Today Piemonte is famous for its grand red wines and, in a different part of the market, for the delights of Asti and Moscato d’Asti. The latter two made with the tank method, producing low alcohol, sweet wines have indeed been a huge success. But in fact, Piemonte’s sparkling wine tradition predates Asti and the invention of the tank method by half a century. Carlo Gancia as a very young man travelled to and worked in the Champagne region, inquisitive to learn the secrets of bottle-fermented sparkling wine. Enthused by what he found, he returned to Piemonte to set up Fratelli Gancia, with his brother, in 1850. The rest as they say is history. He had enormous commercial success with sparkling wine and Vermouth. In 1866 he moved the sparkling wine business to the historic cellars in Canelli where it can be found–and visited–today.
Gancia’s historical cellar, Canelli
Initially, Gancia’s sparkling wines were made with the Moscato grape variety. The dominant local varieties then were Dolcetto and Moscato; there was no obvious source of Pinot Nero (as we will call it as we are in Italy) or Chardonnay. This was to change as the region became a centre for growing this variety. The region called Oltrepò Pavese is today in Lombardy, next door to Piemonte. However, before the unification of Italy, it was a part of Piemonte. Gancia collaborated with Count Augusto Giorgi di Vistarino, his cousin, to source Pinot Nero he needed. Vistarino is said to have been growing the variety at the Villa Fornace in Rocca de’ Giorgi since 1850. As a result of this collaboration, Piemonte’s sparkling tradition of making bottle-fermented sparkling wine from grapes associated with the Champagne region started in 1865 with Gancia’s launch of what was then called ‘Italian Champagne’. This long predates Franciacorta and Trento, the two main centres of traditional method sparkling wine with Champagne varieties in Italy today.
Piemonte’s sparkling wine tradition – creating Alta Langa DOCG
As we have seen, Piemonte’s sparkling wine tradition continues to be dominated–at least in terms of production numbers–by tank-method wines. However, today it has some rivals in terms of quality and interest in the revival of traditional method wines. These come in two categories. First, like pretty much every region in Italy, there are worthwhile examples of wines made with local varieties. These include sparkling Arneis, Erbaluce and Cortese – see further below.
Of more general interest was the creation of Alta Langa denomination. It was conceived of as a high-quality project from the very beginning. A group of large producers (Cinzano, Contratto, Fontanafredda, Gancia, Martini&Rossi, Riccadona and Vini Banfi Piemonte) worked to revive and build on Piemonte’s sparkling wine tradition. From the first, it required long lees-ageing of a minimum of 30 months on the lees. They started to do research and to conduct trials back in 1990. This became a DOC in 2002 (DOCG from 2011) for bottle-fermented sparkling wine made from Pinot Nero and Chardonnay. Today, with a thirty-year perspective, the obvious question is how good are the wines.
The notes below are from tastings I did with a small group of experienced tasters and Champagne enthusiasts. The tasting gave us the chance to evaluate a dozen wines side by side. (In the picture above, the very first wine is actually a Dolcetto rosé made with the tank method, a nod to Piemonte’s other great sparkling wine tradition.)
WINES MADE FROM LOCAL VARIETIES
Intrinsically Erbaluce, native in the Caluso zone, north of Turin, is a good candidate for bottle-fermented sparkling wines. It has delicate, slightly herbal fruit and high acidity. Our example, Incanto, Erbaluce di Caluso DOCG Spumante, Cantine Crosio, 2015, 12.5% was made in a brut nature style. In other words, no softening sugar is added at the final disgorgement. An elegant and understated nose with toast, nut and lemon aromas follows through onto the palate with a touch of bitterness on the finish. Some of our tasters missed more overt fruit, others were intrigued by the local style. Brut Nature is a difficult style to get right. Personally, I think a Brut example, such as La Masera 2016, 13%, is the place to start with this variety, though it was a bit too full-bodied to be entirely successful. But bottle-fermented Erbaluce is definitely a style to search for.
Arneis … and Nebbiolo
On this occasion, we did not have an example made purely from Arneis. Much as I love this variety, it is quite low in acidity and medium-bodied, not making it a prime candidate for bottle-fermented sparkling wine. By contrast, there are some superb Nebbiolo sparklers, often rosé, naturally enough, as long as you like some firmness on the mid-palate and a mildly tannic finish. Ettore Germano Rosanna, Metodo Classico Rosé Extra Brut is a very good example. It is made from Nebbiolo, 50 per cent from the green harvested grapes from Barolo vineyards and 50 per cent from grapes that qualify as Langhe Nebbiolo. It shows a pretty, pale candy pink in the glass with fine, toasty, fresh red fruit and light floral highlights, a long attack of brilliantly piercing acidity with a savoury finish with enticing herbal, stony undertones. (A bonus is that it is imported into the UK.)
Our tasting sample was from the Roero producer Malabaila. It is an unusual blend of half and half Arneis and Nebbiolo made as a white wine. Malabaila, Pas Dosè, NV, 12.5% spent a full seven years on the lees. Our tasting group found it difficult to evaluate with its slightly odd peapod, white blossom and lemon rind aromas. It comes in a dry, very austere and lightly tannic style. Given the time it has spent on the lees the autolytic notes were quite light.
Cortese, like Erbaluce, is a natural candidate for bottle-fermented sparkling wine. The most well-known wines are probably those made by La Scolca, which I wrote about back in 2010. Our example, however, came from Michele Chiarlo, a homage to Pietro Chiarlo, Metodo Classico 30 Mesi, Brut, 12.5%. This is a fifty-fifty Cortese-Chardonnay blend, with the latter variety spending six months in tonneaux for added texture before assemblage. The wine had a very inviting nose with rich, buttery notes complementing the acacia flower and lemon fruit and toasty autolytic character. The palate did not quite live up to the nose, at least on day 1. I tasted all these wines on three consecutive days and they pretty much all improved–as this did–on the second two days.
I am looking forward to tasting many more examples of Piemonte’s sparkling wine tradition made with local varieties. Nascetta, Timorasso, more Arneis, Cortese and Nebbiolo (and the very occasional sparkling traditional method Barbera), here I come!
ALTA LANGA ROSÉ
Alta Langa DOCG offers the possibility of making both white wines and rosé wines. This is clearly not surprising, both as categories and since Pinot Nero is the dominant grape variety and can provide that pink tint. Both colours are subject to the rule about 30 months of minimum time on the lees. This means that there is no straightforwardly fresh and fruity Alta Langa; they will all have some autolytic notes. We had two examples of rosé, one from a big producer who makes 50,000 bottles of rosé a year, the second from a small grower who makes 3,000 bottles.
First, Cuvée Aurora, Extra Brut, Banfi, 2016, 12.5%. Banfi, famous for being the powerhouse of Brunello production in Tuscany, also invested back in 1979 in production facilities in Piemonte. From here it transforms fruit, in this case, 100 per cent Pinot Noir, from growers into Alta Langa DOCG and other sparkling wines. Pale copper-pink in colour with pretty rose, raspberry and light biscuit aromas and a dry refreshing finish. This wine is not massively complex or concentrated but comes in an attractive, easy-drinking style. It is both easy to appreciate and has enough complexity to keep discerning drinkers more than happy.
Our second example was Dosaggio Zero, Roberto Garbarino, 2016, 12.5%. Garbarino used to work for legendary producer Bruno Giacosa so is a man who understands exacting standards. As commented above, dosaggio zero (brut nature) is the most difficult style to pull off but this is a fine example. The wine is pale apricot in colour and has a very refined aromatic lift, a surprising depth of raspberry, cranberry and toasty flavour and a long, fine, super-dry finish. (Naturally occurring residual sugar is one g/L.) While at least one of our tasters wanted yet more flavour, this was one of my wines of the evening for its subtlety and the precision of the fruit. For Garbarino’s white, see below.
ALTA LANGA, CLASSIC WHITE
We had three examples of the classic, white, Alta Langa DOCG in this tasting. (However, the third could really have been considered in the final group of long-lees aged wines. In Italy you don’t expect things to fall into neat categories.) From many examples in this class, I went for geographical spread: one wine from the Asti province, one from Alessandria and one from a big sparkling wine house that sources its fruit across the entirety of the denomination.
Enrico Cerutti, Cascina Cerutti, Brut, 2015, 12.5% was our Asti example from a grower whose main wines are Barbera d’Asti and Moscato d’Asti. Within this category, we tasted this first. It was instantly recognisable as a wine in a Champagne style for its subtle, attractive and well-integrated brioche, nut and lemon nose. People commented on its creaminess, balanced by lively acidity and its fine and silky mid-palate. The blend is typical Alta Langa, 80 per cent Pinot Nero, 20 per cent Chardonnay. Cuvée Leonaro, Brut, Bretta Rossa, 2016, 12.5% was our Alessandria representative in Dolcetto country, close to the border with Gavi DOCG. There is a touch more Chardonnay in this blend (30 per cent). The wine opens with simple lemon and toast aromas but then shows excellent depth of fruit and an intriguing final tobacco note on the finish. This is definitely in a convincing big and bold style.
There is no point in comparing these wines with Champagne for basic climatic reasons. Southern Piemonte is four whole degrees of latitude further south than Champagne and has an average growing season temperature a substantial 2.3º C warmer than Champagne. In these simplified terms, Piemonte is classified as ‘warm’ (Kym Anderson, Which grape varieties are grown where, 2020 edition, figures adjusted on the assumption that Alta Langa vineyards are at 350 m of elevation).
Our third example is the mysteriously-labelled wine from the founding sparkling wine house, Gancia: Cuvée 36 mesi, Brut, 2013, 12%. It is mysterious because despite being called ’36 months’, it fact the wine has spent 72 months on the lees… Unusually, our bottle was not entirely sparklingly bright (small problem at disgorgement?) but did have marked brioche and nut aromas consistent with those six years on the lees. The lemon and cooked lemon fruit is holding up extremely well and there is real palate weight here. An outstanding wine made in large volumes.
Alta Langa Extra Brut, Roberto Garbarino, 2016, 12.5% Later I had the chance to taste the Garbarino classic Alta Langa. Interestingly, this has much more Chardonnay than most Alta Langa at 60 per cent with the rest being Pinot Nero. Although it is labelled Extra Brut, at 3 g/L this is very much at the dry end of this category. Very pale lemon colour; stony and green apple nose with biscuit autolytic aromas, excellent depth of green apple, white peach and lemon rind fruit, firm dry finish, very refreshing, very direct, a touch hard on the finish, a really vertical wine, no doubt reflecting the majority of cooler climate Chardonnay.
LONG LEES-AGED WINES
The real treats of the evening were to come last in the lineup, rare bottles made in small quantities with very long time on the lees. These are undoubtedly among the finest examples of Piemonte’s sparkling wine tradition. Having tasted, for example, quite a few Franciacorta bottles that have spent five to six years on the lees I sometimes wondered if this was really worth it (see my slightly naively expressed views of 2012 here). The riper fruit (than is typical of Champagne) means that the added autolytic notes can get lost. But our three examples, which had had an impressive ten years or more on the lees, clearly showed that really long lees-ageing makes a difference. Our three bottles came from sparkling wine specialist, Enrico Serafino, a celebratory bottle from Montalbera and the top cuvée from Gancia.
Zero 140, Alta Langa Riserva, Pas dosé, Enrico Serafino, 2007, 12.5% is a blend of 85 per cent Pinot Nero and 15 per cent Chardonnay. It was created to celebrate the 140th anniversary of the founding of the company and so had to be kept for more than 140 months on the lees. Still pale lemon in colour, it displays rich, creamy brioche and nutty flavours with subtle apple fruit. The palate is also creamy and the bubble very refined, typical of a very long time on lees. It finishes with refreshing acidity but the biggest impression is length in the mouth, complexity and an overall harmony. Bravo!
Montabera’s 120+1®, Pas dosé, 12.5% is not actually Alta Langa at all, presumably because the grapes or some of them came from outside of the zone. There was a gold tint to the pale lemon colour here and lemon confit fruit, mushroom and toast. There is high complexity here but the overall integration of flavours is not as great as in the other two wines. Nonetheless, this is more than a creditable effort for a company that does not specialise in traditional method sparkling wine.
Cuvée 120 mesi, Alta Langa Riserva, Brut, Gancia, 2006, 12.5% was a fitting climax. This Pinot Nero/Chardonnay blend spent about 130 months on the lees. The gold tint of an older wine was also clear here. The nose shows a depth of honey, fresh and dried citrus, mushroom and tobacco which was remarkable. The full body is well completed by a well-integrated, refreshing acidity and the wine has an excellent length. Our tasters were split over which of the Serafino and the Gancia long-lees aged wines they preferred. Some liked the continuing freshness of Serafino, others the depth of tertiary notes on the Gancia. We were truly spoiled for choice. What was fitting was that with Gancia we finished where Piemonte’s sparkling wine tradition started.
Overall, it is clear that Piemonte has a great deal to offer in traditional method sparkling wines. There is the intrinsic interest and potential of the wines made with local varieties. Meanwhile, Alta Langa DOCG is a denomination to watch due to its high demands and quality being reached. Piemonte’s sparkling wine tradition is bubbling with life!