Alto Piemonte can be subdivided into 7 main denominations–a cluster of Lessona, Bramaterra, Boca, Gattinara, Ghemme, Sizzano & Fara–roughly 2 hours drive northeast of Langhe. Pre-trip, I had little idea of how compact Alto Piemonte really is. Thankfully each destination is only about 15 to 30 minutes or less from each other.
In its hey day way back when, I read Alto Piemonte had roughly 40,000 hectares of vineyards at its height. Today, there may be 1,000 or so hectares. I was also told there are only about 40, maybe 50 at the most producers today within the region. Pre-trip, I had no idea. Still, researching & finding which vineyards & which wineries to try & visit was the challenge, as there is not a whole lot of objective information & insight out there.
One of the serendipitous breakthroughs to our pre-trip planning, however, was “hooking” up with Cristiano Garella, who happens to be the top winemaking consultant of the whole region (at least 21 projects). I believe it was partly because of star winemaker/Tres Bicchieri awardee Gilberto Boniperti of Fara & partly because of Oliver McCrum, a prominent Berkeley based Italian wine importer. How it really came to be, I am not sure, BUT, Cristiano paid so much attention to us & opened up so many doors & opportunities for us & we are forever thankful.
Looking back, I wonder if our trip would have been nearly as insightful & fulfilling without Cristiano & Gianluca?
As our planned visit to a producer in Lessona fell through at the last moment, we started our first day in Bramaterra.
Bramaterra is the largest denomination of the cluster with at least 7 municipalities/towns within. The aspects, microclimates & soils therefore can differ greatly. Our first stop was Colombera & Garella, located in Masserone, & a joint project between Giacomo Colombera & Cristiano Garella. This estate has 2 hectares in Masserano, 1 hectare in Lessona & 5 hectares in Roasio. What immediately caught our attention was the dark, reddish, iron rich soils of their Masserano vineyard–1 hectare of 70 year old vines & the other 1 hectare was more like 25 year old vines, at our first stop. This is quite different from many of the other Bramaterra vineyards & their porphyry-sand mixed soils we saw & walked. The Colombera & Garella 2016 Bramaterra (80% Nebbiolo, 10% each of Vespolina & Croatina) therefore has more dark, base notes with a “blood” like nuance to its core & aroma. Their wines were very impressive–more civil, balanced, well textured & sultry. I would also say, this estate will only be getting better & better moving forward with the inclusion of Cristiano Garella’s expertise. Their special soil is a GREAT start.
Our next stop was to Le Pianelle, yet another Cristiano Garella project. There are actually 5 partners–Dieter Heuskel, Peter Dipoli, working partners–Fabio, Andrea & Cristiano. They vineyards are mostly in Bramaterra, one in the town of Brusnengo–porphyry-sand soils, replanted in 2007 & one in Roasio–50 year old vines in the vertically remote hills (closer to the mountains & therefore much cooler) at 1600 feet in elevation & red porphyry & gravel soils, some sand & virtually no clay. Their 2016 Bramaterra red (80% Nebbiolo, 10% each of Vespolina & Croatina) was so intriguingly savory–more base notes of earth, roasted chestnuts, worn saddle leather, with a light touch of smoke & musk. It was very masculine, virile yet still so well balanced & surprisingly polished. This is certainly another estate on the rise & worth keeping an eye out for. It was a terrific, memorable opportunity to be there at harvest, so we could try grapes still on the vine, different grape juice as they were fermenting & some from other vintages.
Our next stop, thanks again in kind, to Cristiano, was at Antoniotti, also in Bramaterra. It was not originally on our pre-trip radar screen, but with HUGE endorsements from Cristiano Garella & Gianluca Zanetta at La Cappucina, we were so thankful Cristiano made a visit possible, eventhough it was harvest. This truly iconic estate was founded in 1861 & is currently run by Odilio (father), & his son Mattia who has recently joined his father full time.. They own but 5.5 hectares of vines, including Martinazzi Cru” a breathtaking, steep, rocky (volcanic porphyry–low organic matter) Bramaterra hillside plus 1 hectare of another steep hillside of 70 year old vines across the way. (His latest vineyard addition is 1 hectare planted above on the steepest, rockiest site. The vines are only 2 years old & I am really anxious to taste what this parcel will produce). Odilio, now 77 years young in age, is undeniably from the old school of the region–its grass roots thoughts, philosophies & traditional minded ways, both in the vineyard & the winery. I was totally taken by this wise, very thoughtful wine “yoda” & his young, energetic, uplifting son Mattia. (It thankfully seems, we always seem to run across such a wine maestro/vigneron like this in every Old World wine region we visit). Although he prudently uses stainless steel in his winemaking, he seems to prefer old concrete (1901) totally underground & older, large oak (1250 liters, & 1700 liters) for his aging. (His Bramaterra, for instance, is typically 70% Nebbiolo, 7% Vespolina, 20% Croatina & 3% Uva Rara, aged for 30 months in such vessels!). Odilio Antoniotti produces glorious Bramaterra–something truly special, personal & soulful. Stylistically, this wine reminds me of those from but a small handful of Barolo-meisters back in the 1960’s & 1970’s. This is definitely a wine to search out! I left Odilio with a most touching memory. While I asked Mattia all of these questions about the vineyards, the vines, the winemaking, while we were in the vineyard, Odilio was off to the side, trying to break open one of the rocks in his vineyard. He finally succeeded after 20 minutes or so of working it. He then proudly showed us the core of the rock, which showed some kind of red quartz & smatterings of limestone, which was unlike anything else I saw in Alto Piemonte. He beamed as a father would when showing his newborn baby. I will always remember this special moment, as it will remind me how it was this soil, HIS soil, which this 77 year old true wine master treasured & proudly showed us. Incredible!
Yes, what an incredible day this really was.