Another leg of our late Fall trip to Italy was up to Alto Piemonte, a roughly 2 hour drive north (& slightly east) of Alba. I had wanted to visit this wine growing area for many years, actually after my first eye opening tastes of THREE different bottlings (each on a separate occasion) of Gattinara, back in the 1980’s. Though they displayed spellbinding Nebbiolo character through and through, each were not like any Barolo/Barbaresco/Roero I had had previously.
Furthermore, with the rising prices, especially over the past decade, of quality Barolo (& Barbaresco), a sourcing/insight gathering trip to the area would hopefully lead to finding fine & interesting Nebbiolo based red wines from small, artisan wineries AND at much more affordable prices.
In short, it was a truly incredible trek providing far more insight & knowledge (from an incredible core of regional insiders) than I could have wished for. AND, I walked away shocked at how small the area is in terms of vine acreage & production & how limited the number of producers there actually are (I was told somewhere between 40 & 50)!
We visited 3 to 5 winemakers a day (including walking the vineyards & tasting some wine). As tired as we might have been, for me, I was exhilarated. As I had noted on previous posts, this trek reminded me so much of the one I did in the late 80’s/early 90’s to France’s Rhone Valley, BEFORE it became an “IT” wine region & small, true artisan wines were so authentic–movingly so– & still relatively undiscovered in the U.S..
Well, from the Alto Piemonte visits, my cousin Mike, my wife Cheryle & I hand carried some bottles back to the Islands, so we could one day do a tasting with a group just to share our spoils–very carefully selected wines, pictures & stories. This was that day!
You will note most of these wines, unlike their counterparts in Barolo/Barbaresco are NOT 100% Nebbiolo. FYI–the legal grape mix maximums/minimums of each area is governed by law & were set based upon years of experience & history. Some have even noted, while this certainly adds to the differences of their wines, we found it really is their terroir (what the vineyard wants to say) that is their focus in any given year.
So, here was the line up for this tasting. (I only wish we could have carried back even more as there were so many notable producers that we visited & tasted their wines, but we just had no room in our collective luggage).
BALDIN–the lead off batter for this tasting was a Bramaterra from phenom, rising winemaking star Matteo Baldin. In our planning stages, we had wanted to visit him, but he declined because it was harvest after all. Completely understandable. (I later discovered he also serves as winemaker for Poderi ai Valloni of Boca–so he is actually wearing at least 2 different hats professionally.) Matteo owns but 1.5 hectares in Bramaterra, planted in 2004 in clay-volcanic-porphyry soils. His own wine was very good & very stylishly crafted– comprised of 70% Nebbiolo, 20% Croatina & 10% Vespolina, seeing 12 days in stainless & 24 months in small barriques. It thankfully still showcases the Nebbiolo mojo, structure & linear tannins, but is much more civil, seemingly more suave, rounder than other’s wines, as it flows on your palate.
ANTONIOTTI–here is yet another Bramaterra star. In fact, I should rightfully ADD that Odilio Antoniotti is without a doubt one of the most revered, long time, iconic winemaking masters of the entire Alto Piemonte according to all of his peers we met & spoke with. (& I would add–deservedly so). For some unexplainable reason, Antoniotti was NOT on our PRE-trip radar screen. Thank goodness he came so vehemently recommended AND by so many different insiders. (In fact, it really was regional superstar winemaking consultant, Cristiano Garella, who was able to get a last minute visit, which I am so thankful to him for). Odilio & his wines really moved me & greatly added to our Alto Piemonte experience, that’s for sure! Antoniotti owns & farms 5.5 hectares in Bramaterra) on mostly volcanic-porphyry (low organic matter) soils. (Because he spoke no English, when we were in his vineyard, he made it a point to break apart one of the rocks to show us the more reddish core, showing us there is also some iron present as well). Odilio is the 6th generation of his family to own & run the estate, which is at least part of the reason why his plantings have a lot of old vines (averaging 50 years in age–something not too many other estates of the entire region can boast about). His son Matia now has joined the estate. Theirs is what they say is a more traditional grape mix–70% Nebbiolo, 20% Croatina, 7% Vespolina & 3% Uva Rara. Their Bramaterra is co-fermented (using NO stems) in OLD (1901) underground concrete & then aged in BIG, OLD oak for 3 years before bottling. Yes, theirs is authentic, very traditional minded Alto Piemontese red wine–provocatively earthy, musky, wonderfully savory & intriguingly rustic in character, mouthfeel & soul. This certainly proved to be one of the real standout “finds” of our trip. This wine was so deserved of the very prestigious Tres Bichieri (3 glasses) recognition it recently was honored with by Gambero Rosso, one of Italy’s highest accolades.
BONIPERTI–we purposely poured this wine from Fara next, although, Fara is a very different denomination than Bramaterra. The intent, however, was just something traditional minded (Antoniotti) side by side with something more contemporary minded (Boniperti). The difference was crystal clear, at least to me. In addition,
this Fara was also bestowed Tres Bichieri by Gambero Rosso. Most of the more experienced tasters really gravitated to this wine because of how suave, surprisingly refined & well textured it really is, without compromising character & mojo. Owner/winemaker extraordinaire Gilberto Boniperti is very charming/endearing, well mannered & well spoken in a very down to earth manner. He was as much a highlight of this trip as was his wines. Boniperti owns roughly 4 hectares in Fara (planted in 2003). (I was shocked to find out that between the 2 villages of this appellation (Fara & Briona) there are today only 5 producers.). Cristiano Garella is the behind the scenes winemaking consultant/advisor. This microclimate is warmer than Boca or Gattinara which might help explained its rounder mouthfeel. The Fara wine is typically 70% Nebbiolo with the rest made up of Uva Rara or Vespolina in varying amounts vintage to vintage. The wine sees 1 year in BIG barrel. This is certainly a wine to keep an eye out for. With all of the recent accolades & acclaim, let’s hope moving forward the prices do not escalate based upon a supply-demand fever.
PODERI AI VALLONI–I was really quite taken with this estate (& proprietor Anna Sertorio), which we found out is the oldest in the Boca appellation. There is much thought given to its current renaissance AND all done with respect for the land & this family’s long heritage with the property. Very heartfelt. There is but 3 1/2 hectares planted (still mostly nurturing some of the oldest vines in the appellation)–southeast & southwest facing, at 1600 feet in elevation–located within the the Mount Fenera national (UNESCO–2014) park, a spot which historically was greatly affected when an ancient volcano imploded. The main soils are therefore red & yellow porphyry. The vineyards are planted on the hillsides contouring around the apex where the winery is located, all done with much care & respect for the surrounding area. Their Boca is typically produced from 70% Nebbiolo, 20% Vespolina & 10% Uva Rara–each fermented separately & later blended together. We really liked the wines–as they were so savory, virile & earnest. I would add, however, since there is a true renaissance happening here, especially with the addition of winemaking phenom Matteo Baldin (since 2017), I suggest you keep an eye out as this estate truly blossoms to a whole ‘other level.
CARLONE–also calls Boca home. Currently there is 10 hectares of vineyards planted at roughly 420 feet in elevation (one of the coolest spots in the appellation) with porphyry-sand soils & very rocky under the top soil. (There is currently plans to prep & plant roughly 2 more hectares on the much steeper, more evidently rocky slope across the road.). We were fortunate to be there at harvest & can say Davide Carlone is one of the last to harvest–(where almost all of his peers had their grapes at the winery already, Carlone was picking the 2019 harvest only the day before the forecasted week long heavy rains–at least 2 weeks later than some). While Davide is seemingly so self assured & strong willed, Cristiano Garella is wisely a consultant here too. Watching Cristiano observe the harvesting, the grape crushing, also checking out the fermentations & then giving his advice on all of the facets to Davide was fascinating. It was an exercise, not only on tweaking the winemaking methodology, but also a masterfully executed delivery of getting the strong minded Davide to listen & understand the hows & the whys. When Cristiano left, Davide, despite being in the middle of crunch time, insisted we try some of his wines–bottled & barrel samples (each showcasing one of the 8 to 10 different Nebbiolo clones/vine selections, whose ready to harvest grapes which we sampled in the vineyard. Yes, this was an incredible, unforgettable opportunity!). There were several cuvees which we found exciting & so noteworthy. His is a more contemporary style–suave, riper, more forward in its youth, without compromising the “dirt” & the fiery, robust, mojo of the core. This is a style of wine which will gather lots of accolades & win over lots of new, perspective buyers. (By the way, his Boca is typically –70 to 90% Nebbiolo, 10 to 30% Uva Rada/Vespolina–the mix varying from vintage to vintage. And, the wine will age in older, LARGE Slavonian oak–(I didn’t see any small barrels while there)–for 24 months.
MAZZONI–there were 2 wines we were recommended to try on the first night when we arrived–one from Brigatti & the other from Mazzoni. (By the way, BOTH were highly & thankfully recommended
as “must sees” pre-trip by Gilberto Boniperti). So, on this night, we tried a bottle of each. They were stellar AND only heightened our excitement for the upcoming visits. Mazzoni is a small, 3 generation, truly artisan estate–complete with 5 hectares of vines, planted in argilo-clay soils. Their vineyards are so very remote, located in the hills. (We certainly would not have found them on our own). Though the Mazzoni clan are quite traditional minded, their Ghemme is 100% Nebbiolo (10 to 40 year old vines) & sees 24 months in large barrels. I was really captivated how provocatively masculine, stoically structured & savory it was upon first taste. Stylistically, it reminded me of a wild stallion because of its untamed, virile mojo & its innate, yet quite unassuming fortitude. I wish I could have this wine which it is 30 years old. I bet it would be glorious, in a way that only well aged Nebbiolo can be.
FRANCHINO MAURO—We were really looking forward to visiting this 3 generation run estate in Gattinara. Now run by (nephew) Alberto Raviciotti, Franchino Mauro is renown for growing & producing very traditional minded Gattinara & I was therefore quite anxious to better understand their take on what the hills & vines of this iconic appellation could offer. They have but 3 hectares of vines located at roughly 1350 feet in elevation, mostly south facing. It was so peaceful walking their vineyards & gazing at the wild, remote surrounding countryside, but nothing earth shattering in appearance. The topsoils swayed more to clay, BUT, because it had been raining for a few days straight AND in fact drizzling while we walked, there was no puddling anywhere about. In fact, upon closer look to the cross sections, there were lots of rocks evident for the at least the 6 to 8 feet we could see. I was also amazed that Alberto noted they used 100% Nebbiolo for their Gattinara (although I might have misunderstood because of the language challenges). Their winery was an elaborate maze of tunnels & large, old oak formats tucked away in the various niches here & there & all of the concrete also very old. It all looked so very Old School. It was therefore no surprise that their Gattinara smelled & tasted quite Old School in style–nothing bright, fresh, juicy or exuberant–nuances we found in many of the contemporary red wines we were tasting on this trek. The 2015 was more musky, earthy, wonderfully savory, more linear its flow on the palate with intriguingly dampened earth, roasted chestnut/sandalwood & a slightly floral accent. It was so different than anything else we tried over the previous 4 days. (by the way, 35 months, 24 months in large old barrels).
ANTONIOLO—We ended the day’s tasting with a 2013 Antonio Gattinara “Le Castelle”. At the end of our recent trip to Alto Piemonte, there was no doubt that the Antonio Gattinara was the most Cru like in quality. It has presence, grandeur & is something to truly behold. Le Castelle is one of the crus Antonio owns & bottles separately when apropos. It is only 1 hectare in size (of their 18 hectares they own)–she said 100% Nebbiolo–located at 1100 feet in elevation , in soils with less rock & more sand to the composition (in comparison to the others). That is why the resulting wines tends to be more austere, has more color & power than the others. The wine is fermented in old concrete (1960’s) & then for 3 years in BIG barrels. 3 generations. This is some kind of wine that’s for sure!