The big surprise for me on this visit, my first to Schiavenza, was that they weren't fermenting the wine in open top wood fermenters. You've probably had the wines before. When I taste the wines of Schiavenza I tend to think to myself that these are wines that have been exposed to some degree of oxygen before bottling. They have the iron, the orange peel, the slightly dried fruit and the refined tannins that I associate with exposure to air. So where is that contact with air happening? The fermentations actually occur within closed cement tanks, which you can see towards the back of the above picture. There are no open tops in the place. And I don't find a volatile character in the wines, so I imagine that the botti are topped up as regularly as anyones. So what is the answer?
Of course there is some natural oxygen exposure through the staves of the wooden botti, but to me the taste of the wines implies more contact than that. I asked Walter Anselma, who led us around on our tour of the cantina, how many times they rack the wines. His answer was that it varies, but that for instance the 2009 Barbera d'Alba was racked probably 8 or 10 times before being bottled. A winemaker or two might chime in inside the comments to clarify, but my thought is that 8 or 10 times is a lot of times to rack. Especially in the case of a Barbera, which is not aged in wood for as long as a Barolo might be. In fact that 2009 Barbera was bottled in September of 2011. So less than 2 years in the wood, and yet maybe the wine was racked 10 times. So there is that. I guess this is one of those instances where one might talk about the "terroir of the cellar." Or maybe not. It is always hard to know if terroir can be equated with intention.
Of course every time you rack the wine out of a botti you have to clean out that botti. Which means what? That the Schiavenza door staff politely asks the gross lees to exit the vessel and find lodging elsewhere? Well, no. Cleaning the botti requires that someone crawl into the botti through the removable oval topped panels.
So someone has to crawl in through a small opening and clean out the botti from the inside. More often than not at Schiavenza, that person is Walter Anselma.
He didn't exactly say yes or no.
The next ridge over from Broglio. Schiavenza has vineyard rows there as well. Mostly the Schiavenza parcels are in Serralunga. However, they own a bit in Monforte as well, in Perno. That is where the 2009 Barbera was grown, actually.
Schiavenza was founded in 1956, but back then it wasn't called Schiavenza, which is a local term for "sharecropper." Back in the 1950s this producer was known as "Fratelli Alessandria," after founding brothers Vittorio and Ugo Alessandria. Of course there is today and was then another Fratelli Alessandria, the one in Verduno. Several different people have the last name of Alessandria in the Piemonte. This name was probably adopted at some point by those whose family origins could be traced back to the town or province of Alessandria, both of which are located in the Piemonte. Basically, it was like saying your family was from Alessandria.
Anyway, as you can imagine, there might have been some confusion between the producer in Serralunga and the producer in Verduno, and eventually the name became Schiavenza for the Serralunga winery. But Schiavenza is no one's last name. The estate is run today by Luciano Pira, his wife Maura, and her brother Walter Anselma.
I was happy to have visited them.