Wine of the Week – Nebbiolo with a twist

Lessona – photo courtesy of Tenute Sella.

In recent months I have become seriously obsessed by the wines of Italy and I think with good reason. There is such variety, such diversity and such pleasure to be had. So much so in fact that I have been giving some tastings called Hidden Corners of Italy that shines a little light on the areas of Italy that people might not encounter all that much.

The wines really seem to have captured people’s imaginations and opened their eyes as to the huge variety that Italy offers. I have shown some stunning sparkling wines, wonderful whites and fine complex reds and will write about them all very soon. However one red in particular showed extremely well recently and I noticed that it is once again available in the UK, so thought that I would make it my Wine of the Week.

It comes from Piemonte, which would normally be regarded as a far from hidden corner of Italy, but it actually comes from the north of the region up towards the Alps from a little known PDO / DOC called Lessona. In fact Lessona is a commune in the Province of Biella some 70 kilometres north of Turin and although it was created a Denominazione di Origine Controllata / DOC as long ago as 1976, there are only 14 hectares of vineyards there.

Wine map of Piemonte – click for a larger view. Non watermarked, high resolution versions are available for a fee.

It wasn’t always like that though. The wine growing areas in the Alto Piemonte were once very important and like Lesona have long and noble histories that predate Barolo by several centuries. Phyloxerra devestated the vineyards and it is much harder to replant here on mountainous terrain than on the low rolling hills of Langhe. It is also much harder to scratch a living in more dramatic terrain, where transport costs are high, so many people left the land over many decades. Some emigtrated to the United States or Argentina, while others just went as far as Turin or Milan to seek work. After the depression and two world wars even those who had stayed were tempted to get steady jobs in the local post war textile industry that boomed for several decades. The consequence of all this is that the wine revolution passed the place by and so they found it hard to pull out of the downward spiral of decline that had gripped the place since the 1930s.

Tenute Sella – photo courtesy of Tenute Sella.

The richer Langhe region had more money to invest in vineyards and wineries, so as the post World War II modern wine revolution bit, those wines were perceived to be finer, richer, rounder and fruitier. More professional viticulture and hygeneic winemaking was completely normal in the south, but took far longer to reach the more impoverished north. As a result, by the time I joined the wine trade 30 odd years ago, the wines of this part of Piemonte were almost never mentioned.

Which is a great shame as the DOCs and DOCGs of this part of Italy produce some seriously impressive wines, especially the reds of Carema, Gattinara, Ghemme, Bramaterra and Lessona. There are many great producers here that deserve to be much more widely known – you can read a bit about them here.

While I was there many producers captured my imagination, but I developed a particular affection for the wines of Tenute Sella. Based in Lessona, although it has vineyards in Bramaterra too, this estate has been owned by the Sella family since 1671 when silk merchant Comino Sella founded it. Today the estate is run by the engaging and charming Marco Rizzetti, who is CEO of the winery and part of the Sella family on his mother’s side.

Tenute Sella vineyards in Lessona – photo courtesy of Tenute Sella.

Today Tenuta Sella farms 7 hectares in Lessona – 50% of the PDO – plus 10 hectares in Bramaterra. The Lessona vineyards are pretty fragmented and on Pliocene marine deposits, so comprise well drained sandy soils.

2011 Lessona
DOC Lessona

The principal wine from the estate and the wine they have produced ever since 1671. This is a blend of 85% Nebbiolo (traditionally called Spanna up here) with 15% Vespolina, a close relative of Nebbiolo. The vines are on average 55 years old and the vineyard is at 300 metres above sea level with a south facing slope. The grapes were destemmed and crushed before being fermented in stainless steel vats and the wine was matured for 24 months in large (2500 litre) Slavonian oak barrels, where it also went through the malolactic fermentation. Viticulture is all low impact, near organic with no pesticides.

2011 was a difficult year with periods of heavy rainfall and drought while hail in July severely depleted the crop making yields lower than normal. They are very pleased with what the vintage finally produced, as was I.

The colour was a little bricky like Burgundy, while the nose delivered lovely complex red fruits, spice, pepper, espresso and light smoke with an enticing mix of sweet fruit and savoury characters.

The palate was quite haunting with lovely refreshing acidity, tannins that certainly made themselves known but were not aggressive, making the texture quite supple. The flavours were deep red fruit, plums especially, with dried fruit, earthy, coffee bean, tomato stem, savoury spicy characters and a lovely gamey, leathery development. It really is a lovely wine, more perfumed, more supple than we normally think of Nebbiolo. I could not help feeling that this would be great with Christmas dinner – 93/100 points.

The cellar at Tenute Sella – photo courtesy of Tenute Sella.

A beguiling and complex food wine, if you like Barolo, Northern Rhône wines or Burgundy then you will love this. As well as turkey and goose, this would be wonderful with beef dishes and an array of cheeses.

Available in the UK for between £17 and  £23 per bottle from Vinissimus and Tannico.co.uk.

If you want even more of a bit of a treat for Christmas, then Vintage Wine & Port have a few bottles of the 2000 vintage Tenute Sella Lessona for £39.00 per bottle.

 

Fine White wines, Rosés and Sparklers from an Unexpected Corner of Italy

Beautiful vineyards and landscape of northern Piemonte.

In the last few years I have travelled extensively in Italy and have ben fortunate enough to explore a great many wine regions. Italy is a fascinating wine producing country and it’s not only full of world famous wines styles and grape varieties either. Everywhere you go there are constant surprises and new discoveries to be made.

I have travelled to Campania, Sicily, the Marche, Veneto, Friuli, Emilia-Romagna, Umbria, Trentino and the north of Piemonte, as well as the more famous regions of Tuscany and the south of Piemonte. In all of these places I have found wines that have really excited me.

All of these regions are full of wine, sometimes famous and often less well known. Even in the most prestigious regions such as Piemonte and Veneto you can find wines that have almost no presence on the export market and are appreciated almost solely at home.

Italy is most known for her red wines and Italians, like the Spanish, often hold white wine in very low esteem. I expect this view became fixed because Italy, like Spain, is on the whole a hot country in the summer when the grapes are growing. So in the past – before cold fermentation, modern knowhow and clean wineries – the white wines would have been somewhat ropey – especially when compared to the more full-flavoured red wines.

In my formative years Italy’s reputation for white wines – in the UK anyway – was based upon cheap Soave, Frascati, Verdicchio dei Castello di Jesi and Orvieto. However good those wines can be now – and they can be very good indeed – in the 1970s and 1980s they were often less than interesting. Usually based on the high yielding and rather bland Trebbiano, rather than the more interesting grape varieties that had made these wines famous in the first place, they slowly fell out of favour when compared to the competition coming from elsewhere, especially the New World.

It is interesting to note that Frascati was the wine that gave birth to the phrase that a wine ‘didn’t travel well’ and so you should only drink it where it was made. Like most of these white wines it was not regularly bottled until after the Second World War, so until the late 1940s – often much later – it was served by the carafe straight from the barrel or demijohn.

A vineyard in northern Piemonte.

This allowed another Italian white wine to force its way onto export markets and to enjoy success – Gavi. Coming from Piemonte and made from the quite acidic Cortese grape, Gavi – certainly when I first tasted it in the 1980s – seemed more distinguished and refined than those other white wines from Italy at the time. Gavi continues being successful to this day and what helped Gavi create a name for itself is surely the timing. It emerged later than the likes of Frascati, when wineries were already using modern techniques of being ultra clean, using stainless steel fermentation tanks and fermenting at low temperatures. Much of Europe had to play catch up you see as the new world, with less wine making tradition, had often gone the high tech route from the start.

It might be the downward spiral of sales or the example of Gavi, but Italian white wines have fought back and are today in a quite different place from where they were just 20 years ago. Indeed I would say that the white wines of Italy are some of the most exciting you will find from anywhere. This story by the way is repeated in Spain, Portugal and even the less well know corners of France.

Many things have changed how the white wines of Italy taste, but the most important, apart from clean wineries and cold fermentations, are carefully sited vineyards to make sure the grapes do not bake – this retains acidity. Lower yields ensure more concentration and so more flavour, while later picking also gives more flavour – as long as the vines are in a good place to retain freshness and balance.

So I have tasted my way through astonishingly good Vermentino from Sardinia, Verdicchio dei Castello di Jesi from the Marche, Lugana from Veneto and Lombardy, Soave from Veneto, Tai from the Colli Berici in Veneto, Fiano, Greco, Falanghina, Coda di Volpe and Caprettone from Campania, Carricante from Etna in Sicily as well as world class sparkling wines made by the Traditional Method from Trentino (Trento DOC), Lombardy (Franciacorta), Campania (Falanghina), Marche (Verdicchio dei Castello di Jesi ), Lugana and Piemonte (Gavi and some Nebbiolo sparkling too).

Which brings me on to my theme for today, the white, rosé and sparkling wines of northern Piemonte.

Piemonte’s fame almost all rests on the wines produced south of Turin, which is a great shame as there are wonderful wines made to the north in more Alpine conditions. Most of these wine making areas are actually older than the likes of Barolo and Barbaresco in the south and were much more famous in the past. For many reasons – I wrote about them here – the modern wine revolution passed these places by and so they have had a much harder job getting their wines onto the world stage.

Wine map of Piemonte – click for a larger view. Non watermarked, high resolution versions are available for a fee.

I loved a wide array of the red wines from these fascinating outposts in northern Piemonte and wrote about them here, but the area produces some pretty exciting whites and sparkling wines too, most of them made from a grape variety that was totally new to me – Erbaluce (pronounced Urr-ba-luch-eh). Rather fascinatingly Nebbiolo also gets a look in for the rosé wines, both still and sparkling.

This intriguing grape is indigenous to Piemonte and doesn’t seem to grow anywhere else. The most ‘famous’ wine made from it is Caluso DOCG – often known as Erbaluce di Caluso – and they must be 100% Erbaluce, as must the whites of the nearby Canavese DOC, Coste della Sesia DOC and Colline Novaresi DOC. It is known as a high acid grape and certainly the best examples for me where the ones that retained refreshing acidity.

The wines

 

Tenuta Sella.

2014 Doranda
DOC Coste della Sesia

 

I was very taken by the wines at Tenuta Sella. It is a beautiful estate in Lessona, although they have vineyards in Bramaterra too – and has a long history going back to 1671 and have always been owned by the same family. Until the unification of Italy Piemonte and Sardinia constituted a single country called the Kingdom of Sardinia and the Sella family, which had married into the Mosca family, also owned Sella & Mosca one of the most prestigious wine estates in Sardinia.

 

This is 100% Erbaluce, grown in estate vineyards in Lessona and Bramaterra, both of which are DOCs for red wines only, which is why this is labelled as Coste della Sesia. Some vintages from a wider source of vineyards are labelled a DOC Piemonte.
I enjoyed this wine, it was aromatic, fresh and floral with a rich, pithy note too. The palate was quite rich and creamy because of skin contact and and lees ageing. It was nicely balanced with juicy grapefruit and more succulent peach flavours. A good introduction to Erbaluce but with less overt acidity than many – 89/100 points.

 

Vineyards at Tenute Sella.

2015 Majoli Rosato
DOC Coste della Sesia

 

This rosé is pure Nebbiolo and from 45 year old vines, old vines helps give depth and concentration to the wine. The vineyards are in the two ‘Cru’ appellations, Lessona (95%) and Bramaterra (5%), which is why the wine is labelled Coste della Sesia, as that is the wider area. The Bramaterra component is made by bleeding some juice off their red wine while it is fermenting. The Lessona component gets 36 hours cold soak pre fermentation to help extract flavours and complexity and is then direct pressed. The wine has malolactic fermentation and has a 6 month ageing on the lees in tank.
This has real Nebbiolo character on the nose, with earthy and rose petal notes, blood orange, cranberry and spice too. The palate is quite full, with some weight and intensity and texture – those lees? It is also very tasty with lots of rich red fruit, that twist of bitter orange, some spice and a good fresh acidity and minerality making it lively. This is a fine rosé and it would go with all manner of dishes from salads and fish to veal and pasta dishes – 92/100 points.

 

2015 (no vintage on the label as it is not a DOC or DOCG wine) Clementina Brut Rosato
Vino Spumante

 

This is 100% Nebbiolo from their estate vineyards in Bramaterra and it was my first sparkling Nebbiolo ever. It is made sparkling by the Charmat, or tank method  – known locally as the Martinotti Lungo method – in order to emphasis freshness and downplay Nebbiolo’s hard tannins.

 

The first thing that hits you about this wine is the beautiful colour. It is vibrant and a little orange as befitting a wine called Clementina! The nose is bright, scented, floral and fruity while the palate is fresh, lively, fruity – strawberry and cherry – and a little creamy too. A delicious and very unusual take on Nebbiolo – 90/100 points.

 

The view north from Nervi’s vineyards.

2015 Nervi Bianca
Vitivinicola Nervi
DOCG Erbaluce di Caluso

 

I loved visiting Nervi. They are one of the 2 main producers in Gattinara, a DOCG that should be much, much more famous than it is. Their wines were really impressive, they were very gracious hosts and their cellars were a joy to see.

 

This is 100% Erbaluce with modern handling, cold fermentation in stainless steel with no malolactic fermentation and a little lees ageing. 
This was bright, fresh, zesty and pure with a little touch of miner laity, or salinity. A fresh, lively, modern dry white wine that is very appealing – 88/100 points.

 

The view south across Nervi’s vineyards.

2014 (no vintage on the label as it is not a DOC or DOCG wine) Jefferson 1787 Nebiule Rosato Brut Spumante
Vitivinicola Nervi
Vino Spumante di Qualità

 

A Traditional Method sparkling Nebbiolo this time. It is a pale rosé with 4 hours skin contact to give the colour, zero dosage (so very dry) and 9 months ageing on the lees. This was the last bottle left of the first vintage and the wine was proclaimed by Gambero Rosso to be the best sparkling wine in Italy! The DOCG Gattinara does nor permit sparkling wines, so it is simply labelled as Vino Spumante di Qualità.

 

The wine is named in honour of Thomas Jefferson who travelled extensively in Europe while serving as Minister (Ambassador) to France. He was a great wine lover who spent a lot of time and effort trying to grow vitas vinegar grapes at his Monticello estate in Virginia. He wrote glowingly of Nebbiolo, or Nebiule as it was then known, saying ‘there is a red wine of Nebiule which is very singular. It is about as sweet as the silky Madeira, as astringent on the palate a Bordeaux and as brisk (sparkling) as Champagne’. Which just goes to show that Nebbiolo has changed beyond all recognition in a little over 200 years!

 

This is a lovely orangey, wild salmon colour with a touch of rose petal. The aromas are also rose petal with cherry and raspberry notes. The palate has a softness of ripe strawberry, cherry and raspberry together with thrilling, lively acidity and a fine mousse. There is also something very taut and lean about it, like Champagne, with a touch of minerality, something savoury and balsamic and a long, crisp finish. This is a very fine sparkling wine – 94/100 points.

 

Alberto Arlunno in his vineyards.

NV Mia Ida Brut Rosato
Vino Spumante

 

I loved visiting this family owned estate in Ghemme. Alberto Arlunno, who took over the running of the estate from his father in 1993, was a charming host and their wines were very good indeed – especially their Ghemme made from Nebbiolo, which was an area that I had only ever heard of before, not tasted.

 

This is a sparkling Nebbiolo, again made by the Charmat method and named after Alberto’s mother Ida.
Again the colour was spectacular, it looked like an Aperol Spritz! The aromas were fruity and lively with a little cherry and raspberry, while the palate had loads of flavour. Soft red fruit, raspberry and strawberry, mingled with blood orange and cherry, so giving a delicious richness and lovely bright, balancing acidity. A really nice, drinkable sparkling rosé – 89/100 points.

 

Masere and pergolas.

2015 Anima Erbaluce di Caluso
DOCG Erbaluce di Caluso

 

I was impressed by La Masera which is a new winery founded by a group of friends in 2005. Today they farm 5 hectares within the Erbaluce di Caluso DOCG zone. They grow Barbera, Freisa, Vespolina, Neretto and Nebbiolo, but focus on Erbaluce in dry, sparkling and sweet, passito, styles. Their name comes from the Masere which are the thick stone walls between each vineyard.

 

This is 100% Erbaluce, grown in the rocky morainic hills of Canavese at 250 metres above sea level, hand harvested, cold fermented at 16˚C and aged 6 months on the lees in stainless steel tanks.
This was the first Erbaluce that made me really sit up and take notice. It is very modern and very bright. It has a very fresh nose that is slightly leesy with rich citrus, green apple and light floral notes.

 

The palate is bright, lively and fresh with brisk, lively acidity and lightly herbal, savoury and nutty. There is purity here, with a little saline on the finish.
Straightforward, but well made and very drinkable with thrilling acidity. A very nicely made and versatile dry white wine that would have broad appeal, especially with Sauvignon drinkers – 89/100 points.

2014 Macaria Erbaluce di Caluso
DOCG Erbaluce di Caluso

 

Anima’s big brother, this is 100% Erbaluce macerated on the skins and part fermented in stainless steel and then half way through the ferment 70% of the wine is transferred to oak barrels. Lees stirring takes place on both components – the 70% in oak barrels and the 30% in stainless steel tanks – and it is aged for 7 months on the lees before blending.

The nose is attractive with nice herbal, oily creamy notes and a touch of olive oil and vanilla.

On the palate it has a good texture, that fresh lively acidity, savoury, herbal flavours, orange-like flavour and feel – like barrel aged Viura can have – together with a creamy quality. It has a long finish with apricot succulence making it an attractive and well balanced wine – 90/100 points.

The winery, vineyards and views at Antichi Vigneti di Cantalupo.

2011 Masilé Brut
DOCG Erbaluce di Caluso Spumante

 

I liked their white wines, but my favourite wine from La Masera was this sparkling Erbaluce. Interestingly the grapes were grown on a traditional pergola system, which is finding favour once again after having been seen as old fashioned for many decades. Long seen as hard to ripen, pergolas might just be perfect with the sunnier conditions as a consequence of global warming. They also allow for good movement of air to keep the fruit cool and healthy.

 

This is 100% Erbaluce cold fermented and then aged on the lees in a mixture of barrels and tanks for 6 months, with lees stirring. It is then bottled and undergoes the Traditional Method to become sparkling. Once fizzy it is aged for a further 36 months on the lees before disgorging giving it 48 months on lees in total.

 

Complex stuff with a great nose of apricots, brioche, rich pear and sweet spice. The pear carries through to the palate, dollops of honey and ginger and cooked fruit and brioche, flakey pastry . The lovely rich style is tempered by the fresh acidity and the delicate, persistent mouse. A triumph – 91/100 points.

 

2015 La Rustia
DOCG Erbaluce di Caluso

 

Another small producer, this estate has a much longer history having been founded n 1894. However at first it was a restaurant with wine being made just for the customers to drink with their food. Over time it was the wine that became famous and nowadays the Orsolani family focus almost solely on Erbaluce with a few black grapes too. They actually produce a Carema, which I assume is from bought in fruit as carom famously only has 2 producers, Ferrando and the Carema cooperative.

 

100%  Erbaluce grown on a pergola on south facing slopes at 350 metres above sea level, hand harvested and cold fermented and aged on the lees for 6 months.
This is aromatic and more steely and quite herbal and nettle-like in style. The palate has some softness and roundness that is attractive, while the acidity keeps it clean and fresh. Despite all the zing though it feels textured from lees ageing for 6 months. Again very drinkable and good, but a little richer in style – 90/100 points.

Vineyards in Ghemme.

2011 Cuvée Tradizione
DOCG Erbaluce di Caluso Spumante Gran Riserva

 

Another ambitious and delicious Erbaluce sparkler made by the Traditional Method. Partly barrel fermented and partly tank fermented the wine is aged for 48 months on the lees before disgorging. There is no dosage, or added sugar, but there is 3 grams per litre of residual sugar.

 

A bright nose of seashore, bread, flakey pastry together with dried lemon and light apple notes.
The palate delivers a lovely balance between richness – honey, nuts, dried fruit – and lemon / apple freshness and there is some nice minerality too – 91/100 points.

 

2009 Cuvée Tradizione 1968
DOCG Erbaluce di Caluso Spumante Gran Riserva

Gianluigi Orsolani is the winemaker at the family estate today, but it was his father Francesco who made the region’s first traditional method sparkling wine back in 1968. This wine is named for that first vintage and is aged on the lees for 60 months to give even more depth and complexity60 months on the lees. Again there is no dosage, just the sweetness of the ripe Erbaluce grapes.

A very intense and ripe wine with a lovely, lifted nose of pineapple cubes, toasted brioche, flakey pastry, nuts and caramel. The palate follows on with rich flavours of cooked orchard fruit – apple and peach – with more brioche, biscuit and nuts.  Full-flavoured and rich with a long finish – 92/100 points.

 

2012 Pietro Cassina Spumante Metodo Classico
Vitivinicola Pietro Cassina
Vino Spumante di Qualità

Pietro Cassina is a charming fellow who farms 6 hectares and makes lovely wines in a fabulous new winery in Lessona, another place that I had only heard of before this trip. As well as Nebbiolo, he grows some Erbaluce and makes this lovely traditional method sparkling wine from it. He ages it on the lees for 36 months. His reds are DOC Lessona or DOC Costa  della Sesia, neither of which permit sparkling wines, so his fizz is simply labelled as Vino Spumante di Qualità.

A lively gold colour with a rich, smoky, leesy, pastry, brioche nose. The palate is rich, biscuity and creamy with nutty and caramel flavours and a good cut of acidity. This is classy stuff indeed – 92/100 points.

 

2012 T
DOCG Erbaluce di Caluso

 

Cieck are another impressive producer that is relatively new. It was originally founded, in 1985, to produce sparkling wines, but they have branched out and today they farm 16 hectares of vines, mainly Erbaluce, but grow Nebbiolo and Barbara too.

 

This special cuvée is a selection of fruit from Cieck’s Misobolo Vineyard. Harvested late, in November, with skin contact for 36, then cold fermented and finally aged in untoasted Slavonian (Croatian) oak tonneau of 1500 litres for 8-10 months.
This remarkable wine has and rich, intense nose of ripe greengage together with something tropical, herbaceous and it’s slightly mealy and nutty too as well as having a waft of jasmine about it.

 

The palate has great concentration, super acidity that cuts through the fatty texture giving tension and a mineral feel. A delicious and great wine with a very long finish – 93/100 points.

Walking through vineyards in Gattinara.

2011 San Giorgio Brut
DOCG Erbaluce di Caluso

 

This was the original product of the estate and it is pretty good. The base wine is cold fermented and after the second fermentation in bottle – Traditional Method – the wine is aged for 36 months on the lees. 

 

Given the long lees ageing the nose is remarkably fresh and lively, with floral, jasmine and camomile too as well as biscuit, pastry and fresh naan bread.

 

The palate has lots of soft fruit and a cut of zesty acidity making it very balanced and refreshing too. A lovely aperitif wine – 88/100 points.

 

2010 Calliope Brut
DOCG Erbaluce di Caluso

 

Cieck’s most complex sparkler with some 35% of the base wine fermented in new oak barrels and aged on the lees for 9 months. This component is then blended with cold, stainless steel tank fermented wine and the second fermentation takes place after bottling – Traditional Method. After the second fermentation in bottle the  wine is aged for 36 months on the lees. 

 

This offers a really lovely nose of ripe citrus, lime, lemon together with richer leesy, pastry, biscuit and nutty notes.

 

The palate delivers rich cooked lemon, cooked apricot and apple together with more savoury spicy, wholemeal bread and pastry flavours. It has refreshing, brisk acidity and something that I have wondered about for a long time. A good friend of mine and perhaps the greatest taster that I have ever known once described a sparkling wine to me as having a ‘brittle mousse’. I have always struggled to understand the phrase, but liked it at the same time. I now understand what it means as this too has a brittle mousse. It feels like it will shatter in your mouth, which just makes the wine even more intriguing! Great stuff – 92/100 points.

Lake Viverone from Cellagrande.

 

2004 San Michele Brut Brut
DOC Erbaluce di Caluso – became DOCG in 2010

 

Set on the northern shore of Lake Viverone about as far north as you can get in the Caluso zone, Cellagrande farm a small estate and winemaker Fabrizio Ruzzon crafts their wines in the remains of a beautiful twelfth century convent. Only the church, bell tower and cellars remain and they are put to good use as the perfect place to age their sparkling wines.

 

This is 100% Erbaluce grown on south facing slopes dropping down to the north shore of Lake Viverone. Cold fermented then bottled and after the second fermentation the wine is aged on the lees for a minimum of 36 months, often much longer. This 2004 had only just been disgorged.

 

This was a deep golden colour with a wonderfully enticing nose of rich apples, apricots, pastry and spices. The palate was rich and creamy with cooked apples, a touch of pineapple, dry honey, caramel, biscuits and pastry all kept balanced by some lovely, bright, cleansing acidity. This is serious stuff and a real triumph – 93/100 points.

 

Vineyards in Ghemme.

Sweet Wines

Given how important sweet wines were in the past – they were the most sought after wines in ancient times and the middle ages because they kept whereas other wines did not – this may well be the oldest wine style from Piemonte. Sweet wines made from dried grapes, to get rid of water and so increase the proportion of sugar have been made all over the Mediterranean world since the beginning of civilisation.

 

2007 Alladium Passito
DOC Erbaluce di Caluso Passito

 

For this wine they select the best bunches of ripest Erbaluce fruit on the estate and then dry them in ventilated rooms on special racks. The dry conditions stop the grapes from going mouldy. After crushing the juice is fermented and the finished wine is aged for 3 years in oak barrels.
A light dessert wine with honey, orange, fig, orange peel and a touch of oak spice and tea on the nose. The palate is full and rounded with a soft viscous texture, caramelised orange, cooked apricot, a little treacle and cinder toffee. A very attractive wine, fresh and delightfully drinkable rather than complex – 88/100 points.

 

2009 Sulé Passito
DOC Erbaluce di Caluso Passito

 

This passito – a sweet wine made from dried grapes –  wine is fermented in oak barrels and then aged in those barrels on the lees for 3 more years.

 

A richer style with a caramel colour and aromas of creme brûlée, burnt sugar, caramelised orange, coffee and sweet spice. The palate is intense and figgy, almost like a an Australian Liqueur Muscat with buttery toffee, molasses, coffee, dried orange, caramel and cinnamon. It is viscous, silky and mouth-filling and has a long finish – 90/100 points.

 

I was very impressed with these white wines and sparklers from northern Piemonte. I went expecting to taste red wines made from Nebbiolo and although there were plenty of those that were very good indeed, I also enjoyed these whites and sparkling wines. Which just goes to show what an excellent wine region it is.

 

So you see, Italy can always surprise you, even astonish you, with wonderful whites and sparkling wines from places where you least expect them. This can be from regions that you have never heard of and grape varieties that you have never even heard mentioned before. Personally I think that is a good thing as it means the world of wine is even more exciting than we thought and it gives us even more good reasons to keep an open mind and and to try everything.

 

Try them if you get the chance and let us know what you thought of them.

Alto Piemonte – Italy’s Hidden Treasure from Alpine Piemonte

The beautiful vineyards of Gattinara.

The dramatic vineyards of Gattinara.

When a wine lover thinks of Piemonte, or Piedmont, then the chances are that their very next thought is of Barolo. This small area of wine production south of Turin is capable of producing sublime red wines from the local Nebbiolo grape. They come at a price though. Barolo can be very expensive indeed and even the everyday examples are approaching £20 a bottle nowadays. That being said, those basic examples of Barolo are now generally much better than they used to be some ten or fifteen years ago.

Nearby the wines of Barbaresco, also made from Nebbiolo, can also be wonderful, and often much more charming than Barolo, but are often also very highly priced – and prized.

Wine map of Piemonte - click for a larger view. Non watermarked, high resolution versions are available for a fee.

Wine map of Piemonte – click for a larger view. Non watermarked, high resolution versions are available for a fee.

A glance at my map will show you the geography of Piemonte. Turin sits in an ampitheatre surrounded by the Alps that mark the frontiers to the south, west and north and so the flatter south eastern part of Piemonte is historically the most productive. Together the Langhe, where you will find Barolo and Barbaresco among other wines, and Monferrato, where many wines including Asti are produced, account for over 90% of Piemonte’s wine production.

It wasn’t always like that though. The wine growing areas on Piemonte’s northern fringes, Alto Piemonte, were once very imporatnt. Many have long and noble histories that predate Barolo by several centuries, and could possibly be famous again.

I have recently returned from a fascinating trip to Piemonte, one that focussed solely on these more northerly and less well known wine areas. Not for us the well worn path to Barolo and Barbaresco and the rolling Langhe Hills. No, our little group of wine writers was whisked north of Turin to the very foot of the Alps. Here, over the course of several days, we visited vineyards and sampled the wines from twelve wine producing areas, only two of which were known to me beforehand. I even tasted a grape variety that I had never, ever heard of before – which is always an exciting experience.

Many different grape varieties are grown in Piemonte, but for the really famous reds, it is Nebbiolo that is considered to be the true aristocrat. Indeed together with Sangiovese it is traditionally regarded as one of the noble black grapes of Italy. The grape gets its name from the thick fogs – called Nebbia – that descend from the mountains in the late Autumn, just before harvest, and so causing ripening problems for this famously late ripening grape variety.

The beautiful views from Gattinara.

The beautiful views from Gattinara.

Spanna – Nebbiolo in the North
Further north Nebbiolo is also widely grown, but in the past they often called the grape Spanna up there. Although it is Nebbiolo, it is a different clone of the grape and so gives subtly different results, a bit like Tempranillo and Tinto Fino. I remember seeing Spanna on wine labels in my very early days, but as far as I can see true Nebbiolo has either taken over in the areas where Spanna once ruled supreme, or is just treated as though it and Nebbiolo are completely the same. Certainly – again much as with Tinto Fino and Tempranillo – some growers told me that Spanna and Nebbiolo are identical, just different names for the same thing, while others were certain they were different. Whatever the case, I am sure that Nebbiolo is easier to sell than Spanna, just as Malbec is easier to sell than Cot and Tempranillo than Tino Fino.

Centuries ago this area was much more important than it is now, with the wines enjoying more fame than those of southern Piemonte, but all sorts of things changed that. Phyloxerra devestated the vineyards and it is much harder to replant high up than on the low rolling hills of Langhe. It is also much harder to scratch a living in more dramatic terrain, where transport costs are high, so many people left the land. Some emigtrated to the United States or Argentina, while others just went as far as Turin or Milan to seek work. After the depression and two world wars even those who had stayed were tempted to get steady jobs in the local post war textile industry that boomed for several decades . The consequence of all this is that the wine revolution passed the place by and so they couldn’t pull out of the downward spiral of decline that had gripped the place since the 1930s.

The richer Langhe region had more money to invest in vineyards and wineries, so as the post World War II modern wine revolution bit, those wines were perceived to be finer, richer, rounder and fruitier. More professional viticulture and hygeneic winemaking was completely normal in the south, but took far longer to reach the more impoverished north.

This was all new territory to me and it was tremendously exciting. We visited three districts, with Piemonte being the region. These districts had PDOs and also contained village level appellations – Crus in the same sense that Fleurie is a Cru of Beaujolais and Pouilly-Fuissé a Cru of Mâcon. The Italians producers themselves seem to only use the word Cru in the specific vineyard sense, as in the Grand Crus of Alsace.

Your author amongst the vines at Tenute Sella.

Your author making notes amongst the vines at Tenute Sella.

Coste delle Sesia
Our first visits were to the Coste delle Sesia. This DOC – or PDO – covers vineyards near the River Sesia in the Provinces of Vercelli and Biella. One white can be made from Erbaluce, a new grape for me, but from what I saw it was the reds that rule supreme here and these must contain at least 50% of Nebbiolo, Bonarda (Uva Rara), Vespolina, Croatina or Barbera.

I tasted a few excellent wines from this appellation, but the real excitement came from the examples that had a grape variety on the label too. I was very impressed by some of the Coste della Sesia Nebbiolo as well as the few examples of the deliciously spicy Coste della Sesia Vespolina that we got to try. As far as I can see, Vespolina is a very appealing grape that only grows arpound here and a little over the border in Lombardy.

Recommended producers: Tenute Sella, especially their Orbello red and Majoli rosé.
Pietro Cassina, especially his delicious Coste della Sesia Vespolina.
Travaglini, who really produce Gattinara, but who use their younger vines in an excellent Nebbiolo Coste della Sesia

The Communes of the Coste delle Sesia
Wholly contained within the Costa delle Sesia are three commune – or village – appellations, Cru if you like. Many of these had a very hard twentieth century and are desperately trying to come back from that near death experience. A mixture of Phyloxerra, follwed by mass migration to America and Argentina, wars, depressions and then the rise of the local textile industry – it was relief for the locals to earn a steady wage working in the textle factories after so much instability, so they lefy the land in droves – all took a toll and nearly killed off wine producing in these parts.

Climate wise the area benefits from being south facing, so good sun exposure and having a long growing season, just what Nebbiolo needs. There are also big night time temperature drops which helps retain acidity and finesse in the grapes, as does the cool air that descends from the Alps, tempering the summer heat.

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The beautiful vineyards at Tenute Sella.

Lessona DOC is a tiny PDO which only makes red wines and as far as I can see deserves to be better known. Fundamentally they are made from Nebbiolo – 85% minimum, but a little Vespolina and the wonderfully named Uva Rara is permitted. The wines must be aged before release for a minimum of 22 months, 12 in wood, usually big old 3000 litre wooden foudres or botti rather than barriques. Riserva wines are aged for at least  46 months, 30 of which are in wood.

Once upon a time the area had hundreds of hectares under vine. Now most of those have returned to forest and by the mid 1990s there were only 6.5 hectares of grapes left, but a modest rennaisence is underway and there are now somewhere around 23 hectares with a few new producers just getting started as well, which bodes well for the future.

Recommended producers: Tenute Sella, this producer’s top wines are all from this PDO. With a history going back to 1671, Sella has long been the commune’s beating heart and the wines are very impressive.
Pietro Cassina is a new producer, but his previous profession as an architect seems to have given him an eye for detail that ensures his wines are very good indeed.
La Badina, especially their Lessona Riserva 2010.

Massimo Clerico, my new favourite drinking buddy makes very good wines that age pretty well – his 2005 is perfectly mature.
Proprietà Sperino, an exciting producer created by Paolo De Marchi whose father founded the Isole & Olena estate in Chianti Classico.

Bramatera DOC is another miniscule PDO that makes good Nebbiolo – or Spanna – wines. Again they are oftem blends with a maximum of 30% Croatina, 20% Uva Rara and / or Vespolina.

The wines must be aged for a minimum of 22 months, 18 in wood, again normally foudres or botti rather than barriques. Riservas are aged for at least 34 months, 24 of which are in wood.

Recommended producers: Tenute Sella, I know it’s repetitive, but they make very good wines and have vineyards in three different PDO areas.

Looking down on gattinara from

Looking down on gattinara from the vineyards.

Gattinara DOCG is perhaps the most famous of all the PDOs in the northern part of Piemonte. Once upon a time it was more highly praised than Barolo. Indeed it was famous before Barolo had even decided to make the wines as we know them today. I saw old photographs which showed the hills to the north of Gattinara town to be completely covered in vineyards. This was only in 1906 – just four years before my aunt was born – but today just 60 hectares remain.

Huge barrels at Nervi.

Huge barrels at Nervi.

Old vintages in the cellar at Nervi - my birth year is far right and no, despite many hints they didn't open one.

Old vintages in the cellar at Nervi – my birth year is far right and no, despite many hints they didn’t open one.

In Gattinara it’s normal, and traditional, to soften the potentially hard edged Nebbiolo – or Spanna – with up to 10% Uva Rara and 4% Vespolina. The wines have to be aged for at least 35 months, 24 of which are in wood. Riserva wines receive at least 47 months, of which 35 are in wood and sometimes a proprtion are aged in barrique – 225 litre barrels. Like a good few of the PDOs around here, Gattinara has some volcanic soils in the mix which can often boost acidity and produce elegant wines.

Our little group hard at work.

Our little group hard at work.

From what I experienced, the quality here is very high. I was hugely impressed by the wines that I tasted, they had real class, elegance, finesse, whatever you want to call it, but they were very good wines indeed.

Looking towards Gattinara from Nervi's vineyards.

Looking towards Gattinara from Nervi’s vineyards.

Recommended producers: Nervi, the oldest producer in the area is now under new ownership and appears to be in fine fettle. I loved their wines, which seemed to have the merest touch of modernity to them. The whole range was first rate including their standard Gattinara, but the Valferana and Molsino Cru wines from specific vineyard sites were maginificent – only a tiny proportion of the very best parcels of the Crus are bottled seperately, the rest is blended in to their Gattinara. I also greatly enjoyed their traditional method pink sparkling Nebbiolo called Jefferson 1787 and really regret not buying a bottle now.

It was particularly fascinating to taste the 2013 Molsino Cru from 4 different wooden vats, Austrian oak, Slavonian (Croatian) oak, Swiss oak and Vosges oak from Alsace. The same wine went into the 3000 litre wooden vats, but 4 entirely different wines came out, which got me seriously wondering about terroir! For me the Slavonian oak was the clear winner, as it really tamed Nebbiolo’s firm tannins.

Finally a decent sized bottle - being held by Cinzia Travaglini, the founder's great grand-daughter.

Finally a decent sized bottle – being held by Cinzia Travaglini, the founder’s great grand-daughter.

Big wooden barrels at Travaglini.

Big wooden barrels at Travaglini.

Travaglini is not quite as old as Nervi, it was founded in the 1920s, but is still run by the original family and appears to be more traditional and, I thought, sees itself as the keeper of the flame of Gattinara. Whether that is true or not, I loved their wines which are all produced from their own fruit grown on the slopes of Gattinara. Real passion came through into the glass and the whole range shone. The standard Gattinaras are very fine, while the Riserva really thrilled me. Travaglini chose not to bottle the Crus seperately, but to blend them all together as they believe that gives the best expression of the region.

I also fell for their white sparkling Nebbiolo. Named Nebolé Brut, they have only made one vintage so far, but it was voted best sparkling in Italy last year by a Sommelier’s association – not a bad start. The wine was pure and mineral and fine and sadly we drank the last bottle. I would also recommend the salami they make that is flavoured with their Gattinara, it is delicious.

Colline Novaresi
East of the Sesia River is the Colline Novaresi – Hills of Novara – which does a similar job to the Coste delle Sesia in the west. Again the white wines must be 100% Erbaluce with the reds made from a minimum of 50% Nebbiolo, Barbera, Vespolina, Croatina or Bonarda.

Recommended producers: Antichi Vigneti di Cantalupo, especially their Villa Horta Vespolina and Abate di Cluny.

There are four commune PDOs here; Boca DOC, Sizzano DOC, Fara DOC and Ghemme DOCG. Sadly I only have experience of Ghemme, but the others are so tiny in terms of production that it would be very unusual to find them in the outside world, indeed, I didn’t even get to try them there!

Our little group in Ghemme.

Our little group in Ghemme.

Ghemme DOCG is yet another miniscule PDO of just 60-65 hectares. The wines must be at least 85% Nebbiolo – or Spanna – with up to 15% Uva Rara and / or Vespolina. The standard wine must be aged for at least 34 months, 18 in wood, while the Riservas must be aged for at least 46 months, with 24 in wood.

At around 400 metres above sea level, the vineyards are the highest on this side of the Sesia River, while the soils are very mixed, but are not volcanic, so the wines can feel a little fatter than in Gattinara.

Recommended producers: Antichi Vigneti di Cantalupo, especially their Ghemme and Collis Breclemæ Cru Ghemme.
Torraccia del Piantavigna, make a wide range of wines, but it their standard Ghemme that shone out for me, although their Gattinara was pretty good too.

The beautiful little town of Carema, nestling amongst vine covered mountainsides.

The beautiful little town of Carema, nestling amongst vine covered mountainsides.

Carema DOC
Our last Nebbiolo visit was to Carema, a place I had heard of and I had even tried the wines, but never visited before. It is an astonishing place, right on the border with the Valle d’Aosta, that tiny Italian region sandwiched between France and Switzerland. We are truly Alpine here, indeeed the landscape reminded me of Switzerland’s vineyards to some degree.

Most of the vineyards in Carema are trained on Pergolas. This keeps the vine away from the damp, humid soil and ensures maximum sun exposure in this difficult landscape. It also allows for the precious land to be used for cultivating other crops or livestock.

Most of the vineyards in Carema are trained on Pergolas. This keeps the vine away from the damp, humid soil and ensures maximum sun exposure in this difficult landscape. It also allows for the precious land to be used for cultivating other crops or livestock.

Tending the land under the Pergola in Carema.

Tending the land under the Pergola in Carema.

It only makes red wines in the DOC and they are made from pure Nebbiolo. Standard wines have to be aged for a minimum of 24 months before release, 12 of which are in very large oak or chestnut barrels, while Riservas have to be aged for at least 36 months, again 12 in wood. These times have been seriously reduced recently, which I suspect has done the wines no end of good. I found the oak to be well integrated and the tannins very well controlled.

The place is extraordinary however you slice it. The vines grow at between 300 and 600 metres above sea level, making them amongst the highest in Europe. There are only 16 hectares grown – roughly 32 acres – and bear in mind that in my mid 1990s copy of The Oxford Companion to Wine, Jancis Robinson MW states that there were then 60 hectares, then a lot have been lost very recently.

Beautiful Carema vineyards.

Beautiful Carema vineyards.

What’s more, 14 of those 16 hectares are controlled by the excellent local cooperative, Cantina dei Produttori Nebbiolo di Carema, which has 78 members, so each holding is miniscule as well as being almost perpendicular. The only other producer – yes only two companies make this wine – is Ferrando Vini.

In the past there were many more vineyards, but such back breaking work doesn’t appeal to younger generations, and hasn’t for decades, so people have left the area for an easier lifestyle. However I am willing to bet that the wines have never been better. I tasted the co-op’s Carema Classico, black label and their Riserva, white label, and I was seriously impressed. The wines were lighter perhaps than the other Nebbiolo wines that I tasted on the trip, but they were at least as complex as the Gattinaras and had great concentration of fruit as well as silky tannins. Like the wonderful wines of from Etna DOC in Sicily, I believe these are worthy of DOCG status.

Alpine Piemonte
All in all it was an excellent trip and really fascinating to discover a part of this hidden corner of Italy. The quality of the wines was very high and the passion and commitment of the producers was very clear. They struggle though, as they don’t have the simple clear message of success that their colleagues in the Langhe enjoy. In many ways, with the possible exception of Gattinara – which has a little fame, they have no clear message to make their wines accessable to the outside world. We had a round table conference about this and I tried to help. I came up with the phrase Alpine Piemonte, which I think does give a clear message, certainly more than Alto Piemonte. As long as you know what Piemonte is and know what Alpine is, then surely it’s clear? I would be willing to let them use the slogan for some fair renumeration, a holiday home in Carema perhaps?

Anyway, I urge you to try the wines, I think you will be surprised and excited by their quality and often by the value they represent as well. We visited a few other wine districts too and tasted some really interesting white and sparkling wines that I will write about another day.

Stockist information for the UK:
Cantina dei Produttori Nebbiolo di Carema and Ferrando Vini are imported into the UK by Austrum Wines.
Travaglini are imported into the UK by Austrum Wines.
Nervi are imported into the UK by
For Proprietà Sperino stockists click here.

Stockist information for the US:
For Tenute Sella stockists click here.
For Cantina dei Produttori Nebbiolo di Carema stockists click here.
For Travaglini stockists click here.
For Nervi stockists click here.
For Proprietà Sperino stockists click here.