February 10th, 2017/ BY Michaela Morris

Rediscover a hidden part of piedmont – Altro Piemonte

A slip of the finger transforms Alto Piemonte into Altro Piemonte. The former is the official name of a collection of 10 DOPs located in the northerly reaches of Piedmont at the foothills of the Alps. Altro or “other” is an equally fitting moniker for this less travelled corner. While it also boasts wines based on the noble Nebbiolo grape, they are virtually unknown next to their famous Langhe cousins, Barolo and Barbaresco.

My first visit to Alto Piemonte was in 2007 and consisted of a brief stop at Antoniolo in Gattinara. I felt slightly proud of myself for having ventured off the beaten track and was captivated by the austere and angular nature of the wines. After a fascinating couple of hours with Alberto Antoniolo, I jumped in the car and raced south to the well-worn circuit of the Langhe hills, bypassing Bramaterra and Lessona, completely ignorant of their existence. Hindsight is 20/20 so I now see it was a blundering error, which I rectified last year by spending days rather than mere hours in this forgotten area.

Producers are quick to remind visitors that in the 16th century, the wines of Gattinara and Ghemme were more famous than those of Barolo and Barbaresco. By the 19th century, the entire area of Alto Piemonte counted 40,000 ha under vines — many more plantings than in the Langhe hills. Today, however, less than 1000 ha is all that remains.

“Just three generations of industry managed to wipe out 25 generations of viticulture,” explains Lessona producer Luca De Marchi. After the ravages of phylloxera, very few vineyards were replanted. Emigration drained the area and those who stayed behind were lured by the promise of reliable income from the burgeoning textile and automobile industries. A devastating hailstorm in 1905, which destroyed virtually the entire year’s harvest, was the straw that broke the camel’s back, giving locals an excuse to abandon their vineyards altogether.

De Marchi calls himself “an archaeological winemaker.” Despite the challenges faced by his ancestors, he sees the greatness of the past and is working to revive it. Talking to me at his Sperino property in Lessona, he says, “The first step is to get producers proud of their history.” De Marchi himself has a lot to be proud of. His father, Paolo De Marchi, is the man behind Isole e Olena in Tuscany. But Paolo is originally from Piedmont and Proprietà Sperino has been in the family since the early 1900s. The return of the De Marchis to Lessona has brought much needed attention to Alto Piemonte.

The key to appreciating the wines from Alto Piemonte is understanding what makes them distinct from their brethren in the Langhe. While producers may tire of such comparisons, the reference is helpful. Alto Piemonte produces truly alpine wines. The mountains are so close you can almost touch them and the air is chilly but invigoratingly fresh. Rainier and cooler, the climate here results in a more delicate and tighter expression of Nebbiolo, which is known locally as Spanna. Extreme diurnal temperatures accentuate Nebbiolo’s already evocative aromas, a huge plus in my eyes. Structurally, the wines are higher in acid, but feature less body, alcohol and usually less tannin.

Traditionally, Nebbiolo has struggled to ripen in these cooler reaches, so blending with other grapes is common. Both Vespolina and Croatina are used to give colour and body to the paler and leaner Nebbiolo. Specifically, Vespolina adds a balsamic, black peppery snap while Croatina lends a creamy fleshiness. The bright and fresh Uva Rara also shows up in small amounts.



The earth is also different here, described as soils of fire and ice. Boca, Gattinara, Coste della Sesia and Bramaterra sit on volcanic bedrock while Ghemme and Fara are defined by glacial moraine. While each has its own unique characteristics, all of Alto Piemonte’s DOPs possess acidic soil rather than alkaline as in Langhe. “This promotes a greater uptake of minerality by the vine,” professes Christoph Kuenzli at Le Piane in Boca. Certainly it’s manifested in the wines, and descriptors such as salt, iron and stone keep coming up in my tasting notes.

This unique expression is what drew Kuenzli to the area. Originally an importer in Germany, he was selling the wines of Antonio Cerri, who was one of only two remaining producers in the Boca DOC in the ’80s. As Cerri had no heirs, he agreed to sell his property to Kuenzli, which became the foundation of his Le Piane property and the catalyst for the restoration of Boca.

Affordable land prices have encouraged a revival throughout Alto Piemonte and made investment viable. A planted vineyard may go for €80,000 per hectare whereas the most renowned cru sites of Barolo can easily cost €1.5 million per hectare. Obtaining property, however, is another story. As holdings are minuscule, Kuenzli had to persuade 10 different owners to sell in order to cobble together one single hectare, for example. The other option is to start from scratch. Vineyards that were abandoned early in the last century have been taken over by forests and cinghiale (wild black boar). A mere €10–20,000 will buy you a hectare but you must then be willing to sink in an additional €100,000 to actually establish a vineyard. Though, as the wines of Alto Piemonte gain recognition, the effort seems worth it.

Ian D’Agata, author of Native Wine Grapes of Italy — and arguably the foremost expert on Italian wine — believes producers here “are sitting on a gold mine.” The 21st century has brought a string of warmer vintages and has people wondering if traditionally prized sites in Barolo and Barbaresco are becoming too hot. This phenomenon has certainly put a spotlight on cooler regions. “We have a great advantage being so close to the mountains,” says Andrea Ioppa of the Ioppa estate in Ghemme. “Thanks to this fantastic fresh and windy microclimate, we succeed in obtaining equally fresh and bright wine.”

The subject of climate change is complex. Cristiano Garella, who consults for 10 wineries in Alto Piemonte and has his own label, Colombera & Garella, remarks, “We know that the second half of the 20th century was like a short ice age and now we are in a warmer period.” Harvest dates are earlier and sugar levels in the grapes have increased. Christoph Kuenzli points out that vineyard practices in the cooler decades of the ’50s and ’60s were less sophisticated and favoured higher yields. The combination of all of these factors made it harder to fully ripen grapes. In those days, four out of 10 vintages were considered good.

Today, there are only one or two off years per decade. Wines, especially those from the warmest of years tend to be more approachable early and are less austere than in the past. Yet Garella prefers the fresher years (like 2005, 2008, 2010, 2013) and believes that they exhibit the true identity of Nebbiolo from northern Piedmont. “If you want to produce elegant and long-aging wine, your base must be the acidity and not the alcohol.” Furthermore, warmer vintages don’t come without their own set of challenges. For Alto Piemonte, it means an increase in hail. Marina Olwen Fogarty of La Vallana in Boca observes: “Until about 10 years ago, hail often occurred at night in August. Now, we have more and more hail during spring, both during the day and the night, compromising yields.”

Le Piane's Christoph Kuenzli
Andrea Ioppa from Vini Ioppa Winery

Weighing the struggles against the results, the quality of the wines comes out on top and consumers win big. Alto Piemonte’s wines are in no way cheap and cheerful, however, they tend to be less expensive than those from the Langhe. While top-tier Barolo and Barbaresco easily sell for more than $100, the very best bottles from Alto Piemonte fall well below that, with some great examples starting at $30.

As producers rediscover the glory of the past, now is the time to get on the Alto Piemonte train. It has an eye-opening treasure trove of undiscovered gems and is a savvy alternative for Nebbiolo lovers.



Vallana 2006 Gattinara DOCG ($35)

Gattinara tends to be the brawniest of Alto Piemonte’s DOPs and Vallana winemaker Francis Fogarty believes it needs 10 years to come around. So here it is. Perfumed and floral on the nose yet still tight and firmly structured on the palate.

Antoniolo San Francesco 2008 Gattinara DOCG ($68.25)

Pure elegance and refinement from Gattinara’s most renowned producer. Forest berries, savoury mineral and balsamic notes held together by silky tannin.

Travaglini Nebbiolo 2014 Coste della Sesia DOC ($30)

Bright and light on its feet with roses and redcurrant, it offers an affordable taste of Northern Piedmont Nebbiolo.

Le Pianelle 2010 Bramaterra DOC ($60)

One of the properties where Cristiano Garella is a consultant and a winery to watch. A beautiful and pure expression of Bramaterra, with mint, wild strawberry and earthy nuances.

Le Piane Maggiorina 2014 Colline Novaresi DOC ($35)

Hailing from old vines grown using the unique Maggiorina trellising system once traditional in Alto Piemonte. (Three intertwined vines provide a protective “roof” to help mitigate damage due to wind and hail.) The wine is a field blend of mostly Nebbiolo and Croatina with 11 other grapes. Simple and light, but not banal, it’s a crunchy red fruit cocktail clocking in at a refreshing 11.5%.

Tenute Sella Omaggio a Quintino Sella 2008 Lessona DOC ($60)

This homage to Quintino Sella is only made in the best years and blends Nebbiolo with 15% Vespolina. It demonstrates the exceptional finesse imparted by Lessona’s sandy soils. A heady and seductive mix of potpourri and iron with an assertive grip.

Ioppa Bricco Balsina 2011 Ghemme DOCG ($45)

One of Ioppa’s single-vineyard bottlings, Bricco Basina is characterized by sandy soils. Fine-boned and appetizing with cherries, subtle clove and a long finish.

Proprietà Sperino Uvaggio 2013 Coste della Sesia DOC ($60)

A blend of predominantly Nebbiolo with Vespolina and Croatina coming from vineyards in the Lessona and Bramaterra DOCs earns the “Uvaggio,” the overarching Coste della Sesia denomination. It explodes with flowers, exotic spice and summer berries. Creamy and delicious!

Nervi Molsino 2006 Gattinara DOCG ($70)

Nervi is Gattinara’s oldest estate and its Molsino cru is considered one of the best. The 2006 vintage demonstrates that Gattinara is not just about brute force. Intriguing aromas of truffles and dried petals lead to ripe tannins and a lingering minerality.



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