Winefriend by David Way

Writing about the wines of Piemonte, Italy and France

Diary 41: Piemonte–wine regions for the adventurous

Piemonte has wine regions for the adventurous, beyond Barolo, Barbaresco and Nizza. Early May 2022 gave Janet and me the chance to visit the least well-known wine areas of Piemonte, plus some better-known regions that are under-regarded. The former are the three denominations in the Alpine valleys that lead to France. The latter included the historic vineyards to the north of Turin: Canavese with its important but little known white grape variety, Erbaluce, and then the Nebbiolo denominations of Carema and Alto Piemonte. What were the takeaways from these roads less travelled?

The valleys of the Alps to the west of Turin

Valsusa DOC, Pinerolese DOC and Colline Saluzzesi DOC take their names from the valleys in which they are situated. These DOCs may only be 40 minutes or so by car from Turin but they are so little known that I have not ever seen a bottle of these wines before this trip. You need either to seek them out consciously or visit the region to taste the wines. If search via the ‘regions’ page of the www.wine-searcher.com search engine, you can immediately see that the wines are not really available out of region. The search engine only finds two wineries in Valsusa, three in Pinerolese the ‘largest’ of the three and only one in Colline Saluzzesi! 

However, small and little known can be beautiful. As stated, Piemonte has wine regions for the adventurous. Part of the fascination here is the rare grape varieties: Avanà, Avarengo, Becuet, Doux d’Henry, Pelaverga Grosso, Neretto di Bairo and Chatus, all red varieties, are grown alongside Nebbiolo and the ubiquitous Barbera. Perhaps the trend-setter is Baratuciat, a white variety, probably native to Valsusa. It is now being grown in parts of Monferrato too, prized for its high acidity.  The pioneer is Giuliano Bosio who makes two single vineyard wines, as well as a sparkling and a passito version. The two crus are both 100% Baratuciat bottled as simple vino bianco though they could be Valsusa DOC Baratuciat.

Àutin, Agriforest di Giuliano Bosio, 2020, 13%

From vineyards at 560 m of altitude. Perfumed and medium bodied with gentle herbal, floral and pear aromas. With time in the glass, peach aromas started to emerge. The wine has an impressive mid palate with a light tannic structure and lively but rounded acidity.

Gesia Veja, Agriforest di Giuliano Bosio, 2020, 13.5%

Named after the old church, which in turn had been the castle that was repurposed. The wine is less perfumed but with more body than Àutin. The aromatics here are more towards green fruit and elderflower, full bodied but well balanced with the characteristic acidity.

The vineyards that have survived the expansion of Turin

Collina Torinese (literally the hill of Turin) DOC and Freisa di Chieri DOC share the same boundary and their proximity to the capital city of Piemonte. The latter DOC is devoted to wines made with Freisa, on which, see my reflections on this variety. The former allows a range of red wines mainly focusing on Barbera and Barbera blends but also includes the sweet and sparkling red wines made with Cari and Malvasia di Schierano and/or Nera. The main threat to viticulture here is the expansion of suburban and countryside dwellings for affluent commuters who can work in Turin or, no doubt, today, from home. The wineries are supported by the professional laboratory of the University of Turin, the Cantina Sperimentale Bonafous.  This was created as a part of the 2006 Winter Olympics and now tends a two hectare vineyard planted with hundreds of clones of local varieties, sells its wines locally and offers specialist services to private wineries. Camilla and Gaetano, specialists in the winery and the vineyard respectively, were excellent guides for us.

All the Cs: Canavese, Caluso, Carema

These three regions are north-west of Turin and on the way to the Val d’Aosta and France. In short, Canavese DOC is the regional DOC with many options for differing styles of wine, Carema DOC is a very special DOC for Nebbiolo grown on precipitous slopes and Erbaluce di Caluso DOCG produces the white Erbaluce in three styles, dry, sparkling and passito. But that barely touches on the fascination of the area in large part due to its formation by glacial action millennia ago. Canavese is bounded by very clearly visible moraines to the east and the west, producing the shelter in which Erbaluce thrives.

The variety Erbaluce is something of a puzzle. It is another of Italy’s white varieties that thinks it is really a red one. Its most obvious features are its dense, textural quality, due to a combination of some tannins from the skins and racy acidity. It is only moderately aromatic in the standard white wines but this quality, plus the acidity, makes for great sparkling and sweet wines, and wines that can be aged in the bottle.

Despite its tiny size at around 20 hectares in total, Carema tends to steal the show. Here the brave or just stubborn seek to tend ‘vineyards’ that are little more than ledges in the rock face, often dramatically steep. Nebbiolo does well in these conditions, reflected heat from the rock and super-fast drainage from the soils compensating for the relatively cool condition due to latitude. Most of the wines are a welcome 13–13.5% abv, not the bigger bodied wines of the famous Nebbiolo areas of the Langhe. Virtually everything has to be done by hand, even carrying up soil from the valley floor to enrich the sandy dust that passes for soil on the slopes.

Sorpasso, Carema DOC, 2020 tank sample

Sorpasso is the project of Vittorio Garda (also the winemaker at Cantina della Serra) and partner, Martina Ghirardo. The first vintage in the current winery was in 2016. His fruit is grown in a number of blocks some of which are 70–100 years old at 300–500 metres. The barrels for ageing are bought, used, from Cordero di Montezemolo in La Morra. After experimenting with long macerations, Vittorio has reduced the time on the skins to a month and the wine is aged for 18 months in barriques. (The ambition is to buy a 10 hL cask but it is difficult to grow rapidly in Carema.) The blend here is 90% Nebbiolo (Picotendro clone) and 10% Ner d’Ala and Neretto di Bairo.

The 2019 bottled wine shows an excellent depth of red fruit with a light touch of vanilla spice and elegant, soft tannins. The 2020 tank sample, single vineyard, Airalé, has very pure red fruit and the same elegant tannins. This winery to know about and, if you visit, has the most spectacular views.  

Alto Piemonte: multiple DOCs, subtle variations in Nebbiolo wines

Rather than being a formally-defined wine region, Alto Piemonte is in effect a sub-region of Piemonte, located below the Alps and 55 miles north of Asti. It has no fewer than 10 DOCs and DOCGs that specialise in Nebbiolo and Nebbiolo-based blends. The best known of these and largest are Gattinara and Ghemme. A tiny proportion of white wines is made, principally from Erbaluce.

In terms of the varieties used, the big difference in Alto Piemonte, in contrast to Barolo and Barbaresco, is that the local tradition has always been to blend Nebbiolo with other varieties. The blending varieties are locals such as Vespolina, Croatina and/or Uva Rara. All the denominations here allow the producers to blend in this way. Further, within Alto Piemonte, there is also a divide between, on the one hand, the denominations that require a high percentage of Nebbiolo and allow 100% Nebbiolo wines to be made and, on the other, those that require a significant proportion of other varieties.  Gattinara (minimum 90%), Ghemme and Lessona (minimum 85%) fall into the former category and the wines are often 100% Nebbiolo. By contrast, Bramaterra, Fara and Sizzona require 20–30% of the blending varieties, which clearly will affect the final wine. Boca has a foot in both camps as Nebbiolo must be 70–90% of the blend. And finally (as if this wasn’t complicated enough!), the regional denominations have a Nebbiolo category among other options. Costa della Sesia DOC Nebbiolo and Colline Novaresi DOC Nebbiolo must be a minimum of 85% of the noble variety. Gattinara and Ghemme are the biggest denominations, though ‘big’ in Alto Piemonte means that they are around 90 ha and nearly 50 hectares respectively.

What difference does the blending tradition make? Nebbiolo makes a pale and elegant wine, if with very high tannins and acidity.  In Alto Piemonte which is cooler than the Langhe, Nebbiolo in the past would have been thin and more like a rosé than a red wine. Vespolina and Croatina are both tannic varieties, so no change there. But they also contribute deep colour, spice and fruit. No doubt in the past, Vespolina and Croatina were vital to get any depth of colour into these ‘red’ wines. A warming climate and better viticulture mean that Nebbiolo ripens in most years now. So, in that sense, it no longer needs the help of its local friends. But while the percentage of Nebbiolo used in today’s wines tends towards the maximum allowed, it would be a shame if the tradition of blended wines died out altogether.

Antoniotti Odilio Bramaterra, DOC, 2017, 13.5%

Nebbiolo 70%, Croatina, 20%, Vespolina 7% & Uva Rara 3%, picked at the same time and co-fermented, three weeks on the skins, aged in old Slavonian oak large casks for three years. Clearly not fined as not entirely clear! Complex nose with ripe plum and red cherry fruit with a slight earthy undertone, intense and concentrated on the palate, real depth, very youthful tannins that should lengthen with age, long, Nebbiolo with a  pleasant rusticity.

Noah, Bramaterra, Salero 2018, 14%

Wine made by newish entrants, still in a rented winery. 70% Nebbiolo, 20 % Croatina, 10% Vespolina, 30 days on skins, one year in ten-year-old 10 hL Slavonian cask. Very fragrant, with a superb lift of red fruit, spice and earth notes, ripe tannins, very good length, a more elegant expression of Bramaterra.

Whites for the adventurous too

Finally, it’s not all red wine here. Here is one unusual white:

Tenute Sella, Piandoro, Piemonte DOC Bianco 2021, 13%

50% Erbaluce (typical here) and 50% Riesling from a 40–year old vineyard, bought in 2012 with these varieties already planted. The wine is aged for 6 months in stainless steel with 10% in new wood for 3 months only. Pale lemon, moderately aromatic, lightly floral, citrus, green apple on the palate, really really crisp, good length

The same wine but with bottle age (2016, 12.5%) showed excellent development: pale gold in colour, marked hydrocarbon notes, fresh and candied fruit notes.

West and north of Turin, Piemonte really does have wine regions for the adventurous. 

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