Northern Nebbiolo

A unique collection of red wines highlighted March’s Wine Media Guild lunch – 16 Nebbiolo-based nectars from the northern Piedmont.

Unique is a much-abused word in wine-speak, but it is fully justified here, on the grounds of scarcity and intrinsic interest. Now eclipsed on the American market by Barolo and Barbaresco, this belt of small denominations in the rocky foothills of the Alps – from west to east Carema, Lessona, Bramaterra, Gattinara, Boca, Ghemme, Sizzano, Fara, and the Colline Novaresi – were once much more prominent on the American market than they are now. If quality and value have anything to do with popularity (and that is, unfortunately, a real question), these wines should be back on center stage soon.

Here’s the lineup of wines we tasted, with their importers and suggested retail prices – all of which are, in my opinion, quite moderate for wines of this quality. Because there were so many of them, we grouped the Gattinaras separately. The other wines are listed from lighter to fuller, normal bottlings first, followed by riservas.

Cantalupo Ghemme 2006  (Polaner, $37)
Antoniotti Bramaterra 2007  (L. Dressner, $25-30)
Vallana Campi Raudii 2009  Michael Skurnik, $16)
Vallana  Spanna Colline Novaresi 2008  Michael Skurnik, $17)
Orsolani Carema “Le Tabbie” 2007 (Domenico Valentino, $36)
Produttori Carema Carema Classico 2007  Polaner, $24)
Vallana Boca 2004  (Michael Skurnik, $30)
Antoniolo Gattinara Classico 2006  (Michael Skurnik, $40)
Travaglini Gattinara 2006  (Palm Bay, $29/99)
Antoniolo Gattinara Le Castelle 2006  (Michael Skurnik, $55)
Travaglini Gattinara Tre Vigne 2005  (Palm Bay, $48.99)
Vallana Gattinara 2004  (Michael Skurnik, $30)
Travaglini Gattinara Riserva  2006  (Palm Bay, $59)
Travaglini Gattinara Riserva  2005  (Palm Bay, $59)
Travaglini Gattinara Tre Vigne 2001  (Palm Bay, NA)|
Travaglini Gattinara Riserva 1995   (Palm Bay, NA)

Nebbiolo is the tie that binds all these appellations. Often locally called Spanna, the variety continues to prove the peculiar aptitude that the soils of Piedmont have to bring out the best of its many facets. And varied those soils are: They include glacial moraines, volcanic soils, disintegrated portions of the Alps, and even former seabeds. The DOC requirements for the individual appellations are equally varied around their core Nebbiolo. Carema’s formula demands 100% Nebbiolo, while Gattinara’s permits it, and other appellations may use as little as 50%.

Luncheon speakers: Cinzia Travaglini, right; Morgan Rich, second from left

Cinzia Travaglini, one of the speakers, told us that her fifth-generation family winery uses only Nebbiolo, even though the Gattinara DOC permits up to 10% of other grapes. I would judge from the tasting that the legally permitted amount of Nebbiolo is often exceeded in most of these wines: Their across-the-board elegance seems to me to owe much more to Nebbiolo than to Bonarda, Croatina, Uva Rara, or Vespolina, the other local varieties the various disciplines permit to be blended in.

Technically, for instance, Bramaterra can be 50-70% Nebbiolo, 20-30% Croatina, and 10-20% Bonarda and/or Vespolina. But if that very fine Antoniotti bottle of Bramaterra contained only 50% Nebbiolo, then Croatina, Bonarda, and Vespolina deserve a great deal more attention than anyone has ever suspected. The same is true of the polished Vallana Boca, where Nebbiolo seemed to dominate in the flavor beyond the amount dictated by the DOC formula (Spanna 45-70%, Vespolina 20-40%, Uva Rara up to 20%). I owe all this DOC information to Morgan Rich of Polaner Selections, the other speaker at the luncheon, who thoughtfully provided us with an informative breakdown of the appellations and their requirements.

Of this group of wines, Gattinara is certainly the most widely distributed appellation. It contains two of the largest high-quality producers in this whole northern tier, Travaglini and Antoniolo, both of whose wines have been present in the American market for some decades. They should be the easiest to find, and their wines are among the most age-worthy.

But all of those appellations are small, as are most of the producers. That may be one of the reasons they lost place in the market as the Italian wine boom hit these shores. Very, very few of the producers make enough wine for nationwide distribution. So that means not all of them will be in all markets. We’re lucky here in New York to have as good a selection as we do, but even so, not all are in all shops. Far from it: If you want to try these wines, you may have to do some hunting.

The key thing to know is that they are worth the effort. Overall, they are never as big as Barolo or Barbaresco, but they are often more elegant. They universally show lovely Nebbiolo fruit – a kind of prune-y/sour cherry/leather-and-tobacco amalgam – with differing nuances given them by their varied terroirs. All that comes in what is often a velvety wrapping of soft tannins, unobtrusive acidity, and balanced alcohol. If you prize restraint and polish in a wine – if, for instance, you love the grace of old-fashioned Bordeaux from before the “ripeness is all” (in a sense Shakespeare never meant) fad – these may well be your entry point into the world of Italian wines.

9 Responses to “Northern Nebbiolo”

  1. Stephen Wong Says:

    Where’s Lessona? Paolo De Marchi made two extremely lovely wines which speak almost of Tuscan elegance!

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Dude! Gimme a break! Lessona has been a quiescent appellation for a long time, and has only begun serious revival recently. The post you’re commenting on was written almost two years ago, and De Marchi’s Lessona wines are only now entering the US market, and I haven’t tasted them yet — or even seen them, for that matter. Whatever they’re like, I hope it’s Piedmontese elegance they show: Tuscany doesn’t have a lock on that quality.

  2. Joe Calandrino Says:

    Hi Tom:

    Just a note on this interesting article so many months after the fact.

    I tasted the 2006 Travaglini Gattinara at a local Italian venue about 2 years ago. The wine was so tightly wound that I had a difficult time assessing it, but I felt at that time if was full of backward promise of wonderful things ahead. On that assessment, I bought a case (deeply discounted at $22/bottle) as a ‘couldn’t possibly go wrong’ investment in future pleasure.

    Well, I just opened a bottle and this modest nebbiolo delivered in spades. What can I say…it reminded me of one of those Prunotto barolos from the 70’s. The nose has that black forest-cherry chocolate thing wrapped around the cedar leather thing that all comes together in the palate and longish finish. Basta! You know what I mean.

    The good news is that the wine is still in the market and deeply discounted (no doubt preparing the shelves for the 2007’s and beyond).

    Get some; you won’t be disappointed. It’s fully mature, is what it is, and it is just fine.

    Warmest regards,
    Joe

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Hi Joe:

      Thanks for the information about the availability/affordability of the Travaglini Gattinara. It can be a sensational wine, as you have discovered. I think Gattinara and Carema have the greatest potential of those northern appellations, though they are all worth a try when you’re lucky enough to find them. By the way, I wouldn’t rush to drink up your supply: I think it has some staying power too — maybe not a 20-year wine,but it should be live and good for several years yet. Enjoy!

  3. Travaglini Gattinara Tre Vigne 2001 750ml Says:

    […] […]

  4. Nebbiolo lunch (March) « Wine Media Guild of New York Says:

    […] which includes several graphs on our tasting is on her website, while Tom Maresca has also provided his take. Lunch reports    Bordeaux lunch (January) […]

  5. Ed McCarthy Says:

    A lucid description of Northern Nebbiolos., Tom. I agree with you on all points except one: I don’t understand why the Cantalupo Ghemme led the tasting (supposedly, lighter to fuller-bodied), when in fact it was the most full-bodied and tannic of the wines in the first group, imo, up until the Antoniolo Gattinara.

    But it was so worth while to taste and publicize these overlooked Nebbiolo wines.

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      The reason it led the tasting, Ed, is my faulty memory of the wine, which I thought I recalled as lighter bodied. Obviously, I was wrong. Equally obviously, I agree with you completely about the worth of those delightful wines. For my palate, it was one of the WMG’s most intriguing and enjoyable tastings — and as you know even better than I, the WMG has hosted some spectacular events.

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