Magazine

Nebbiolos of the north

Once upon a time, nebbiolo from Alto Piemonte was even more famous than its cousins Barolo and Barbaresco.


The noble nebbiolo grape makes some of Italy’s most famous and age-worthy wines: Barolo and Barbaresco, which both come from small wine zones in the Langhe of Piedmont. Nebbiolo stubbornly refuses to grow well outside of Piedmont (with a notable exception in nearby Valtellina), but it also shows its fine form in denominations like Roero DOCG, though this is lesser-known in the wider wine world. And then there are the nebbiolos of the north. Once upon a time, and indeed for a very long period of time, these hidden gems were more famous even than Barolo and Barbaresco. And today, they are once more beginning to gain in renown.

A once-mighty reign in Alto Piemonte

An hour north of Turin and two hours north of the gently rolling slopes of the Langhe, Roero, and Monferrato, Piedmont rises into steep Alpine foothills covered in forests. Vineyards dot the land here and there. The beginning of Italy’s lake district—Orta, Maggiore, Varese—is not far away. This is Alto Piemonte, or high Piedmont, referring to its elevation. In Alto Piemonte, nebbiolo is sometimes known as spanna and oftentimes blended with vespolina and uva rara (or bonarda). It takes on fairy-tale like names from the towns it’s produced in: like Gattinara, Ghemme, Boca, Fara, Lessona, and Bramaterra. Vineyards in Alto Piemonte. Vineyards in Alto Piemonte. Photo © Travaglini

Once, 40,000 hectares (nearly 100,000 acres) of vineyards were cultivated in Alto Piemonte. This number has dwindled to just 1,500 today. The region, which produced wine that the king of Spain adored in the 1500s, took several hard hits in the 19th and 20th centuries. After the phylloxera outbreak of the late 1800s, a large area of Alto Piemonte was hit with a hailstorm in 1905 that became the stuff of legends. It was a double-whammy to wine production. Combined with a general movement of the population to cities, where wages didn’t depend on the cruel whims of nature, the vineyards were abandoned. The forests took over. Today, you can still see grapes growing on grapevines tangled in the branches of the woods.

Gattinara, a well-known nebbiolo of the north

Not everyone abandoned their vineyards, however. Travaglini vineyards Gattinara vineyards. Photo © Travaglini

We spoke with Cinzia Travaglini of the Travaglini Winery in the wine producing zone of Gattinara about Alto Piemonte's past and how it's viewed today. “My great-grandfather was making wine in the 1920s, when it was only sold in demijohns,” says Cinzia. It was his grandson, Giancarlo—Cinzia’s father—who believed strongly in nebbiolo’s quality and potential and who helped the territory gets its feet back on solid ground. In 1960, he revolutionized production in the area when he introduced the guyot vine training system. Up until that point, all vines were grown according to the mostly obsolete maggiorina system. "The biggest advantage of guyot over maggiorina is a smaller production of grape bunches per vine," says Cinzia. The result is more flavorful grapes and thus better quality wine. Little by little, other vinegrowers in the area began to see the advantages and adopted the system. Today, Gattinara DOCG is one of the most well-known northern nebbiolos. It is also one of only two with DOCG certification, the other being Ghemme. One reason for this is that Gattinara is well-represented abroad. At one point, 90% of Travaglini's production was exported! That is very high for a wine known mostly in the circles of connoisseurs, especially considering they are a family-run, traditional winery and not an industrial conglomerate intent on quantity and profit. Today, they export 60% of their wine.

"Pancia in giù," the bottle that's a decanter

Travaglini GattinaraOne of Travaglini’s most unique traits is the shape of the bottle, which certainly makes a lasting and memorable impression on the buyer. Its form recalls the back of a seated person with a gentle slope to its shoulders. This was another innovation of Giancarlo’s, and has remained a distinguishing mark of the winery today. “The shape of the bottle is now symbolic of our brand,” says Cinzia. The curved bottle means “Travaglini,” and Travaglini means “Gattinara.” Why this curvy shape? In 1958, Giancarlo decided that Gattinara would be better served in this bottle because it acts like a decanter. “Gattinara can age fifteen, twenty years or more, with a good vintage,” says Cinzia. When it’s in the cellar for that long, sediment forms. The fact that their Gattinara wines are made with 100% nebbiolo, without the small allowed percentage of vespolina or bonarda, gives their wines greater complexity and especially longevity. Pour the wine pancia in giù, or belly-down, and the dips in the bottle collect sediment.

Differences between nebbiolos

While it never bounced back, in the past couple of decades Alto Piemonte’s production has grown. It is gaining admiration and attention from wine lovers around the world, who are rediscovering the noble qualities of nebbiolo when grown outside of the Langhe. What makes the northern nebbiolos different than their southern siblings, Barolo and Barbaresco? “Gattinara is more mineral, elegant, and easier to drink than Barolo,” says Cinzia, “and these differences come from two factors: the microclimate and the soil.” Nebbiolo from Gattinara. Photo © Travaglini Nebbiolo from Gattinara. Photo © Travaglini

The microclimate is cooler, windier, and drier than the Langhe, helping the grapes develop more aromas and thus more elegance. The soil is composed of iron, granite, and porphyry, and is much more rocky and mineral-rich. “Up in the hills, the soil goes down fifty to sixty centimeters, and then it’s all rock. The roots grow deep and pick up that minerality.” This gives the wine a different of complexity and elegance than Barolo or Barbaresco, and certainly more minerality.

What grows together goes together

Now that you’re convinced a bottle of Alto Piemonte nebbiolo deserves a place at your table, what pairs best with it? “Gattinara is very versatile,” says Cinzia, “and a classic Gattinara will even pair well with white fish, because the wine’s elegance will not overpower it.” So, never say fish only pairs with white wines! What grows together goes together is not just fun to say—it’s true. The most traditional Piedmontese dishes and flavors pair best with the wines from this area. The more local, the better. Starters and first courses go well with a classic Gattinara, like risotto al Gattinara or a dish featuring earthy porcini, which grow in abundance in the area. A Gattinara Riserva—aged for at least three years in wood (and forty-seven months total)—pairs nicely with long-roasted meats, game, and aged cheeses.