Last week, as part of an inspired eating expedition across northwest Italy, Cristiano Bonino and I visited Erede di Chiappone Armando, a four-generation-old winery in Nizza Monferrato in the Provincia di Asti.
Even if you haven’t visited, you know Asti wines: Barbera, Dolcetto and fraternal twins Asti Spumante and Moscato d’Asti all come from here.
Tracing the gently rolling hills of this sun-kissed part of Piedmont, we ascended to the hilltop home of the Chiappones. The fourth generation of this winemaking family, Daniele, was first out to greet us. Over lunch around the farm table with his sister, father and mother, we tasted the family’s Angel, a blend of dolcetto, cortese and Chardonnay, a rosé named Rosita, and their signature Barbera.
Late September is peak harvest time, so the family works around the clock. But as Italian culture wisely and healthily mandates, they paused for pranzo – to break bread and share their story with us.
Daniele’s father Franco, seated beside him, is son of Armando, the second generation. The bottle bears his name. Born in 1908, Armando was one of seven brothers. He achieved a sixth-grade education, which in the ‘20s was considered advanced. “Most children studied through the third grade and then went into the fields,” explained Daniele.
But Armando was smart and had vision. He learned the rhythm of nature and respect for the land, and he grew their business. Under the first Chiappone, Michele, it was a substantially smaller diversified farm, typical of the day.
During the industrial boom of the ‘50s, many farmers fled the fields for nearby Torino and the Fiat assembly line. “There used to be 30 wineries in Nizza,” Franco said. “Now there are three.”
Both Franco and Daniele left the land – for war and university respectively – but each came back. Had they ever felt conflicted? Trapped by their legacy? All responses suggested a peaceful sense of destiny. No screaming or kicking – just quiet belonging.
After lunch, Daniele showed us his cellar. He let me climb the ladder on one of the tanks and stick my head into the sealed heap of freshly de-stemmed dolcetto. It was a hypnotic symphony of soil, bark and fruit. I wanted to dive in.
“If you just grow grapes, your work is done after the harvest,” Daniele explained. “But if you make wine, you never stop. Fifteen days after the harvest—that’s when we play our cards for the entire year.”
In the fields, Franco and the Chiappones’ seasonal workers were snipping voluptuous bunches of dolcetto like a Fiat assembly line – except a beautiful, fresh-air one with Nature providing the parts.
Each bundle, fresh off the vine and warm in my hand, seemed poised to burst into a Verdi chorus.
This Examiner had never been that close to the vine. Certainly, I don’t wish to over-romanticize the process. The weather was optimal that day.
“In the rain when you are fighting off the mushroom and everything is heavy and your feet get stuck in the mud, it’s not so easy,” Daniele said. But he said it with a merry smile.
"Armando taught us that the harvest is under the sky. You must be flexible."
Rain or shine, grape harvesting is back-breaking, repetitive work that must be completed on a tight timeline. Nonetheless, under the Piedmontese sun, flanked by generations of cheerful and committed Chiappones, I didn’t want to stop.