On November 18th, I traveled in a virtual time machine: a vertical tasting of 8 Nebbiolo-based wines from Alto Piemonte from 1842 to 1970.
The tasting, called Assaggio a nordovest (a tasting of northwest) – was organized by the Associazione Vignaioli Colline Biellesi and took place at the stunning Villa Era on the outskirts of Biella in northern Piedmont. I was also honored to participate in the tasting by providing historical background on the area’s long winemaking tradition for the other attendees.
Besides the sheer wonder of trying such old wines, the tasting offered a potent reminder that wines – especially fine wines destined to age and develop for years if not decades – are undeniably alive. It also offered a rare glimpse into how Piedmont’s winemaking has evolved over the last 175 years.
Most importantly, the tasting demonstrated the greatness of Nebbiolo from this unique growing area. The wines all hailed from the Biella hills, where ancient, yellow marine sands, and the vicinity to Alpine foothills – where marked day and night temperature swings prolong the growing season – yield intense, fragrant and mineral-driven Nebbiolos boasting vibrant acidity and firm, refined tannins.
If you’re a fan of Nebbiolo – the sole grape behind Barolo and Barbaresco – you’ll love the radiant, mineral-driven Nebbiolos and Nebbiolo-based offerings from Alto Piemonte.
Vibrant and loaded with finesse, the best are drop-dead gorgeous, possessing age-worthy structures and impeccable balance. And if warmer temperatures and drier summers are pushing alcohol levels to the extreme in other areas, vineyard altitudes, cooler temperatures and highly acidic soils in Alto Piemonte make it rare to find wines above 14% abv.
Located at the foothills of the northern Piedmont Alps, the most exciting wines come from five small growing areas: Lessona, Gattinara, Ghemme, Boca and Bramaterra that lend their names to the wines.
The wines are steeped in history: in the late 1800s, Alto Piemonte boasted almost 45,000 hectares (111,197 acres) of vineyards, most of them now long gone. Reds made with Nebbiolo (locally called Spanna) – often blended with other local grapes, like Vespolina and Uva Rara – were already imported to the US in the latter half of the 19th century, decades before anyone had heard of Barolo or Barbaresco.
Then, in the early 1900s, after outbreaks of devastating vine diseases and a catastrophic hailstorm in 1905 destroyed entire vineyards, growers abandoned agriculture en masse to work in the booming textile mills in the nearby city of Biella.
Thanks to a few brave producers, Alto Piemonte is now undergoing a full-blown Renaissance.