Every year, as the leaves fall and days grow short, I head to Italy’s Piedmont region for two things that warm the season: fragrant white truffles and inspiring red wines.
This year, I’ve developed a thing for Ruchè (pronounced roo-KAY), a captivating and affordable red that has made a dramatic comeback from near extinction.
Ruchè’s home is the gentle Monferrato hills in seven towns around Castagnole Monferrato, about 30 miles northeast of Piedmont’s most famous Nebbiolo-based appellation, Barolo.
These two wine locales look like beautiful siblings, though Monferrato’s varied marl soil hills are lower in elevation. And the wine grapes are very different.
A lot of places call their wines unique, but Monferrato’s Ruchè really is singular—thanks to an aromatic wallop on the nose that’s rare in reds. A recent sampling of young wines from Monferrato’s more than 20 Ruchè producers floored me with their minty scents that leapt out of the glass, followed by a tannic bite.
In late October, I drove to Castagnole Monferrato to try a range of wines with Luca Ferraris, a leading area producer and president of the producers association for the Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato DOCG.
“When you smell it blind, you can’t tell if it’s red or white,” explains Ferraris while driving along a hilltop crest of vineyards in his dusty SUV. “Then, after two years in bottle, Ruchè starts to lose its aromatics and becomes more complex.”
Ferraris, 41, is an important part of Ruchè’s modern story—a tale that involves an unlikely cast of characters, from a winemaking parish priest to eccentric California winemaker Randall Grahm, founder of Bonny Doon (which he sold earlier this year).
“I imagine (Ruchè) as the love-child of Nebbiolo and (another rare aromatic Piedmont red) Brachetto,” Grahm wrote to me recently. “Rose petal, anise and cardamom perfume that mercifully doesn't cloy in virtue of its slight astringency.”
Actually, recent research has established Ruchè’s lineage as an old cross of a near-extinct white known as Malvasia Aromatica di Parma with red Croatina. The grape has been around since at least the 19th century and has come a long way in the 21st, with improved quality. Wine Spectator blind tastings of the wines have been topped by Ferraris’ Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato 2015 ($25), at 90 points.
Key to the winemaking is balancing Ruchè’s natural lack of acidity. “It’s the opposite of Barbera in that way,” Ferraris says, explaining that vintners have learned to blend early-harvested lots full of green tannins with the riper grapes.
The hills of Monferrato are mostly planted with other red varieties like Barbera and Grignolino. Because Ruchè’s unruly vegetation is hard to train, it fell out of favor long ago, used only to make small amounts of sweet wine for festive occasions.
In the 1960s, a winemaking parish priest named Don Cauda took an interest in Ruchè, gathering cuttings for his own vineyard, from which he made a wine called Vigna del Parroco. Others followed his example, leading to the creation of an appellation in 1987.
In 2001, Ferraris was fresh out of agricultural school and set about replanting vineyards his grandparents had cultivated around Monferrato. “I decided to dedicate my life to Ruchè,” he says.
The following spring, he attended Vinitaly, the annual Italian wine trade show in Verona, where he met Grahm by chance. “He was tired and he stopped by my stand,” Ferraris remembers. “I poured him some wine, and he fell in love with Ruchè.”
Grahm offered to import 8,000 cases for Bonny Doon’s Il Circo label. Using purchased grapes, Ferraris was able to make nearly half of that in the 2003 vintage.
“Thanks to Randall, Ruchè was introduced to the United States, and I had the possibility to increase my scale,” says Ferraris, who calls Grahm his “maestro.”
“Randall gave me a thousand ideas—he’s crazy,” Ferraris says, walking through the 5-acre Vigna del Parroco vineyard, which he bought in 2016 and which remains the appellation's only designated cru. “Randall taught me that if you believe in an idea, go with it—and don’t listen to anyone else.”
Grahm stopped importing the wine after the sale of Bonny Doon’s Big House négociant brand in 2006, yet Ferraris has continued to grow. Today he owns more than 80 acres under vine, more than half planted with Ruchè.
Currently, Ferraris makes four 100 percent Ruchè wines from estate grapes: a fresh, young version called Sant’ Eufemia; his flagship Clàsic (a name he began using in the 2016 vintage), aged at least six months in big barrels; a riserva called Opera Prima aged at least two years in large oak tonneaus, and his Vigna del Parroco, aged nine months in a combination of steel tanks and tonneaus.
Grahm and Ferraris have remained friends, each leaving a mark on the other’s home turf.
Initially at Grahm’s urging, Ferraris planted Viognier, now at 17 acres, and has been bottling the aromatic Rhône Valley white grape since 2011. In turn, on a trip to California, Ferraris convinced Grahm to plant Ruchè at his experimental Popelouchum vineyard in San Benito County.
“The results are incredibly promising,” says Grahm, who this season has produced the first 40 gallons (around 200 bottles’ worth) of Ruchè. “I'm rather hopeful that we'll be able to … perhaps find our own unique style with this extraordinary variety.”