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The wines of La Raia, Piedmont, Italy
A biodynamic estate in Gavi

Gavi estate La Raia was purchased in 2003 by Giorgio Rossi Cairo, and it’s now run by his son-in-law, Tom Dean (right), and Giorgio’s daughter Caterina.

The 25 hectares of vines are farmed biodynamically, and have been certified by Demeter from the 2007 harvest after a period of conversion. I chatted with Tom about the process of running an estate along biodynamic lines, and tasted the wines.

The conversion period has been five years, from being conventionally run previously. Some of the vineyards are 60 years old, and Tom says that it takes time for these to undergo conversion. He reckons that with vineyards it takes about four or five years of practising biodynamics to see the effects, although it does depend where you are starting from.

What were the first steps in making this transition from conventional to biodynamic growing? ‘It’s all about the soil’, he maintains. ‘You have to use lighter machinery, do less work with tractors, more manual work, and add specific things to do with the life of the soil’. For example, in Autumn they sow mixed seeds – grasses, legumes and cereals – and then by spring this has grown into a jungle, so it can be cut and dug into the soil. There’s a specialized tool that goes on the back of the tractor for this purpose.

‘Bacteria come into the soil if you create the right environment’, explains Tom. What he’s trying to do with his soils is create structure, develop the microbial life and create proper drainage. One of the plants he grows in the row is rye, which has huge roots that, once the plant has been cut down, become micro-holes that help with aeration and drainage.

He composts, but says that compost isn’t as important for vineyards as it is for other crops because for grape vines you don’t want soils that are too fertile. As with other biodynamic growers, Tom uses the special range of preparations to spray on the vines, add to compost, and spray on the soil. Tom buys most of his preparations from Calo Norro, although he has also begun to make some himself.

The greatest challenge in Gavi for biodynamic growers is powdery mildew, a fungal disease that vines are particularly susceptible to. Tom dusts the vine leaves with sulphur to combat this. Once you see mildew appearing, it’s too late to do anything about it, so you need to start spraying sulphur when the leaves emerge. He sprays the most badly affected parts of the vineyard with anti-fungal bacteria, too. Insects aren’t too much of a problem here because there’s a lot of diversity in the farm, with a wide variety of different plants growing wildly, helping to make a stable, balanced ecosystem.

‘The main barrier to biodynamics is a mental one’, says Tom. ‘Anyone can do it: it requires an open mind and dedication. You need to start with a bit of faith that it works. After a while you see it works and it gives you the confidence to carry on.’

Two of Tom's biodynamic preparations, in front of a cow's horn

The wines are impressive, with lovely personality. They’re available in the UK from Vitage Roots, whose prices are given in brackets.

La Raia Gavi 2006
Cortese is the white grape of Gavi, and I'm quite a fan of it. Quite bright, slightly herby nose. Refined. Lovely pure, soft-textured palate with gently herby fruit. Stylish and understated. 88/100 (£7.99 Vintage Roots)

La Raia Gavi 2007
Aromatic, youthful, vividly fruity nose is herby and fresh. The palate is crisp with nice texture. Fresh style with good acidity. 87/100 (£7.99 Vintage Roots)

La Raia ‘Pisé’ Gavi 2006
From the oldest vineyards. Complex bright lemony, citrussy nose has lovely aromatics. The palate has a nice rounded texture with pure bright fruit. Nicely complex with a savoury finish. 89/100 (£9.50 Vintage Roots)

La Raia Barbera 2006
Savoury, assertive cherry fruit nose is bright and fresh. The palate is savoury and has a hint of earthiness under the fresh bright fruit. High acidity. 87/100 (£6.99 Vintage Roots)

Wines tasted 03/08  
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