Elio Sandri: Italian for Uncompromising

10/15/15 -

Have you had this experience? On your way to visit X (here insert known name like Mugnier or Mascarello), you pass little side roads with arrowed-signs naming producers you’ve never heard of, and you think: statistically there must be someone among these who actually makes really good wine. There are plenty of reasons why you might not know their name. Perhaps they’ve sold their fruit or wine to negociants and have just started to bottle their own; perhaps they’re terribly shy and don’t get out much; perhaps they haven’t had much skill or good luck in marketing; perhaps their production is really small and they haven’t bothered with trying to find new markets. Of course I go through life the eternal optimist, thinking I’m going to find a Raphael at the flea market (a small Raphael, but still). Nonetheless, my reaction last May, when we ‘discovered’ Elio Sandri, was “how the hell could we have not known about this guy?" The wines are (here insert the over-the-top descriptor of the day. I’m going to with the following) INSANE! They were the most compelling wine I’d tasted in a long time (actually at that moment we’d been to G Rinaldi 4 days before, so they were the most compelling wines I’d tasted in 4 days; this can seem like quite a long time when you’re tasting dozens of wines from just after breakfast until a bit too late at night). Each wine we tasted was impeccable; we loved everything. And Elio seems like a swell guy, totally independent, having a great time, passionate about his work, bemused by sudden new acolytes trying to give him their money, or watches - whatever it takes to have a few bottles to bring home. All of this is thanks to Gregory Dal Piaz, who brought me to Sandri (including navigating), and who has so kindly allowed us to reprint his write-up on Sandri, which follows below. We apologize now that we don’t have more of the wine to offer (including the Dolcetto, which we haven’t been able to buy, yet); we’re trying, and the eternal optimist in me has high hopes for the future. Jamie Wolff

Elio Sandri: Italian for Uncompromising

  Elio Sandri. For me he was a mystery, resulting from two great bottles of wine followed by several years of fruitless attempts at arranging a visit, and then: Pow! The light went on.

After a few phone calls back and forth I was able to arrange a visit with Elio at his Monforte winery: Cascina Disa. Located just east and over the hill from the village of Perno, the valley within which the vineyards lie are off the beaten path and it is easily understood why the media have passed by Cascina Disa, I mean: why else is nobody talking about this guy?


Getting to Cascina Disa is fairly easy, even if the winery itself is neither well marked nor particularly obvious. It is a true cascina, winery and home in one, surrounded, hidden even, by lush vineyards. These vineyards, benefiting from terrific eastern and southern exposures, have soils (grayish loams with veins of sand that become painfully obvious in the fall) that draw as much from Castiglione as they do from Serralunga, though truth be known they are very much Perno soils.

Farmed lovingly, in a truly minimally interventionist style, these vineyards, planted roughly between 300 and 350 meters above sea level, only account for part of the brilliance of these wines. There is of course the winemaking as well. Adhering to a similar non-interventionist tact in the cellar, Elio has quietly been producing wines that should be recognized as among the region's best. Seriously, these wines can compete with any being produced in the Langhe, and an argument can be made, a very strong argument in fact, that his Dolcetto and Barbera are not only screaming values, but truly among the world’s finest expressions of these varieties.


Laid out within a conca, a bowl of sorts, between Rocche di Castiglione and Gabutti in Serralunga, trapping the day's early warmth, the vineyards of  Elio Sandri produce fruit that is both ripe and exuberant as well as terrifically transparent and soil driven. The wines really do express a hypothetical blend of Castiglione and Serralunga, though quietly, in whispers rather than brashly out loud, even if Elio’s vineyards directly face Parafada, Gabutti, and Margheria in Serralunga.


Quietly. It's an apt word for both the wine and the man. Walking us through his vineyards, Elio emphasized that he tries to keep his workers calm and relaxed as they make their way through the vines, pruning, adjusting, and simply communing with the wines. From someone else, someone perhaps more prone to theatrics, it might come off as a farce, but with Elio's quiet conviction it comes off as a grand philosophy. 

The grass is cut here twice a year; if you can't guess we are talking about organic farming, though certification is neither sought nor desired. Elio's philosophy can best be captured by his offhand comment that the best way to work a vineyard is with one’s hands in one’s pockets!  Other than gently trimming the lateral shoots (at the first leaf so as to not damage the buds), and some suckering, there is little done to manage or limit the vine's growth. The idea is to let the vines make the wine, and having them achieve a natural balance is essential to that goal. With vines planted in 1937, as is the case with the Barolo vines here, that might very well be easier that it seems.

So too with his natural yeast fermentations. There's no great explanation about them. This is the way one makes wine. This is the way one has always made wines. After experiments with cultivated yeasts, this is obviously the way to make wine. These indigenous yeasts produce wines that better translate what the terroir has provided, and in the end make for a better balanced, more interesting wine. While I have praised the so-called lesser varieties in particular, there is not a boring, ordinary, or lackluster wine being produced at Cascina Disa. In fact they are all elegant, soft, incredibly textured and complex, and bursting with the flavors of soil and fruit.

There is no great commercial distribution of these wines. Production is tiny, in no small part because Elio has never been bitten by the cru bug. There is one Barolo produced here. It is a Riserva. There are seven botte in the cellar, and only botte for Barolo, one for each vintage in wood.  The current releases are the 2007 and 2008. This is not the way to become a successful winery, not in today's vintage-driven, critics’-praise-propelled wine market. Imagine if you will how frustrating it must have been at the peak of the modernist movement, producing tiny quantities of wines that are classics. Not only were your wines totally out of fashion and out of date, but people couldn't even be bothered to let you know!  Cascina Disa was just a small town winery living in a lonely world.

Elio obviously didn't and doesn't care; he's doing all right. Just try and convince him to sell you some wine! More wine could be sold, and in fact more wine could be produced from the 7 hectares of vines under cultivation, but with seven botte holding Barolo there simply is not enough space to expand production (though I expect we'll see some movement on that front in the very near future). 

At the end of the day what counts is what's in the bottle. Elio's been the guiding hand at Cascina Disa since the 2000 vintage, though the property was purchased by his father in 1965 (coincidentally the year of Elio’s birth). He has a gift and has quietly been producing wines that will be recognized as deserving the same acclaim that we accord houses associated with Mascarello and Rinaldi today.  The biggest impediment to that fame is the limited production of about 300 cases a year of Barolo. In many ways no more than an after-thought or footnote to a critic's commentary. You won't find the wines out at mass tastings, or submitted for review, you'll have to show up at Cascina Disa to discover these wines, and they are most certainly worth discovering.


If you see these wines, grab them. There are perhaps 10,000 bottles a year in total produced and virtually none in the secondary market. I mentioned before that the Dolcetto and Barbera are both terrific, they are also among the most age worthy wines of their type. Simply fabulous additions to the cellar and a glimpse of what these wines were, and can be. Gregory Dal Piaz

One final note before we head onto the wines. The hands-on nature of Cascina Disa doesn't end in the vineyard, nor in the cellar. Every bottle of Barolo is hand wrapped in paper. A fitting and final touch from Elio to his valued customers.


Elio, Greg, and Jamie wrap bottles.

Originally published on SimplyBetterWines.com <http://www.simplybetterwines.com/elio-sandri.html>

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