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.

 

Serious Rosé can still be fun

I enjoy drinking a good rosé and enjoy its versatility – a nice rosé is fun on its own and can often be an inspired choice with food, especially the sort of things that I eat in the Summer.

What’s more I get a little tired of people claiming not to like rosé – what’s not to like exactly? I also find it a trifle annoying that quite a few people are somewhat disparaging about rosés, ‘they’re neither one thing, or the other’ is a refrain that I often hear. That is right, they are not white wines, they are not red wines, but something different – that is the point!

However, much as I enjoy them, I hardly ever think of them as being complex or great wines. Every month in London I present tastings to a group of tasters who are really interested in wines and I love showing them different things that I find on my travels. Well recently, just to see what people thought, I put on a tasting of rosés that were a bit more serious, and potentially more complex than the normal examples that people buy.

I had put the tasting together over several months, based on wines that I found in all sorts of different places. They were all made using the skin contact method – meaning the colour comes from the skins of black grapes as with a red wine. I wondered about putting in something like a Sauvignon Blanc Rosé from South Africa or New Zealand as those are made from blending a little red wine into white to give the colour, but I couldn’t show everything.

The tasting went well and surprised a lot of the tasters, so I decided to share the best wines with you.

The wines

txomin-etxaniz-rosado.jpg2014 Txakolin Gorria
Txomín Etxaníz
PDO / DO Getariako Txakolina
País Vasco
Spain

Oh I do like Txakoli (or Txakolin they are not consistent with the naming). It is pronounced Chakoli and hails from the far north of Spain – you can read all about it in an article I wrote for Catavino. There are actually three Txakoli DOs and this wine comes from DO Getariako Txakolina, which is around the lovely fishing village of Getaria just 30km west of San Sebastian – which currently is my favourite place on earth! Txomín Etxaníz is widely considered to be the best producer of this beguiling wine. Formally established as a company in 1930, the family have been farming these hillsides and making wine since at least 1649.

Wine map of Spain – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

Wine map of Spain showing DO Getariako Txakolina to the East of Bilbao – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

The beautiful bustling fishing village of Getaria, Txomín a just a couple of kilometres away on a hillside overlooking the village.

The beautiful bustling fishing village of Getaria. The streets are full of bars and fish restaurants, while Txomín are just a couple of kilometres away on a hillside overlooking the village.

This rosé – the Gorria on the label strangely means red in Basque – is a blend of the two most important grapes, 60% Hondarrabi Beltza – a black grape – and 40% Hondarrabi Zuri – a white grape.

This was the lightest of the rosés, but a firm favourite with some tasters. The colour was pale, with a light cherry, strawberry, rose petal hue. The nose was delicate and restrained with that pure, seashore, salty and mineral Txakoli thing. It is bright, fresh and thrilling with lots of ripe cherry acidity, the merest sprinkle of pepper and some softer riper strawberry fruit too. It is light as sea air, but the flavour is deep and wonderful, so the wine feels elegant and satisfying. Perfect sun drenched terrace drinking, with the merest hint of something not quite bone dry – 91/100 points.

Also remember the Txomín white Txakoli is just about the best example of the type that you can try, it is available from The Oxford Wine Company for £15 a bottle.

For UK stockist information contact Moreno wines.
For US stockist information click here.

IMG_6386s_-_2013_Bastardo_Rose_-_cropped_1024x10242013 Mazza Bastardo Rosé
Mazza Wine
GI Geographe
Western Australia

Bastardo is a little used and somewhat unloved grape variety from Portugal, but David Mazza has found a way to make a lovely wine from it, by making a rosé. David is one of my most exciting discoveries of the last year or so. He is a lovely guy who farms a tiny estate in Western Australia, only grows Iberian grape varieties and makes superb wines – you can read more about him here.

Wine map of Western Australia – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

Wine map of Western Australia, Mazza are to the south and east of Bunbury, roughly where the G, in Geographe, is – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

David Mazza showing me his wines at Berry Bros. & Rudd, London.

David Mazza showing me his wines at Berry Bros. & Rudd, London.

The nose offers rose petal aromas, some strawberries and cream notes, mineral earthy notes, some herbs and some pomegranate too.

The palate has lovely weight and a creamily ripe texture that caresses the palate with soft red fruit with an underlying orange acidity with red fruit highlights. There are some light spices and Mediterranean herbs too. The acidity is perfectly judged, making the wine fresh, lively and clean without being in the least bit tart.

There is a fair bite of tannin for a rosé, just enough to give some elegance and structure, and a long finish that delights with redcurrant and cranberry fruit. This is a really satisfying and fine rosé of exceptional quality, it is not exactly light weight, but neither it is it heavy, but it is refreshing and lively. A fine and complex rosé – 92/100.

Available in the UK from Berry Bros and Rudd for £17.50 per bottle.

majoli_coste_sesia_rosato_20132015 Majioli Rosato
Tenute Sella
PDO / DOC Coste della Sesia
Piemonte
Italy

Tenute Sella from northern Piemonte – Alpine Piemonte if you will – is still run by the family who founded it in 1671. They farm in the DOCs of Lessona, Bramaterra and Coste della Sesia and their buildings, cellars and vineyards are spectacular as you might imagine. They have a beautiful palazzo style building, while the Alps provide a stunning backdrop to the vines. Their main grape is Nebbiolo, but they have Vespolina, Croatina and Erbaluce too and make brilliant wines, including the best Nebbiolo rosé I have ever tried, so I put it in the tasting.

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

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

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Tenute Sella.

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. 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 – possibly my favourite on the night – and it would go with all manner of dishes from salads and fish to veal and pasta dishes – 92/100 points.

I would also point out that everything I have tasted from Tenute Sella is of very high quality.

Sadly right now there is no UK representation for Tenute Sella – come on wine trade, snap them up!
They are represented in the US by Rosenthal Wine Merchant / Mad Rose Group in New York.

chene-bleu-rose-1000x10002014 Chêne Bleu Rosé
Chêne Bleu, Domaine de la Verrière
PGI / Vin de Pays de Vaucluse
Rhône
France

I love showing wines from Chêne Bleu, because they are always so very good. It’s a beautiful estate in the rugged and isolated Mont Ventoux area just a few kilometres north of Gigondas and east of Séguret on the borders between the Côtes du Rhône and Ventoux. The whole project has been a labour of love for the owners Nicole and Xavier Rolet and I would recommend that you read the story in my post here. The estate is farmed organically and in conversion to biodynamic. The secret is the height, the vineyards – there are only 30 hectares of them, sit at between 550 and 630 metres above seal level – very high for Europe – where the hot Mediterranean air is cooler and the nights are distinctly cool, which makes the wines fresher than you would expect – so finer. On top of all that they hand harvest and sort the grapes meticulously – their attention to detail shows.

Wine map of the Southern Rhône - click for a larger view.

Wine map of the Southern Rhône – click for a larger view.

004

Nicole Rolet.

Their rosé is a classic southern Rhône blend of 65% Grenache, 30% Syrah and 5% Cinsault and it spent a very short time in oak barrels to add complexity.

The colour is lovely, not deep, not place, but bright and appealing. The nose offers some delicate spice, rich citrus and pungent red fruit, while the palate is pretty full, with rich soft red fruit, refreshing acidity, concentrated fruit, a light spicy oak character and a silky, textured mouthfeel. Again perfect as n aperitif or with any Mediterranean style meal – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £19 a bottle from Waitrose Cellar (online)
For US stockist information click here.

CB2013 Château Brown Rosé
Château Brown
Graves / Pessac-Léognan 
PDO / AOC Bordeaux
France

I visited Château Brown once, it is a star estate in the Graves region and always delivers great wines and value for money. It has a checkered history though and was going through a bad patch in the 1950s – in fact there were no vines then – which is why it is not a Grand Cru Classé de Graves. Since 2004 the estate has been run by Jean-Christophe Mau and the quality of the wines has improved dramatically. There are 29 hectares of vines on the famous gravel – Graves – soils and nowadays they use sustainable viticulture to ensure balance and biodiversity in the vineyard – so much so they even keep a colony of bees.

Bordeaux map QS 2011 watermark

Wine map of Bordeaux – Pessac-Léognan is just south of the city itself – click for a larger view.

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Jean-Christophe Mau at Château Brown.

They make lovely reds and a lot of their reputation has been built on their fine, rich, barrel aged white wines – both of these are AOC Pessac-Léognan. The rules of the appellation do not allow for rosés though, so this has to be labelled simply as AOC Bordeaux, but the quality is far higher than this relatively humble provenance would lead you to expect.

This rosé is a 50/50 Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blend, hand harvested, de-stemmed and macerated on the skins for 4 hours, which gives the subtle and pale colour. After a cold fermentation the wine was aged for 4 months in second use oak barrels with some lees stirring for extra texture and complexity.

The colour is more peach than pink with redcurrant fruit notes and something nutty and mineral too. The palate is seductively textured and promises a great deal, but the wine has to be treated more seriously than rosé normal are, serve it lightly chilled rather than cold and open it in advance – perhaps even decant it, all things I found out by mistake as the wine really only started to show its form after everyone had gone home!

Available in the UK for around £33 a bottle from Hedonism Wines.

Chivite Colección 125 Rosado-sv-gl2011 Chivite Colección 125 Rosado
J. Chivite Family Estates
PDO / DO Navarra
Spain

All  my working life I have been fond of the wines of Navarra, there is great quality there and great value too. I never really understand why they are not more widely available in the UK. It is a beautiful place, full of passionate wine producers. Production is nothing like the scale of neighbouring Rioja, so it remains attractively rural and the producers are essentially farmers – read my piece here for an overview and here, here, here, here and here about specific producers.

Map of Navarra – click for a larger view. High-res non-watermarked versions of my maps are available by agreement.

Map of Navarra – click for a larger view. High-res non-watermarked versions of my maps are available by agreement.

D. Julián Chivite López, the 11 th generation of his family to produce wine in Navarra.

D. Julián Chivite López, the 11 th generation of his family to produce wine in Navarra.

The Chivite family have been growing grapes and producing wine in Navarra since 1647 – which as I often joke to my students, is just before lunch in Spain! They are without doubt the most famous and leading estate in the region and are still owned by the founding family – indeed the current Julian Chivite is the 11th generation of the family to run it. They produce several ranges of wines, all good, even their more entry level Gran Fuedo wines from the warm deep south of Navarra. In recent years though they moved production of their top wines to their Finca Granja de Legardeta in the cooler Navarra Tierra Estella sub-zone – just a little bit south of Estella on the map. This area is influenced by the Atlantic and is pretty high too, so is cooler than further south, which gives a nice long ripening season to allow the grapes to develop complexity, while maintaining freshness.

The Coleccion 125 range – which are all superb – was originally created to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the original Chivite winery in Cintruénigo in the south of Navarra, but is now a separate range from their own family vineyards. This rosé is made from 100% Tempranillo grapes, aged for 12 months in French oak barrels with occasional lees stirring.

The colour is amazing, like wild salmon, while the nose is quite lifted with red fruit, smoke and spice. The palate is quite textured and rich with lots of ripe cherry, strawberry and spice and light tobacco, together with some rich orange character. The acidity keeps it all fresh and juicy, while there is a touch of tannin. A fine, rich, dry rosé that needs food – I would love to try it with suckling pig, but can assure you that it’s marvellous with paella – 92/100 points.

So you see, rosé wines can be fine, they can be complex and they can be serious and when they are they can be delightful and great fun to drink too. All of these were dry, although the Txakoli had a tiny touch of fruit sweetness which made it rather gorgeous actually, and on the whole would be better with food than without. The next time you cook Mediterranean style food, be it paella, tapas, meze, slow cooked lamb or some grilled fish – try one of these wines, or something similar, with it. I think you will enjoy the combination.

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.

P1160908

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.