Vallana: An Old Favorite Returns

Among the many pleasures of my participation in the seminar on patriarchal vines that I’ve written about here recently, one of the best surprises was the chance to make two new friends who turned out to be – in a manner of speaking – old friends. Twenty-something siblings Francis and Marina Fogarty acted as guides and interlocutors for me all conference long, making sure my shaky Italian got all the help it needed to understand even the most arcane proceedings. Yes, despite their name, the Fogartys are Italian, and winemakers to boot.

In the course of several conversations, I found out that their winery lay in the vicinity of Novara. This led me to reminisce about wines from that area that I loved and remembered with great warmth – the now almost legendary Spannas of Antonio Vallana. Any of us who were lucky enough to drink them in the ‘60s and ‘70s recall their elegance, their depth, their incredibly modest price – a whole string of vinous virtues, which I usually recount at sufficient length to paralyze with boredom all my younger friends. But not so in this case: My mention of Vallana was greeted by a whoop of  “I don’t believe you said that!” and an exuberant thump on the shoulder that, had I not been seated, would have sent me sprawling. Francis plays rugby. “That,” he said, “is us! Vallana was my grandfather.” I immediately forgave him the rugby.

Near-legendary winemaker Bernardo Vallana

Antonio Vallana e Figlo vinified wines from Nebbiolo grapes grown in the Novara hills, a stretch of the northern Piedmont where the Alps loom close, closing the horizon in seemingly every direction.

Spanna grapes: sub-Alpine Nebbiolo

Gattinara is now probably the best-known name here, though other villages also produce respectable (or better) wines: Lessona, Boca, Ghemme, Fara are among the most frequently encountered in our market. Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Spanna was the most prominent and important wine from this area. Spanna is the local name for Nebbiolo, and that was what, in the best hands, the wine was made of. It wasn’t covered by the DOC, and the IGT didn’t exist, so what the wine in the bottle actually might be was a crapshoot unless you knew your producer. And the producer everyone relied on was Vallana.

Burton Anderson devotes two ecstatic pages of his ground-breaking 1980 book Vino: The Wines & Winemakers of Italy to Bernardo Vallana, who named his winery for his father (thus, he is the figlio of Antonio Vallana e Figlio). “Vallana creates wines of extraordinary lifespans,” wrote Anderson, “wines that must be considered outstanding among Italy’s fine reds. . . . Even if he had the same batches of grapes to work with, no other winemaker would end up with wines quite like his, for Vallana guides each vatful through its critical stages, relying as much on intuition as on his finely honed sense of taste to decide when the moment is right to progress from one step to the next.”

I can still taste those wines on my mind’s tongue, rich with fruit and yet restrained, filled with tannins but not rough, immediately pleasurable and yet complicated and demanding thought, lingering in the mouth – and in the palatal memory – long after they were swallowed. Single-vineyard names like Campi Raudii and Cinque Castelli still have magic and can still stir spirited discussion among wine old-timers like me.

They were such good wines, so head-and-shoulders above everything else from the area, that of course rumors swirled about them. My favorite was that what made them so good was an infusion of Aglianico from Campania. My thought about that was simple: If that mix made a wine so superior, it should be made mandatory. But the explanation was probably both simpler and more complex, as Anderson indicates: The man made the wines his way, not the agricultural school’s way or the market’s way.

The old cellar at Vallana -- the 1954 vintage

Just as the Italian wine boom was really getting under way, the Vallana wines quietly disappeared from this market. Bernardo’s son, named Antonio for his grandfather and meant to be his successor at the winery, died suddenly at a very young age, leaving the family devastated: Their private grief all but incapacitated the winery for some time.

The good news for all of us is that, at last, Vallana wines are back. A new generation, the grandchildren of Bernardo – Francis, Marina, and youngest sister Miriam, guided by their mother Giuseppina – have now fully engaged themselves in the winery.

The current Vallana-Fogarty family: Giuseppina, Marina, Francis, and Miriam

Francis is a trained enologist, with a PhD in viticulture. (He has been working as part of Professor Osvaldo Failla’s team on the I Patriarchi ancient-vines project.) Marina holds a degree in philosophy, has worked in enology, has trained as a sommelier, and is sitting for the exams for a degree at Britain’s Wine and Spirits Education Trust. (She harbors plans to do a book about aesthetics and wine.) Miriam, at 22, is the youngest member of the family to join the team.

And the wines are back, in every sense. I tasted Vallana’s 1999 Gattinara and the family’s 2008 Spanna Colline Novaresi, and it was instant “Happy days are here again!”  The Gattinara is svelte and elegant, with absolutely pitch-perfect varietal and local character. The Spanna – well, it was old-time Vallana Spanna, with wonderful sub-Alpine Nebbiolo fruit, hints of enormous depth (as yet undeveloped in so young a wine), and amazing persistence on the palate – a thorough treat.

Vallana’s wines are now being imported to the US by Michael Skurnik Wines. Suggested retail prices are $17 for the Spanna and $30 for the Gattinara. After everything I’ve already said, it’s probably superfluous to say what a bargain I think they are, but I’ll say it anyhow: At those prices, these wines are a steal.

15 Responses to “Vallana: An Old Favorite Returns”

  1. Rick Heimann Says:

    Are the Fogarties related to the California Fogarty, a surgeon who invented the fogarty catheter for removing venous clots and went on to establish a vineyard in Northern California?

  2. Northern Nebbiolo Says:

    [...] Vallana Boca was just $5 when I was young—when the grandfather was alive,” wine writer  Tom Maresca commented to me during the walk-around tasting. As Maresca, who organized the tasting, explained, [...]

  3. Peter Bernstein Says:

    Tom,
    We did a Alto Piemonte Dinner a few weeks ago here at Berta’s and in preparation I communicated frequently with Marina Vallana Fogarty and asked many questions including the old one about blending in Aglianico. Her reply was most interesting; Bernardo, in addition to making Spannas, had quite a business going in inexpensive wines for the local, farmer, trade. She explained that due to the gross quantities consumed and the low prices desired, her grandfather brought in bulk wines from the south precisely for this market. They were stored in a different cellar. Those rumors
    were generated by the appearance of the tanker trucks with the Southern Italian license plates. Marina feels that this explanation, though true and logical will never stop the stories. I also asked how old were their Vespolina & Bonarda Novarese vines; i.e. were they planted around 1969 for the Boca DOC (The “Montalbano” & “Traversagna” bottlings were actually cru “Spannas” coming from the Boca zone) She said no they were always there. Certainly these varietals were included in the law precisely because they were there. No one wanted to uproot old plants. Too expensive! Of course old Bernardo may have bottled these selections only with Nebbiolo utilizing the secondary grapes elsewhere. I did not ask her this. The Boca as made today has about 65% Nebbiolo, 20% Vespolinaand 15% Bonarda Novarese (legally anyway). The grapes from “Montalbano” and “Traversagna” are in this bottling.

    Peter Bernstein

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Peter: Thank you very much indeed for that information. Did you find any old Vallanas for your dinner, or did you work with the new releases?

      • Peter Bernstein Says:

        Tom: We used the new releases plus some cru Gattinaras
        from Antoniolo. Rare Wine had only a few older bottles and there were some on auction at Zachy’s but for a number of reasons, including keeping the price of our dinner low, we decided not to do older wine. The current releases are a new version of “Campi Raudii”: this 2009 is now the youngest, freshest wine in the line. About 90% Nebbiolo, the balance is Vespolina & Bonarda Novarese, this sees no wood of any kind. This new bottling is not at all like the historic version which was, in many but not all cases, sourced from Gattinara. If you look at older bottles some use the word “Gattinariae” on the label and some do not. The Spanna is 2008 and this is all Nebbiolo with some (large) barrel aging. Fuller than the “Campii Raudii” it was a great hit. As previously mentioned, the Boca, 2004 currently, is the classic Alto Piemonte mixof Nebbiolo (65%), Vespolina (20%) & Bonarda Novarese (15%) at least legally. I found it to be the most elegant wine of the series on the cusp of “modern” and “traditional” wine making. Gattinara 2000, likely to have been made by Giuseppina, has those old-time aromatics. Very different from the Antoniolo cru wines. As beautiful, lush and ripe as those were, the Vallana still won me over. This is quite an achievement as I have, in past, almost always preferred younger wines in a more fruit forward style. One of the best bottles of this Gattinara I have enjoyed had been opened & half consumed on a Wednesday and re-bottled. When we finished the following Monday it was magnificent. So my advice is , decant, decant & decant! BTW, Marina kindly sent me JPEG’s of the old labels as well as an explanation of the old crus bottling’s. You and your readers can contact me directly at bertaschateau@gmail.com

      • Peter Bernstein Says:

        Tom, The last line got truncated. Should read…
        “contact me directly at bertaschateau@gmail.com if they would like a copy of the labels or her explanation.”

        Peter

        (Query: should I have listed my e-mail or should they contact
        me through this blog?

      • Tom Maresca Says:

        Any way you want to do it is fine with me. I’m just happy to find/make new fans for Vallana wines. I think the younger generation is poised to do really fine things with their vineyards, and I am excited for them as well as for us consumers.

  4. Neapolitan Pizza and BYOB | Charles Scicolone on Wine Says:

    [...]  Vino Spanna Cantina Castello di Montalbano 1964 Vallana. 1964 was a great vintage in Piemonte. On many of the older bottles of Vallana they have Castello this or that, but the Castellos never existed and with the DOC are no longer on the label. Spanna is the local name for Nebbiolo in this area of Novara in Piemonte. This wine is Nebbiolo with the possible addition of Aglianico! In Italy’s Noble Red Wines, Sheldon Wasserman states that  “Vallana is a master blender…Rumor has it that he used to blend Aglianico from Basilicata into his wines to give them the body and strength that they needed to age and develop.” Wasserman felt that when they stopped doing this, the wines were not as good. Today the wine must be at least 85% Spanna with the possible addition of Vespolina and Bonarda. I am happy to report that I have tasted more recent vintages of the Vallana wines and they have almost come all the way back even without the Aglianico. Tom Maresca gives a full report on the Vallana wines: Vallana: An Old Favorite Returns [...]

  5. Peter Bernstein Says:

    Tom. Thanks for clearing that up. No wonder the estate disappeared form view. Very happy with the Spanna and Gattinara that I have tried and looking forward to the arrival of the “Campi Raudii” and Boca in March.
    In the old days there were multiple bottlings of Spanna, even beyond the “Raudii”. Do you know if the new generation will be doing them?

    Peter

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      To the best of my knowledge, Francis and Marina are working to rehabilitate the vineyards and the cellar facilities more or less simultaneously. They plan to bring out at least some of the old single-vineyard wines, but how many and on what schedule I just don’t know. I think maybe they don’t know for sure yet either.

  6. Peter Bernstein Says:

    Tom and Hugh. I met Guy many years ago when tasting with Carlo Russo and (I think) Tom Abruzzini. I am sorry to hear, many years later, of his passing. Having read the blog, am I understanding correctly that both
    Guy and his brother in law (whom you identify as Antonio and who would be Giuseppina’s brother) both died young?

    In any case, I have been tasting the wines and are excited for their revival.
    Peter Bernstein
    Berta’s Chateau

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Yes Peter, that is sadly enough correct. It is Guy’s and Giuseppina’s children who are now working incredibly hard to bring the vineyards and winery back to their glory days.

  7. Tom Maresca Says:

    Thank you for the comment and information, Hugh. I might have guessed as much — these successes don’t happen by accident — but it’s good to have authoritative confirmation. The whole family has much to be proud of, and obviously shares a great resource in each other.

  8. hugh fogarty Says:

    The fact that Vallana has survived to be able to resurge under the new generation is down to two fairly indomitable ladies, Bernardo’s widow Nonna Marina and her daughter Giuseppina who lost her English husband Guy Fogarty at the early age of 45 – he was the rugby influence on young Francis. Between them these two ladies have kept Vallana ticking over, and Giuseppina is a very capable wine maker in her own right

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 213 other followers