The Journey to San Fereolo
It’s hard to know where to start. Remembering this afternoon at San Fereolo is like trying to recall a hazily pleasant dream…
San Fereolo is a secret villa tucked next to an ancient church, both of them seeming to cling to the side of a hill in Dogliani. The GPS won’t take you there- you’ll have to pull over and ask a passing farmer for directions. He’ll tell you to keep going down the road- vai sempre dritto- with a dramatic, encouraging waving of hands. If you’re jet-lagged and tongue-tied like I was, your ability to understand him might be less than adequate at first, but try to follow his directions. The road will go up, then down, then climb up again, just as the farmer indicates, towards that octagonal church you can see vaguely in the distance- that’s San Fereolo. This is where you’ll find Nicoletta Bocca.
The winery is demarcated simply, by a painting of a sun below a rooftop eave- just like the yellow crest you’ll find on the wine labels. There are one or two cellar hands washing down the floors of the cellar and an incredible perfume of fermenting grape must slips out of the cellar door. I pulled the rental car in front of the tiny cellar and asked to leave it there, afraid that the under-powered engine might not allow me to make the steep gravel drive to the front door of the house. Feet now securely on the ground, I began to absorb my surroundings.
Standing on the crest of the hill facing the winery you can see the drama in this place. The way the light casts itself over the hillsides and dips in and out of the vineyard rows, around the trees and small forests dotting the valley floors, and filters through the scattering of cloud-cover is completely enchanting. There’s a hum of energy here too- echoed by the small signs of life you’ll find in the San Fereolo vineyards and throughout the property around the house- butterflies, small birds, a rustle of grass that might be a small animal or- if you’re feeling as whimsical as I was- a forest sprite. There was no doubt in my mind from the first second- this place is truly special.
Nicoletta Bocca greeted us warmly- she has a uniquely open personality- all sparkling eyes and big smiles- yet you can see that she is quietly, yet actively, assessing as she talks to you. There are some deep, secret, churning thoughts below that happy countenance. She speaks perfect English, and has a musical Italian accent that will lull you into contentment as she tells you her story. The comfort of being in her presence is not to say this will be a simply interaction. Nicoletta is anything but simple. You will have an immediate desire to peel back all her layers, should she let you.
Like all of us, Niceoletta’s personal history begins at least one generation back, most notably with her father, Giorgio Bocca. Originally from Cuneo, Giorgio Bocca joined the partisan organization called Giustizia e Libertà, becoming the commander of its 10th Division, fighting together with US and British Armies against the nazi-fascists of WWII. He spent many months hiding in the Langhe hillsides, befriending the local property owners, and fighting for freedom.
Eventually Giorgio Bocca worked for many important Italian publications, taking positions which allowed him to write articles focused on Italian culture and politics. Bocca was among the founders of the daily La Repubblica, with which he thenceforth collaborated, finding an important platform from which he could verbalize his philosophies and defend his politics. Giorgio Bocca also wrote several books, in most of which he denounces the social and political problems of Italy. He repeatedly took a critical stance against globalization, the foreign policy of U.S. oil corporations and the rise of right-wing political parties allied with Forza Italia led by Silvio Berlusconi. In many ways, Giorgio Bocca helped define the groundwork for modern Italian politics. He was a visionary and a poet. And he had a beautiful daughter named Nicoletta Bocca.
The Birth of San Fereolo
Nicoletta grew up surrounded by the brightest and most interesting minds of her time. It is no coincidence that she is endlessly interesting and full of surprising and beautiful philosophies herself. She was drawn back to the Langhe in adulthood because this was the place of her youth where her father had taken her to teach her about the real nature of things, through the farming of grapes for wine, and through his recounting of the history that occurred there. She grew up visiting some of Piemonte’s greatest wine cellars, especially those holding bottles of her father’s favorite wine- Barolo.
Why then, did she choose to focus on Dolcetto? Simply because, as she says, she has always found a particular empathy for the underdog. In a local universe fueled by the status and transaction of Nebbiolo, Dolcetto has always been the much-ignored, under-valued workhorse varietal. High acid and capability for great structure, but not considered a “great” wine. This is the working-person’s wine. Table wine for everyday consumption. Nicoletta clearly sees something more in the varietal, which has led her to concentrate almost exclusively on Dolcetto from the very beginning.
San Fereolo is a bit of a patchwork quilt, made of vineyards situated on parcels of land sprinkled throughout the Dogliani territory. Often these plots of land belonged to people who were too old to continue farming- and in every case they were vineyards within which Nicoletta found some strength of character, some unique and often indescribable virtue she knew would somehow transmit to the wines they would produce. It takes a great deal of patience to gradually collect enough rows of vines to give birth to a winery, but at this point she has a collection of 12 hectares, still capable of producing only about 3,750 cases of wine each year. This is a heroic feat, especially given the nature of this part of Piemonte. Dogliani is still wild- scattered with small gravelly roads, wooded hillsides and valleys, hazelnut groves and open fields. This is not the agricultural Disneyland of Napa Valley- or even Barolo- this is however, the perfect place to cultivate Dolcetto.
More on the enchanting Nicoletta Bocca and her phenomenal Dolcetto, here…