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The Nebbiolos of Northern Piedmont
By Ed McCarthy
Mar 27, 2012
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The aromatic, late-ripening Nebbiolo variety makes truly great wines only in Piedmont, a region in northwestern Italy that draws a special kind of tourist--only the ones interested in great wine and great food.  For people like me, that’s perfect.  And so while tourists flood into Rome, Florence, and Venice, I have Piedmont practically to myself on my annual visits.

I have been intrigued by Nebbiolo for a good part of my life.  How can this noble red variety make such majestic wines as Barolo and Barbaresco in Piedmont and fail to produce good wines elsewhere in the world?  True, Nebbiolo does make decent, lighter-bodied wines in the Valtellina district of mountainous northern Lombardy--wines named Sassella, Grumello, Inferno, and Valgella--but these wines never reach the heights of Piedmontese Nebbiolo wines.

Piedmont is surrounded by mountains, the Alps to the west and north, the Apennines to the south.  Most of Piedmont’s best wines come from the foothills of these mountains.  The climate is continental:  Cold in the winter and mainly hot and dry in the summer.  Piedmont’s autumns are essential and key to the success of Nebbiolo; in the best growing area especially-- southern Piedmont between the villages of Barbaresco and Barolo, centering around the town of Alba--autumns are generally long and mild, with heavy fog.  The very-late ripening Nebbiolo (it sometimes ripens as late as November, but usually in late October) thrives in this climate.

Most wine lovers are familiar with Barolo and Barbaresco, but relatively few know about the Nebbiolo of northern Piedmont, whose wines account for only 10 percent of Piedmont’s Nebbiolo wines.  There are two distinct districts where Nebbiolo grows in the north:  Carema in extreme northwest Piedmont, and the Gattinara/Ghemme district, which is also in northwestern Piedmont, but closer to the center of the region.  The fact that Nebbiolo is cultivated in these remarkably challenging growing areas, especially Carema, is amazing.

To prepare for writing this column, I tasted a number of Northern Nebbiolo wines in two different tastings during the past three weeks.

If you have never tasted Carema, I am not surprised. Fewer than 10,000 cases are made annually from only two major producers, Luigi Ferrando and Produttori Nebbiolo di Carema, a cooperative.  Fortunately, both producers send their Carema wines to the U.S., as well as Orsolani, a smaller Carema producer.  Carema itself is a tiny hamlet (population, 754), and is the last Piedmontese village before you cross into the Valle d’Aosta region on the road to Switzerland.

It sits at the base of stunningly dramatic slopes of the Alps where fewer than 32 acres of vines are planted on terraces as high as 2500 feet.  The difficulty of hand-cultivating these vines, plus the ample availability of jobs in the city of Ivrea, seven miles south of Carema, has led to a serious decline in Carema production over the years.  This is a shame, because Carema wine offers a unique interpretation of the Nebbiolo grape.  Even though regulations state that Carema must be at least 85 percent Nebbiolo with 15 percent local varieties allowed, in most vintages the Carema producers make a 100 percent Nebbiolo wine.  Carema is aged a minimum of three years; Riservas are aged four years.

Carema resembles its famous cousins to the south, Barolo and Barbaresco, in its intriguing aromas--tar, licorice, camphor, mint, roses, eucalyptus, and strawberries--and its abundant amount of tannin.  Carema differs from them in that it is light- to medium-bodied and more acidic, with a sleek, linear, elegant texture.  It can be too lean and acidic in lesser vintages, but magnificent and long-lived in good vintages.  I recently drank a 1978 Ferrando Carema, and it was too young!  (Of course 1978 is one of those Piedmontese vintages that looks as if it is going to live forever).  But in my experience, Carema lasts at least as long as Barolo in the better vintages. 

Perhaps because it is not well-known, its advantage over Barolo is its price: ranging from $26 for the current 2007 vintage of Produttori Nebbiolo di Carema to about $32 for Orsolani’s Carema to $38 for Ferrando Carema.  All are excellent values considering the quality of the wines.  Ferrando also produces a “Black Label” Riserva in small quantities that sells for about twice the price as its “White Label” standard Carema. 

Nine wine zones, seven exclusively red wine, make up the large Vercelli/Novara wine area that takes up much of northern Piedmont.  The alpine hillsides where the vineyards are cultivated are on both sides of the Sesia River, which flows from the Alps in the north.  The two most renowned and largest zones are Gattinara in Vercelli province west of the Sesia and Ghemme in Novara province east of the river.  Three other wine zones in this area that I examined in my two recent tastings are Lessona, Bramaterra, and Boca.  I had tasted wines from all of these areas previously except for Boca--whose wines turned out to be a pleasant surprise.

The entire Vercelli-Novara wine area is about the same latitude as Carema to the west, but considerably lower in altitude.  Carema is actually in the Alps; this area’s vineyards are in the foothills of the Alps, averaging about 1,000 feet  in height.  This difference in altitude is one major factor accounting for how these Vercelli/Novara wines differ from Carema; they are more powerful, with slightly less acidity than Carema wines.  And whereas Carema is usually 100 percent Nebbiolo, the Vercelli-Novara wines are typically blended with 10 to 30 percent local varieties, depending on the wine zone.  Not much wine is made in this area as well--about 80,000 cases for the seven all-red wine zones, about half of which comes from Gattinara.  In this area, by the way, Nebbiolo is often called Spanna.

Gattinara’s vineyard area is north of the village of Gattinara (about 8500 residents).  Gattinara is the Northern Piedmont wine you see the most, both in restaurants and in wine shops.  The wine contains the highest minimum percentage of Nebbiolo of any of the nine wine zones, 90 percent, with a maximum of 10 percent Vespolina and Bonarda.  In effect, Gattinara’s two most renowned producers, Antoniolo and Travaglini, normally produce 100 percent Nebbiolo Gattinaras.  And there is also an old favorite, Vallana, whose Spanna-labeled wines from the 1960s and ‘70s were legendary.  Vallana also makes a Gattinara; all of Vallana’s wines are well-priced.

Gattinara is somewhat lighter in body than Barolo or Barbaresco, but with pronounced tannin and acidity.  Its wines are long-lasting, and will drink well for at least 20 years or more in good vintages.  Antoniolo’s Gattinara is particularly powerful and long-lived.  The Travaglini Gattinaras, in the unique, asymmetrical bottles, are the ones you see the most, as they are the largest Gattinara producer.  Their wines are round and smooth, and drinkable sooner than Antoniolo’s wines.  Travaglini and Vallana retail in the $28 to $32 range for recent vintages; Antoniolo Gattinara is in the $40 to $43 range.  Like Carema, Gattinara is an excellent value for such a quality Nebbiolo wine.

Ghemme is a hamlet across from Gattinara on the eastern side of the Sesia.  The wine is similar to Gattinara, but is more tannic, and it is reputed to live even longer than Gattinara.  Judging from the one Ghemme wine we see in the U.S., Antichi Vigneti di Cantalupo (aka Cantalupo), this might be true.  The 1999 Cantalupo, just tasted, needs lots of time to develop.  Its single-vineyard 1996 Collis Breclemae is a massive wine that will need two more decades to fully mature.  A 1989 Cantalupo Ghemme I tasted recently was approaching drinkability, at 20+ years old.  Ghemme must have a minimum of 75 percent Nebbiolo, with 25 percent maximum Vespolina and Uva Rara (aka Croatina).  Cantalupo’s standard 2006 Ghemme retails for $30 to $32; its 2004 Collis Breclemae sells for $55.

The Lessona wine zone is in the hillsides around the village of Lessona, west of Gattinara.  The area is dominated by one producer, Tenute Sella, the original producer of Lessona wines.  The Sella vineyards and winery was established in 1671, one of the oldest wineries that has stayed in the same family, and the oldest I know of in Piedmont.  Like other Nebbiolo-based wines, Lessona is austere and tannic when young, but develops aromas of violets as it approaches maturity.  It is generally ready to drink sooner than Gattinara or Ghemme.  Like all Nebbiolo wines, young Lessona benefits from decanting and about three hours of aeration.  Lessona must have a minimum of 75 percent Nebbiolo, with up to 25 percent Vespolina and Bonarda optional.  The 2005/2006 Sella Lessona retails in the $29 to $36 range.  Sella’s premium Lessona, the very impressive Omaggio a Quintino Sella Lessona, is in the $48 to $53 range.

Bramaterra is a wine zone that encompasses seven villages between Gattinara and Lessona.  Bramaterra  wines are lighter-bodied and drinkable sooner than either Gattinara or Lessona, an advantage for younger vintage wines in restaurants.  Bramaterra wines must be 50 to 70 percent Nebbiolo and 20 to 30 percent Croatina, with 10 to 20 percent Bonarda and/or Vespolina optional.  Bramaterra retails for $28 to $30.  The leading producer is Tenute Sella.  Antoniotti is another Bramaterra producer whose wine is available in the U.S.

Boca is the northernmost Piedmont wine region, and the highest in altitude (up to 1500 feet) of all the Novara/Vercelli wine zones.  It is also the home of the Vallana winery.  In some ways Boca wines impressed me the most in this northern Piedmont area.  The 2004 Cantine del Castello di Conti (aka Conti) “Il Rosso delle Donne” Boca I tasted was very impressive, very Burgundian.  It’s a complete, full-bodied wine, reminiscent of an older Barolo from a good vintage.  The 2004, which retails for $38 to $42, is 70 percent Nebbiolo, 20 percent Vespolina, and 10 percent Uva Rara.  The 2005 Conti Boca is its most recent vintage available.  Some stores with temperature-controlled rooms have Conti Boca wines dating back to the 1985 vintage.  Another prestigious Boca is Le Piane, but it’s more expensive; its 2007 retails in the $48 to $52 range.  The bargain Boca is Vallana’s; its 2004 costs $27 to $28.

Here are some summary impressions about Northern Nebbiolo wines, based on my tastings:

1)    I love the style, the sleekness of Carema wines, but they do need time to develop.  The exception: the 2007 Orsolani Carema can be enjoyed now and over the next several years.

2)    Gattinara and Ghemme are the class of Nebbiolo-based wines from the Vercelli/Novara hills.  Travaglini’s Gattinaras are the only ones to consume on the young (less than 10 years-old) side.

3)    Boca wines were the big surprise. Exciting and delicious.  I will seek these wines out.

4)    All of these Nebbiolo-based wines (excluding the two exceptions I mentioned above) need many years to mature, just like Barolo and Barbaresco. 

Drink all of these wines in a large, wide, Burgundy or Barolo-type glass.  Give them one to three hours aeration to soften the tannins.  Drink them with food, not on their own.  Cheese always works to buffer the tannins and enable these wines to show their considerable charms.