Finally visiting Alto Piemonte, walking vineyards, tasting grapes, tasting wines–both young & old, eating & most importantly talking story with vignioli was so invigorating. Yes, I can now cross this off my bucket list. At the same time, however, this trip gave me such different insight into the world of wines & I am so thankful to all who made it possible & so memorable.
Initially, I was quite candidly shocked at how small of an area the cluster of Alto Piemonte really is. Pre-trip, all of the vignioli I was communicating with, kept saying, the next winery is only 10 to 14 minutes away or let me call them for you & while I was so appreciative, I did not really connect the dots. I soon really realized this appellation is really small in size AND, as I was told there are only 40 to 50 or so producers in total! Crazy!
I was also quite taken back how small their facilities really are. True garage-ists.
Looking out of our window/lanai at La Capuccina in Cureggio, I was reminded daily how close to the Alps & Mount Rosa, the second highest mountain in Europe, we were. This means to me, a much cooler growing condition than that of Barolo/Barbaresco further southwest.
Secondly, all of the vineyards we visited were located in various nooks & crannies scattered throughout the region’s rolling, undulating hills. Yes, it was so different than the breathtaking concas/ampitheaters of Barolo/Barbaresco vineyards which overtook an entire hillside. These nooks & crannies had their own little micro climate, aspect, soils mixing, drainage, sun exposure, & so on.
On a different front, I wonder how this appellation will address their wild animal issues. (Most I spoke to lost at least 40% of their crop in 2019 due to the wild animals not only eating their grapes, but also in the worse scenarios stripping the vine of leaves & even bark. Fencing is not really too practical on those on steep, rocky hillsides).
Furthermore, where in Barolo/Barbaresco calcareous (& marl) soils greatly influenced the outcome of the wines, Alto Piemonte is instead based upon more volcanic/porphyric soils, a stark contrast visually as well as in the wines themselves.
In addition, where Barolo & Barbaresco are produced from 100% Nebbiolo, the various Alto Piemontese denominations each have different, though lawfully defined grapes mixes they have to adhere to–mainly based upon Nebbiolo with the blending of Vespolina, Croatina & Uva Rara where, when & what % depending on what is approved.
On the winemaking front, where there are but only 40 to 50 producers in total, the many we visited so much smaller than what we experience in Barolo/Barbaresco. Iconic, venerable estates such as Antoniolo (& our incredible aha discovery of Antoniotti) still forge ahead & show the true potential of what Alto Piemonte Nebbiolo can be. We are also seeing sleeping giants such as Poderi ai Valloni & Vallana getting their mojo back & starting to get the ball rolling again. We also loved being introduced to relatively unsung, true stars such as Francesco Brigatti & Gilles Mazzoni who still produce ever so solid wines, which are relatively & surprisingly under the radar screen. In addition, as a special side note, I am so anxious to see what Alberto Raviciotti (Franchino Mauro) does moving forward, since he has now fully taken over the estate. Finally & thankfully, there is a rising, prominent New Age generation coming on to the scene–Boniperti, Colombera & Garella, Le Pianelle & Carlone, just to name a few. I would have to add to that, many thankfully under the tutelage of superstar New Age winemaking consultant, Cristiano Garella, & more & more of them are already receiving considerable acclaim & notoriety for their wines.
It reminded of a trip I took to the northern Rhone Valley of France, back in the late 80’s/& early 90’s, seeing true, iconic vignerons such as August Clape, Noel Verset & Marius Gentaz along with the rising, new generation of winemakers–such as Rene Rostaing & Thierry Allemand–who offered different perspectives on what regional wines could be.
I also admired the sense of community I felt there. Yes, winemakers doing their own thing, but still very willing to support their neighbors.
This is a pivotal time for the region. Because there is a strong core of terrific vineyards & true vignioli who masterfully create wines like no other, one gets a strong sense this region will really boom in popularity in the near future. This notion is further supported by the acquisition of Nervi in Gattinara by the legendary, most revered Barolo house of Giacomo Conterno. Yes, things will start to ramp up AND so will the demand & therefore the prices. This will then lead to more outside investors coming in & a continual build out tornado & the planting of vineyards everywhere one looks, just as we see has happened in both the Barolo & Barbaresco wine appellations.
Financially, it makes more sense now than ever.
The vineyard land is relatively cheap right now. Housing is also cheap. 3 or 4 Alto Piemonte wines received Tres Bicchieri awards from the prestigious Gambero Rosso publication, their highest honor. So the point is, the spotlight is slowing shining in their direction. Furthermore, where in the old days, there were only 2 or 3 ripe vintages out of every 10, today, it is essentially 8 out of 10, at least. Yes, outside investing would today appear to be lucrative.
Now, let’s see what happens.
P.S. One last minute note to answer questions some have already asked me.
As discussed, there are 7 distinct DOC’s in Alto Piemonte—Lessona, Bramaterra, Gattinara, Boca, Fara, Ghemme & Sizzano. The Sesia River runs through & divides the 7 into two groupings of DOC’s. There are, based upon this division, TWO larger, more general DOC’s, which wineries can declassify to.
On the western flank of the river is Coste delle Sesia (which therefore includes Lessona, Bramaterra & Gattinara)) And on the eastern flank of the river is Colline Novaresi (Boca, Ghemme, Sizzano & Fara). The producers from each, use the appropriate DOC when they feel the wine it not up to snuff of let’s say Ghemme or Gattinara or Boca or from younger vines. Otherwise, there are only 81 acres of plantings permitted to use this DOC.
The other confusing aspect is the grape mix for each. It is true for both DOC’s, the approved grapes are Nebbiolo, Vespolina, Barbera, Bonarda, Uva Rara (Bonarda Novarese—which is different from Bonarda or Bonarda Piemontese).
Also confusing is that Colline Novaresi ROSSO & ROSATO must be minimum 50% Nebbiolo (Spanna) with the others added to the blend. Whereas Colline Novaresi Barbera (or any of the other grapes) must be a minimum of 85% of the designated grape variety. The Colline Novaresi BIANCO, on the other hand, must be 100& Erbaluce (Greco Novarese).
For Coste della Sesia, it is different. To clarify, here is a quote from winesearcher.com–
“The most common form of Coste della Sesia wine is the standard rosso wine. This is made from a base of Nebbiolo, Bonarda, Vespolina, Croatina and Barbera. These varieties can be used individually, provided they make up the 50-percent minimum proportion required under the DOC laws. The rosato wines are based on the same blend. White Coste della Sesia Bianco is less common than the red form, but equally interesting. It is made almost entirely from Erbaluce, one of a handful of white grape varieties native to Piedmont. Erbaluce is perhaps best known for its role in the sweet wines of Erbaluce di Caluso. The communes covered by the Coste della Sesia DOC are divided between the Vercelli and Biella provinces. Many of the communes here – Gattinara and Lessona are just two examples – have their own DOCS or DOCGs“.
Thank you to winesearcher.com for clarifying.