Drinking Natural Wine in Italy with the Owner of Montreal’s Elena

Canadian restaurateur and sommelier Ryan Gray has been championing natural wine in Montreal for over a decade, first at Nora Gray – where he curates one of the most impressive natural–wine lists in the city – and more recently at Elena, his newest restaurant. We asked him to share some of his favourite natural wineries in Italy, from Piedmont to Sicily.

July 1, 2019
  1. There isn’t a fool–proof definition of what natural wine really is (and there’s no actual certification), but generally speaking, it’s wine that’s made with minimal intervention in the vineyard and in the cellar – think organic farming and no added chemicals.
  2. Elena ranked third on our list of Canada’s Best New Restaurants in 2018. You can find us here on a weekly basis, salivating over a wood–oven–blistered margherita pizza and asking the staff about secret menu items.

Barolo without the heavy price tag at Cascina Corte in Piedmont Cascina Corte is located five minutes outside of Barolo. Historically, the area was very poor, but as the wines gained notoriety, people started planting vines. Now, it’s one of the most expensive agricultural regions in Italy and there are vines everywhere you look. But where Sandro Barosi (Cascina Corte’s winemaker) lives is a completely different world – it’s much more authentic. He’s constantly evolving and learning, and his wines keep getting more exciting. He makes a nebbiolo that is classic and very affordable for the area, but emotionally moving at the same time. He also has a small agriturismo where he serves breakfast: charcuterie, fresh cheeses, yogurt, granola and the best jams and honey I’ve ever had.

  1. This type of Italian accommodation can range from a spacious room in a 1,000–year–old convent on a farm to a simple apartment overlooking lush vineyards. (Tough life, we know!)

Farm–grown everything at Cascina degli Ulivi in Piedmont Winemaker Stefano Bellotti, who passed away last year, was considered the king of biodynamic agriculture. He was a rebel. His wines are unique, and so is the winery. (I suggest you try the Semplicemente Vino Rosso, a super–fresh expression of barbera and dolcetto.) Bellotti is a self–sustaining farm located in the middle of nowhere with an agriturismo and a restaurant. Everything they serve is grown on the farm. The flour used to make the ravioli comes from the wheat that they grow, and the ricotta is made with milk from their cows. Bellotti is proof that you can live really well without needing anything from the outside world.

  1. This holistic type of organic agriculture is part farming, part spiritual practice: It follows the lunar cycle and views the vineyard as a living organism where the earth, plants, animals and insects are all working together.
Cyrprus trees and an old building on a natural winery in Italy
Mistadelli, such as this one near La Stoppa, are small roadside chapels Found throughout Emilia–Romagnia, Tuscany and Liguria.
A close-up shot of bottles of wine on shelves at a natural winery in Italy
Generations of La Stoppa wines.

Elena’s namesake at La Stoppa in Emilia–Romagna La Stoppa is the crown jewel of Emilia–Romagna. We named our restaurant after winemaker Elena Pantaleoni because she’s uncompromising in her vision, but she’s also kind, wise, funny and a generous host. When she inherited the winery in the 1990s, she ripped out vines of pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon to plant more barbera, malvasia and bonarda. She believed in creating wines that truly represented the region and helped everyone around her shine. You’ll really understand her philosophy after a bottle of Macchiona – it’s a deep, earthy blend from La Stoppa’s old vines of barbera and bonarda. The estate itself is gorgeous – there’s a house that was built in the 1500s, a tasting room, a pool and a beautiful area for receptions. I strongly recommend it to anyone who’s planning to get married in Italy.

  1. It’s a risky business move to replace vines of prized pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon with local varieties like barbera (full–bodied red), bonarda (smooth red) and malvasia (aromatic white) – unless you’re Elena Pantaleoni, of course.

Mother Earth connection at Pacina in Tuscany I always think of the Talking Heads lyric “Heaven is a place” when I think of Pacina. When you’re there you feel connected to the world, like you’re tapping directly into Mother Earth. The winemakers, Giovanna Tiezzi and Stefano Borsa, are the most loving and passionate people in the wine world. They’re my adopted Italian parents. Giovanna talks about how they simply act as midwives in the winemaking process: The grapes were there before them and they’ll be there after them – all they need to do is facilitate the process between vine and bottle. Walking around Pacina, you quickly realize that wine is more than just something you buy in a store – there’s a story behind it. Besides being totally picturesque, the winery has the perfect conditions for growing fruit trees like lemons, persimmons and olives. They have a few apartments where people can stay, too. Do yourself and your friends a favour and bring back some Pacina olive oil and a few bottles of La Rosa, one of my all–time favourite rosatos.

The sun sets over rows of grapevines at a natural winery in Italy.
If you’re looking for us, we’re probably taking a nap in between Pacina’s perfectly maintainted vines.

Skin–contact whites at La Villana in Lazio Joy Kull is an American who moved to Italy to work with Le Coste (a cult natural winery in Lazio) after being blown away by their wine. There, she fell in love with a local shepherd and decided to stay and start her own winery (her labels feature a sheep). She’s part of a small movement of young people who are going back to the land. I find her super–inspiring because she’s learning as she goes and she’s having fun with it. The winery is near a volcanic crater lake called Lake Bolsena where they grow indigenous grape varietals like aleatico, which makes perfumed and elegant light reds. They also make amazing skin–contact white wines with procanico (a local clone of the trebbiano grape) that are delicious with food.

  1. Skin–contact, macerated or orange wine (it all means the same thing) is made from grapes that macerate or ferment with the skins.

Elena’s foot–stomped cuvée at De Fermo in Abruzzo Winemaker Stefano Papetti was obsessed with natural wines like those from La Stoppa. For years, his wife would tell him about this farm that her mother inherited, and one day they were driving from Bologna to her family’s place in Abruzzo and his wife showed him the property. It had the most beautiful, perfectly maintained old vines that had always been farmed organically. He also discovered that there was an abandoned winery on the farm. And so, he started making wine and growing grains, olives, legumes and vegetables. Next fall, we’re releasing our first Elena x De Fermo cuvée – a rosato made from Montepulciano grapes that have been crushed by our partner Marley Sniatowsky’s feet. It’s got character and should make for an amazing winter rosé.

Overlooking a field and small Italian town with mountains in the distance
Follow the yellow–flower road to La Stoppa in Emilia–Romagna.
Natural winemaker Elena Pantaleoni at her winery, La Stoppa, in Italy
Elena Pantaleoni from La Stoppa.

Electrifying reds at Cantina Giardino in Campania Cantina Giardino is located an hour and a half east of Naples in a town called Ariano Irpino, but their vineyards are scattered all around the area. They purchased a bunch of old parcels, and now they take care of these ancient vines of indigenous varietals. The area experiences very cool nights, which means the wines have amazing structure and acidity, but it’s also really hot during the day, so the grapes achieve perfect ripeness. Their wines are electrifying and really out there. Ask to do a cellar tasting – I tried some of the wildest wines when I was there.

Amphora wine at Azienda Agricola COS in Sicily If you’re in Sicily, you have to visit Giusto Occhipinti at Azienda Agricola COS and Arianna Occhipinti at Occhipinti. They are an uncle–and–niece duo who are closely associated with the resurgence of natural wines in Sicily. They work with indigenous varietals like nero d’Avola, frappato, grillo, catarratto and zibibbo. Giusto became famous for his skin–contact wines done in amphorae. Even though Azienda Agricola COS is located in Vittoria, one of the hottest places in all of Italy, they manage to achieve a lot of freshness with their wines. The Nero di Lupo made with nero d’Avola is a good example of that – at 12–percent alcohol, it’s unbelievably crunchy and ripe. The winery has an agriturismo with an amazing pool, and Giusto’s sister is a fantastic cook.

  1. Local heroes: Nero d’Avola (fruity, full–bodied red), frappato (red fruit, spicy red), grillo (floral, full–bodied white), catarratto (fresh, fruity white) and zibibbo (also known as muscat d’Alexandrie, it makes crisp, floral white wines) are Sicily’s superstar grapes.
  2. These clay vessels, also known as qvevri, have been used to make wine for thousands of years in places like Georgia and ancient Greece, and are now enjoying a resurgence all over the world.

Lesson in frappato wine at Occhipinti in Sicily Arianna is a juggernaut, and she is responsible for the popularity of 100–percent frappato wines. (Before her, frappato was mostly used for blending.) She’s also responsible for my love of natural wines, and more specifically Italian natural wines. When we opened Nora Gray, she made wines that were affordable and interesting enough without being too adventurous. The only two things I knew I needed to have on the wine list at the time were Arianna Occhipinti and Elena Pantaleoni’s wines. The rest I could figure out later. Splurge on a bottle of Il Frappato. It’s fresh, peppery, complex and a beautiful expression of the region. It’s like a love letter to Sicily.