Nebbiolo Vineyards of Tenute Sella at Ceretto Castello
Coste della Sesia DOC (Photo ©Tom Hyland)
I was back in my beloved Piemonte a few weeks ago, eager to taste many new releases. Of course, Barolo, Barbaresco and Roero were part of my itinerary, but so too was a trip to Alto Piemonte. I’ve visited this area – upper Piemonte – several times in the past, and have always been fascinated not only by the wines, but also the landscape, as many vineyards are hidden out of sight. I doubt, even if I had GPS, that I’d find some of these plantings unless I was with a producer or grower, as they’re somewhat remote. But hidden charms in this instance truly reveal some special treasures.
This trip coincided with a special tasting of Alto Piemonte wines – white and red – held in the beautiful city of Novara. This was the initial Alto Piemonte tasting organized by the consorzio, under the leadership of Lorella Antoniolo Zoppis (from the well known Antoniolo winery of Gattinara). While there were a few key wineries that did not participate (such as Le Piane, Travaglini and Cantalupo), many important producers did include their wines, resulting in a nice mix of intriguing red wines (and a few whites) from Alto Piemonte. This included such appellations as Biella, Gattinara, Sizzanno, Boca and Bramaterra; there was even one producer – Cantine Garrone – from the Ossola Valley in far northern Piemonte, not far from the Swiss border.
Lorella Antoniolo Zoppis of the Alto Piemonte consorzio (Photo ©Tom Hyland)
The first thing to understand about Alto Piemonte reds is that the most famous are primarily Nebbiolo-based; the best-known red from this territory is arguably Gattinara, which must contain a minimum of 90% Nebbiolo, although a few producers do bottle a 100% Nebbiolo. Most local reds, however, must contain other local red varieties such as Vespolina and Croatina, cultivars that increase the acidity and spice of the finished wines. It is this slightly higher acidity in these wines that offer the promise of excellent aging potential, perhaps even longer than Barolo or Barbaresco.
You also need to know that many of these wines are in limited production, as there are fewer than ten or twenty producers in several appellations, such as Fara, Sizzano, Boca and Ghemme. It’s highly unlikely you’d find many of these wines outside their respective zones; given that, the appellation that covers most of the red wines here is known as Colline Novaresi – the hills of Novara. You’ll find blends of Nebbiolo, Vespolina and Croatina, as well as monovarietal offerings, made solely with Vespolina or Croatina.
Marco Rizzetti, Tenute Sella (Photo ©Tom Hyland)
A few notes on the best wines tasted during this event; two excellent examples of Gattinara, the 2011 Nervi “Vigna Molsino” and the 2012 Antoniolo “San Francesco”, with the former displaying a note of wild strawberry backed by excellent persistence, while the latter combines that same strawberry note with ripe red cherry and good acidity. Both wines will drink well for 10-12 years.
Ghemme made a strong showing, as several examples displayed exemplary character and complexity. The 2009 Rovellotti Ghemme “Chioso dei Pomi” is a lovely wine, a blend of 90% Nebbiolo with 10% Vespolina, that was aged in stainless steel. There is very good acidity, round tannins and sleek red fruit; all in all, this is a lovely wine that has great varietal purity and ideal harmony; peak in 10-12 years. This was among my top two or three wines of the tasting.
The 2011 Francesco Brigatti Ghemme “Oltre il Bosco” combines red fruit and subtle spice with rich tannins and an herbal character in the finish. This is 100% Nebbiolo, aged for 24 months in large barrels. Even more impressive is the 2011 Sergio e Valter Zanetta Ghemme, a blend of 90% Nebbiolo, 5% Vespolina and 5% Uva Rara, matured for 36 months in large barrels (maturation in large barrels or sometimes only in steel tanks, is a common theme in Alto Piemonte, and one that I applaud). Subtle spice and attractive red fruit, along with good acidity combine to make a wine of lovely complexity that is elegantly styled for consumption tonight or over the next decade.
I also admired several examples of Bramaterra, including the 2012 Odilio Antoniotti, the 2008 La Palazzina “Riserva” and especially the 2013 Le Pianelle. This last wine offers intriguing notes of marmalade, red cherry, tea leaf and mulberry, backed by a rich mid-palate, excellent persistence and a lengthy, elegant finish. This is a wine of excellent complexity and is quite complete; it should prove to be one of the longest aging of the wine I tasted that day.
From Lessona, the wines of Tenute Sella are notable for their display of terroir as well as their overall harmony, as they tend to be less forceful than wines from Bramaterra. The classic 2011, a blend of 80% Nebbiolo and 20% Vespolina has medium-weight tannins and offers excellent complexity. The 2009 “San Sebastiano Allo Zoppo”, is richer on the palate, with precise acidity and tannins, along with excellent persistence. Finally the firm’s 2008 “Omaggio a Quintino Sella” is their top selection; it does have more wood notes, but they are well integrated and the complexity and breeding of this wine are first-rate. There are notes of coffee, tobacco and brown spice in the finish, which adds to the complexity, while this has the structure to drink well for 15 years. 2008 was a particularly notable vintage; production was limited, and the 2009 will soon be out (a very nice wine, but not as impressive as the 2008), so if you see a bottle, grab it!
I was also quite impressed with the portfolio of red wines from Cantine Garrone, located in the Ossola Valley (I featured this producer in my book The Wines and Foods of Piemonte). The leading wine here is called Prünent, which is a local synonym for Nebbiolo. This 2013, aged in large barrels, has ripe black plum fruit and notes of myrtle on the nose; it is forward and enjoyable with a healthy tannic structure, along with very good acidity. This is a sleek and stylish wine to be enjoyed over 7-10 years. Later in a walk-around tasting, I sampled several other releases from this producer, including the Munaloss, a distinctive blend of Nebbiolo, Croatina and Barbera, with juicy raspberry and red cherry flavors; enjoy from 3-5 years of age.
As for Boca, the best wine here was the 2012 Barbaglia; one of the few that did not disappoint in this tasting. I don’t know what it is about Boca, but there are only three or four producers here that consistently make good wine. The Barbaglia has very good acidity and a light touch. I wouldn’t mind seeing a bit more depth of fruit in this wine, but it is a consistently made, very interesting wine; consume within 7-10 years of the vintage date.
I also want to single out one white I tasted, the 2015 Francesco Brigatti “Motobello”, a 100% Erbaluce with excellent depth of fruit, ideal harmony, very good acidity, and impressive persistence. This should drink well for at least three and perhaps five years.
While I did find several wines that were very well made, ones that offered a nice sense of place along with impressive complexity, I must admit that there were too many disappointing wines, offerings that varied from one-dimensional to some offering good acidity, but little depth of fruit.
So the wines of Alto Piemonte are a bit of a work in progress. There are some terrific wines made in upper Piemonte; some of them were here, some were not, so hopefully this will be a more complete tasting when it is held again. But I’m delighted that I had the opportunity to taste these wines, especially as it was an excellent learning experience. Thanks to Lorella Zoppis for her help and for the invitation and assistance of several people at Wellcom Public Relations in Alba.