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.
One of Italy’s greatest wines is finally getting the attention it deserves. We take you through the vintages, the communes and the bottles you need to buy.
Made with 100% native grape Nebbiolo, you’ve probably heard that Barbaresco is one of Italy’s greatest wines. Yet for many years, it’s also been Italy’s most famous unknown red: even though fine wine lovers had heard of it, until recently, many passed it up for Barolo, its larger, more renowned neighbor (also made entirely with Nebbiolo). But thanks to a new generation of winemakers embracing more natural farming methods that have led to even higher quality, and the denomination’s unique micro-climate that encourages freshness and balance even in the hottest vintages, wine lovers are discovering that Barbaresco is a world-class wine in its own right. And the recent, widespread fascination with Nebbiolo and Piedmont has further helped shine a light on the denomination.
After a meeting between producers and their consortia of the Piedmont region that lasted for more than four hours yesterday (September 12), a vote came out against creating a new wine, Piemonte Nebbiolo DOC.
As previously reported in a column on August 5, the proposal—put forward by the Consorzio Barbera d’Asti e Vini del Monferrato—would have encouraged producers in growing zones throughout the region to invest heavily in Nebbiolo.
If you love Barolo, Barbaresco and other wines made with Nebbiolo, brace yourself for the worst proposal I’ve heard in years, and one that could impact the reputation of some of the most esteemed wines in Italy.
When I was in Alba and Barbaresco a couple of weeks ago, producers told me that their consorzio had just alerted them to a newly proposed wine: Piemonte Nebbiolo DOC, Denominazione di Origine Controllata. The proposal, which insiders say originated with the Consorzio Barbera d’Asti e Vini del Monferrato, has producers in Barolo and Barbaresco on edge, and with good reason.
Piemonte Nebbiolo, which would be made with Nebbiolo grown throughout the region, would be a big step back for Italian wines. It would go against the push to create subzones in the most esteemed denominations by officially delimiting vineyard areas.
Having recently returned from Barolo where I blind-tasted over 300 of the just released 2012s, it’s time to weigh in on the vintage, which will be hitting the US market over the next few months. Even though 2012 isn’t a great vintage, a number of producers produced very good, balanced Barolos. Most don’t have age-worthy structures, offering instead early appeal, but the best will offer fine drinking over the next decade or longer.
Due to the erratic growing season, the 2012 Barolos don’t have the full-bodied structures of recent vintages. However, generally speaking they do boast succulent fruit, refined tannins, fresh acidity and balance. They also demonstrate a welcome return to more restrained alcohol levels: 14 and 14.5% compared to the hefty 15% avb commonly found on 2011 Barolo labels (and to a lesser extent the 2009s). While they are already accessible, top 2012 Barolos should age well to the ten-year mark or a little longer.
If you’re into Italian wine, chances are you’ve already discovered Barolo, Italy’s most celebrated red wine along with its neighbor Barbaresco and its Tuscan rival, Brunello.
But there’s one little-known Barolo village that all lovers of Italian wine should keep an eye out for: Verduno.
Made entirely with native grape Nebbiolo, Barolo can be made in eleven separate villages. The wine’s namesake township of Barolo, as well as Castiglione Falletto and Serralunga are entirely located in the denomination’s boundaries, while Monforte d’Alba and La Morra both have substantial vineyard holdings in the growing area. The villages of Novello, Verduno, Grinzane Cavour, Roddi, Diano d’Aba and Cherasco have varying amounts of acreage in the growing zone, but of these six minor villages, Verduno is the rising star.
Kerin conosce molto bene il vino italiano, lo ha ampiamente dimostrato con precedenti pubblicazioni come “Franco Biondi Santi. Il Gentleman del Brunello” (Veronelli Editore, 2004) da lei tradotto l’anno successivo e per il quale ha ricevuto il “Gourmand Wine Books Award”, e “Brunello di Montalcino” (UC Press, 2012), ma soprattutto con i numerosissimi articoli dedicati alle aziende, ai vini, ai territori del Bel Paese su riviste prestigiose come The World Of Fine Wine e Decanter. Da maggio 2013 è Italian Editor della rivista Wine Enthusiast.
Barolo and Barbaresco è un gran bel volume, oltre 300 pagine, corredate di bellissime foto rigorosamente in bianco e nero a firma Paolo Tenti, che illustrano la storia e le caratteristiche dei territori dove nascono questi due grandi vini a base nebbiolo. Il cuore del libro, ovviamente, è rappresentato dall’incontro con i principali produttori delle due denominazioni, accompagnato dalle degustazioni di diverse annate dei loro vini.
O’Keefe is a Bostonian wine journalist and author (published books include Franco Biondi Santi: The Gentleman of Brunello and Brunello di Montalcino) residing in Lugano, Switzerland (and therefore within easy driving-distance of Alba) with her husband, Paolo Tenti. She is responsible for numerous articles in magazines like this one and Decanter and is presently working for the American publication Wine Enthusiast as well.
A number of her articles have been on the subject of Barolo and/or Barbaresco, and she has spent years tasting the stuff (a happy fate, you might think; but that would be to underestimate the palate-coating, tannin-accumulating effect of Nebbiolo, which can turn the prospect of a 100+ lineup of individually excellent Barolo samples into a living nightmare). So, she is eminently qualified for the authorship of such a tome…
…Indeed, it’s a very useful tome to have to hand: measured, informative and very readable. I thoroughly recommend it.