Diego Conterno, 21 Nascetta 2021 Langhe

Diego Conterno sits on large botti in his cellar

An intriguing rarity from the north-west of Italy that remains something of an insider secret. 

From €14, £15.67, 16 Swiss francs, $22

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Described in 1879 by historian Lorenzo Fantini in his book Wine Production and Oenology in the Province of Cuneo as ‘an exquisite grape, tending toward art’, Nascetta was, nevertheless, nearly extinct by 1993, the year that Italian journalist Armando Gambera persuaded a group of producers from the Langhe village of Novello, the historical home of the grape, to come and taste some 1986 Nascettas with him. 

The impression this tasting made was enough to jolt several producers into a mission to revive their own forgotten gem. Elvio Cogno was the first, in 1994, to produce an experimental vintage of 800 bottles from just a couple of rows of vines that had been planted just after the Second World War. At that point the grape variety, also known as Anascetta and Nas-cëtta, wasn’t even listed in the national registry – as far as the authorities were concerned, it no longer existed. It took until 2002 for campaigning producers to persuade the authorities to register the variety and to authorise it for use in Langhe DOC white wines. Its potential quickly became so apparent that by 2010, Nascetta del Comune di Novello was made an official subzone of Langhe.

Stefano and Diego Conterno at work in theirNovello vineyards.
Diego Conterno (r) in his Novello vineyards

Walter Speller has been championing the variety for over seven years. In 2015, he told the extraordinary and fascinating story of this grape, calling it ‘the white Barolo’, and in 2020, he too made a Nascetta his wine of the week. Even so, Nascetta remains an insider secret. Today there are only 21 ha (52 acres) planted in the whole of the Langhe region, mostly in the commune of Novello.

I hadn’t come across Nascetta before I tasted Diego Conterno’s honeysuckle-drenched, toasted-peaches, herb-bitter, citrus-spined, acidity-glittering 21. It was startlingly good, intriguing (to the tune of 15 browser tabs and five books), and a wine that had to be strictly rationed because I immediately knew I wanted to taste it over several days and with different dishes.

Diego Conterno and son Stefano at harvest time
Stefano and Diego Conterno at harvest time

Diego Conterno was one of the original founders of Conterno-Fantino, but in 2003 he established his own estate and was joined by son Stefano in 2010. Their vineyards have been farmed organically since 2010, certified in 2014. Their approach to winemaking is defined by minimal intervention: spontaneous fermentation, no additions except for minimal sulphites, concrete tanks and traditional, large-format, old botti.

The Conterno Nascetta is one of those wines which I think of as an ‘aggregate oxymoron’. The kind of wine about which the word ‘yet’ keeps cropping up. It’s tropical and rich, yet racy and fine-boned. It’s headily floral yet understated. It comes with a taut structure of herbal and citrus-peel bitterness, yet it’s honeyed and silky. It’s grippy with energy, yet languid. It has, as Walter writes, substance and depth, yet it’s not heavy.

Open for five days, it held its fruit and structure with tireless ease. And it proved wonderful with food. Best pairing was simplicity itself: curly kale stir-fried in olive oil with garlic and chilli flakes, a squeeze of lemon, topped with a soft-boiled egg. The iron in the kale echoing the iodine in the wine, citrus singing to citrus, the bite of the chilli to the bite of the wine, the silky richness of the egg to the silky richness of the tropical fruit. It was also superb with Tom Walton’s whole roasted golden goddess cauliflower as well as his braised leeks with hazelnut vinaigrette (forgive me: I’ve become a bit obsessed with his recipe book, More Fish, More Veg, since my sister generously left me her copy at Christmas).

I’m not sure who started the #TryJanuary campaign or when it began, but if you’re up for starting the year with curiosity and a resolution to discover and learn rather than reductive asceticism, this wonderful wine is a great way to get going.

Diego Conterno Nascetta 21 2021 Langhe bottle shot

The wine is being sold in the UK by Jeroboams (£21.95) and Howard Ripley Wines (£15.67). It’s also available in Italy, Switzerland and the US, where it’s brought in by North Berkeley Imports, and Wine-Searcher indicates that the current vintage can be sourced in NY and MA, and the 2020 and 2019 (no doubt, just as good) can be tracked down in CA, WY, FL and WA. Even when the price pips the £20 mark, it’s still extraordinarily good value.

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