2017 – Northern Piedmont
Northern Piedmont & THE VALSESIA VOLCANO:
BIELLA – NOVARA
While Italy is expected to rank 1st worldwide in terms of wine making volume this year, I wanted to highlight a small but important Italian wine region: the northern Piemonte which today is getting back in the limelight for its prestigious terroirs (Boca, Ghemme, Gattinara, Bramaterra, etc…) stretching from Biella to Novara along the Alpine mountain range where vineyards find their top locations on the south facing slopes up to an altitude of 520m above the sea level.
It is worth mentioning that these vineyards have not just recently been discovered; as a matter of fact since the Middle Age and until two centuries ago they had several thousands of hectares of vines, supplying wines to the Sabaudian royal court. King Vittorio Emmanuele and the Count Camillo Benso of Cavour were at that time impressive gastronomic connoisseurs, not only illuminated leaders.
Nowadays the most important appellation is Gattinara, and it merely encompasses a modest 100 hectare of planted vines while the neighbouring areas are far smaller. The main reason for this major change can be attributed to the industrial development, mainly textiles and metallurgy which represent a much more lucrative investment.
Due to this simple economic reason, the forests (often chestnut trees due to the acid nature of the soils) have swallowed entire vineyards and the industrial development has reshaped the region creating important urban poles such as Biella and Novara.
Vines that survived since the beginning of the last century, or before WW II can still be found, in micro parcels surrounded by woods, bearing the ancient – traditional training system called Maggiorina (after the village of Maggiora).
This training system is based on three plants sharing the same 4 sq. meters delimited by a square trellis, which allows the plant to cover the whole surrounding surface in the shape of a funnel.
This solution allows an important leaf surface, a practical fruit distribution and consistent high yields with an improved protection against hail and other weather damages.
Modern planting systems do not follow those principals anymore due to the impossibility to mechanise. Every vineyard nowadays is built on conventional trellis systems, mostly high guyot with relatively low densities, for the Nebbiolo needs space between the raws (1m50 or more).
Knowing the Langhe, we could be surprised by how good the Nebbiolo, locally named Spanna (an ancient relative with smaller clusters), can be wonderfully adapted to these porphyry and acid soils born from a massive volcanic activity generated by the Valsesia “super-volcano” 250 millions of years ago, far before the Alps came to birth. At that time the area was dominated by a mountain chain called Varisque or Hertzienne, surrounded by the seas, ( that explains clearly today the reason for those consistent limestone stripes alternating with volcanic layers).
Spanna enjoys a naturally high acidity, an important tannic structures, such as all Nebbiolos, and it finds a natural complement with the Vespolina, who contributes for an average 30% of the blends in most of the local appellations (those on volcanic soils).
These fine nectars require a long aging process in barrel, between 18 to 24 months in Slavonian oak, to develop their unique bouquet, ranging from sage to faded leaves, from wood berries to tobacco, sustained by a massive structure that melts down as the bottle ages, but they keep in their core an exquisite sapid – saline middle palate and finish… shall we say a terroir signature?
On the eye we should never expect deep non-see-through cores but mostly luminous ruby bodies and a grenate tinge-hue reaching at a fairly early stage of their life after bottling.
When you’ll have the opportunity to try to the local cuisine, traditional dishes like the “Panissa” (rice, pork skin and local beans) or some other great Piedmont preparation along with the local wines we mentioned above you won’t feel the austerity in the tannins, but simply a juicy and idyllic fusion of the senses.