An interview with Riikka Sukula of the Barolo producing Sukula Winery in Serralunga d'Alba, Piemonte.
“I wanted to understand how the land tastes in the wine.”
Riikka Sukula, a Barolo producer of the Sukula winery living in Serralunga d’Alba, Piemonte with her husband and two children, dreamed of making wine – and turned that dream into a reality. Over ten years ago, she and her husband moved from their native Finland and bought 1.8 hectares of land and a farmhouse in Serralunga d’Alba to produce their own Barolo wine.
This is a story of proving oneself, of how passion and a willingness to learn – and to get your hands dirty – can create a fine wine from one of Italy’s most heralded viticultural territories, no matter what your background is.
I arrived at the farmhouse on a crisp autumn day, driving by colorful vineyards in Barbera red and Nebbiolo yellow. Riikka appeared at the open door of her home, wearing all black and no shoes. She greeted me warmly in the midst of packing wooden boxes of Sukula Barolo, olive oil, and rice. “My husband is a chef,” she said, explaining the contents. Indeed, the room where she was packing – and occasionally scolding a small orange cat who managed to sit everywhere she needed to be – was a testament to serious culinary skills and a love of cooking and hosting. The huge oven with six burners and dangling pots and pans was the centerpiece as I walked in, and the shelves to my right were full of mini caffé cups and dozens of wine glasses. In her high-ceilinged living room, cookbooks crammed a brick cubbyhole, and a wall of windows overlooked vineyards and green glass demijohns glinting in the sun.
The light, clean space and its rustic atmosphere look like Scandinavia meets Piemonte.
What got you interested in moving to Italy to make wine?
“My husband and I worked in the restaurant business, and I imported wine. I only sold Italian wine in Finland. When I traveled and searched for producers in Italy, I became interested in how they said “95% of the work is done in the vineyards,” then they’d show you into the cantina. But I wanted to understand the vineyards, and in 2003 we heard of a small Barolo property for sale. We negotiated for two years, purchased it, and then in 2005 we did our first winter pruning. It’s hard to buy land here, but we were very lucky because the owner didn’t want to divide his property. No one else wanted to buy the farmhouse, but the house and small piece of land were exactly what we wanted.”
“In the restaurant business, what you do is judged twice a day – at lunch and at dinner. Making wine has a very long time span, and the reward comes a lot later."
Why did you choose Piemonte and not another region in Italy?
“Nebbiolo is the hardest grape to cultivate, but Barolo is the top wine in Italy – it’s called the King of wines. And Piemonte is like an adult Disneyland with all its great food and wine.”
You’ve never had winemaking experience before. How did you learn?
“I wanted to put my own name on the bottle, so I studied Agriculture and Viticulture for three years while renovations were under way. We had to renovate the vineyards because they were 65-70 years old and at the end of their prime, and we had to make the house livable. It was really hard being pregnant in a house with no running water! We used boilers to take hot baths.”
What was producing wine like in the beginning?
“At first, we tried to do everything by the book, but you have to learn to read the vine. You only learn by doing, and you’re never done. Now that we finished renovations, we can focus all our time and energy on learning about making wine and always improving the quality.”
Tell me about your wine.
“My husband and I and one other man who drives the tractor do everything, all by hand. We probably work 2000 hours in the vineyard over the year. We produce 4000 bottles of Barolo from the Meriame cru and 1500 of Barbera, and vinify our wines at La Spinetta. It’s small, but it’s the perfect size. I can be working at the farthest end of the vineyard, and my daughters will call out from the terrace, “Mom, we’re hungry!” and I’ll hear them.
“Our wines are organic, but they’re not certified. There’s too much beaurocracy, and I don’t even want to learn about it. It’s enough for me to know that it’s organic and what I do is sustainable. 2006 was our first vintage. We only made Magnums, and we kept the production for ourselves – it was very small.”
And the label?
“I came here to learn to make wine by myself, by hand. The hands on the label are my husband’s and mine. We have no heraldic design, no history, just our hands. Plus I’ve never done work with my hands before, so this is very rewarding and satisfying. It’s difficult, but it’s fun.”
How do you feel about winning the Sole award from Veronelli (which only 20 out of 20,000 wines are awarded a year) and making it in Golosaria’s Top 100 list with your Barolo 2010?
“It was a wonderful surprise! We don’t make wine for the recognition. I make it so I can understand how vineyards make excellent wine. In the cellar, we are very minimal, using only oak, slow and natural processes, no interventions unless absolutely necessary. I want to know how this land tastes. It was also a surprise because our wine communication is passaparola (word-of-mouth).
“Our 2007 and 2009 Barolos are very pleasant and easy to drink, with great balance. But 2008 and 2010 are much more classic, and I think 2010 is our best. It’s fresh, tannic, fruity, it enjoys taking time to age. It’s already drinkable, but I’m not rushing sales.”
Speaking as a fellow expat, moving to another country has its challenges. Was it hard to move here?
“I have never lived in the countryside before, but it was easy to come here. The Finnish are a bit like the Piemontese. We’re reserved at first, but once you get to know us, we open up. We did have to make a lot of life changes, but there is never a good moment to realize your dreams. You’ll never have enough time, enough money, enough courage. The first step is to speak your dreams out loud. At first I thought I would miss the sea, but I don’t – every day of the year is so different here. I have an idea to do a time-lapse video over the entire year. People love to romanticize about the harvest, but it’s just a slice of bread from the rest of the loaf.”
Time-lapse of the mist on an autumn morning in Serralunga d'Alba. Video by Riikka Sukula
What are the biggest differences between your life in Finland and your life in Piemonte?
“In the restaurant business, what you do is judged twice a day – at lunch and at dinner. Making wine has a very long time span, and the reward comes a lot later. When I learned that vineyards need 25 years before they produce at peak quality, I had a different time perspective.”
“Part of the dolce vita that everyone thinks Italians live shows through in their wine: there’s an appreciation to the rhythm of life, an awareness of evolution and change. In making Barolo, you have to learn to lose the passage of time. There is a daily and annual rhythm, but you can’t rush it.”
"We had to make a lot of life changes, but there is never a good moment to realize your dreams. You’ll never have enough time, enough money, enough courage. The first step is to speak your dreams out loud."
How does your background affect the wine you produce?
“I have the advantage of coming from outside to see from a wider perspective. The producers here have wonderful knowledge that goes very deep into the roots of their winery, family, and town history, but you need a wider knowledge at the same time. In the 1980s, there was a trend for experimenting in the cantina in Piemonte, and coming from outside, I can understand how it happened. There have been periods of transition, like when the top producers handed the reins to the next generation in the ‘80s. This was when the modernist versus traditionalist debate broke out. I think if you know the background, you understand what the new movie Barolo Boys is all about. It’s about this transition. When someone works in a winery and in a place with so much tradition behind it for so long, only now they have more mobility and can travel, you understand how they want to try something different.
“In the end, I think it was just easier, from a journalistic point of view, to summarize everything under using or not using wood to age Barolo. But there were lots of changes during this period, many of them improvements. Before the 1970s, no one did green harvest, for example. Another change is that a huge number of families now produce under their own names. The current fame of Barolo has to do with all of these changes and transitions, together.”
After tasting the Barolo 2010, Riikka looked at my shoes to make sure I could get them dirty, and took me out ot her vineyards. She explained how winter pruning is difficult because if she clips the wrong vine, it won’t produce Nebbiolo next year. She leaves nine buds for the new vines to grow back and be manually guided along the wires to each produce a grape bunch. Many producers leave 13 or 14 buds for higher yields, but Riikka knows that lower quantity means higher quality. Though she says learning to make wine is an ongoing process – and, in fact, has enrolled in the Master in Italian Wine Culture course at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo for 2015 – it is clear that the Sukula winery has come very far already.