Subtle, with complex character and steely mineral backbone, Carema is a dream wine for fans who seek the lithe and racy side of Nebbiolo. But, Carema produces very little. Approximately 18ha of vineyards makes it the smallest growing appellation in Italy.
Small but impressive, Carema matters because of its unique terroir and because Nebbiolo has the fascinating ability to showcase and express it. Consumers are also increasingly embracing the value and character of high-altitude Nebbiolo.
Once famous, then nearly forgotten, Carema is in the midst of a renaissance with new winegrowers reclaiming abandoned vineyards and producing wines of distinction.
Land and Vine
Carema is an exceptional example of ‘heroic viticulture’. Vineyards require terracing to defy gravity. High-elevation and extreme weather raise the stakes for farming. And Carema’s remoteness, defined by small patches of vineyards with minimal infrastructure, makes it a challenging place to make wine.
Cultivation is done by hand and requires hiking on crooked stone staircases that jut out from terraced walls, filled with glacial morainic soil brought up from the Dora Baltea river below. This amphitheater-shaped growing area’s picturesque beauty is further sprinkled with shimmering mica schist rocks, commonly found in the Alps.
The vines are traditionally trained on a network of low wooden pergola (topia) and anchored by truncated cone-shaped stone pillars (pilun). The masses of rock, wrenched from the mountainside, create a natural architectural masterpiece, but they also play important roles: During the day, they store the sun’s heat and then release it in the evening. In addition, the wooden trellis provides support and protection from the winter elements and snow.
Carema is a red winemaking zone that showcases Nebbiolo – specifically, the Picotener Nebbiolo biotype – as its leading variety. To be Carema DOC, the vineyards are required to be situated between 300 to 600 metres above sea level. Wine must be made in Carema from fruit grown in Carema. Requirements call for at least 85% Picotener Nebbiolo; the remainder, a maximum of 15% of authorised local Piedmont red grapes, such as Neyrette. Though most, if not all, producers make the wine using 100% Picotener Nebbiolo. Aging requirements are 24 months, of which 12 months must be in wood, while the riserva requires 36 months, including 12 months in barrel (Italian Wine Central).
Like many Piedmontese reds made from Nebbiolo, Carema wine has excellent aging potential due to high acidity. But when compared to Nebbiolo wines from its southern neighbours, the difference is indisputably unique.
Comparison to other Nebbiolo-based wines
While Carema is just as much a Nebbiolo-based wine as Barolo, the two wines couldn’t be more different. In Carema, the Picotener clone populates the vineyards, while the Michet and Lampia biotypes grow in the southerly growing zones of Barolo and Barbaresco.
As for the soil, generally, the Barolo region is composed of blue-gray marl, clay, limestone, and sandstone from two different geologic periods, while Carema’s soil is rocky limestone of moraine origin, or glacial till. In addition, temperatures in Carema are considerably cooler all year-round than any part of the Langhe due to its high elevation.
Not surprisingly, these differences contribute to wines that are lighter in colour, a touch more delicate and weightless but no less complex. Riveting in its perfume, the palate shows bright acidity and sapidity. Where Langhe wines might have the muscles of a ballet dancer, Carema has nerve and energy. Nebbiolo’s remarkable penchant for site specificity lends to wines that elegantly express the terroir. In fact, while the area under vine is minuscule compared to the Barolo region, several crus (Airale, Siey, and Silanc, among others) showcase potentially high-quality Nebbiolo vines with unique exposures, microclimates, and soils.
Although the wine is barely known internationally due to its limited production, wine lovers have held it in great esteem for centuries. Carema sat on a strategic point on the military road to old Gaul, and it’s believed the Romans encouraged settlement by terracing vineyards. Winemaking in Carema was famous as early as the 16th century. By the early 1900s, the area under vine was upwards of 120ha. But political and economic woes of the 20th century shifted Carema’s direction.
‘After the Second World War (when “quality wine” was not a priority), and with the industrial boom, the winemakers gradually abandoned the vineyards to devote themselves to more profitable jobs/activities, less tiring and less dependent on climate conditions,’ said Michele Longo, co-editor of Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book for the Italy Section.
Yet in 1967, Carema was one of the first wines from Piedmont to attain Controlled Designation of Controlled Origin status (DOC).
Alongside the leading Carema producer Ferrando, whose family winemaking tradition goes back to 1900, and the Cantina di Produttori di Carema, a brand new generation of wine producers has emerged on the scene, giving new life and energy to the Carema appellation.
‘Carema vineyards are simply amazing spectacles that showcase the ingenuity, the skills, and the tenacity of these winemakers and the passion they have for their territory,’ said Longo.
Most of the winegrowers work part-time, except for the Ferrando family, relying on stable jobs to make ends meet. But restoring the vineyards and producing great wines is at the heart of the mission for these young producers – SorPasso, Monte Maletto, Muraje, Chiussuma, Achille Milanesio, and Cellagrande.
While it will take energy to rejuvenate Carema, the character of the wine has not been weakened. As food and wine writer Mario Soldati once said: ‘Carema is as strong and likeable as the sun and the stone.’
Those two things are constant and timeless.