Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato
wine pixies

Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato

Ruchè is certainly a charmer. In Italy’s Piemonte (Piedmont) region, better known in North America for Barolo, Barbaresco, Barbera, Dolcetto, Gavi, and the sparkling Asti Spumonte, a small group of dedicated producers are resurrecting an indigenous red grape that might well have disappeared but for their efforts. When a wine variety is new to nose and palate, adjectives are best used with extreme care. Ruchè is certainly “easy-to-drink,” but only in the best sense—the wine has many facets. I recently had the privilege of meeting more than a dozen Ruchè producers in Piemonte, and (barely) following (in Italian) their animated and passionate discussions. Fortunately, the wine itself is multilingual. Ruchè tends to be dry, high in alcohol, medium-bodied, with floral and pepper notes on the nose, wild berries and spice on the palate, lively acidity and determined (yet soft) tannins. Over my several days in the region I enjoyed Ruchè with meats, pastas, cheeses, and even some seafood. Ruchè has, if anything, personality. In a word, I love the stuff.

Ruchè is pronounced Roo-Kay, with the stress on the Kay. The origins of the variety are lost to time. For many years, stands of Ruchè grew among the more prolific Barbera. The growers would never co-vinify the two grapes, but jealously guarded the Ruchè for local consumption. Even though Ruchè gained Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) status in 1987, in 2000 only 30 hectares (75 acres) were in production. The variety graduated to Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) status in 2010. With 160 hectares (400 acres) as of 2015, Ruchè is likely the smallest DOCG in all of Italy. Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato is the DOCG, representing production from seven communes not far from Asti: Castagnole Monferrato, Montemagno, Grana, Refrancore, Viarigi, Scurzolengo and Portacomaro. In 2010, 95% of Ruchè was domestically consumed. Now, about half is exported. From about 600,000 bottles annually today, these producers see a potential of 1.5 million within the next few years. The United States is the largest foreign consumer, followed by Japan (Ruchè takes well to Asian food), Switzerland and Denmark.

Francesco Borgognone is the grand old man of Ruchè producers. In 1994, Pope John Paul II decreed that priests had to sell their vineyards. Borgognone snapped up the local vineyard of Don Giacomo Cauda, who had long vinfied Ruchè for special events and festivals, spreading the word with priestly zeal. The wine is called Ruchè Vigna del Parroco (Parroco means priest). The vineyard is minuscule—two hectares—producing 6500 bottles. The 2014 Vigna del Parroco is a beautiful ruby, with floral notes, spice and black pepper on the nose, flavors of blackberry and raspberry, soft but persistent tannins, and a playful acidity that persists into a warm finish with a pleasant bitter edge.

Livio Amelio is a third generation winemaker, formerly a Barbera specialist, who has turned to Ruchè with a true passion. Producing about 6000 bottles annually, Livio explains that he combines the traditional Ruchè recipe with updated technology, vinifying in temperature-controlled stainless steel. His only aging is a few months in bottle—no wood contact. His 2014 Ruchè has a sensuous nose of dried apricot and baking spice, with black cherry and orange peel on the palate. This wine is nicely structured and well balanced despite 14% alcohol, with soft tannins and a pleasant overlay of hazelnut on a warm finish.

Luca Ferraris attended school in the great Piemontese city of Turin, returning to the Ruchè region to reinvigorate his grandfather’s vineyard that had been lying fallow for two decades. He had the good fortune to attract the attention of American wine maverick Randall Graham in 2001. Graham’s promotion of the Ferraris Ruchè stateside allowed Luca to ramp production up to 180,000 bottles a year, half of which is Ruchè. His “Bric de Bianc” was an eye-opener: a medium ruby with violet highlights, 13.5% alcohol, fresh and fruity on both nose and palate, with a nose of rose and cherry, candied orange and plum on the palate, a clean dry finish. More on Luca Ferraris.

The Tenuta Montemagno Estate was good enough to put me up for my entire stay in Monferrato. The estate includes a hotel with adjacent winery, nestled in rolling vineyard-covered hills. Of fifteen hectares of vineyards, three are dedicated to Ruchè. The 2014 Ruchè is a pale ruby with orange highlights, rose, violet, red berries, balsamic, and eucalyptus on the nose with flavors of red fruit, cinnamon and pepper, sweet tannins, not too alcoholic. I had this wine later at dinner with steak tartare and the combination was exquisite. More on the Montemagno estate.

Azienda Agricola Garrone Evasio & Figlio was founded by Evasio Garrone in the 1920s and is now run by his grandson Dante Garrone. Along with his other wines, Dante produces 2500 bottles of Ruchè on half a hectare in the village of Grana, vinifying in stainless steel. The Garrone Ruchè is a medium ruby with garnet touches, dried flower and spice on the nose, with stimulating ripe purple plum and blackberry on the palate. The wine has a little citrus quality on a lasting finish. More on the Garrone winery.

I spent a good deal of time with Ruchè pioneer Marco Crivelli, which included a (successful) hunt for truffles (which we enjoyed shaved over two lunch courses). Marco’s 2014 Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato is ruby with purple edges, with aromas of cherry, apricot, hazelnut, and a range of dried fruit, one of the most complex noses of the tasting. This wine is mouth-filling yet soft, neither too acidic nor too tannic, with a range of berry and spice flavors that meld well. Not too much alcoholic heat from 13.5% abv. Finishes with a resolute ripeness. More on Marco Crivelli.

Massimo Marengo produces 40,000 bottles a year of Ruchè using low-tech techniques, no temperature control, using only indigenous yeast at his family winery in the heart of Castagnole Monferrato. Massimo’s Ruchè is a deep ruby with violet tinges and a range of fruity and floral scents, violets and black plums. This is a full-bodied, tannic wine, very dry, not too astringent, with a pleasant, slightly bitter finish. More on Massimo Marengo.

The Cantina Sociale di Castagnole Monferrato is the only coop in the region, with 60 members, limited to the production of Ruchè and Grignolino. We tasted two labels, the first recently bottled, vinified in stainless steel, with a good deal of fruit, somewhat chewy tannins, and a medium length finish. The second label was produced using selected grapes from vineyards owned by the coop, more floral and peppery than the first, raspberry on the palate, with a warm finish longer than the first. My verdict on both wines: ripe fruit dancing with floral notes and spice, both admirably produced.

Eugenio Gatti, whose family has been winemaking since 1726, produces Grignolino d’Asti, Barbera d’Asti Superiore, and has since 2004 produced Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato. The winery is adjacent to the La Miraja restaurant. Annual production is 6000 bottles, the product of a single hectare of Ruchè vines, all harvested manually. Gatti ferments for seven days in stainless steel, and then bottle ages up to a year. A medium red color with a pale rim, the wine has raspberry, cherry, and orange peel aromas, with a waft of licorice and black pepper. Full-bodied and fruity in the mouth, with a delicate bitter finish that balances well with the heat of 14.5% alcohol.

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food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award
James Beard Award Nominee Elliot Essman

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award

The seven communes of Castagnole Monferrato

The seven communes of the Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato DOCG

Ruche vines shrouded in fog

Ruchè vines shrouded in fog.

Ruche producers at the Tenuta Montemagno estate

Ruchè producers at the Tenuta Montemagno estate

Ruche grape

The Ruchè grape on the vine

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