Winefriend by David Way

Writing about the wines of Piemonte, Italy and France

Diary 64: Revisiting Alto Piemonte

I spent quite a lot of time in Alto Piemonte in 2022 researching for my book, The Wines of Piemonte. I couldn’t go to the big annual tasting and press trip in 2022 as my good friends were getting married at exactly the same time. But this year it fitted in well and gave me the chance to revisit Alto Piemonte. At the beginning of the week, I gave a presentation on themes from my book in Alba and then travelled to northern Piemonte. Moving from Alba, wine capital of Piemonte, to Gattinara may only be 150 kilometres (90 miles) but these are worlds apart. This is quite surprising as both specialise in Nebbiolo-based wines but there the comparison ends.

Maurizio Gily and David Way
Maurizio Gily and David Way

Alba lies between Barolo and Barbaresco, Piemonte’s two most important denominations. The wines have achieved international renown and the most sought-after have achieved stellar prices. Here the wines have to be 100 per cent Nebbiolo. In Alto Piemonte, there are a handful of famous companies. After that, there are many, often minuscule, family companies. Having just one to three hectares is quite common here. Prices achieved are much lower in the main. Some of the wines can be 100 per cent Nebbiolo (e.g. in Gattinara, Ghemme or Lessona). Some denominations require the wines to be blends which include Vespolina, Croatina and/or Uva Rara (e.g. in Bramaterra or Boca).

Visits in Gattinara

Initially, my focus was to visit a few producers in Gattinara itself. Highlights here included a great vineyard tour with Alessia Travaglini of the historic company, Travaglini Giancarlo. It owns 44 per cent of Gattinara’s 120 hectares and is said to be the only winery in the denomination with vineyards on all four of Gattinara’s hills. With hills like these, driving a large Landrover on steep tracks is a key skill if you want to give your visitors a true sense of place! And it was great to taste some fully mature older vintages, 2013, 2015 (Riserva) and 2006. The last had remarkably ripe fruit for a cool year and will continue to develop for many years. This was a great start to revisiting Alto Piemonte.

While Travaglini features in my book, Delsignore doesn’t, though it should. Stefano re-started the family wine business in 2009 and has gone from strength to strength. His planned expansion is from three to 3.5 hectares (!) and so is at the other end of the scale in terms of size. In addition to a young Nebbiolo (here called Spanna), a Gattinara and a Gattinara Riserva, he has specialised in traditional-method Nebbiolo sparkling wines. You can tell that he has succeeded as the flashy restaurant, Cucina Nervi, part of Roberto Conterno’s project in the town, serves his sparkling wine. He makes two versions. The Brut, as is so often the case in the region, is virtually dry, three to four grammes per litre of residual sugar. The dosage is made with the added sugar being dissolved in Gattinara Riserva still wine. Time on the lees is between 12–20 months depending on the year. The Pas Dosé is aged for longer, 48 months, to allow it to mellow in the bottle.

I also had the chance to taste the latest vintages from Nervi Conterno which indeed are excellent. Sadly, there will be very little of the 2021 as 75 per cent of the crop was lost to hail. What remains is super-elegant cranberry to red-cherry fruited with powdery, resilient tannins. 2020 was kinder and the two single vineyard wines are worth looking out for, though the prices begin to resemble those of Barolo. As in the former, 2020 is a very approachable vintage with fine red cherry to plum fruit, essays in elegance. As usual, Vigneto Molsino has more tannic power than Valferana. Tasting these wines was undoubtedly a highlight of revisiting Alto Piemonte

Taste Alto Piemonte, Novara

My final stop in revisiting Alto Piemonte was in the regional capital, Novara. The three-day tasting called, clearly enough, Taste Alto Piemonte, is a great chance to catch up with many producers and discover some new ones. 50 producers present their wines in the historic castle’s modern annexe. The big advantage here is that they show the full range of their wines if they wish to: sparkling wines, the white variety Erbaluce, the minor red varieties, the quotidian Uva Rara, robust Vespolina and deeply colour and tannic Croatina, alongside Nebbiolo of course. The very occasional sweet, passito, wine is also presented.

My highlights were as follows:

  • Ermido di Betta of La Badina very kindly opened a bottle of his Lessona DOC Riserva 2010 for me. It was a spectacular example of a subtle combination of rose petal, developed red fruit, earth and lavender. The tannins were fully resolved and satin-like after the best part of a decade and a half (the wine had spent three years in wood). Examples of this wine will be really difficult to find as Ermido only has one hectare of vineyard but some of the wine makes its way to the US and northern Europe.
  • New to me were the wines of Castello di Castellengo, with the brand name Centovigne. They make Erbaluce in the standard white version but also one with some skin contact. It is not a fully orange wine (just 5–7 days on the skins) but there is added texture and a lightly herbal/orange peel note to boot. The castle (it really is one, now a smart hotel), is outside the better known DOCs and so the reds are labelled either as vino rosso or the regional Coste della Sesia DOC. But that does not affect the wine quality at all.
  • Paride Iaretti was also new to me. He is in Gattinara and owns part of the Valferrana vineyard which he shares with Nervi Conterno. He produces a range of  Gattinara wines of real substance.
  • Massimo Clerico is perhaps a more established name, even if he has only three hectares in Lessona. His Riserva 2015 had remarkable depth along with Lessona finesse.
  • Of the minor varieties, I enjoyed Rovellotti’s Vespolina, 2022. The tannins are firm, even crunchy but not bitter. The same can be said of Mirú’s 2021.
  • Finally, I tasted some very promising examples of Nebbiolo traditional method sparkling wines. It is, as yet, a tiny category made by, among others, Delsignore, Travalgini and (in minuscule volume) by Nervi Conterno. If you can marry the savoury red-berried fruit of Nebbiolo to a touch of toastiness and the mere hint of tannic grip, you can make a very fine wine.

I am delighted to be able to report that Alto Piemonte offers a treasure trove of fascinating wines. Nebbiolo continues to provide the greatest examples but Erbaluce and the local red varieties are genuinely worthwhile too. Individual bottles will take some finding. By far the best way to do that is to visit and enjoy the beautiful landscape and excellent cuisine. Visiting or revisiting Alto Piemonte would be a treat for any wine lover.

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