara's heart, since educating future generations about this dying culture is one SAV's goals.

There's so much more to tell about the Castelmagno project. But that will have to wait until the summer after I've had my own chance to experience this "ethical project" firsthand. As for Chiara Boschis, her story cannot possibly be told in 2,400 words. Hers and the stories of other "donne di Piemonte" (women of Piemonte) will come in my book later this year.

Correction from last week's story: Boschis studied Latin in high school (liceo) and economics at the University of Torino.

Suzanne Hoffman is a freelance writer specializing in food, wine and travel. Her blog is www.winefamilies.com.


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The VailDaily Updated Apr 7, 2013 06:26PM Published Apr 7, 2013 06:22PM Copyright 2013 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.