The Rediscovery of Alto Piemonte
Piedmont is a great wine region for several reasons, primarily because of the production of Barolo and Barbaresco. These two reds, crafted exclusively from Nebbiolo, have become two of Italy’s icons on the wine scene, thanks in part to their remarkable distinctiveness, and their ability to age for 20 years or more in the finest vintages.
These wines are made in the southern part of the Piedmont region, in the province of Cuneo. There are other Nebbiolo-based wines made in Cuneo, such as Langhe Nebbiolo and Nebbiolo d’Alba, so Cuneo is without question a vital home for the variety.
Yet Nebbiolo also has an important base in Piedmont, specifically in a central to northern section known as Alto Piemonte (“higher” or “upper Piemonte”). This area, stretching from west to east, from the border with the region of Valle d’Aosta on the west to the border with the region of Lombardy to the east. Alto Piemonte is situated north of Torino, and runs through the town of Vercelli (famous for its riso), as well as Novara and Borgomanero.
Eighty years ago, Alto Piemonte was one of Italy’s most important wine producing territories; at that time there were more acres of vineyards planted here than in all of Tuscany! But over time, many locals decided not to stay with viticulture, some departing due to high costs, while others chose to produce wine in Cuneo, thanks to the fame of its products. Vineyards all but disappeared thoughout much of the 20th century in Alto Piemonte, with only a handful of producers remaining to keep this wine area alive.
One individual that did believe in this land was Alessandro Francoli, president of the Luigi Francoli distillery in the small village of Ghemme, situated near the Sesia River, some 50 miles northeast of Torino. Francoli’s great grandfather had planted vineyards in the Ghemme hills in 1977; he named his project “La Toraccia” in honor of the tower of the local castle. The cellars were established in the early 1990s, and in 2015, the Francoli family and the local Ponti family became co-owners; the winery is today known as Torraccia delle Piantavigna.
Today, the company owns approximately 100 acres of planted vineyards in Alto Piemonte, with the most important plantings in the production zones of two Nebbiolo-based DOCG wines: Gattinana and Ghemme. The company also produces a lighter 100% Nebbiolo wine called “Neb,” as well as a white named “Erbavoglio, produced exclusively from the indigenous Erbaluce variety.
Francoli realizes that Gattinara and Ghemme are not as celebrated as their most famous Nebbiolo-based counterparts from the southern sector of Piedmont. “Today, Gattinara with 100 hectares (271 acres) and Ghemme with some 80 hectares (197 acres) are tiny in comparison with Barolo with its 2000 hectares (almost 5000 acres). This may explain why the wines from this area are less known.” As with most producers here, he understands that the local topography has much to do with the style and character of the wines.
“The vineyards start where the plain ends and the Alps begin,” he comments. Francoli goes to explain that much of this land – natural features and soil – has been determined “by an ancient glacier that descended from Monte Rosa, the second highest peak in the Alps, about 40 kilometers (about 25 miles) away.” He notes that the soils of Ghemme are clay-based, acidic and rich in minerals, while the soils of Gattinara are made of porphyr rock, with a relatively thin layer of top soil.
As you might imagine, Ghemme and Gattinara represent very different identities of Nebbiolo than Barolo and Barbaresco; Francoli notes the various styles. “The difference between the wines of the Langhe and our own stem in part from the use of slightly different clones in the mix but essentially are down to climate and soil.
“First, Alto Piemonte is cooler than the Langhe. Until a significant increase in temperatures over the last 20 years, we struggled to make wines over 13 degrees in many years. With global warming, this is no longer the case, and increasingly, the Langhe struggle to keep their wines at below 15% alcohol. Everything happens about two weeks after Barolo.
“This cooler climate makes for wines that have slightly less body but incredible finesse, elegance, and longevity. The unique soils of all four wines give them their difference. Probably Ghemme is closer in character to Barbaresco and Gattinara to Barolo. Many wines from the Langhe now use new barriques. We do not, as we believe the grape should shine through.”
Francoli continues his explanation of the stylistic variations between Ghemme and Gattinara. “Ghemme tends to be more delicate and floral with notes of violets. The complexity of its aromas is its greatest feature. Gattinara is slightly more austere and more mineral in character with great structure. We still add a small amount of Vespolina (a local red variety) to the Nebbiolo to make our Ghemme impart unique peppery notes to the wine.”
While Torraccia has become one of the most critically praised wine estates in the area, Francoli understands that Alto Piemonte is a wine territory that is unknown not only to most consumers but even to many in the trade. What must his area colleagues and he do to make the area better known? What positive aspects must all of them emphasize about making wines in Alto Piemonte?
“This is changing fast, but the limited amount of vineyards gives it exclusivity but inevitably means that the wines are less well known,” Francoli says. There is an annual Taste Alto Piemonte for press and consumers that help spread the word, but ultimately local producers must craft better wines that critics and wine lovers are looking for.
“The whole area is being rediscovered, and it is a great time to be working in Alto Piemonte,” remarks Francoli. “A whole new generation of well-trained dynamic young enologists and agronomists are taking over from the older generation making exciting innovative wines and Langhe money is moving into the area creating awareness and bringing needed capital. We must work together to succeed. I have always felt that our first mission is to establish that a Ghemme and a Gattinara belong in any full range of quality Italian wines irrespective of who makes them. There is room in the market for us all.
“It is not by chance that two of Italy’s 73 DOCGs are only four kilometers away from each other in an isolated part of Italy which is now being rediscovered for the marvelous wines that it produces.”
By Tom Hyland
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