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【The Stories of Italian Wine vol.1】"Old and New, Across the Po River - Oltrepò Pavese"

The world across the river.

"Oltrepò Pavese" means "The Land of Pavia beyond the Po." As the name suggests, it refers to the hilly region south of the city of Pavia, across the Pò River. Pavia is a very ancient, small, and beautiful city located 30 kilometers south of Milan. Prehistorically, Celtic-Gallic peoples migrated here and established colonies before the conquest of the Roman Empire.

The Landscape of the Oltrepò Pavese (c) Consorzio Tutela Vini Oltrepò Pavese

A Wine Region Since Ancient Times – The Possibility of Italy's Oldest Wooden Barrels (?)

The ancient Greek historian and geographer Strabone (64 B.C. - 24 A.D.) described the region of Oltrepò Pavese as follows: "They produce wine with large oak barrels, a variety of wines, and the people are kind." Carlo Veronese, the director of the Oltrepò Pavese Consortium (referred to as the "Consortium"), shared this historical account.

The culture of using oak barrels for wine is influenced by Celtic and other northern ethnic groups, setting it apart from the amphora (terracotta wine containers) culture that was prevalent in the Roman Empire around the 1st century B.C. Carlo added, "It may be one of the oldest wine-producing regions in the Italian Peninsula to use wooden barrels."

 In fact, the Oltrepò Pavese region boasts not only 1 DOCG and 6 DOC designations but also more than 50 different wine categories within them. This diversity truly highlights the historical richness of Oltrepò Pavese as a prestigious wine-producing region.

Oltrepò Pavese: Located at the Crossroads of Four States

 From a geographical perspective, Oltrepò Pavese is located at the intersection of Liguria, Lombardy, Piedmont, and Emilia-Romagna. This geographical feature forms the foundation of modern Oltrepò Pavese's enogastronomy. Luciana Rota, the public relations officer of the Consortium, explained, "The distinctive feature of Oltrepò Pavese's culinary culture is the seamless blend of these four regions."

Map (c) 2019 Consorzio Tutela Vini Oltrepo Pavese with additions and revisions by the author.

"The Salt Road" : Connecting Genoa and Pavia

 This state of "mixing everything together" can be described more simply as "taking the best of both worlds." In reality, the enogastronomy of Oltrepò Pavese is a perfect example of this, combining the strengths of both the flatlands and the hills. In the flatlands along the Po River, wheat and corn thrive, making it suitable for pig farming and the production of specialties like pork ham and salami. On the other hand, in the hilly areas, various grape varieties give rise to a wide range of wines.

The richness of pork products in Oltrepò Pavese, similar to the Emilia region in the same Po River basin, is well known. However, Oltrepò Pavese has its own fascinating historical story to tell. It's related to the medieval commercial route known as the "Road of Salt" (la strada del sale) between Genoa and Pavia. Just like the "sealess" prefectures of Japan, such as Yamanashi and Nagano, where salt was a necessity for life and a precious commodity in inland regions far from the sea.

The path through narrow mountain roads, too narrow for horses, required the use of mules to transport salt. Luciana Rota mentioned also, "The farmers of Oltrepò Pavese exchanged their valuable pigs and precious salt through barter." It's worth noting that without salt, the production of ham and salami would have been impossible. Exploring this ancient route known as the "Road of Salt" that connected the sea to the inland regions will be an fascinating for trekking in future.

Certainly, ham and salami are inherently fatty. Oltrepò Pavese's "Bonarda" is a light-bodied red wine that can be slightly effervescent. This wine helps cut through the richness of ham and salami, providing a refreshing contrast.

You might immediately think of Emilia's Lambrusco when considering such pairings. However, when you actually taste Bonarda, you'll discover more complexity, structure, and well-defined tannins. Despite its light body, it surprises with its long finish and complexity.

The Charm of the Popular Peasant Wine 'Bonarda' Loved Worldwide

 Bonarda delle Oltrepò Pavese DOC is made from the local grape variety Croatina. Croatina has been cultivated in Oltrepò Pavese since the Middle Ages and is also known as "Bonarda Piemontese," hinting at the influence of neighboring Piedmont. Historically, Oltrepò Pavese was once part of Piedmont's dominion and was called "vecchio Piemonte" (old Piedmont).

While other variations of Oltrepò Pavese wines may blend Croatina with other grapes like barbera, ughetta, vespolina, uva rara ecc. It's undeniable that the Croatina grape, which produces the wine bearing the name "Bonarda," has been intricately linked to this land for centuries.

The spiciness, minerality, and complexity in Bonarda of Oltrepò Pavese come from the cool climate of the Liguria-Apennine hills and the unique natural environment. Carlo, the director of the consortium, mentioned, "Until last century, local farmers produced only Bonarda and drank it their entire life to die, but it might be happiness,".

Bonarda, as such, is an approachable, everyday wine deeply rooted in Oltrepò Pavese's tradition, with around 20 million bottles exported worldwide each year.

75% of Italy's Pinot Nero is produced in Oltrepò Pavese

 From a pedological perspective, Oltrepò Pavese stands out for its diversity. The local soil includes a patchwork of limestone soils known as "Gessi," clayey soils, and sandy soils. While all wines from Oltrepò Pavese are influenced by these soil types, Pinot Nero, in particular, benefits. Thanks to the cool climate of the Liguria-Apennine hills and the limestone soils that extend up to 550 meters above sea level, Pinot Nero from Oltrepò Pavese offers not only fruity flavors but also fresh and sharp acidity.

On this day, the consortium carefully selected wines (details in the separate table). In general, they presented Pinot Nero Metodo Classico sparklings (both Blanc de Noir and Rosé), still red Pinot Nero, still Riesling white wines, Bonarda, and for dessert, a sweet Sangue di Giuda (literally translates to "Blood of Judas"). (See all lists at the end of this article)

Tasting at Masterclass (10 etichettes)

photo(c)2023 Fusako Sakurai

At th Dinner (7 etichetts)

photo(c)2023 Fusako Sakurai

Personally, I was impressed by the quality of the first Pinot Nero Blanc de Noir and Rosé sparklings. They struck a balance between "croccante" (crisp) acidity and richness of body, with the Rosé still exhibiting nuanced notes of small red fruits and a lingering freshness even after 10 years of bottle aging. It left a lasting impression of the potential of Pinot Nero from this region.

The connection between Pinot Nero and Oltrepò Pavese is an ancient one. In the late 19th century, Carlo Gancia, the owner of Gancia, which later became Piedmont's largest sparkling wine producer, studied in France and learned the art of bottle-fermented sparkling wine, known as "Metodo Classico." He recognized the great potential of Pinot Noir in Italy and specifically in Oltrepò Pavese. There are records of him entering into contracts with local producer associations in the early 20th century. In recent years, there has also been interest from major players like Berlucchi in Franciacorta. Marco Sabellico, Senior Editor of Gambero Rosso, explained that "as the territory of Pinot Nero (Pinot Noir), Oltrepò Pavese produces 75% of all Pinot Nero in Italy."

Understanding the True Value of Wine Through Pairing

 The pairing of dishes and wines at the dinner on this day was crucial in deepening the understanding of Oltrepò Pavese. During the dinner, 8 different wines were paired with dishes. It is not an exaggeration to say that the true value of Italian wines can only be discovered through their combination with food. From the masterclass during the day to the rooftop aperitivo and throughout the dinner, I gained insight into the scope of Oltrepò Pavese and the long-standing commitment to wine cultivation and production.

The dinner, which took place at the Italian restaurant Etruschi, featured a meticulously curated menu by Chef Takuya Maeda. The marinated yellowtail (buri - ricciola) with kiwi fruits was a perfectly balanced pairing with Frecciarossa's Riesling Bio 2021, and it also complemented Ca di Frara's Metodo Classico Rosé Extra Brut beautifully.

"Seared Yellowtail with Kiwi and Yogurt Sauce"

Photo: Provided by Gambero Rosso Event Operations Office  

The rare Kagoshima prefecture roasted wagyu, which Chef Maeda personally visited the farm to source, had an astonishing umami that was enhanced when paired with Castello di Luzzano's Pinot Nero dell’Oltrepò Pavese DOC 2021 "Umore Nero" (see details in the menu photo).

"Japanese Wagyu Charcoal-Grilled, Roasted Eggplant, and Balsamic sauce"

photo (c)2023 Fusako Sakurai

 The zabaglione accompanying the fig compote dessert had an impressive spiciness, and it paired surprisingly well with the sweet and slightly effervescent "Sangue di Giuda dell’Oltrepò Pavese DOC," which translates to "Blood of Judas," creating a beautiful contrast and transforming the zabaglione's rich texture into something delightful.

"Fig Compote, Zabaglione with Spices, and Vanilla Gelato"

Photo: Provided by Gambero Rosso Event Operations Office

In Conclusion

 In conclusion:

While "Pavese" implies a connection to Pavia, Oltrepò Pavese is actually located more than 10 kilometers south of the historic center (Centro Storico) of Pavia, and most notably, it is separated by the great river, the Po. Therefore, Oltrepò Pavese seems to have its own identity rather than being considered the hinterland of Pavia. Establishing an identity that emphasizes "understandability" is not easy, given the region's long wine tradition and wide wine offerings.

 If I could travel to this region, I would stay in the historic center of Pavia for two nights, explore the city, and then, starting from the third night, stay in agriturismo accommodations for a winery tour of Oltrepò Pavese.

"Tourism began after COVID-19 subsided. The charm of Oltrepò Pavese lies in the fact that there are still few people, and there is plenty of pristine nature," Luciana said.

 It will be interesting to continue following the leadership and activities of the Consortium that covers a broad territory encompassing seven DOCG/DOC.

Event Overview:

Date: September 14, 2023 (Thursday)

Venue: Ristorante Italiano Etruschi

Instructor: Marco Sabellico, Editor-in-Chief of Gambero Rosso's 'Vini d'Italia'

Director of Oltrepò Pavese Association: Carlo Veronese

Interpreter and Commentator: Isao Miyashima

Chef: Chef Takuya Maeda, Head Chef at Ristorante Italiano Etruschi

Items: A total of 8 wines (3 sparkling, 1 white, 4 red) and a pairing dinner

Masterclass Wines Set 1 (10 varieties in total)

Masterclass Wines Set 2 (10 varieties in total)

Aperitivo Wine (1 variety) and Dinner Menu with Wines (7 varieties in total)

Wine list of the masterclass (10 etichetts)

Menu and wine lists of the Dinner

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