There’s a reason why nebbiolo remains one of the most prized grapes of the wine world. Few, if any, varietals can offer its combination of fruit, spice, earth, aromatics, acidity, and tannins–a blend of power and finesse that sends palates dancing.

Of course, the Piemontese DOCGs of Barolo and Barbaresco dominate the nebbiolo market, and why not? These regions produce some of the most enduring and memorable bottles you’re likely to find. However, if you head to the north of Piemonte, in the foothills of the Alps, you’ll discover the wines of Alto Piemonte, which provide more affordable and often more approachable alternatives to the bottlings of its Langhe rivals.

Image from Testimony of a wine junkie

There was a time, a couple or more centuries ago, when Alto Piemonte’s offerings commanded the respect and admiration that Barolo and Barbaresco do now. A one-two punch of phylloxera and fiscal downturn ended its reign as Northern Italy’s supreme red-wine region, but a renaissance that began in the late 1900s has only deepened in recent years, making Alto Piemonte a region worth investigating by nebbiolo lovers.

The typical expression of Alto Piemonte’s wines differs somewhat from that of its Langhe counterparts a couple of hours to the south; the wines of the north tend to be a bit more lithe, highly fragrant with softer (though still prominent) tannins and a well-defined minerality. There are a number of reasons for this distinction. First and foremost is the Alpine weather, which provides an abundance of afternoon sun but is tempered by colder nighttime air–helping to keep all of nebbiolo’s myriad elements in balance.

In addition, while the wines of Barolo and Barbaresco require cépage to be exclusively nebbiolo, the wines of Alto Piemonte allow for nebbiolo to be blended with other local grapes such as vespolina or croatina, which tend to accentuate the higher-toned flavors. There are also differences in soil composition: Alto Piemonte’s terroir is more volcanic in nature, instead of the limestone and clay that feature prominently in the wines of Langhe.

The Alto Piemonte is bifurcated by the Sesia River– Colline Novaresi to the east and Coste della Sesia to the west–and the better-known sub-regions lie directly on the river’s shores. Ghemme, on the right bank, and Gattinara, on the left, are the only two to have attained DOCG status.

Ghemme’s terrain includes more clay and sits at a lower elevation. Therefore its wines often have a fuller body and more pronounced tannins than that of its neighbors. With its volcanic assortment of granite, quartz, and iron, Gattinara produces wines known for their vibrancy and mineral-driven focus.

At Paul Marcus Wines, we are currently featuring the all-nebbiolo 2008 Ca` Nova Ghemme, a wine firmly in its sweet spot. Displaying savory notes of earth and spice at first, this wine is rounded out by fresh acidity and a gentle but noticeable tannic grip. The 2013 Antoniolo Gattinara, also available in the shop, is a lively, graceful rendering that spends 30 months in oak and boasts buoyant red fruits with just enough tannic support. Made with 100 percent nebbiolo, this bottle can easily lie down for another decade.

Other Alto Piemonte appellations worth seeking out include the higher-altitude areas of Boca (east of the Sesia) and Bramaterra (west of the river), as well as low-lying Fara (southeast of Ghemme) and sandy-soiled Lessona, whose wines are among the most supple and polished of the region.

There are also wines that are simply labeled Colline Novaresi or Coste della Sesia, usually lighter, more ephemeral wines intended to be enjoyed young. For an example of this style, look toward the Colombera & Garella Coste della Sesia rosso, a lean, refreshingly limber blend of 70 percent nebbiolo, 15 percent vespolina, and 15 percent croatina. (Bear in mind that this producer keeps output low, so these bottles move quickly.)

Fans of rosé can get in on the Alto Piemonte action, too. You can pick up a bottle of the Antoniolo Bricco Lorella rosato–aromatic, herbaceous, and dry, but with a bit of weight–or maybe Al Posto Dei Fiori by Le Pianelle, which ranks as perhaps the shop’s most full-flavored, complex rosé.

Finally, mention must be made of the tiny Carema DOC. Bordering the Valle d’Aosta and a good 40-plus miles west of the river Sesia, Carema’s terraced, steeply situated vines produce streamlined, gloriously perfumed wines bursting with acidity and propped up by persistent, fine-grained tannins. The big fish in this little pond is Ferrando, whose expression of nebbiolo epitomizes the strength and beauty of Alto Piemonte and, in peak years, can age for 20 years or more. Paul Marcus Wines is fortunate to have the 2013 and 2014 vintages of Ferrando Carema. Get them while you can.

Bottles in the cellar at Villa Era, Alto Piemonte

​Excavation

artifact / ärdəfakt /
noun: an object made by a human being, typically an item of cultural or historical interest.

archeology / ärkēˈäləjē /

noun: the study of human history and prehistory through the excavation of sites and the analysis of artifacts and other physical remains.

Experience

Wine can represent many things, like a particular flavor, a palatal experience, the time and efforts of cultivation, or the intellectual design of a product. And we can talk about it in so many ways too, evaluating wines geographically, aesthetically, linearly, horizontally. We use metaphor. We use qualitative biochemical data. We use narrative, and we attach it to a physical object destined for consumption, consume it, and begin to evaluate based on an array of potential methods of inquiry. If we are to treat the appreciation of wine in any academic way, that is to study it, we first must choose the method and scope of inquiry, which for me, particularly regarding older bottles, skews to the archeological.

Throughout my time at Paul Marcus Wines I was fortunate to taste, with some regularity, wines that far surpassed me in age and maturity. Over the past few years I’ve seen a surge in interest, enthusiasm, and availability of more obscure wines like this (18 year-old Sancerre Rouge, 28 year-old Portuguese Arinto, 30 year-old Santa Cruz Cabernet), wines that have taken on the secondary and tertiary characteristics of graceful development. Right away you can recognize acidity and color, defining characteristics of longevity, the ability to stay fresh, and the availability of concentrated fruit. But always, wines like these come with a caveat, a disclaimer of sorts about provenance, about transportation, storage, preservation, the guarantee on untainted products, the artifacts we so casually imbibe. So what can the study (and appreciation) of these agricultural remains signify about history? Perhaps that it inevitably devours itself.

Vineyard at Villa Era, Alto Piemonte

Vineyard at Villa Era, Alto Piemonte

Visiting Piemonte

Last November, I was invited to Italy by the business consortium and viticultural association of Beilla, a small sub-region of the Alto Piemonte, west of Milan and almost to the Alps. It is an absolutely beautiful area, richin chestnuts, risotto, and an earnest wool milling industry. Right now, the region is in the process of redefining itself as a premium growing and production zone for grapes, particularly Nebbiolo. Today about 1,500 hectares of vines are planted in Alto Piemonte, primarily to Nebbiolo, though small amounts of Vespolina, Croatina, Uva Rara and Erbaluce are also planted. In 1900, however, over 40,000 hectares of grapes filled the region, a gross historical disparity which the winemakers there hope to resolve. The cool temperatures, extended sunlight exposure from altitude, latitude, and proximity to the Alps, and the geological event in which a volcano upended a mountain to expose ancient marine soils, all contribute to the severe minerality, acidity, and vivid coloration and red flavor of these Nebbiolo wines. Although the Langhe in the more southern part of Piedmont carries more commercial and critical weight in the industry now, the sheer volume of wine produced in the heyday of Alto Piemonte, and the evaluative quality of that wine, can shed light on both the cultural and natural history of the area. Touring vineyards and wineries, attending a seminar on soil types, tasting recent releases of wines from a dozen Alto Piemontese producers, and eating beautifully from the local farms and tables were all illuminating aspects of the culture and the cuisine and the heritage of the region, but nothing taught me more than tasting through a series of library bottles from four small wineries. It was easily the most personally revealing experience I’ve ever had with wine.

Before the tasting at Villa Era, a tiny producer in midst of laborious reclamation of vineyard sites from a century or so of forest encroachment, we toured the cellars (as we had the previous evening at Castello di Castellengo) to see the dusty, cobwebbed and moldy bottles of mismatched shape and size with tags and decomposing labels that date these artifacts through the past several centuries. These library collections of estate bottlings provide evidence that throughout time the properties yielded a product worth preserving in glass, underground in stable conditions, on the assumption that someday, someone would recognize that this was a fine wine designed to shine for future generations.

Bottles in the cellar at Villa Era, Alto Piemonte

Bottles in the cellar at Villa Era, Alto Piemonte

Experiencing Aged Piemonte

The oldest artifact was a bottle of 1842 Castello di Montecavallo which is almost impossible to describe ingesting other than physical euphoria a, sensation of emotionally charged discovery. To share this piece of completely vibrant, assertive history, with the current generations of folks who farm the same land produced in me this neurological firing where I tried to connect pure sensory experience with the particular circumstance and somehow try to intellectually remember that this wine was deemed over the course of 175 years to be worth preserving, and that this gorgeous and completely unexpected semi-sweet but citric and lively wine five times my age was now going to be absorbed by my body. It felt as though I’d consumed an ephemeral dose of wisdom.

I know that’s hard to qualify. But trying to compare, or at least comprehend, the 1896 Castellengo and 1897 Villa Era was somewhat more grounded. I’d been in these cellars, walked in these vineyards; I was sitting in the building where 120 years earlier one of these wines had probably just finished fermenting, maybe just gone into barrel. One was reddish and slightly tannic, the other golden and slippery, and both were fresh. So you speculate. The grape, the vintage, the design? Two wines made a year apart within ten kilometers of each other and yet so fantastically different. And still with this surreal recognition that these wines were made around the time that my ancestors left Europe to participate in a different history a continent away.

Tasting a pair of wines, 1931 Montecavallo and 1934 Castellengo, I could sense some greater intensity, whether to do with process development or a renewed artisanal concentration in the wines after the industry fallout in the first decade of the 20th Century due to climate and disease, I don’t know. But the Montecavallo, like the 1842, offered a pure, sandy, pear-like quality, and the Castellengo, like the 1896, was denser, richer in color. The 1934 showed great definition as Nebbiolo, herbal, brilliant red, tannic and tough like a the skin of a wizened crabapple, a gorgeous wine and my favorite of the entire tasting.

Modern Respects

The more recent presentations, a 1960 from Villa Era, and a 1965 and 1970 from Tenuta Sella, a producer PMW has recently carried, proved a welcome familiarity, more within the bounds of my previous experience. These were wines with structure, ripe and dusty fruit and emphatic texture. These were wines wound with youth, wines that I expected to develop further. In the Sella wines, particularly, a continuously operating producer since the 17th Century, I tasted exuberance, a great and yet unrevealed potential. I felt aligned with Nebbiolo, a tart little corner of recognition on my palate, but I also felt the resonance of timbre, a uniformity, or at least a seam of connective tissue that stitched me to the place, to the people, to the things this circumstance in time and culture had revealed.

Tenuta Sella 1965 Lessona & 1970 Lessona

Tenuta Sella 1965 Lessona & 1970 Lessona

And then after sharing a bottle of the 2010 Sella Lessona over dinner back in California, and talking and laughing and telling the story, exposing the narrative and presenting the evidence, one can still only project the future. We have what we have and we have what has been preserved and with that we have to make do. I know that in Alto Piemonte they used to make great wine and that over time the wines changed and adapted and that now by looking back, it is also possible to look forward, to understand the history and prehistory of a specific place, the culture of past, present and future through artifacts.

(credit: Patrick Newson)

Roero Map - Discovering Roero

The Roero

Roero Map - Discovering RoeroOn a clear afternoon in southern Piemonte, the narrow walkway around the tower of Barbaresco gives a breathtaking view of Italy’s greatest winegrowing territory. Directly around and below you are the Barbaresco zone vineyards. You look southwest out over the towers of Alba to the Barolo zone – the village of La Morra perched high, and the castle of Barolo a little beyond. You’re standing in and looking at the Langhe, a region that includes the hilly zones of Barbaresco, Barolo, and the Alta Langa farther south.

Train your gaze northwest, across the Tanaro River, and you’ll see a set of hills with a different name – the Roero. (Head there at dusk and you can look back at the Barbaresco tower in a majestic, brooding vista that Fred Seidman captured in one of the photographs hanging in our wine shop.)

The Roero hills, like those in the Langhe, are blanketed with vineyards – as well as orchards, fields, and truffle-yielding woods. While less well known than the Langhe, despite its proximity and equally long winegrowing tradition. Geography and reputation conspire to draw most visitors south and leave the Roero hills looming behind. “Geography” is the Tanaro River valley and the Asti-Alba road that runs through it. Together, the valley and road make a beeline for Alba. “Reputation” is the pull of the storied vineyards and cantinas of Barolo – pilgrimage destination for wine-lovers and beneficiary of the majority of the area’s tourism.

And yet, the Roero yields what is arguably Piemonte’s greatest white wine (Roero Arneis), Barbera of quality equal to the Langhe’s, and excellent Nebbiolo – often at prices that are a notch below Langhe wines of comparable quality. It’s also a great place to stay, eat, taste wines, walk, and bicycle. (More on those activities later in this newsletter!)

Arneis

An indigenous white grape variety called Arneis is the Roero’s wine calling card. A little of it grows elsewhere, but it’s ubiquitous in the Roero, and even people in the Langhe agree that the sandy soils there make the best terroir for Arneis. Until the end of the 1970s, Roero winemakers used Arneis primarily for blending with Nebbiolo – a pinch of Arneis softens Nebbiolo’s notoriously hard tannins and thus yields a slightly softer, younger-drinking wine. Then a few dedicated producers such as Bruno Giacosa and Cerretto showed what Arneis vinified by itself as a white wine could do, and the Arneis craze was on.

DOC / DOCG

Roero Arneis became a DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata – a wine of controlled origin and grape variety) in 1989. Just this year, it was elevated to DOCG status (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita – a designation usually reserved for the best regional wine types).

Roero Arneis is one of those remarkable Italian white wines that combine ample body with a crisp, refreshing quality. It smells of fruits and flowers, but then don’t most white wines? There’s a deeper core in there, like the richness of honey but without its sweetness. And then there’s a smoky note (from the grape and the terroir, not from oak), plus a minerally vein that runs through all the best white wines. Like so many excellent but less common wine types, Roero Arneis is hard to describe but easy to like.

Roero Arneis We Carry

To find out for yourself, take home a bottle of Marco Porello Roero Arneis ‘Camestrì’ 2003 ($11.99) or Matteo Correggia Roero Arneis 2003 ($16.50), or try a glass of Cascina Ca’ Rossa Roero Arneis ‘Merica’ 2003 at the Eccolo dinner on Monday night. All of these wines – and especially Corrregia’s – show the richness and weight of the 2003 vintage, with plenty of aromatic appeal. The 2004 bottlings of these and other Roero Arneis will be arriving soon, and they promise amazing aromatic freshness and lighter palate profiles.

Roero Arneis is a satisfying aperitivo and goes great with most antipasti, including the fishier, anchovy-laden dishes that are so favored by the Piemontese. Really, it’s hard to imagine any lighter fare, including summer pastas and salads, that Roero Arneis wouldn’t go well with.

Barbera

Regular readers of this newsletter may remember my encomium to Barbera in the March 2003 newsletter – it remains a favorite everyday red wine for most of the PMW staff and quite a few of our customers. What I’ve noticed since then, however, is how many of our best-selling Barberas come from the Roero. That’s partly because they tend to have high quality-to-price ratios, and partly because they just taste so damned good!

Much of the Roero is steep hills composed of sandy soils. Steep hills are good for ripening, and sandy soils often give wines an extra dimension of aromatic beauty. The Langhe may make heftier Barbera, but here they excel at producing lovely Barberas. Or, you can ignore these subtle distinctions and just enjoy drinking them.

DOC

Barbera grown in the Roero falls in the Barbera d’Alba DOC (“Barbera from around the town of Alba”), as does most of the Barbera from Barolo and Barbaresco. So you often can’t tell from the label whether a particular Barbera d’Alba is from the Roero or the Langhe, unless you happen to know where the producer or his village is located.

Roero Barbera We Carry

Our best-selling Barbera without a doubt is Filippo Gallino’s Barbera d’Alba 2003 ($11.99). If there is a better pizza-pasta-lasagna wine in the world, I’ve yet to find it. It has that dark-cherry-and-berry Barbera sappiness, with a hint of pepper and menthol to keep things interesting and snappy acidity in the finish to keep the wine refreshing. As our sign in the store says, this is bodacious Barbera.

We’ve got two other Roero Barberas in the store at the moment: Cascina Ca’ Rossa Barbera d’Alba 2003 ($15) and Cascina Val del Prete Barbera d’Alba ‘Serra de’ Gatti’ 2003 ($16). These are slightly more concentrated, complex, and longer on the palate than the Gallino. Both are irresistible.

It’s also worth noting that 2003 has turned out to be the Barbera Vintage. All of Europe sweltered during the summer of ’03, and many wines from the vintage don’t quite have the snappy freshness that we love. But Barbera’s naturally high acidity kept the wines fresh and vivid, and the extra heat only deepened their irresistible fruit.

Although the Roero is a great source of fresh, everyday, under-$20 Barbera, some producers are showing that they can make serious, barrique-aged Barbera to rival those from the Langhe. (See the March 2003 newsletter article referenced above for more information about this style of Barbera.) On Monday night at Eccolo, we’ll be drinking the Cascina Ca’ Rossa Barbera d’Alba ‘Mulassa’ 2001, a single-vineyard Barbera that Angelo Ferrio aged for 18 months in barrique. One of the benchmark “serious” Roero Barberas is Cascina Val del Prete’s Barbera d’Alba ‘Carolina’. (At a certain tony restaurant in Los Angeles, the staff know Mario Roagna, the proprietor of Cascina Val del Prete, as “Mr. Carolina”.) The 2001 is long gone, and Mario didn’t make any in 2002, but keep an eye out for the 2003 vintage – it will be wickedly good.

What should you drink Roero Barbera with? What shouldn’t you drink Roero Barbera with? All things tomato-y. Antipasti. Anchovies and especially bagna caoda (the anchovy-based dipping sauce that serves as the ketchup of Piemonte). Chicken. Sausages. It even works with moderately spicy food and some Asian dishes.

Nebbiolo

Nebbiolo is the great wine grape variety of Piemonte, as our September 2004 newsletter describes. Although Barolo and Barbaresco are the most famous incarnations of Nebbiolo, Roero Nebbiolo has been held in high esteem since at least the 17th century. More importantly, there’s some genuinely excellent Nebbiolo being made in the Roero right now!

DOC / DOCG

As in the Langhe, the Roero bottles two kinds of Nebbiolo. The first is a fresh, younger-drinking wine usually called simply Nebbiolo d’Alba or Langhe Nebbiolo. (As with Barbera d’Alba, the Nebbiolo d’Alba DOC doesn’t tell you where in the region around Alba the Nebbiolo grapes come from – it could be either or). The more serious, structured wine is called simply Roero. Like Roero Arneis, the Roero DOC is being elevated to a DOCG this year. So “Roero Arneis” DOCG is white wine made from Arneis, and “Roero” DOCG is red wine made from Nebbiolo. Got it?

The region has already made a reputation for itself with Arneis. Whether it will take its place alongside Barolo and Barbaresco as the third great Piemontese appellation depends entirely on what the producers do with Nebbiolo – and on whether the elevation to DOCG status causes critics to pay more attention to what producers are doing.

For now, we can ignore all of that and simply thank Bacchus (and Angelo Ferrio) for the Cascina Ca’ Rossa Langhe Nebbiolo 2003 ($16). This is what young Nebbiolo should taste like – fresh but sophisticated, supple but with enough tannin to do meat justice. As is true with Barbera, the sandy soils of the Roero lend a particularly pretty aromatic profile to Roero Nebbiolos like this one.

Marco Porello’s Roero ‘Torretta’ 2001 was one of our favorite Nebbiolos in the store about a year ago. The 2003 vintage of this wine should arrive before too long, and judging from how it tasted in Piemonte in March, it will be another winner.

Roero Nebbiolo We Carry

Angelo’s Cascina Ca’ Rossa Roero ‘Audinaggio’ 2001 ($38) is excellent Nebbiolo from an excellent producer in an excellent vintage. This wine impressed me mightily at a lunch in March, and you’ll have the opportunity to drink it, as well as the 1999 vintage, at Eccolo on Monday 20 June.

Three other “serious” Roero Nebbiolos are worthy of mention, even though we don’t have all of them in the store at the moment. Filippo Gallino’s Roero Superiore 2001 was still in tank when I tasted it in March, but it had all the makings of a superb wine. Mario Roagna makes two impressive single-vineyard Nebbiolo wines: Cascina Val del Prete Nebbiolo d’Alba ‘Vigna di Lino’ ($38 for the 2001 vintage) and Cascina Val del Prete Roero. Both are widely acknowledged as being among the top Roero wines – we’ll be getting these in as new vintages when it becomes available.

Meat and game are the classic matches with Nebbiolo. Lamb and Nebbiolo play well together, and I particularly like gamy birds such as pigeon with Roero. See our September 2004 newsletter for more suggestions.

Birbét

After all this talk of “serious” wines, it seems suitable to end with a purely fun wine. Birbét is the Roero’s version of Brachetto d’Acqui – a light, low-alcohol, slightly sweet, frizzante red wine for after dinner. (It’s a red analogue of Moscato d’Asti, made from the Brachetto grape rather than from Moscato.) “Birbét” is a Piemontese word meaning lively, fun, and a little bit mischievous – you’ve been warned! It smells of strawberries, rose petals, and cinnamon. Midwestern grandmas and sommeliers love it. It goes down easy and doesn’t intoxicate (much), but still makes everything and everyone look prettier.

The one that we have in the store and that Eccolo pours is Cascina Ca’ Rossa Birbét 2003 ($19). Drink some and watch your life improve.