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The Alto Piemonte
By Ed McCarthy
Oct 29, 2019
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Nebbiolo is one of the greatest red wine grape varieties in the world.  Wines made from Nebbiolo can be found in various parts of the world, including California, but the greatest Nebbiolo wines come from Piedmont in northwestern Italy.  The most famous Nebbiolo wines are Barolo and Barbaresco, made in the Langhe, a region in southwest Piedmont; the town of Alba is its commercial center. 

Barolo and Barbaresco, both 100% Nebbiolo, are majestic wines which need many years to mature and show at their best; even then, when they are less than 15 years old, they usually need aeration — especially most Barolos — to be enjoyable.

But ninety miles northeast of the Langhe, another region that grows Nebbiolo has been re-capturing the attention it once enjoyed in the 1800s; it is known today as the Alto Piemonte.  Situated at the base of the Alps in Northern Piedmont, the Alto Piemonte is higher in altitude and cooler than the Langhe.  Here, the Nebbiolo grape is called Spanna, and wines from this region often use three other local varieties to complement the Spanna.

In the second half of the 1800s, the Alto Piemonte region was far more dominant than the Langhe; its most popular wine, Gattinara, was then the leading Nebbiolo-based wine.  But then in the late 1800s, the Alto Piemonte region was decimated by the scourge of the phylloxera louse, and it took several decades to begin to recover.  When World War II came along, the industrial revolution that followed created high-paying factory jobs.  Alto Piemonte’s vineyards were virtually abandoned by vineyard workers.  The once-flourishing vineyard acreage, covering 40,000 hectares, were reduced to less than 600 hectares.  Most vineyard owners and workers did not return from their jobs in the cities; forests overtook many of the vineyards.

But a few stayed on and continued working the vineyards; in the 1990s, Alto Piemonte started making a comeback, fueled by the worldwide attention the Nebbiolo variety was receiving from Barolo and Barbaresco wines in Piedmont’s Langhe region.  Today, in the Vercelli and Novara hillsides of Northern Piedmont, seven red Nebbiolo-based wines, three in the Vercelli hills and four further east in the Novara hills, are flourishing.   The Vercelli and Novara provinces are in a favorable microclimate right between the Po River basin to the south and the Alps and Lake Maggiore to the north.  The Sesia River flows from the Alps, separating the two provinces.

The wines of the Alto Piemonte, made in a cooler region than the Langhe, are lighter-bodied, and are usually blended with Bonarda, Vespolina and/or Croatina , to add aroma and color.  Furthermore, climate change has created somewhat warmer vintages lately, an advantage for Alto Piemonte.  These wines have two big advantages over Barolo and Barbaresco:

1)    They are less expensive; often half the price or less than the Langhe wines;
2)    They can be consumed sooner; no really long waiting for Alto Piemonte wines.
A third advantage for many consumers:  Alto Piemonte wines are lighter and less tannic than Barolo and Barbaresco — making them more food-friendly for lighter cuisines.

The seven all-red wine regions of Alto Piemonte are the following:

Gattinara:  This is the most renowned wine of Alto Piemonte.  Its vineyard area is north of the community of Gattinara.  The wine must be at least 86% Nebbiolo, with Bonarda and Vespolina permitted.  The wines develop a penetrating bouquet of violets and tar, typical of the finest Nebbiolo wines.  Leading producers are Antoniolo, Nervi, and Travaglini; all widely available in the U.S.  The Travaglini Gattinaras are 100% Nebbiolo.  Recently, Roberto Conterno of the outstanding Giacomo Conterno Winery in the Langhe purchased Nervi, the oldest Gattinara winery, and so you can expect big things from Nervi in the near future.  Average price of Gattinaras in U.S./ $40 to $50.

Ghemme:  The vineyards of Ghemme are around the town of Ghemme.  The wines of Ghemme are quite similar to Gattinara, and as long-lasting—perhaps even longer-lasting.  Ghemme wines are generally less fine than Gattinara, possibly because less Nebbiolo is required for its blend.  Ghemme must be 65 to 85 percent Nebbiolo, with up to 30 percent Vespolina allowed, and up to15 percent Bonarda permitted.  Antichi Vigneti di Cantalupo is the leading Ghemme producer. Average price of Ghemmes in U.S., $45 to $54.

Lessona:  Lessona’s vineyards are around the village of Lessona, west of Gattinara.  Lessona is austere in its youth, and needs a few years to develop its violet aromas, but is usually ready to drink before Gattinara and Ghemme.  Lessona’s wines must be at least 75 percent Nebbiolo, with Vespolina and Bonarda permitted up to 25 percent.  One producer, Sella, dominates in the Lessona zone.  Sella produces two single-vineyard Lessonas, plus its standard Lessona.  The wines of Lessona retail in the $30 to $60 range, with the average price around $54.  Lessonas are a bit more difficult to find than Gattinara or Ghemme.

Bramaterra:  The Bramaterra zone encompasses seven villages between Gattinara and Lessona.  Bramaterra is the name of the zone.  Bramaterra wines must be 50 to 70 percent Nebbiolo and 20 to 30 percent Croatina, with up to 20 percent Bonarda and/or Vespolina permitted.  I once enjoyed a memorable Bramaterra in the excellent restaurant-inn, Al Sorriso, north of Gattinara in the village of Sorriso.  Bramaterra’s two leading producers are Sella and Luigi Perazzi.  Bramaterra’s wines retail for an average price of $31, a real value.

Boca:  The Boca zone is the northernmost of the seven Alto Piemonte red wine zones.  It is situated around the village of Boca.  Boca must be 45 to 70 percent Nebbiolo and 20 to 40 percent Vespolina, with up to 20 percent Bonarda permitted.  Antonio Vallana is the leading Boca producer.  Boca wines are excellent values, retailing in the $26 to $36 range, with its average price being $33.

Sizzano:  The Sizzano wine zone is south of the town of Ghemme, around the small village of Sizzano. The wines of Sizzano must be 40 to 60 percent Nebbiolo and 15 to 40 percent Vespolina, with up to 25 percent Bonarda permitted.  With less Nebbiolo in the blend, Sizzano is lighter-bodied than Ghemme, Gattinara, and Lessona, and drinkable sooner.  Giuseppe Bianchi is the leading producer.  Retail prices range from $18 to $33, with an average price of $31.

Fara:  Fara is the southernmost of the seven Alto Piemonte zones, and the lightest-bodied of the seven wines.  The zone is located around the village of Fara Novarese.  Fara contains 30 to 50 percent Nebbiolo in its blend along with 10 to 30 percent Vespolina, with up to 40 percent Bonarda permitted.  Dessilani is the leading producer of Fara, making two Fara wines, one called Caramino and the other called Lochera.  The Dessilani Lochera retails for $17; the more serious Dessilani Fara Caramino retails for $44.

Each of the seven wines are quite different.  Gattinara, Ghemme, and Lessona are the most readily available in the U.S. and the most highly regarded.  But I also have fond memories of Bramaterra.  If you are a fan of Nebbiolo wines, seek them out.  Keep the producers I mentioned in mind during your hunt.