An close-up image of Ruchè Grapes. / Photo courtesy of Ruche Producers Association
Among the tapestry of royal reds like Barolo, Barbaresco and Barbera in Italy’s Piedmont region, a lesser-known jewel has been enjoyed for centuries in the gentle hillsides around the village of Castagnole Monferrato.
In the province of Asti, where the famous Alpine peaks of Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn lie in the distance, Ruchè warmed the hearts and spirits of locals. Often reserved for joyous occasions, the variety was traditionally used to create sweet wines, and was also blended in limited amounts with more popular grapes of the area, such as Barbera, Grignolino and Dolcetto.
But by the 20th century, Ruchè’s future was bleak, as cultivation was reduced to a smattering of vines throughout the Monferrato.
“Fifty years ago, we didn’t have variety—we had good, bad, red and white,” says Franco Cavallero of Cantine Sant’Agata.
Cavallero describes life in the Monferrato hills at that time as simple and economically challenged, until a new parish priest arrived in Castagnole Monferrato in the late 1960s. Don Giacomo Cauda came from a winemaking family and became enamored with Ruchè, believing that it had qualities unlike any other grape in the region.
An aerial view of Bersano Castagnole Monferrato Vineyards. / Photo by: Tino Gerbaldo
Cauda was known to quickly change out of his Sunday vestments to work in his vineyard. He selected and propagated old vines, refined the wine from sweet to dry, and became the first in the area to bottle it. While his wine sales paid for church restorations, his enthusiasm and know-how reinvigorated the entire growing region and inspired a rebirth of this near-forgotten native grape.
“We said, ‘Why don’t we try once to make wine like the priest?’ ” says Cavallero.
So in 1990, Cavallero and his family produced a bottling called ‘Na Vota, which translates to “once” or “once upon a time” in Piedmontese.
Faithful to the priest’s example, other growers followed. Eventually, Ruchè’s sweet style shifted to pure, dry and reflective of the terroir.
“I loved watching the priest make wine,” says local winemaker Luca Ferraris, who remembers growing up in the area. “But I never thought that I would buy his vineyard later [in life].”