Ask an Italian wine lover about the wines of the Piedmont region, and it’s almost certain they’ll talk about two glorious wines from Langhe: Barolo and Barbaresco. These are two iconic reds, produced exclusively from Nebbiolo, and are among the most complex and ageworthy wines produced anywhere in the world.
Two other reds from this area, Barbara and Dolcetto are well-known, as lately even a few whites, such as Roero Arneis and Timorasso, have become important wines from Piedmont. But head further north to Alto Piemonte, and you’ll come across a part of Piedmont wine country that is not as famous as the Langhe district, but is home to some of the finest and most intriguing in the region.
Alto Piemonte – or “upper Piemonte” – is a broad, east-to-west production zone that is situated in northern Piedmont, south of Turin. Once this was home to tens of thousands of acres of vineyards, but that number drastically changed six and seven decades ago for several reasons, including production costs and the lure of other territories in Piedmont and elsewhere in Italy as far as consumer recognition for their wines.
Today, Alto Piemonte is making a comeback, as new vineyards are bring planted, and abandoned plantings are being given new life. A small amount of white wine is produced here, but red production dominates, ranging from the less familiar Vespolina to the legendary Nebbiolo.
Here are notes on a few of the most exciting wine estates in Alto Piemonte today:
Francesco Brigatti – Here is one of the finest estates in Alto Piemonte in the small village of Suno in the province of Novara; to my thoughts, if Brigatti were a producer in Barolo or Barbaresco, he would be famous, but given his location, he has yet to be discovered by many outside of local wine critics and restaurant buyers who love his wines.
Brigatti produces one white wine called Motibello, made entirely from the Erbaluce varietal. Bursting with lovely aromas of melon, lime and elderflowers, this is an excellent version of this wine; enjoy it over the next three to four years with lighter poultry or pork dishes. His Vespolina, a spicy local red varietal, offers appealing raspberry and brown spice notes with a long finish; it’s ideal with pork or veal now or over the next four to six years.
His best wines, however, are his offerings of Nebbiolo. While Barolo and Barbaresco are rightly praised, it’s the examples of this varietal from Alto Piemonte that are attracting a great deal of attention these days, as the territory is cooler than Langhe, resulting in wines of very good acidity and freshness.
His Colline Novaresi (”the hills of Novara”) Nebbiolo labeled Möttfrei 2019 is a top example of what Alto Piemonte Nebbiolo is all about, with intriguing aromas of allspice, coriander, morel cherry and orange zest. Offering excellent concentration, silky tannins, very good acidity, great varietal purity and lovely complexity, this is one of the finest Alto Piemonte reds I have ever tasted. This is so well made and harmonious, you could pair this with so many dishes, ranging from roast chicken to T-bone steak or even leg or lamb; this will drink well for 10-12 years. (94)
Ioppa – Located in the small village of Romagnano Sesia in Novara province, Ioppa offers a nice range of wines, from an Erbaluce/Timorasso blend named San Grato, to a very tasty Nebbiolo Rosato that has a rich mid-palate and is quite dry, to notable versions of Ghemme, a local, long-lived specialty made from Nebbiolo. The 2015 Santa Fé offering offers very good typicity and complexity with elegant tannins; enjoy over the next four to six years (90 points). The 2016 Balsina is richer on the palate and has a more powerful and lengthy finish with notable spice. This will drink well for six to eight years; pair with most red meats or game birds. (92)
I Dof Mati – Located in Fara Novarese, I Dof Mati is managed by two sisters, Sara and Valentina. They produce a range of Alto Piemonte wines, and cleverly use different chess pieces on the labels for each wine; Vespolina being the Queen, Nebbiolo being the Knight, while the King is represented by Ghemme. My favorite wines here are the 2020 Vespolina, with attractive black plum fruit and a distinct savory character (90), and the 2018 Ghemme “Il Matto,” that is an excellent version of this varietal with impressive ripeness, elegant tannins and very good acidity (a trademark of the 2018 vintage); I love the black spice notes in the finish. Enjoy over the next eight to twelve years. (92)
Le Piane – Located in the village of Boca, Le Piane is arguably the finest wine estate in Alto Piemonte. Swiss native Christoph Künzli purchased this small property in the 1990s and has replanted old vines and introduced several new wines. Künzli’s wine offer excellent varietal purity, exquisite harmony and beautifully tuned acidity, and offer notable complexity; additionally the winemaking here is one that emphasizes local terroir and the character of the fruit; the oak notes are subdued.
Two wines that are always standouts are the Mimmo and Boca. The former, labeled as a vino rosso, is a delicious, medium-bodied red with appealing black cherry and black plum fruit, with a light savory note in the finish. This is delicious served slightly chilled and is ideal with pork or chicken; enjoy over the next five to seven years. (91, very good value for the 2020 bottling).
The signature wine at Le Piane is Boca, a blend of primarily Nebbiolo with a lesser percentage of Vespolina. Boca is one of the smallest appellations in Italy, and the Le Piane version is clearly the best. The latest offering from the 2018 vintage, is according to the proprietors, “the finest Boca I have ever made,” and is so rich that he released the wine after the 2019 version.
The aromas are of maraschino cherry, red spice and red flowers. Medium-full with precise acidity, this is a wine of superb harmony with outstanding persistence and textbook varietal purity. The Le Piane Boca has been rated for several years as one of Italy’s greatest wines; this is no exaggeration given past releases, but this 2018 is in a class by itself. Yes, this is primarily Nebbiolo, and you are reminded that when you taste the wine, but after tasting it, you can’t help but compare it to a Grand Cru Burgundy. This will age beautifully for at least 12-15 years; this is easily one of the best red Italian red wines of the year. (96)
Finally, if you’re near the city of Novara, make time to visit a rice farm. Everybody loves risotto, so why not learn how it’s made in this area where rice fields stretch on seemingly forever. I visited a small farm called Riso Rizotti in Mezzomerico and had a great tour, which ends up at the retail shop where you can purchase several types of rice, some of which are not available elsewhere.