It is the nature of research to lead you down some interesting byways. In my work on The Wines of Piemonte, I have been tracing the history of traditional method sparkling wine in the region. This has led me from today’s Piemonte to il vecchio Piemonte, ‘Old Piemonte’ as the senior generation in Oltrepò Pavese still calls this area which is now in neighbouring Lombardy.
The history of traditional method sparkling wine in Piemonte is associated with Carlo Gancia. As a very young man, he went to Champagne in 1848 to learn about its sparkling wine. On his return, he set up his sparkling wine and Vermouth company in 1850. The tank method had not been invented yet so the wine was made à la Champagne, i.e. second fermentation in the final bottle.
But where did the grapes come from? The region was used to growing Dolcetto, Barbera and Moscato and so the first wines were made with the latter, which could hardly be more different than Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The next step was for Gancia to cooperate with his cousin, Count Augusto Giorgi di Vistarino. He is credited with planting the first Pinot Nero in Italy in 1850. He planted the vines, imported from France, at Villa Fornace in Rocca de’ Giorgi, Oltrepò Pavese. In honour of his initiative, today the estate is called Conte Vistarino. But back in this period, before the unification of Italy (1861), what is now Oltrepò Pavese was in the Savoy kingdom. In other words, it was old Piemonte.
Today, with 3,300 hectares, Oltrepò Pavese has the most Pinot Noir planted in Italy. To learn more about this region, I spoke with Cristina Cerri Comi and Achille Bergami, co-owner and winemaker of Travaglino. Although its history goes back to monastic roots in 1111, today it is an estate of 400 hectares in a single block in the municipality of Calvignano. It is less than 10 kilometres from Conte Vistarino. Within the estate, 80 hectares are under vine, with a specialisation in Pinot Noir and, more surprisingly, Riesling. I was keen to learn why this area is suited to these cool-climate varieties. The answer lies in the combination of the soil and the climate The soil is mainly clay, limestone and marl. The climate is cooler than you might expect even if the altitude is only 230-–350 metres. There is a constant cool wind from the Apennines, lengthening the growing season and enabling the grapes to retain acidity.
In total, 14 labels are made with seven of them being made from Pinot Nero. Here I will concentrate on two traditional method sparkling wines (the link to Old Piemonte) and two still wines, all made from Pinot Nero.
Gran Cuvée, Blanc de Noir, Brut Millesimato, Oltrepò Pavese Metodo Classico DOCG, 2017, 12.5% (€22.80 at the winery)
Around 20,000 bottles a year are made of this 100 per cent Pinot Noir wine. The grapes are whole bunch pressed. Only the best 45 per cent of pressed juice goes into this wine. Malolactic fermentation is blocked by reducing the temperature after alcoholic fermentation to 5ºC. Second fermentation in the bottle follows and the wine kept on its lees for 42 months. Although labelled as Brut, the wine has only 3 g/L residual sugar, so could be labelled Extra Brut. The nose leads with evident brioche and biscuit autolytic notes underpinned by ripe fruit. A refreshingly tart sherbet note points to the total acidity of 7 g/L including 3 g/L malic acid.
Montecérésino, Rosé Brut, Oltrepò Pavese Metodo Classico DOCG, 2014, 12.5% (€19.90)
The grapes are hand-picked from the highest vineyard, also called Montcérésino. This rosé is made in a similar way to Gran Cuvée, except that the fruit is held in the press for around six hours for an attractive pale copper pink. The wine is kept on its lees for an impressively long five years. This wine has fine, direct red-fruit character well integrated with its autolytic notes.
Travaglino also make a top traditional method cuvée, Vicenzo Comi, Riserva del Fondatore. The fruit is sourced from an old vineyard, just 4,000 bottles are made in top vintages only and the wine is long-aged on the lees. The current release is the 2011. It spent 90 months on the lees (€43).
Pernero, Pinot Nero dell‘Oltrepò Pavese DOC, 2019, 13% (€9.90)
Still Pinot Nero comes in two strongly contrasting styles at Travaglino. The aim with Pernero is a simple, fruity, young-drinking wine at a very accessible price. The grapes are destemmed, subject to cold maceration at 10–12ºC (to extract colour and flavour) and gently pressed. Fermentation temperature with selected yeast is limited to 22ºC to promote fruitiness. The wine is aged on its lees for six months in stainless steel tanks. It is stirred once a week to enrich the mouthfeel. Achille the winemaker is very hot on the textural element of wine. I think he could tell you more about mannoproteins that most of us would understand.
Poggio della Buttinera, Pinot Nero dell‘Oltrepò Pavese DOC, Riserva, 2017, 13% (€22)
By contrast, Poggio della Buttinera (three hectares) is a single-vineyard wine with a higher proportion of sand and iron in the vineyard than on the rest of the estate. No cold maceration is carried out as the aim is for a wine that has ageing potential. A minor proportion of the fruit is kept as whole bunches. (This will increase to 20 per cent in the future as the winery has invested in more open-top fermenters to handle the fruit in this way.) Fermentation temperature at 24ºC is slightly higher for a greater extraction. After malolactic conversion, the wine is aged in barriques and tonneaux (half and half), with 15 per cent new oak, for one year. The 2017 is the current release and is already drinking well, with light vanilla and clove notes well balanced by an excellent depth of ripe raspberry and red plum fruit. It has the depth and balance to age in the bottle.
Old Piemonte – or Oltrepò Pavese as we should really call it today – has much to offer the wine lover. It made an important contribution to the history of traditional method sparkling wine in Piemonte and Italy in general. More than that its sparkling wines and its still Pinot Nero should be on the ‘to taste’ list of any wine lover.
With thanks to Travaglino who provided the wine samples. I very much hope to visit before too long!