Learn About Italy’s Secret Nebbiolos

After disease and hailstorms destroyed most vineyards in the early 1900s, Alto Piemonte has bounced back to become an underappreciated source of Nebbiolo.
Photo by Meg Baggott

These five denominations of Alto Piemonte are underappreciated sources of elegant, long-lived wines.

If you’re a fan of Nebbiolo, the sole grape behind Barolo and Barbaresco, you’ll love the radiant, mineral-driven offerings from Alto Piemonte, a region higher up in the Alpine foothills than the “Big Bs.”

Map of Alto Piemonte, ItalyVibrant and loaded with finesse, the best are drop-dead gorgeous, as these varietal Nebbiolos and blends possess ageworthy structures and impeccable balance. While warmer temperatures and drier summers push alcohol levels to extremes in other areas, that’s not often a problem in Alto Piemonte. Vineyard altitudes, cooler temperatures and acidic soils make it rare to find wines that exceed 14% abv.

The most exciting offerings come from the five small growing areas that lend their names to the wines: Lessona, Gattinara, Ghemme, Boca and Bramaterra.

In the late 1800s, Alto Piemonte boasted more than 110,000 acres of vineyards, most of them now long gone. Nebbiolo (locally called “Spanna”) was often blended with other indigenous grapes, such as Vespolina and Uva Rara. In the latter half of the 19th century, decades before Americans had heard of Barolo or Barbaresco, these wines were already available in the U.S.

In the early 1900s, devastating vine diseases and a catastrophic hailstorm destroyed entire vineyards. Embattled growers abandoned agriculture to work in the booming textile mills of nearby Biella. In many of the Alto Piemonte denominations, only a few wineries persevered.

Thanks to those brave producers, the tiny subregions that make up Alto Piemonte are poised for a full-blown Renaissance.

The Beauty of Barbaresco

Lessona DOC

As our truck bumps along a narrow dirt road through dense, overgrown woods, I can’t help but wonder if Giacomo Colombera, co-owner of Colombera & Garella, has gotten lost. Then, like a mirage, a large, perfectly maintained vineyard comes into view, surrounded by trees.

“Up until the early 1900s, there were about 200 hectares of vineyards in Lessona,” says fellow passenger Cristiano Gallera, a local consulting enologist and the other half of Colombera & Garella, one of the youngest and most dynamic firms in Alto Piemonte. “Now there are just 20 under vine. The rest [is] overgrown with woods.”

“I was completely surprised by the wine’s finesse and the savory, almost salty finish.” —Paolo de Marchi, Isole e Olena

Winemaking in Lessona has recently been revived, a common thread among the other denominations. Only Tenuta Sella, originally a textile firm that started acquiring vineyards in the late 1600s, has continuously made wine. Until about 15 years ago, however, those wines were reserved largely for family members and employees of the firm’s several businesses. The remainder was sold locally around Biella, a historic textile center.

That all changed in 1999, when Paolo de Marchi of the Chianti Classico estate Isole e Olena and his son, Luca, relaunched Proprietà Sperino, the family’s historic estate in Lessona. Producers across Alto Piemonte credit de Marchi’s arrival as the rebirth of winemaking in the area.

Paolo grew up in Turin and summered at the family’s Lessona estate. He long dreamed of reviving the area’s winemaking tradition. Proprietà Sperino’s first release was from the 2004 vintage.

“I was completely surprised by the wine’s finesse and the savory, almost salty finish,” says Paolo.

Lessona wines abound with elegance, thanks to mineral-rich yellow sand and vineyard altitudes that range between 722 and 1,181 feet above sea level. They offer bouquets of roses and red woodland berries that follow over to the palate, along with a pronounced mineral vein. Lessona wines have an almost ethereal character, but noble tannins and vibrant acidity impart serious aging potential.

Producers can make Lessona exclusively with Nebbiolo, or they can add up to 15 percent of Vespolina, an “offspring” of Nebbiolo, and/or Uva Rara, a common blending grape.

Photo By Meg Baggott
Photo By Meg Baggott

La Prevostura 2012 Lessona; $45, 91 points. Enticingly fragrant, this offers alluring scents of rose, perfumed berry, chopped mint, menthol and cake spice. The elegant palate delivers tart red cherry, aromatic herb and star anise alongside fine-grained tannins and bright acidity. A mineral note signals the close. Give this time to fully develop. Drink 2019–2032. Oliver McCrum Wines.

Proprietà Sperino 2011 Lessona; $72, 96 points. Tilled earth, underbrush, rose petal, perfumed berry, aromatic herb and a balsamic note are some of the many alluring scents you’ll find in this gorgeous red. The juicy palate is both earthy and loaded with finesse, doling out ripe dark cherry, raspberry, pipe tobacco, licorice and energizing mineral. Firm, polished tannins provide structure. It’s already almost accessible but will continue to evolve and age beautifully. Drink 2019–2029. Petit Pois. Cellar Selection.

Colombera & Garella 2013 Lessona; $35, 96 points. This stunning red is all about finesse and light. It opens with lovely scents of violet, rose, perfumed berry and balsamic aromas while the radiant, almost ethereal palate delivers crunchy red cherry, strawberry, white pepper and mineral intensity. It’s impeccably balanced, with bright acidity and firm but elegant tannins. While it’s so tempting now, hold for even more complexity. Drink 2018–2033. Porto Vino Italiano. Editors’ Choice. 

Gattinara DOCG

The best known of all the Alto Piemonte wines, those from Gattinara are part of a tradition that reaches back to the ancient Romans. In the late 1800s, the denomination boasted a significant 1,482 acres of vineyards.

Gattinara is practically synonymous with Travaglini and the firm’s distinctly shaped, curved bottle. Established in the 1920s by Clemente Travaglini, the family-run winery owns 146 of the 247 acres registered to Gattinara production. It makes bright, structured reds exclusively from Nebbiolo.

Temperature swings generate complexity, intense aromatics and racy acidity, while cooling winds keep grapes rot-free.

“The soil in Gattinara is composed of Monte Rosa’s sedimentary rocks, granite and iron-rich porphyry of volcanic origin,” says Cinzia Travaglini, the great-granddaughter of Clemente, who manages the winery operations. “Unlike the Barolo and Barbaresco zones, there’s no limestone here, and no clay.”

Gattinara lies in the heart of an area that was strongly influenced by an ancient super-volcano that collapsed 280 million years ago. The denomination’s reddish, rocky soils are high in acidity, which lend firm but silky tannins. Those soils also impart marked mineral sensations that evoke iron and sometimes even an intriguing hint reminiscent of rust.

Vineyard altitudes 1,050–1,575 feet above sea level see significant day-night temperature changes during the growing season. These temperature swings generate complexity, intense aromatics and racy acidity, while cooling winds keep grapes rot-free.

Production regulations stipulate that Gattinara wines include at least 90 percent Nebbiolo. Though producers can blend in small amounts of Vespolina and Uva Rara, most use only Nebbiolo.

A classic Gattinara boasts red berry and violet aromas, fresh acidity, energizing mineral and taut, polished tannins. Gattinara tends to be more approachable upon release than Barolo, but still boasts cellarworthy structure and ages well for decades.

Photo by Meg Baggott
Photo by Meg Baggott

Travaglini 2010 Riserva (Gattinara); $60, 95 points. Elegant and structured, this opens with exquisite scents of cedar, chopped herb, pressed rose, menthol and perfumed berry. The luminous palate is loaded with finesse, delivering bright red cherry, chopped red raspberry, licorice, clove and mineral. Firm, refined tannins and vibrant acidity provide impeccable balance and support. Hold for even more complexity. Drink 2018–2030. Palm Bay International. Cellar Selection. 

Nervi 2009 Valferana (Gattinara); $80, 93 points. Ample aromas of dark berry, pipe tobacco, pressed violet and a balsamic note come together on this single-vineyard selection. On the structured palate, an energizing mineral vein wraps around mature black cherry, licorice, cinnamon and dried herb while a hint of game adds depth. This has years ahead of it. Drink 2018–2027. Massanois Imports. Cellar Selection.

Anzivino 2010 Gattinara; $35, 93 points. Enticing scents of perfumed berry, violet, dried herb and cake spice take center stage along with a balsamic note. The palate is firmly structured but elegant, and offers tart red cherry, crushed raspberry, cinnamon and licorice. It’s well balanced and young, with taut, polished tannins and fresh acidity. Drink 2018–2030. Villa Italia. Cellar Selection.

Ghemme DOCG

Across from Gattinara on the other side of the Sesia River is Ghemme, where winemaking pre-dates the ancient Romans. Ghemme is often compared to its more famous neighbor, but while there are similarities between the two wines, fundamental differences set them apart.

Made in the commune of Ghemme and part of nearby Romagnano Sesia, the denomination’s vineyard area is about half that of Gattinara, at about 125 acres. Ghemme’s vineyards are generally lower in elevation than those in Gattinara. They range between 820 and 985 feet above sea level.

“Unlike Gattinara and other areas of Alto Piemonte, where one soil type usually dominates, the soils in Ghemme are incredibly complex.” —Alberto Arlunno, Antichi Vigneti di Cantalupo

Alberto Arlunno runs his family’s Antichi Vigneti di Cantalupo winery, the denomination’s leading estate, which traces its winemaking origins to 1800. He says the biggest difference between Gattinara and Ghemme is the soils.

“Unlike Gattinara and other areas of Alto Piemonte, where one soil type usually dominates, the soils in Ghemme are incredibly complex,” he says. “We also have some clay in the higher areas, and here and there, some porphyry.”

Arlunno says the soils owe their complexity to the Monte Rosa glacier, which straddles the border of Italy and Switzerland. Its retreat across what’s now the Ghemme growing zone deposited rocks like granite, quartz and other pebbles that break down after the winter rains and take on a sandy consistency.

The poor soils are perfect for Nebbiolo, and the increased focus on Piedmont’s flagship grape has been a key improvement in the area over recent years. Most producers today make Ghemme exclusively from Nebbiolo, although producers can also use up to 15 percent Vespolina and/or Uva Rara.

A quintessential Ghemme is elegantly structured and fragrant. It offers sensations of rose, violet, woodland berry, spice and mineral set against a backbone of vibrant acidity and refined tannins. Aging adds even more complexity.

Photo by Meg Baggott
Photo by Meg Baggott

Antichi Vigneti di Cantalupo 2006 Collis Breclemae (Ghemme); $55, 93 points. The aromatic profile changes continuously in the glass, but ­includes underbrush, iron, dark spice, rose, tilled earth and a balsamic note. On the firm, radiant palate, an intense mineral vein wraps around dried dark-skinned cherry, cran­berry, licorice and chopped herb. A backbone of ­vibrant acidity and assertive but refined tannins provide structure and impeccable balance. Give this time to soften and develop even more complexity. Drink 2018–2031. Polaner Selections. Cellar Selection.

Ioppa 2011 Santa Fè (Ghemme); $47, 92 points. Intensely fragrant, this opens with aromas of chopped mint, baking spice, pressed violet and cedar. The linear, elegant palate delivers tart red cherry, crushed red raspberry, clove, star anise and mineral alongside assertive, fine-grained tannins and fresh acidity. It’s still youthfully austere so give it time to unwind and fully develop. Drink 2021–2031. Grand Cru Selections. Cellar Selection. 

Tiziano Mazzoni 2012 Dei Mazzoni (Ghemme); $40, 90 points. Leather, ripe dark-skinned berry, chopped herb, rose and a balsamic note are some of the aromas you’ll find on this. The austere palate offers tart red cherry, sour cranberry, sage and a hint of anise alongside firm tannins. Give it time to fully develop. Drink after 2022. Skurnik Wines.

Boca DOC

“In the late 1800s, there were 9,885 acres of vineyards in Boca,” says Christoph Kuenzli, owner of Boca’s trailblazing winery, Le Piane. “When I arrived in the early 1990s, there were just 25.”

A Swiss wine merchant who specialized in Italian wine, Kuenzli first visited the area on the advice of Paolo de Marchi. He told Kuenzli about an unheralded red that he was sure to like, made by Antonio Cerri, one of the last winegrowers to produce exceptional Boca. Intrigued, Kuenzli looked up Cerri, tried the wines and was hooked.

Fragrant, structured and vibrant, Boca boasts red berry, mineral and white pepper flavors set against an elegant backbone of polished tannins and firm acidity.

Cerri, in his 80s, was considering retirement. By 1995, Kuenzli was leasing Cerri’s small vineyard and cellars, which he purchased in 1998 to establish Le Piane.

Following in Cerri’s footsteps, Kuenzli shuns harsh chemicals in the vineyards and uses no modern technology in the cellar. Fermentation is spontaneous, with wild yeasts.

Le Piane now has 22 acres of vineyards, including six acres with 100-year-old vines planted in the traditional Maggiorina system, where three vines are grouped together and trained upward to form a goblet. Thanks to Le Piane’s success, there are now 10 producers in Boca and a total of 75 acres under vine.

The ancient super-volcano is responsible for the denomination’s porphyritic soils, which crumble easily and turn to fine gravel on the surface. Boca has the highest vineyards in Alto Piemonte, up to 1,700 feet above sea level.

It also boasts a warm microclimate in an otherwise cold area, with high daytime temperatures and cool nights in autumn. South-facing vineyards benefit from intense sunshine, while the surrounding hills protect vines from cold Alpine winds, perfect conditions for ripening Nebbiolo. Boca must be made using between 70 and 90 percent Nebbiolo, and the balance Vespolina (which lends intense spice notes) and/or Uva Rara.

Fragrant, structured and vibrant, Boca boasts red berry, mineral and white pepper flavors set against an elegant backbone of polished tannins and firm acidity.

Photo by Meg Baggott
Photo by Meg Baggott

Le Piane 2009 Boca; $55, 95 points. Combining finesse and structure, this impressive wine opens with fantastic scents of new leather, woodland berry, baking spice and balsamic notes. A blend of Nebbiolo and 15% Vespolina, the enticing palate doles out juicy black cherry, crushed raspberry and white pepper framed in firm, refined tannins. An energizing mineral note carries the lingering finish. Despite the warm vintage, it still boasts freshness. Drink through 2026. Artisan Wines, Inc. Editors’ Choice. 

Podere ai Valloni 2009 Vigna Cristiana (Boca); $55, 93 points. Graceful and fragrant, this boasts alluring scents of rose, aromatic herb, flint, red berry and culinary spice. The elegant palate delivers red cherry, strawberry, white pepper and star anise alongside bright acidity and firm, refined tannins. Drink 2018–2026. Chambers Street Wines.

Bramaterra DOC

Bordered by Lessona on the west and partly by Gattinara on the east, Bramaterra comprises seven separate townships, where the hillside vineyards range between 885 and 1,475 feet above sea level. The towering Monte Rosa protects the area from cold Alpine winds while the altitude creates sharp day-night temperature variations.

Bramaterra has a varied soil composition. Volcanic, porphyritic soils make up the backbone, but the western parts have sandy marine deposits similar to the soils found in Lessona.

Paolo Benassi, Sella’s enologist, says that like Lessona, Bramaterra has low pH soils, which helps vine roots absorb microelements.

“The main difference between Lessona and Bramaterra is that Bramaterra is made up of porphyry soils and [quartz-rich] rock, which impart more iron sensations,” he says.

Benassi says that the highest areas of Bramaterra are rich in rock fragments. In particularly dry vintages, it can result in wines that are more concentrated and structured than Lessona.

Headquartered in Lessona, Sella also owns a 49-acre plot of vineyards in Bramaterra. Its single-varietal Bramaterra is made with vines that average 45 years old. Sella’s I Porfidi bottling is made with the best grapes from 80-year-old vines planted on the estate’s highest hill.

Bramaterra is a blend made up of 50–80 percent Nebbiolo, a maximum of 30 percent Croatina and a maximum of 20 percent Uva Rara and/or Vespolina. A textbook Bramaterra is racy and structured, with intense red berry, spice and mineral sensations.

Photo by Meg Baggott
Photo by Meg Baggott

Le Pianelle 2012 Bramaterra; $55, 90 points. A blend of Nebbiolo, Vespolina and Croatina, this opens with aromas of aromatic herb, wild berry, menthol and a floral note. The firm, vibrant palate offers tar, sour cherry, licorice and white pepper alongside youthfully austere, fine-grained tannins. This needs time to soften up and fully develop. Drink 2019–2027. Oliver McCrum Wines.

Colombera & Garella 2013 Bramaterra; $30, 93 points. Aromas of underbrush, rose petal, flint and dark spice waft out of the glass. The structured, elegant palate offers red cherry, raspberry, clove and star anise flavors set against fresh acidity and a firm backbone of refined tannins. Give this time to let the nervous energy calm down and you’ll be rewarded with even more complexity. Drink 2020–2035. Porto Vino Italiano. Editors’ Choice.

90 Sella 2009 I Porfidi (Bramaterra); $52, 90 points. The nose is initially shy but a few swirls of the glass release scents of pressed rose, aromatic herb, woodland berry, kitchen spice and a whiff of tar. The tightly wound, structured palate offers dried red cherry, white pepper and anise carried by a vein of mineral. Assertive but polished tannins provide the framework. Drink 2018–2026. De Grazia Imports, LLC.

Published on May 8, 2017
Topics: Italian Wine
About the Author
Kerin O’Keefe
Italian Editor

Reviews wines from Italy

Italian Editor Kerin O’Keefe reviews all Italian wines for Wine Enthusiast. Previously she wrote regularly on Italian wine for Wine News, World of Fine Wine and Decanter. She is the author of Franco Biondi Santi: The Gentleman of Brunello (2005), Brunello di Montalcino: Understanding and Appreciating One of Italy's Greatest Wines (2012) and Barolo and Barbaresco: The King and Queen of Italian Wine (2014).

Email: kokeefe@wineenthusiast.net.



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