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.
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.
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.
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.
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.