Northern Nebbiolo

My mission this spring is to delve into the nebbiolo-based wines of northern Piedmont—not just Ghemme and Gattinara, regions that most Italophiles know by name, if not by firsthand. I’m also intrigued by wholly obscure regions like Bramaterra, Carema, Colline Novaresi, and Lessona. (I feel safe in saying “wholly obscure” when, at a recent WINE MEDIA GUILD tasting of nebbiolo from northern Piedmont, virtually no one was acquainted with the Bramaterra DOC, not even MW Mary Gorman. That made me feel better.)

So, what’s the attraction? First, they offer nebbiolo, Piedmont’s prized thoroughbred of a grape, at an affordable price—often in the $20 range. (Contrast with $30–80+ for Barbaresco and Barolo.)  Second, some of these northern nebbiolos are mind-blowingly good, as I’ve discovered almost by chance in the past year.

Strange as it may sound, I stumbled across Lessona wines while in Chianti. When visiting Isola e Olena, proprietress Marta De Marchi surprised my TUSCAN WINE TREASURES tour group by reaching for two more bottles after she’d walked us through their Tuscan line-up: “These are made by my son, Luca,” she said, pouring from bottles labeled PROPRIETÁ SPERINO. First came the Uvaggio Coste delle Sesia ($29), a beautifully perfumed blend of nebbiolo, vespolina, and croatina. Then came the more powerful Lessona ($60), a gorgeous duet of nebbiolo and vespolina. Both had the finesse and minerality of a good Langhe Nebbiolo, but possessed something more—a darker, juicier, more approachable fruit core. They were absolutely delicious.

I looked at the bottle: Lessona DOC. Never heard of it. Marta got out the map, pointing to a small zone on the alpine side of the Sesia River, about an hour’s drive north of Turin. Her husband, Paolo De Marchi, originally came from Lessona. He'd moved to Chianti Classico in the 1970s—a more reasonable place for an ambitious young winemaker. But now, having enjoyed tremendous success with Isole e Olena, Paolo wanted to rebuild the historic reputation of his hometown’s wines. He and his son dusted off the old family property at the Castle of Lessona in 1999 and harvested their first vintage in 2004.

That's got me looking north of Turin for nebbiolo, both pure and blended, as the alpine versions are wont to be. And the Wine Media Guild tasting only confirmed my thinking: This region is surely the next big thing in nebbiolo for the price-conscious, explorative wine drinker. Hello, Millennials!

We tasted 16 wines from Ghemme, Bramaterra, Colline Novaresi, Carema, Boca, and Gattinara. Morgan Rich from POLANER SELECTIONS handed out an excellent map showing the jigsaw puzzle of tiny wine zones, each of which might contain only a handful of producers.

A basic way of sorting things out is to see which side of the Sesia River the zone falls on. Those lying west—Gattinara, Bramaterra, Lessona, and especially Carema—are truly at the foot of the Alps (Piedmont derives from piede or foot, plus monte or mountain). Here there’s glacial schist and volcanic porphyry, which heighten the wines’ aromatics and minerality. Cross the Sesia River and you’re on alluvial soil. Ghemme, Boca, and the Colline Novaresi all lie on this flatter, moraine territory. There’s less altitude, less wind sweeping off the Alps, and less hard rock, so the wines are a touch softer and fruitier than their taunt alpine counterparts.

Among these regions, the most historic is Gattinara. “The nebbiolo in Gattinara is a very old grape,” Cinzia Travaglini explained to the group over lunch, which was accompanied by her awesome 1995 TRAVAGLINI Reserva—just now, after 17 years, ready to drink. Planted by Romans, Gattinara was found on the tables of kings several centuries before Barolo was even invented. “It’s possible to read in history books about Cardinal Mercurino Arborio, a very important man in Gattinara—a marchese,” Cinzia continues. “He was chancellor to King Charles V of Spain, so they say he put the wine of Gattinara on the table of the Spanish king.” That, in turn, expanded its fame to European nobility. “So it’s a very historic wine.”

I’ve long known the Travaglini name, and it’s impossible not to recognize their oddly shaped bottle, which looks as though the hot glass drooped after coming off the forge. (Designed by Cinzia’s father, “it’s like a little decanter because the shoulder catches the sediment,” Cinzia explains.)

Completely new to me was VALLANA (pictured at top), whose Campi Raudii 2009 ($16) and Spanna Colline Novaresi 2008 ($17) I particularly liked, especially for drinking now. (Spanna is the local name for nebbiolo.) Both had scads of fruit-of-the-woods character, lively acidity, and nebbiolo tannins that weren’t too astringent, being sourced from younger vines.

“This Vallana Boca was just $5 when I was young—when the grandfather was alive,” wine writer  Tom Marescacommented to me during the walk-around tasting. As Maresca, who organized the tasting, explained, the Vallana label was “almost legendary” during its heyday under the guidance of winery founder Bernardo Vallana. But then it dropped off the map. After Bernardo died in his fifties, his son took over. But then he too died, tragically young. The estate went into limbo for almost a generation, while the widow raised her three children alone. Now those three kids are young adults, armed with degrees in enology and viticulture, and they’ve picked up the reins of Vallana. So we’ll be seeing more of these wonderful wines.

The Vallanas, the De Marchis—all this new blood spells great promise for the region. I’ll be on the outlook for these wines henceforth. Meanwhile, those dramatic alpine landscapes of northern Piedmont are beckoning. I think I feel a trip coming on.