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Allusive threads to an earlier sensorial world

By |  December 12 2012

Don Giacomo Cauda was, back in the 1960s, appointed parish priest of a Piedmontese town called Castagnole Monferrato. He found, on arrival, that a small plot of vines came with the job. He later became a friend of the town’s mayor, Lydia Bianco, a former secretary of Asti’s agricultural school; both took a cultured interest in what surrounded them-and especially in the town’s vineyards. There was a curious grape variety lurking in Don Cauda’s clerical plot, like the dangling Trogloraptor in its cave; the older farmers called it Ruchè. Maybe the name came from the archaic Italian for rocks, rocche; it loved to grow high on sunny slopes, and needed less water than its peers. Don Cauda cultivated it, propagated it, and vinified it, and Lydia Bianco later made sure the legislators didn’t overlook it.

It proved to have ample personality, like almost everything that grows in the secret vine kingdom of Piedmont. Indeed, that personality won it a following, and eventually (from 2010) a DOCG. It seemed, when I first encountered it last summer, one of the strangest red wines I had ever tried. Could we say that it is medieval? I don’t see why not.

Imagine a traveling furrier, making his way on a mule through the quiet chestnut forests that once punctuated the vineyards around Castagnole Monferrato. He stops and dismounts at the town’s forge, unlit on this warm early October afternoon. The smith is sharpening scythes on a grindstone, positioned underneath a propped keg of dripping water. The two talk, as 15th-century travelers must, and the furrier gets out his own knives from deep inside the mule packs; tools can never be sharp enough. The scents of whetted metal mingle with those of leather and of fur, of cattle, of human sweat, of mule dung, and of rotting vegetables, though all are quickened sweetly by the odor of fermenting wine that hangs over the town at this time.

Later, at the wine shop up the hill, the two drink together, talking of trade, sick children, the abuse of power, and food for the winter to come. The furrier brings news of villages that the smith has heard of but never visited-those two or three days distant. There are mysteries to relate; both avoid the challenges of theology, which nonetheless preoccupy them. They look out over the yellowing vineyards below, as the vintner’s dog licks their sandaled feet and the rooks skim out in a gang from the nearby belfry.

Their wine, like the one in my glass as I write, is not deep in color. (No wine was deep in color back then.) The furrier sniffs it appreciatively. There’s nothing acetic about it-a pleasure of drinking in the fall-and it smells of flowers and red cherries. Nowadays, locals say it smells of geranium flowers, and there’s a little rubbed geranium leaf there, too-but the furrier and the smith know nothing of this southern African species, and to them it smells of musk rose. Those scents are powerful, too: There’s a weight of scent that delights. Might it taste sweet?

The furrier’s appreciation grows as he sips; mine, too. It’s not a heavy red wine, nor is it sweet, but it is intense, almost piquant; there’s a sharp thrust to its acidity. The memory of those musk roses lingers, but the cherries now taste more like tart forest berries. It’s grippy on the tongue, which seems strange after that perfumed muskiness; scented it may be, yet it’s a purposeful table red, too. Despite the acidity, there’s inner warmth there. Other notes suggest themselves to the modern palate: orange marmalade, with its redeemed bitter pith, and black tea. Perhaps the furrier is reminded of apothecary flavors we no longer know: a broth made of roots, for the flux. It is a fine accompaniment to gritty bread and hard cheese.

All this, I recognize, may be nonsense; there are no local records of Ruchè prior to 1800. No one, in fact, knows where it came from, or when. What I’m certain of is that, in Marco Maria Crivelli’s hands, it makes good wine-and more than that: It makes a wine of such singularity that it seems to stand outside the present entirely and draw the drinker back, via its uncompromising allusive threads, to some earlier sensorial world. There are none of the ingratiatingly sweet, oaken platitudes of today’s fine-wine world in it, nor any of the mundane rectitudes that mark inexpensive wine product. It is itself.

Which is more nourishing: the wine or its disconcerting unfamiliarity? I’m unsure, but two reasons for drinking are always better than one.

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