Wine

Chronicling the Renaissance of Italy’s Alto Piemonte Region

An ancient winegrowing area is making a comeback after a long hiatus—and garnering acclaim

Cristiano Garella.
Photo courtesy of Cristiano Garella.

Alto Piemonte is located in the northeastern corner of the Piedmont region of Italy at the foot of the Alps. It comprises four provinces and 10 appellations—Gattinara, Ghemme, Boca, Lessona, Sizzano, Bramaterra, Fara, Coste della Sesia, Colline Novaresi, and Valli Ossolane—in which the Nebbiolo grape, known locally as Spanna, is the key player. The Romans colonized this area in the 2nd century BC, and the wines became quite famous long before the region’s other Nebbiolo-based wine, Barolo, even existed.

Everything changed at the beginning of the 20th century with the arrival of phylloxera, followed by a devastating frost in 1905, two World Wars, and an international economic depression. The countryside was ravaged: People sought work in nearby textile factories, and vineyard areas shrank from around 45,000 hectares to a few thousand. A similar catastrophe occurred throughout most of northern Italy, but while some winegrowing areas, including Prosecco in the Veneto and Barolo in the Langhe, made heroic comebacks in the 1960s and ’70s, Alto Piemonte languished in the shadows—until recently.

Alto Piemonte has been experiencing a renaissance that started off slowly about 10 years ago, when the region began receiving greater recognition for its unique expressions of quality Nebbiolo wines. Its resurgence ramped up more significantly over the last five years. While production numbers have not increased dramatically, a combination of factors has led to greater visibility and a major rise in popularity—in particular, among importers and wine buyers in the U.S.

Contributing to the region’s rebirth are three main factors, including the progression toward higher quality production practices, shifts in the ways producers promote their wines and terroir, and champions of the region like Cristiano Garella—a winemaker and partner in two wineries, Colombera & Garella in Masserano and Le Pianelle in Brusnengo, and an adviser to many others—who’ve made it their mission to increase the region’s visibility.

“I love these wines,” says Jenni Guizio, the wine director at Maialino in New York City, an upscale Italian restaurant that dedicates three pages of its 80-page list to Alto Piemonte with some vintages that go back to the 1950s and ‘60s. “There’s a lot of market presence by rock stars of the region like Cristiano, who literally pounds the pavement, educating somms and consumers.”

Left: Oliver McCrum (photo by Michele Boscia). Right: Jenni Guizio (photo by Mark Shami).

Michael Nelson, the sales strategy manager for Grand Cru Selections, a New York City-based import and distribution company that brings in four labels from Alto Piemonte—all associated with Garella—attributes the uptick in interest and sales of the region’s wines to a growing enthusiasm for a greater diversity of quality Nebbiolo wines. “More than just an economical alternative to Langhe Nebbiolos,” says Nelson, “I think people seeking terroir-driven wines are attracted by the exposure to a whole new dimension of the grape variety—one with more finesse, delicacy, and tenderness in early drinking that demonstrates the area’s distinctly different soils.”

Emergence from Obscurity

The first consortium of producers in the region was formed in 1999. The Consorzio Tutela Nebbioli Alto Piemonte in Ghemme initially focused on nine individual appellations. Up until then, the appellations had been somewhat isolated and completely autonomous. The Valli Ossolane DOC was created—and added to the consortium—in 2009. (The Carema DOC is often placed under the Alto Piemonte heading, but it’s actually located in the Canavese area of the province of Turin, and therefore, not technically part of the Alto Piemonte designation.) The region’s most distinguished appellations are the Gattinara and Ghemme DOCGs.

“There has been much progress, especially during the past 10 years,” says Lorella Zoppis, the president of the Consorzio and the proprietor of her family’s prestigious Antoniolo winery in Gattinara, which produces about 55,000 bottles annually (including three single-vineyard Gattinaras) from 14 hectares of vineyard. “The volcanic origin of Alto Piemonte and its proximity to the mountains, gives our wines notable freshness, elegance, and longevity, as well as accessibility, which now appeals to many consumers.”

Zoppis adds that there’s a lot of excitement in the area today. “Many young people are turning to viticulture and bringing new energy, new ideas, and a new focus on quality,” she says. “Our biggest challenge right now is adequately representing 10 very different appellations and 130 member-producers—large and small, old and new—each of which has its own particular exigencies.”

Oliver McCrum, the president of Oliver McCrum Wines, an import and distribution company based in Berkeley, California, has been following the region’s progression for over 20 years. The McCrum portfolio specializes in Italian producers and currently lists four Alto Piemonte wineries, with a fifth on the way. “I knew the potential was there—long winemaking tradition, excellent native varieties, and an amazingly complex terroir,” says McCrum, “but most of the wines I tasted [early on] were, to put it politely, exceedingly rustic.”

McCrum’s Alto Piemonte “revelation” occurred about 10 years ago when he tasted a wine at Tenute Sella in Lessona, one of the area’s oldest wineries, that was being managed by Garella, who was 23 years old at the time. “It was clearly traditional in style,” says McCrum, “but also clean and precise, and [it] beautifully expressed the particular terroir of Lessona—austere yet generous Nebbiolo with a touch of spicy Vespolina from sandy soil and high altitude that gave the wine firm structure with a delicate, lacy filigree. I was blown away.”

Mariana Fogarty
Marina Fogarty. Photo courtesy of Marina Fogarty.

Cleanliness and precision are also cited by Marina Olwen Fogarty, who along with her brother, Francis, now manages the Antonio Vallana winery in Maggiora that their great-grandfather started in 1937. “My brother and I worked alongside our parents and grandparents since we were little kids,” she says. “We basically do just what they did, except that now we can be more precise and exacting. We harvest into small crates so the grapes don’t get bruised, we pick each parcel at optimum ripeness, and [we] carefully monitor all the phases of fermentation and evolution of the wine prior to release.”

Vallana currently produces approximately 30,000 bottles annually from 4 hectares of vineyard in Boca and Gattinara and from additional grapes purchased from vineyards in Ghemme and Fara, but Fogarty says the annual output will increase when Vallana’s replanted vineyards become productive. About 50 percent of Vallana’s production goes to the U.S., where it’s imported by Skurnik Wines on the East Coast and Rare Wine Company on the West Coast.

Greater attention to detail and a general upgrade in winemaking practices are taking place throughout the area, but the impact would be minimal if no one knew about Alto Piemonte. “We get out there and talk about our wines—and I frequently travel abroad to promote them,” says Fogarty. “Our parents’ generation had a chip on their shoulders; they referred to our wine as Nebbiolo of the North and tried to sell it as a cheap alternative to Barolo. We don’t do that. We explain where [our wines] come from, why they’re different from the others, and let people decide for themselves.”

The Right Time for a Comeback

This strategy appears to be working well in today’s marketplace. “The market for Alto Piemonte’s elegant, soil-driven expressions of Nebbiolo without the Barolo price tag has exploded over the last few years among sommeliers and Nebbiolo fans,” says Aaron von Rock, the wine director of the recently opened Benno in New York City, which lists three Alto Piemonte wines in a special section of its wine list entitled A Season of Nebbiolo. Among them is the benchmark single-vineyard Collis Breclamae from Cantalupo, a producer in Ghemme, along with a dozen Barolos and Barbarescos and a stellar Chiavanasca (aka Nebbiolo) from the Valtellina made by ArPePe.

Annual production figures for Alto Piemonte are not readily available—and the ones that are can be difficult to decipher. Weather-related vintage variations can have dramatic effects on production levels from one year to the next, and official tallies of exports to foreign markets (including the U.S.), are practically non-existent. But statistics don’t tell the entire story.

Travaglini, a winery in Gattinara that was founded in the 1920s by Clemente Travaglini, was one of the first in Alto Piemonte to establish a significant U.S. presence in the 1970s. Back then, says Travaglini’s export manager, Alessandro Guagliardi, “Ninety percent of our wine was exported, and the vast majority of it went to America.” Production increased in the ‘90s, and as it did, the winery reduced the percentage being shipped to the U.S. to about 35 percent, and that percentage has remained consistent, says Guagliardi. These days, Travaglini produces around 250,000 bottles annually from its 51 hectares; the wines are currently imported into the U.S. by Taub Family Selections.

Vallana. Photo courtesy of Vallana.

“I can’t provide any numbers,” says Mark Fornatale, the Italian portfolio manager for Skurnik Wines, an importer and distributor with offices in New York City, Jericho, New York, and San Francisco, “but the volume of Alto Piemonte sales has definitely increased. When we started in 2010 with Vallana’s Gattinara and Colline Novaresi Spanna, the brand was virtually unknown, except for a few old-time connoisseurs who had vague memories of the winery. Now we’ve added four more of their wines and Vallana has become a very important part of the Skurnik portfolio.” Besides Vallana, Skurnik imports wine from three other Alto Piemonte wineries—Antoniolo, Francesca Castaldi in Briona, and Tiziano Mazzoni in Ghemme.

All in all, the timing seems just right for a substantial Alto Piemonte comeback. “Consumers know Nebbiolo and are looking for other expressions of it,” says McCrum, “but they’re also open to unknown varieties like Vespolina, Croatina, and Bonarda, and sommeliers like the [region’s] extreme diversity of soils—from volcanic rock to marine sand.”

Says Guizio, “the savvy wine drinker’s perception is that Alto Piemonte wines have more freshness, lift, and elegance than Barolo or Barbaresco due to the cooler climate, high acidity, and lower alcohol. These are food-friendly, age-worthy wines of great complexity that still represent value.”

Even climate change appears to be helping. “While our climate is still generally cool,” says Garella, “vintages have been getting riper since the ’90s, and this is helping make our wines a bit fuller, livelier, and less austere.”

What the Future Holds

Where will Alto Piemonte wines go from here?

“There’s a lot of interest from wineries and investors outside the area,” says Zoppis, “and we expect a 10 to 15 percent increase in vineyard plantings throughout Alto Piemonte’s 10 appellations over the next 5 years.”

When third-generation Barolo producer Roberto Conterno, the proprietor of the renowned Giacomo Conterno winery in Monforte d’Alba, purchased the historic Nervi estate in Gattinara in 2018, it was widely perceived as a validation of the entire area. McCrum has seen signs of vineyard speculation and suspects that many favorable sites will rise in value. Fogarty, however, points out that “so much vineyard area was lost and is now completely covered with forest. It would take a huge investment to recover those areas and a long time for them to become productive. Nothing will happen overnight.”

Nevertheless, Garella is encouraging the producers he works with to buy promising vineyard sites while they can. “I’m very optimistic,” he says. “It was fortunate that Alto Piemonte slept through the ’80s and ’90s so we didn’t have to go through that phase of over-oaked, over-concentrated wines. Now that we’re awake, we must get to work, focusing on our territory and how best to express it in our wines—then effectively communicating it to the rest of the world.”

Alan Tardi has written about wine for many publications, including Wine & Spirits magazine, the New York Times, Food Arts, and Wine Spectator, and is the author of the James Beard Award–winning Romancing the Vine: Life, Love, and Transformation in the Vineyards of Barolo. His second book, Champagne, Uncorked: The House of Krug and the Timeless Allure of the World’s Most Celebrated Drink, received the Gourmand Best in the World Award (in the category of French Wine books). Tardi currently spends his time between Castiglione Falletto and New York City. Follow Tardi @terra.vite on Facebook and @alantardi on Twitter.

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