Alto Piemonte–the introduction

I had dreamt of visiting Alto Piemonte since my first glass of Gattinara back in the late 1970’s.  It was an old crusty bottle, which had only a partial label with no apparent vintage date to be seen.  The cork was also old school looking & was as weathered as the bottle.  The wine poured was very brick-ish/orange hued & one could easily see through it & read a written page.  The perfume was glorious, majestic & VERY haunting, which is why I remember it still today so vividly.  Yes, it was an aha moment.

It has taken almost 40 years, but I finally was able to go & visit the area. 

Alto Piemonte is today a relatively “under the radar screen” wine growing area, roughly 100 miles from the Alba, the epi-town of Barolo, Barbaresco & the more famous Piemontese wines.

One of the benefits of being 100 miles northeast of Barolo country, means a closer proximity to the Alps & specifically Mount Rosa, the second highest mountain in Europe. This of course can at least partially explain the myriad of volcanic type soils, BUT, one should also consider the overall much cooler microclimates. (If you believe the regional old adage–closer to the mountains, generally, the cooler the temperatures).

Historically, Alto Piemonte was more famous than Barolo for their red wines back in the old days.  At its peak there were roughly 40,000 hectares planted.  Today, there is maybe only 1,000 hectares of vines & the wines have since fallen into the shadow of both Barolo & Barbaresco.

One of the reasons for the sharp decline of planted acreage was the catastrophic phylloxera devastation in the mid to late 1800’s, which wiped out the vineyards.  Many chose not to continue because of the extremely high costs & intense effort it would take to replant the steep hillsides.  Adding to the decline was the departure of many who chose to instead work in the growing industrial industry, especially in the nearby city of Milan, where the work was less back breaking/strenuous & paid much more.

I was so interested & ready to delve into this very different & unique Nebbiolo world.  (I would have loved to also have explored Valtellina, but will save that for a different trip).  The grape mixings are different, as are the soils & microclimates–all generating a VERY different perspective on what Nebbiolo can be AND at much lower pricing than most Barolo or Barbaresco.

There are 7 main denominations of Alto Piemonte–Lessona, Bramaterra, Boca, Sizzano, Fara, Ghemme & Gattinara.  Each have undulating, rolling hills, the highest being around 1650 feet in elevation.  The base of the soils is volcanic with a plentitude of varying porphyric soils. 

The crown jewel native grape variety is Nebbiolo to which there is also lesser amounts of Vespolina, Croatina & Uva Rara planted.  Historically, it was the Nebbiolo of Alto Piemonte which shined, even over the southern neighbors of Barolo & Barbaresco.

Each denomination has by law a different % mix of the permitted grape varieties.

So, off we went, in search of adventure & new wine “finds”.

We left Alba originally wanting to take a slight detour to Carema, an hour & a half or so out of the way hoping to visit Ferrando, but could not get an appointment there.  It was harvest for goodness sake, so totally understandable.  (We had a bottle of their wine later & I was sorry to have missed this opportunity).  Maybe next time.

Though I was somewhat disappointed, nixing Carema off of our travel list meant we could drive directly to Alto Piemonte & thereby saving ourselves at least 3 hours.

Cheryle decided, after much digging around, to make our base in the town of Cureggio at an agriturismo named La Cappucina.  Located in a small field, it seemed more like a farm in locale, with all of the animals & the remote setting.  It was so peaceful, tranquil & it was truly a GREAT place to stay & enjoy the countryside serenity.  Interestingly, it also had, as we soon found out, the finest restaurant of the whole area by chef/owner Gianluca Zanetta & his lovely gracious wife Raffaella (who was the front of the house person).  Such incredible gracious service & attention to detail.  In addition, as we soon found out, Gianluca is also one of the foremost wine experts of the region & its wines.  He kindly gave us hours of insight & advice AND his wine selection was all of the notable wines of the area.  It really turned out to be the perfect place to stay.

I should thank my cousin Mike for his gracious, good fun company, his doing all of the driving & researching & selecting dining experiences.  And, to my wife Cheryle for her incredible searching out & plotting all of the travel courses, hotel reservations & directions.  I am so thankful also because they both have passion for seeing these kinds of vineyards, visiting & talking story with such incredible wine people & braving the vast amount of miles we drive every day in our search.

In Alto Piemonte, I also need to thank–Gianluca & Raffaella Zanetta of La Cappucina; superstar winemaking consultant Cristiano Garella & Marina Olwen Fogarty & Gilberto Boniperti for responding so quickly to our pleas & helping us open the doors to so many fantastic wine artists.  And, to all of the wineries who wholeheartedly welcomed us & took the time, at harvest, to tell us their story & share all of their insights & wisdoms.

It was a truly a most memorable trip.

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