n the beginning the conversation with my father was a little scary,” says Luca De Marchi. Luca is the son of an eminent Tuscan winemaker but we were standing among the holly bushes at another family property, at the base of the Italian Alps – nebbiolo country – where Luca has had the audacity to make a rosé.
“There was a five-minute silence when I told him,” says Luca. “Then he called my mother, ‘Bring the inheritance papers. I need to erase a name.’”
I was excited to meet Luca, whose family own the Isole e Olena estate in Chianti Classico country, because I’d drunk one of his wines – a red, not a pink, made from the hauntingly named nebbiolo, vespolino and croatina – in a restaurant, gone on to buy a case, and treasured every single bottle. What I hadn’t realised, until looking at a map before going there, was that while this northerly De Marchi family winery is in Piemonte, it’s not the Piemonte most wine lovers know. Proprietá Sperino is in Lessona, about 50 miles north of Barolo, where the snowy mountains gleam crystalline and the soil is “too acidic for anything except vines and porcini”, according to Luca.
Back in the 19th century this area, between Turin and Milan, was covered in thousands of hectares of vines, but the vineyards were abandoned as locals went off to work in more profitable factories, until at one point it was down to just two hectares.
Nebbiolo here doesn’t have the power you find in barolo or barbaresco. But what it lacks in force it makes up for in finesse, the feeling of balancing along a narrow ridge at high altitude.
Luca wouldn’t take any credit for the delicate taste, comparing his job to Michelangelo’s unfinished “Prisoners”, heroic male figures still half-trapped inside the marble: “It’s a winemaker’s work to bring out what is there.”
And just as writers refer to a literary canon stretching down the centuries – you feel it humming and reverberating even through an original voice – so it is with wine.
A winemaker has slender opportunity to practise his (or her) art: around 50 vintages, in one place in one lifetime. “The consequence is we never learn how to do winemaking,” says Luca. The influence of others is great and you can taste it sometimes in the wines.
The renaissance at Proprieta Sperino is just a decade old. The first modern vintage was made in 2004, five years after Paolo De Marchi, Luca’s father, decided to revive the winery, but you feel the past in the old cellar with its beautiful circular brickwork and wrought-iron windows.
“We imagine tradition as a picture of the past,” says Luca. “That’s completely wrong. I graduated in philology and ‘tradition’ comes from the Latin ‘tradere’ – to pass something on. In Barolo you have winemakers fighting about whether to use big or small barrels: if you use a barrique you’re just a stupid guy, that sort of thing. But that’s not it at all, it’s so much more than that – sometimes you pass on mistakes.”
Casimiro Sperino, the original Sperino, was a founder of the Italian Royal Academy of Medicine, and a military doctor who served during the cholera epidemic of 1835. His son was a viticulturalist who wrote numerous papers documenting lost Piemontese varieties. But those early Sperinos didn’t get everything right as, noting on a trip to Bordeaux that there they de-stem the grapes before turning them into wine, they started to do that too. “And that was a mistake,” says his descendant.
There is not much mistaken about Luca’s wines today. The 2010 vintage of Uvaggio – the wine that took me to Proprieta Sperino – is a particular favourite, pale and perfumed. The soils here are sandier than further south in Barolo, and the wine is lighter. It’s not a crowdpleaser, but give it a pizza and it’s happy. I wish I could drink it again, as we did that cold, sunny day in November, with rabbit stew and risotto.
“The name of the grape vespolina comes from vespa [wasp] not vespri [vespers],” says Luca. “It’s earlier-ripening than nebbiolo…” So the sugar attracts the wasps? “Yes.” As old as the hills: Lessona, home of Proprietá Sperino
We tasted the rosé too. Yes, it does exist. “My father called back the next day and said, ‘So you make a rosé,’” says Luca, before being distracted on a discourse about the Romans and wine. “They were barbarians, those who came after… Viticulture was abandoned, unlike in France.”
It’s all of that that you taste when you sip a wine like Proprieta Sperino. You don’t have to think about it but it’s there, quietly informing the wine. In a good way.
Uvaggio Sperino 2010 is imported by Liberty Wines and is available from the Wine Society (£19.50), slurp.co.uk (£21.50), Eclectic Tastes (£22.50), Hedonism (£24.50) and AG Wines (£21.50).