Vallana Spanna: Nebbiolo, From and For the Ages

Plenty of fog (the nebbia from which Nebbiolo purportedly takes its name) shrouded Alba during my recent visit, and plenty of rain later while I visited the Alta Piemonte, where Nebbiolo is traditionally called Spanna. It made for slippery driving and soggy walking – and it made the wines all the more welcome when I got to them and all the more wonderful in the sipping. Fog and rain don’t matter: This is a blessed zone.

These Novara and Vercelli hills produce an abundance of appellations: Boca, Bramaterra, Colline Novarese, Fara, Gattinara, Ghemme, Lessona, Sizzana. Most of them now sport DOCs. Many of them used to be called simply Spanna. The zones are mostly small, with few producers, so the wines are often difficult to find here in the States, but they are usually worth the search. The requirements of the DOCs vary widely, from as little as 60% to as much as 100% Spanna. The balance is usually Vespaiola or Bonarda (often known locally as Uva rara. Had enough names?). It’s commonly believed that the best wines approach 100% Spanna, but many of the area’s winemakers feel strongly that some addition of Vespaiola in particular contributes to their wine’s finesse and accessibility.

I had reserved the last day of my trip for a visit with Francis and Marina Fogarty, the brother-and-sister team who are now running the Vallana estate in the Colline Novarese zone.

It was impossible weather for visiting the vineyards (though we did manage glimpses of them from the roads), so there isn’t much I can say about them. The cellars proved to be very traditional north Italian cellars, almost a time warp, with lots of cement and fiberglass-lined cement tanks for fermentation and storage. In fact, it is so traditional it has almost become cutting-edge again: There is a big revival of the use of cement and fiberglass all through Italy.

The cellars are enormous, and right now barely used: Marina and Francis are in the process of reviving all the vineyards and wines their father and grandfather used to work with. After their father Guy Fogarty’s death, their mother, Giuseppina Vallana Fogarty, carried on the wine business while raising Francis and Marina and their younger sister Miriam. As Francis explained, a large part of grandfather Bernardo’s business was demijohns of vino sfuso, sold every week by the hundreds for local family consumption. As in Spain and France, that business has dried up: Per capita wine consumption (of which straight-from-the-barrel vino sfuso was a major part) has dropped dramatically in all the major wine-producing countries.

So the future for producers like the Vallana-Fogartys is unequivocally in quality wine, and all Francis and Marina’s efforts are being bent to that end, to revive Bernardo Vallana’s once highly prized labels, the Spannas (now officially designated Colline Novarese DOC) like the multi-vineyard Cinque Castelli and the single-vineyard Campi Raudii, as well as the DOCs Boca and Gattinara.

Long-standing fans of Piedmontese wines will forever associate the name Vallana with Spanna, which Bernardo raised to memorable heights. To commemorate that, the Fogartys provided an astonishing vertical tasting of their wines after we finished tasting current and recent releases. “The Time Machine,” Francis called it: six decades of Alta Piemonte Nebbiolos (eight if you count the newer releases). I was honored to experience it, and it was deeply moving not just to taste the wines but to hear Giuseppina recall the harvests of her childhood and youth. Even in the slow-moving world of wine, some of the bottles that Francis and Marina opened that afternoon were relics from a whole other age.

In the morning we had tasted through a passle of recent-vintage Spannas, Bocas, and Gattinaras, all very fine and quite distinctive. After lunch, Francis started us with an experiment of his, a 2010 rosé spumante, metodo classico, of 100% Nebbiolo. This was an astonishment: very Nebbiolo, very elegant, and at the same time all nuts and flowers; all the grape’s primary aromas captured and preserved. I doubt this will ever be a commercial wine – Francis is making very small quantities of it – but it certainly reveals a very different and intriguing face of sub-Alpine Nebbiolo.

Then we entered The Time Machine. Giuseppina had decanted, and Francis poured, Spannas of the 1997, 1988, 1971, 1967, 1955, and 1947 vintages.

Just to have a library of such wines is in Italy a rarity. To pour so many of them on one occasion is generosity – and confidence – of an order that one simply does not encounter often, even in the hospitable world of wine.

Here are my impressions:

1997: Big forward fruit, typical of the vintage; great balance. Walnuts and coffee throughout. A wonderful wine, fully live and almost electric.

1988: At that time still called Spanna del Piemonte, vino da tavola. Francis was seven years old, and Giuseppina handled the vinification. Though the bottle had been breathing for several hours, it still needed time. Very big, with no-longer-young fruit, more like dried fig, but still supple and live.

1971: A Cinque Castelli bottling: A Bernardo Vallana vintage. Spanna from five different vineyards: this was his basic Spanna. Even though 17 years older than the last wine, its color was still vivid. Its tannins had fully softened, and its acidity was holding everything together. The fruit was beginning to dry out, but the wine was still lovely – an elegant if somewhat fragile country gentleman.

1967: Also a Cinque Castelli, and a remarkable wine, still showing some fruit sweetness despite its age. A beautiful mature nose, slightly moving into the lacquery stage. The color was beginning to fade, but nothing else about the wine gave away its 44 years of age.

1955: Very pale color, but a youthful nose. Amazing fruit and dark chocolate flavors, amazing structure and vitality, even though ethereal. An incredible wine. This was a wonder year all through Europe, and this wine shows why. Francis says that it’s not likely to be all Nebbiolo, since in those days field mixes of grape varieties were normal practice.

1947: Very pale: the color almost entirely faded, and the nose gone very lacquery. Giuseppina’s birth year. But on the palate it was still fresh: the combination of the delicate, almost spiritous, palate feel and the freshness of the fruit was simply delightful. Sixty-four years old, and an absolute pleasure to drink – as well as tremendous testimony to the potential of the traditional wines of this very special zone.

I can only wish all readers of this blog had been able to share this parade of pleasures with me. An experience of that order would tell you more than my words can why I believe so strongly in the potential of this too-little-known wine zone.

10 Responses to “Vallana Spanna: Nebbiolo, From and For the Ages”

  1. Peter Bernstein Says:

    Tom,
    A little update to this post having spent some time with the Vallana-Fogarty’s just before VinItaly as well as hosting a dinner with Marina
    last Friday the 10th of May.

    Perhaps the most interesting news is the imminent release of a new
    wine: Spanna “Cuvee Bernardo Vallana” 2010. Francis was so pleased with a particular lot of Nebbiolo that he decided to make a special wine in honor of, and in the style of, his grandfather Bernardo. Superb and drinkable now but with the ability to age,
    this wine will reach us in mid-June. It was a great success with our guests who esteemed it on a par with, but different from, the 2004 Gattinara that followed. Marina said that the wine will be be made again but only in the best vintages. I suggest your readers look out for it when it arrives in mid-June as it is already nearly sold out at the wholesale level. We finished the night with magnums of the Nebbiolo Rose Spumante just perfect with some fantastic Blackberries that we sourced.

    During my visit in early April, I was able to tour the Boca and Gattinara zones with Francis and was impressed not only with his deep knowledge but also his (and his sister’s) ambitious plans for the future. They are clearing and replanting in Boca and eventually in Gattinara where the own a staggering 60 hectares (though only 1 in in current production).

    During our final lunch together, the family graciously opened, amongst many fine bottles, a staggering 1955 Gattinara “Campi
    Raudii Ara Catullus”. Unlike your ’55 Spanna, the color was still quite dark. The only sign of it’s nearly 58 years of age was a slight,
    and I do mean slight, shortness to the finish. Giuseppina pronounced it “too good!”. Frankly, i don’t cotton to really old wine and am quite put off by the usual caramel-like sweetness, but there was no trace of it here. What a tribute to Bernardo Vallana!

    These “kids” they’re gonna be alright.

    Pietro

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Peter: Thanks for the up-to-date information about these lovely wines. Diane and I also tasted the “Bernardo Vallana” with Marina and Francis and loved it: great drinking now, but with the structure to grow for decades. I hope I live long enough to taste it at its mature best.

      • Peter Bernstein Says:

        Tom,
        Diane graciously told me of your dinner together as you were traveling and without e-mail. Your last sentence hit home with me as well even if I am a few years younger than you: not only for the maturity of this wine, but the hoped for revivals of the cru wines of Montalbano and Traversegna in the Boca zone which seems a huge task. Only a few short years of neglect and the vineyards were overgrown with Acacia which is non-native and spreads like wildfire. Apparently, just five years is sufficient to ruin a plot.
        When I was touring with Francis, his crew was clearing with chain saws and then had the difficult take of finding and destroying the roots.

        All the best,
        Pietro

  2. Tvrtko Cernos Says:

    I visited Frances some months ago out of sheer curiosity and on the strength of some fabulous older Vallana bottlings that I had been fortunate enough to enjoy, but not having previously tasted the more recent vintages. I came away really impressed: the “new” wines have tons of character and depth. And yes, Frances and his family are exceptionally gracious hosts and genuinely nice people.

  3. Alfonso Says:

    thanks, Tom. Who is the importer these days?

  4. Alfonso Cevola Says:

    nice “time trip” – I remember selling these wines in the late 1980’s and still have people asking me about them and how to get them.

    Thanks for sharing the experience with us

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Try some of the new vintages, Alfonso. They lack the advantage of cellar age, but they are very fine and thoroughly enjoyable. As you can tell, I’m a fan.

  5. Paolo Says:

    Good re-discovery Tom. When I entered the wine world, half a glass at a time as a teenager (late 1970s), I remember my father telling me that Spanna used to be as good as Barolo!

  6. Charles Scicolone Says:

    Ciao Tom- I also wish to have been able to share this “parade of pleasures” with you. I have been a fan of these wines for a very long time- Great Article!

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