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.
Located in northwest Italy and bordering Switzerland and France, Piedmont is Italy’s second-largest region, and the most mountainous. The majestic, snow-capped Alps make a stunning backdrop to the rolling, vine-covered hills. And these aren’t just any vineyards.
Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in June 2014, vineyards in the Langhe, Roero and Monferrato areas are amongst the most celebrated in Italy. They’re home to famed reds made from Nebbiolo, Barbera and Dolcetto, as well as Moscato d’Asti, a lightly frothy dessert wine. Piedmont, which means “foot of the mountain,” is also a culinary paradise, famed for its rare white truffles. Throw in outstanding lodgings, and you have a wine lover’s dream destination.
No discussion of Barolo and Barbaresco would be complete without mention of Bruno Giacosa, one of Italy’s most esteemed producers. Paolo Tenti reports on “the genius of Neive.”
He’s the producer who inspired a generation of winemakers. A pioneer in introducing single-vineyard bottlings of Barolo and Barbaresco. And a man who’s not afraid to say no to a vintage if he thinks the grapes are not good enough.
Born into the family wine firm, Bruno Giacosa started his career at the tender age of 15 as a grape buyer, sourcing fruit for his father and grandfather, and then for many of Barolo’s large houses. In 1960, he started his own company and soon became famous for both his golden palate and his ability to recognize the best vineyards in the Langhe.
Thanks to his vast hands-on experience with growers – and his years spent seeking out the best grapes – he was among the first producers in the area to bottle single-vineyard wines. They included the now legendary Barolo Collina Rionda.
The stars of Italy’s Piedmont region are Barolo, Barbaresco and white truffles, but it’s possible to get an authentic taste of the region without taking out a second mortgage.
Every year, more tourists flock to Italy’s northwest in search of the latest Barolos and Barbarescos—two of the country’s most famous and expensive wines—and to enjoy the area’s upscale dining, especially in the fall when rare white truffles make an appearance.
Alba and the nearby Langhe hills are the undisputed epicenter of Piedmont’s fine wine and dining scene, boasting 12 Michelin-starred restaurants within a 10-mile radius.
And judging by the boom of recently opened luxury hotels, spas and golf resorts, the Langhe certainly seems to cater to an upscale clientele.
Fortunately, there’s another side to these hallowed hills. For visitors who don’t want to break the bank, the region also offers simple country hotels in the vineyards and informal restaurants that specialize in local cuisine.
Best of all for wine lovers, Piedmont’s famed Barolo and Barbaresco producers also make delicious, affordable wines that can be served with a variety of dishes and offer sheer drinkability—Nebbiolo, Barbera and Dolcetto.
These wines are growing in popularity, and with an increasing number of labels imported to the U.S., they offer a little taste of Piedmont here at home.
The technique already divides growers in Burgundy, and now producers in Barolo and Barbaresco are arguing over it, too.
While the debate over whether to de-stem or not has spread across the globe into New World pinot noir strongholds such as New Zealand, another celebrated Old World region is also experimenting with the technique. In Italy’s Barolo and Barbaresco denominations in the Langhe hills of Piedmont, producers are testing out whole-cluster fermentation.