After Jack Tooes took one last look at his erstwhile confinement, the submariner would have been more likely to plot his escape northwards through what is now the Neirone nature reserve with its wooded secrecy, rather than the terraces and hillsides of vines surrounding the ancient town to the south. The vines would have been laden with fruit, the harvest nigh, but hardly a suitable refuge for the only man to escape successfully from the Gavi fort in 800 years.
And yet, I do like to imagine that as Able Seaman Tooes snuck away from the Nazis he availed himself of a couple of plump Cortese bunches as sustenance for his almost 100-mile bolt to Switzerland.
Gavi’s castle was built by the Saracens in the years following the Roman withdrawal from Western Europe, so around the 5th and 6th centuries. It became home to Tooes and his fellow POWs as an Italian camp for attempted escapees, subsequently under Nazi control after the Armistice of Cassibile in September 1943.
Those Cortese grapes have been grown in this part of Piemonte – and pretty much here alone – since at least 1614, when they were mentioned in a cellar inventory at Casale Monferrato. The variety hasn’t spread around Italy or the world, with roughly 3,000 hectares largely centred around the province of Alessandria.
You’ve never heard of Cortese but heard plenty about Gavi (or indeed Gavi di Gavi)? Don’t worry, I had also known what Gavi was long before the name of the grape that makes it. This is the way of things in many European wine regions. Cortese is to Gavi what Tempranillo is to Rioja or Nebbiolo to Barolo or Chardonnay to Chablis. For centuries we understood and judged a wine through its origins rather than a variety. Then the New World came to the fore and lacking ancient regions with hundreds of years of harvests behind them, the grapes became the brands.
Cortese isn’t a grape of great renown but it can scale great heights in the immediate Gavi area itself, where the wines can be described as “Gavi di Gavi”. With a few exceptions, these are wines to be drunk young and fresh, savouring the light primary stone fruit flavours and floral aroma.
Clementina Cossetti captures those flavours in her Gelsomora Gavi with gentle, temperature-controlled fermentation in steel tanks. Her family has been farming this area for four generations, stretching back more than 125 years. It’s perhaps too romantic a thought that Clementina’s forefathers stumbled across Tooes and gave him a bottle of Gavi for his journey, but let’s pour a glass of it today and imagine it anyway.