I love Nebbiolo.
Like many, most of the Nebbiolos I have tasted are from Langhe in South Piemonte in Northern Italy. Langhe is home to the world famous Barolo, and the slightly less famous, but in my view equally good, Barbaresco.
It also makes some fantastic Langhe Nebbiolo, an earlier drinking wine generally made from younger wines with less time in oak. A Langhe Nebbiolo from a good Barolo or Barbaresco producer is a top tip for a good value introduction to the grape. Try one from Produttori del Barbaresco for starters, you won’t be disappointed.
Although I always try to take my palate off the well-trodden tracks of the wine world, until a recent trip to North Piemonte, the only bottle I recall drinking from the region was sold to me in a smart Italian restaurant in London.
“It’s a baby Barolo”, chimed the sommelier.
I am a sucker for both alliteration and Barolo, so I ordered a bottle.
It was a Carema produced by the Cantina dei Produttori Nebbiolo di Carema, the co-operative which produces the vast majority of the wine in this small DOC. I remember really enjoying it as a light, easy-going, food friendly wine. A bit of a baby Barolo, I suppose.
So when I had the opportunity to visit the North Piemonte region (as part of a group of six wine writers from across Europe) to meet local winemakers, taste and learn about the wines I jumped at the chance.
I must have tasted close to 100 wines on the 3 day trip, the majority of which were Nebbiolos or Nebbiolo blends which an English sommelier would probably try and sell as “baby Barolos”. I also tasted some excellent Erbaluce, a white grape I had never even heard of, which I will cover in a separate article.
On the basis of what I tasted, the Nebbiolo based wines of North Piemonte wines are no longer babies. They are good enough to stand on their own and it is surely only a matter of time before they are better known.
The best wines I tasted were elegant, refined and showed real finesse. My favourite 100% Nebbiolos came from the DOCs/DOCGs (DOC and DOCG are quality assurance labels for Italian wine, with DOCG being the strictest and notionally superior of the two) of Carema DOC, Coste della Sesia DOC, Gattinara DOCG, Ghemme DOCG and Lessona DOC.
In Coste della Seisa, there is a wider variety of wines bottled than the other DOC/DOCGs mentioned above, as the requirements around what can be done with the wines (e.g. the mix of grapes that can be used and the ageing requirements) are less stringent than the other DOCs. This means it produces a lot of early drinking and interesting wines. The best 100% Nebbiolos I tasted from this DOC were by Centovigne Castellengo (2011) and Pietro Cassina (2010).
In Gattinara the wines of Nervi and Travaglini are truly world class. I particularly enjoyed Nervi’s 2011 Gattinara and 2006 Molsino.
Above, the view over Nervi's Molsino vineyard towards Gattinara
Below, in the other direction towards Monte Rose
In Lessona look out for excellent wines from Tenute Sella (definitely an estate to watch), La Badina, Proprieta Sperino and Pietro Cassina.
The view from Tenute Sella's vineyards in Lessona
In Ghemme, the wines produced by the charming Alberto Arlunno of Antichi Vigneti Di Cantalupo are as consistently brilliant a line-up of wines as you are likely to drink. And I include his red blends, whites, pinks and fizz in this line up, not just the pure Nebbiolos. I also tasted an excellent 2010 Ghemme Riserva by Torraccia di Piantavigna.
Alberto Arlunno in the Cantalupo vineyards at Ghemme
The town of Ghemme from Cantalupa's vineyards
As well as the many 100% Nebbiolos, I also really enjoyed the Nebbiolos blended with Vespolina, another new grape for me. Vespolina seems to offer the same refreshing, lip-smacking spice that Northern Rhone Syrah does. When combined with the cherries of Nebbiolo it creates an intoxicating food friendly wine.
My favourite Vespolina blends were a wine by Tenute Sella called Orbello (2014) from the Coste della Sesia DOC and the 2009 Ghemme DOCG by Cantalupo.
The Ghemme DOCG allows up to 10% Vespolina to be included along with the Nebbiolo. Although many are made as 100% Nebbiolos, my favourite (Cantalupo’s 2009) had 10% Vespolina.
I did taste an excellent 100% Vespolina by Pietro Cassina bottled under the Coste della Seisa DOC, however these seem to be rare beasts. Vespolina appears to be mainly used in blends.
But if I am honest, my heart was stolen by the Carema wines. And I only tasted two. Both were produced by the Cantina dei Produttori Nebbiolo di Carema, a black label traditional bottling and a white label riserva. I’d quite happily drink the traditional with lunch and the riserva with dinner for the rest of my days.
The traditional 2013 bottling I tasted was almost orange in colour and had whiffs of cherries. Soft and light as a feather on the palate, with flavours of orange peel and raspberry. Absolutely delicious.
The 2012 riserva had 6 months more in oak than the traditional and is a bit darker and more serious. Dark cherry sweetness on the palate offset by great acidity and refined tannins on the finish. Great balance.
Viviano Gassino, the man in charge of wine-making in Carema
Cantina dei Produttori Nebbiolo di Carema is a co-operative with 78 members, who together own 14 of the 16 hectares under vine in the DOC. The other two hectares are owned by the only other producer in the Carema DOC, Ferrando Vini, who’s wines I didn’t get to try but I will definitely try to do so.
For me, wine is about a sense of place and a story. I spent a morning wandering around the pergola vineyards high in the hills, 300 metres above the town of Carema.
My camera snapped in all directions. I drooled over the stunning scenery. The Alps are literally within touching distance.
It was here that I fell in love with the wines. Tasting them later that day merely confirmed it.
Looking down on Carema from the pergola vineyards, oh and the Alps
The terraced vines above the town of Carema, oh and the Alps...again
What is encouraging is that the winemakers of the region are working hard to promote the wines. Over the three days I met many producers from Biella, Gattinara, Ghemme and Canavese.
In each of these areas, the sense of community amongst the winemakers was clear. They all seemed bought into the concept of working together to raise the quality of wines across the board in each of their sub-regions.
As Luca de Marchi of Proprieta Sperino in Lessona told us “if only one person makes good wine it only benefits one, if lots of us make good wine it becomes a good area, and that is better for everyone”.
The messaging is on point, but I do think that to fully establish the area on the international arena, they need to work together across the whole of North Piemonte. If each of the groups we met worked as one group across North Piemonte, rather than splitting the power of the region into sub-regions, it would be a much stronger brand. Once the brand is known, consumers can then explore the different communes within it.
Something with Piemonte in the title would be instantly recognisable to an international consumer base. I for one had never heard of Biella or Canavese before I went on the trip but I had heard of Piemonte. It seems a shame to look a gift horse in the mouth.
Speaking of which, one of my colleagues on the trip Quentin Sadler suggested “Alpine Piemonte”, which rolls off the tongue pretty well in my book. It also give the wines a story and a sense of place.
The thing that hit our group members every time we stepped into a vineyard was the stunning backdrop of the Alps.
Yet, whilst we all immediately reached for our cameras, the locals seemed to barely notice their existence. I suppose when you see them every day, even something as stunning as the Alps can be taken for granted. It just needs outsiders like us to make them realise.
They talked a lot about the acidic soils, ancient volcanoes and glacial shifts. But that doesn’t sell wines.
Look at those mountains. You can almost touch them from the vineyards. That sells wines.
When I think back to my time in Northern Piemonte, it isn’t the memory of the acidic soils caused by ancient glacial shift that sticks with me. It is those mountains.
Regardless of how they are pitched to you, I suggest these wines are worthy of wider attention. These are varied, food friendly wines to make your mouth water.
If like me you enjoy Loire Cabernet Franc, Beaujolais, Northern Rhone Syrah, red Burgundy and Nebbiolo, or any of the above, you should try these wines. You will be sure to find something to enjoy.
The best wines I tasted from North Piemonte are elegant, refined and much more than just baby Barolos.
For those in the UK, some of these wines are available to buy;
The wines of Nervi are available from Raeburn Fine Wines
The wines of Cantina dei Produttori Nebbiolo di Carema and Travaglini are available from Astrum wines
The wines of Proprieta Sperino are available from Liberty Wines.