Not Just Prosciutto and Parmigiano: The Surprisingly Great Wines of the Parma Hills

Thu, 12/12/2019 - 00:18
bottles aging in winery in Parma italy

Most visitors to Emilia-Romagna associate the Parma area with ham and cheese, and rightly so; it’s the heart of production of the prized Prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano Reggiano. But the Parma area, namely the hills south of the city, an enchanting territory comprised between the Enza and Stirano rivers, also boasts an ancient winemaking tradition.

For its geological and climatic features (clay-limestone soil, an altitude between 300 and 400 meters, woods and meadows, the river valley, high mountains behind), constitute an ideal microclimate for vine cultivation, this area is particularly well versed for the production of wine. When Marie Louise, Napoleon’s second wife and empress of the French, became the Duchess of Parma, Piacenza and Guastalla at the beginning of the 19th century, she promoted wine-making, along with French officers who were part of her court; thus, around the beautiful villas they owned in the hills near Parma, they began to produce the prized wines that have become traditional of these lands.

But wine production around here goes back even further; the most typical wine of this area, Malvasia of Candia, is said to have been produced since at least the Renaissance. Indeed, the towns most associated with wine-making,  Langhirano, Felino and Sala Baganza, are all near the 15th-century Torrechiara Castle, whose original name, ‘Torchiara,’ comes from the word ‘torchio,’ the machine used to press grapes.

Old grape pressing machine

[Torchio - pressing machine - dating from the 1600s in Cantine dall'Asta's small museum. Photo credit Cantine dall'Asta.]

Malvasia di Candia, the only DOC-labeled wine of the Parma area, is a light and aromatic wine, with hints of citrus fruits, herbal notes, fruit, flowers, honey, spices and minerals, depending on the vinification method. It's a cheerful, convivial wine, perfect for parties and celebration. The trick is to make it fresh and clean, pleasant, but not sugary.  

“We only get one chance a year, so we make sure not to waste it,” says Manuel Piccoli, the owner of Cantine dall’Asta, a century-old winery in the hills of Parma, whom I visited recently to learn more about winemaking in the Parma area, which has been revived only in recent years (plus, Malvasia is a favorite of mine, and being based in Emilia-Romagna, I always appreciate the opportunity to meet local producers).

Piccoli acquired Cantine dall’Asta two years ago, with the intention to not let die what is the oldest winery of Parma, founded in 1910, managed for three generations by the Dall’Asta family, who, after a bereavement, was not going to continue in the business.

“I came one day to buy a few bottles of wine…I ended up buying the winery!” Piccoli, a native of nearby San Secondo, recalls.

Piccoli has years of experience in the food and beverage industry; he founded an artisanal brewery in the area, Birrificio del Ducato, and a successful chain of Italian craft beer pubs, The Italian Job, in London, where he could have easily moved. But he decided to stay and invest in his native land because, he says, “I feel a strong bond to my region and to my roots”.

Manuel Piccoli owner of Cantine dall'Asta

[Tradition and innovation are at the center of Manuel Piccoli’s business philosophy for its winery in the Parma hills. Photo by Silvia Donati.] 

This connection to his origins determines the way Piccoli plans to revive and expand this historic winery, whose panoramic location right above the Torrechiara Castle, tells us that the original property (the house and courtyard that are part of the winery complex) were included in the castle’s domains and therefore dates from the 1500s.

Piccoli has preserved a rather spectacular torchio di Plinio (press) from the 1600s, a model invented by the ancient Romans, which had been used until the 1960s, and is now on display in the small winery museum, where Piccoli also hosts tastings, accompanied with local salumi and formaggi.

In the old house, Piccoli plans to open a small agriturismo and restaurant, which will boast beautiful views over the vineyards and the Castle of Torrechiara. Wine is left to age in barriques (oak barrels) according to the cycle of seasons, and in the old cantina, made of rock and stone. 

Wine cellar

[The old wine cellar dating from the 1500s. Photo credit Cantine dall'Asta.]

“In the countryside, we must respect the earth,” Piccoli says. “The frenzy of our modern lives is slowed down by the rhythms of nature. This also teaches us to slow down and enjoy; if wine takes 6-7 months to make, then we should take our time when we drink it.”  

Which is what we did during my visit. We sat down to enjoy a glass of Malvasia (excellent) with a generous slice of an artisanal-made Panettone (excellent as well), which, instead of the traditional candied fruit, contains raisins macerated in the winery’s sweet Malvasia wine, an idea of Piccoli.

Indeed, tradition and innovation are at the center of Piccoli’s business philosophy. While he still makes Malvasia the way it was done in the past, with re-fermentation in the bottle, making it a Malvasia ancestrale, he has also introduced some new products, such as Grappa di Malvasia, a limited production made with the distillation of fresh Malvasia pomace; Passito di Malvasia; and vinegar aged in wooden barrels for a minimum of 12 months.  

(Malvasia is the main production of Cantine dall’Asta, but the winery also makes Cabernet, Sauvignon, Lambrusco, and Pinot, which is used to make Spumante metodo classico.)

Torrechiara Castle

[View over the vineyards and the Torrechiara Castle from Cantine dall'Asta winery. Photo by Silvia Donati.]

When his projects come full circle, Piccoli foresees a fully operational farm, producing wine, cured meats (he already owns a piggery) and vinegar, as it was typical of the past in the countryside, and as is part of his family’s tradition.

As any self-respecting emiliano, Piccoli describes himself as a “buongustaio”, and someone who loves conviviality around the table. Plus, he says, “Maiali e cantina (pigs and the winery) are synonymous with Emilia’s identity.”

Good food rooted in the territory, to be enjoyed in good company: indeed, it doesn’t get much more ‘emiliano’ than this.

Cantine dall’Asta is open for tastings and guided visits to the winery. Check the website and Facebook page for more information.