Alto Piemonte: Drilling Down

Eric Asimov recently had a great write-up on Nebbiolo from the “other” parts of Piedmont (meaning not Barolo or Barbaresco), as well as Valtellina in Lombardy. The vast majority of the wines covered by the article are from a region called Alto Piemonte, which is basically higher up in the foothills of the Alps north of Barolo/Barbaresco. It is one of the most interesting wine regions in the world. We are fascinated by it, and have a wide selection of wines from the region, so we thought it would be helpful to drill down a little and take a look at the Nebbiolos that it has to offer, taking each of the most important DOCs in turn.

First, the big picture. All the Alto Piemonte DOCs lie in areas where glaciers retreated at the end of the last ice age. The glaciers carved out slopes with iron-rich soils that are high in acidity–in contrast to the alkaline soils of Barolo/Barbaresco. The sun-facing slopes ensure that the vines get intense heat during summer days; the high altitude and northerly latitude give cool nights that preserve the grapes’ freshness and acidity. We are talking about very special terroir that is quite different from what you find further south. It is no wonder that around 100 years ago this region’s red wines were more famous than Barolo!

Gattinara.  This is the best known of the Alto Piemonte DOCs, probably because it’s the largest and has several well-known producers. It is also a little warmer than the other DOCs, and you get bigger wines here as a result. It is the “Barolo” of the Alto Piemonte. But there is something magical about Gattinara: it is far more accessible than Barolo at a young age, yet seems equally capable of living to a very old age. This was proven a few years ago when Antoniolo (the leading producer in Gattinara these days) released a bunch of wines from the 1960s. Although these were likely reinvigorated with a little young wine when they were recorked and released, they were nonetheless stunning examples of Nebbiolo with plenty of fantastic mature character. We snap up older Gattinara whenever it is available–magnums of 1990 Antoniolo are on the way!–so be sure to sign up for our newsletter list. In the meantime, more current releases from Petterino, Vallana, and Monsecco are here at the shop.

Ghemme.  This is next most famous and is just across the river from Gattinara. But position is everything, and Ghemme is more exposed to a chilly blast of air that descends from Monte Rosa (the second highest mountain in Europe). It is a cooler terroir, and the wines are accordingly not quite as rich, although there tend to be more noticeable tannins in Ghemme than the other DOCs mentioned below. In these cooler terroirs, you tend to see the Nebbiolo being blended with Vespolina and Uva Rara, two grapes that ripen more easily than Nebbiolo. You are allowed to blend up to 25% of these grapes into Ghemme, compared to only 4% for Gattinara.

For a while, Cantalupo was the king of Ghemme here in New York, as it was just about the only producer that exported to our region. They make great wines in a more traditional manner than Antoniolo–only large casks at this address. The 2006 is a solid option to get to know these wines, although I would prefer to give it a few more years in the cellar. Now, thanks to Neal Rosenthal, we also have Rovellotti, who grows grapes organically in the southern part of the DOC, and works with the same oenologist that guides Ferrando (see below).

Carema.  Not technically in Alto Piemonte, Carema is in the Canavese, bordering the Vallee d’Aoste. But it’s all pretty close, and when you taste these wines I think it’s clear that they fit stylistically into this group. Carema is high up–here, the mountain overlooking the vineyards is Monte Bianco, the one mountain in Europe that is even higher than Monte Rosa. As you can imagine, the wines–even the Nebbiolo-based reds–are bright and acidic. They are also wonderful. Indeed, of all the wines mentioned in this post, none is more sought after than the Caremas of Luigi Ferrando (they only come out once a year and disappear quickly, but the entry-level Canavese Rosso is steadily available). These wines are lighter than Gattinaras but are in some ways more extreme: they are even easier-going in their youth and yet they age effortlessly for decades. The only other producer of Carema is the local co-op (the Produttori di Carema), which works with grapes from a number of small holders. These co-op wines are well made, so they represent excellent value and are usually much easier to find than Ferrando’s wines.

Lessona.  With Lessona we start to enter the world of obscurity. But it’s still delicious obscurity–obscure only because the entire DOC consists of 8 hectares of vines! Here we are located just to the west of Gattinara, in soils that are much more iron-rich and gravelly. Generally, this makes the wine taste more of rocks and minerals. With only a few hectares to divide up between them, there are not a lot of producers to choose from, but the quality is excellent. You’ve got Sella, considered the reference-point producer, Massimo Clerico, whose wines only just started coming to the U.S., and Sperino, a project from the folks who make Chianti at Isole & Olena. Take your pick: they all make great Nebbiolo.

Although I haven’t drunk any old Lessonas myself, you’ve got to figure that these have great aging potential. Let’s talk about that for a second, since this may not seem so obvious. After all, we are not talking about big tannic wines like Barolo. How will they age? How do any of these Alto Piemonte wines age? The point to remember is that Nebbiolo is a naturally high-tannin grape. The tannins are present in these wines, but I find that the tannins in mountain wine are never particularly conspicuous. Instead, they are smooth and well integrated, providing the wine with length and energy, but not power or grip. This is why you can drink them young–and I would even suggest trying them with sushi! But those “invisible” tannins–together with the wine’s fruit and acidity–will carry the wine well into its old age. Anyone who’s tasted old bottles of Spanna from Vallana knows what I’m talking about (Spanna being the local word for Nebbiolo and Vallana being a legendary producer from the region that was considered on the same level as Mascarello or Conterno back in the ’60s; Vallana is in the process of making a comeback and you should really try their very old-fashioned-style Gattinara).

Boca.  This DOC is so small that in 1991 it was threatened with extinction. One of largest producers–still tiny by normal acreage standards–was in his late 80s and ready to retire with no successor in sight. A Swiss man (we are not far from the border here) rescued the DOC by purchasing the estate and hiring a new winemaker. The estate is Campo delle Piane, and there is an amazing footnote to this story: when the purchaser took over he discovered that the winery contained large casks of wines from a number of vintages. For years he just let the wine sit there in those casks. Just two years ago, he finally bottled them and released them, selling some in the U.S., including to us! We still have bottles from 1984, 1985, 1990, and 1991, and they are, quite literally, bottles filled with history. And they’re quite tasty by the way.

We also have older wines from the famous Castello Conti, including from the legendary 1989 vintage. These are definitely worth checking out. Boca, with its limestone soils, makes elegant, finesse-driven wines that can definitely go the distance.

Others.  Yes, this can get even more obscure, with wine from tiny DOCs like Fara, and larger but not-well-known DOCs like Bramaterra (Sella, mentioned above, being the leading producer there). There are very few examples of these wines around, and I haven’t tasted enough to say anything about them here. Grab them if you see them, and please email me if you find anything I’ve got to try!

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