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Intimate Italian Winery An Insider’s Gem Amid Giants

Grapes growing at Cascina Fontana. Credit: Kim Millon

Grapes growing at Cascina Fontana. Credit: Kim Millon

There’s no shortage of wineries in Piedmont, Italy. Some, especially those that make blockbuster Barolos and Barbarescos, are grand and world-famous. Their wines feature on top restaurant wine lists and take pride of place in the cellars of wine collectors the world over. Securing an appointment to visit requires a personal introduction and/or a certain chutzpah, with fluent Italian a distinct advantage.

On the other hand, for every grand and famous estate, there are a half-dozen pocket-sized domaines, known only to a few cognoscenti. They specialize in gem-like wines made in tiny quantities, which they nurse to maturity with tender loving care. Many of these smaller, lesser-known wineries welcome visitors — including English-speaking ones — by appointment, receiving them with simplicity and rare generosity of spirit.

Cascina Fontana in the village of Perno, perched on a ridge in the misty Langhe hills just south of Alba, falls neatly into this gem-like category. It is headed by Mario Fontana, the sixth generation of his family to make wine here, together with his wife, Luisa, with help from mamma Elda and occasional aid from sons Edoardo and Vasco. With just 4 hectares (9.8 acres), Mario makes the four classic red wines of the Langhe region: Barolo and Langhe Nebbiolo, both from the Nebbiolo grape, as well as Barbera d’Alba and Dolcetto d’Alba. He describes his wines as “genuine, natural, true expressions of nostro territorio — our land and our culture.”

Weather makes or breaks Italian winery owner’s spirits

I visited in May this year and found the usually cheerful Mario looking uncharacteristically glum. “It was a long winter, followed by a miserably cold, wet spring,” he admitted.

The vines were barely starting into growth, and there were serious concerns about whether the grapes could ever reach full ripeness after such a slow start. And then, as if by magic, toward the end of June, it seemed as though a switch was flipped. The weather finally sorted itself out, and Piedmont enjoyed a sun-bathed summer with long hot days throughout July and August and the necessary and welcome cool nights that help to make good grapes great.

They finished harvesting at the end of October and a delighted Mario was able to report by mail that after all those anxious moments earlier in the year, he was overall quite satisfied with the vintage. But it’s early, he admitted. “I always remember what my nonno (grandfather) Saverio, my greatest teacher, used to say to me: ‘The grapes are harvested in fall, but the race is not over till the final lap is completed.’ ”

On that May visit, gathered around the huge oak table in Mario’s newly converted tasting room with a group of wine-loving friends, we tasted the results of earlier vintages that had completed their final lap.

Cascina Fontana vintner Mario Fontana. Credit: Kim Million

Cascina Fontana vintner Mario Fontana. Credit: Kim Million

First came Dolcetto, bright, pretty, thirst-quenching and (at 12.5% alcohol by volume) relatively low in alcohol — perfect with a simple salad of vine-ripened tomatoes and local mozzarella with home-made grissini. Next came Barbera d’Alba, a blooming delight, deliciously fruit-driven and just right with slivers of air-dried sausage from the local butcher.

Mario’s Langhe Nebbiolo, which (like his Barbera) spends a year in small oak barrels, some of them new, is a proper wine, not just (as is too often the case) a poor relation of Barolo that didn’t quite make the cut. Finally, with a steaming plate of manzo brasato al Barolo (beef braised in Barolo) made with love by Mario’s mamma, we worked our way around several vintages of the eponymous wine, each one elegantly structured, beautifully balanced, understated and oozing with class.

Cascina Fontana wines are imported into the United Kingdom by Berry Bros. and Rudd, wine merchants by appointment of the Queen and the Prince of Wales. Check Wine Searcher for stockists in the U.S.

Top photo: Grapes growing at Cascina Fontana. Credit: Kim Millon

Zester Daily contributor Sue Style lives in Alsace, France, close to the German and Swiss borders. She's the author of nine books on subjects ranging from Mexican food to the food and wines of Alsace and Switzerland. Her most recent, published in October 2011, is "Cheese: Slices of Swiss Culture." Her website is