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Wines of Alto Piemont - July 4th 2015

Alto Piemont

Last week I painted the picture of part of Alto Piedmont's wine history centred on the ancient vineyard areas of Lessona and Bramaterra. This week it is now turn to elaborate on the winemaking and taste of the wine.

After harvesting by hand the precious grapes are taken to the nearby wineries in small boxes. Each batch is carefully noted as each vineyard's booty must be vinified separately in stainless steel or large format oak. In the past (and some still do) concrete vats were used lined with epoxy-resin or ceramic tiles enabling them impervious. Maceration and Fermentation, on the skins, can take between 20 and 40 days depending on how the winemaker wishes to create his wine.

After which the fermented wine is transferred to oak barrels. Differing sizes are chosen to mature the wine for up to three years, part of that could be in stainless steel. So who exactly are these winemakers in this remote district? With just eight hectares (more being planted) you might be surprised to encounter? There are just seven of them. Spread out where their Villa Wineries are historically situated in this remote vista. Restoration is taking place with some properties as new equipment is being replaced in the cellars and vinification suites. This is enabling these historic wines to be made in a more efficient hygienic manner than in the past The seven wineries we visited and tasted with were Tenute Sella, Proprieta Sperino, Massimi Clerico, La Badina and Castella di Montecavallo. Newer wineries have been created include Pierto Cassita and La Provostura.

In neighbouring Bramaterra we visited Noah winery again making precious little wine from grapes in beautiful hillside vineyards.

So how do we describe how these wines taste?

First the main grape Nebbiolo when turned into wine has a unique taste due to the grapes lightish skin, often long growing season, acid soils all within a temperate climate. Add careful attention to winemaking at every stage, gentle pressing and extensive use of oak and there you have it. A red wine with a light almost see-through colour, highish alcohol (around 13.5%) yielding a taste with nuances of violets, red fruit, silky tannins coupled with a trademark beautiful balance. This is the same grape used to make Borolo but there the resemblance ends as the sheerness and elegance of these wines are fast becoming very sought after by the wine hunter. They are simply unique with an approachable taste when young but relaxing into an amazingly silky note as they develop. This is an overview of the style of Lessona and Bramaterra but each winery will tweak the wines a tad to suit their style or vintage variation.

Alto Piemont

My tasting notes were very elaborate as I slurped my way through some older vintages in bottle and magnum. They are classic food wines, Game being an extraordinary match.

They available in small quantities in the UK their prices reflect the boutique style they obviously show. Those of you who might be interested in these rare gems will search the net for suppliers. Liberty Wines (London) are agents for Proprieta Sperino, Astrum Cellars offer Tenute Sella, Expect to pay upwards of £30 per bottle for current vintages, more of course if there are any older ones lurking behind a barrel! Rare and sophisticated, hand-crafted to ensure the vintage is correct and the wine will mature into something of beauty.

This generous wine visit was a real eye opener for me, one I will treasure. My hope is that when you are able you might wish to purchase one of these amazing wines or better still search them out when next in Milano or Alto Piemont, I hear the skiing is excellent.

Very many thanks to my host Paul Balke and the great winemakers of Lessona and Bramaterra for their generosity and time.

Alto Piemont - June 27th 2015

Its not often I am stumped for words on wine! But my recent visit to Alto Piemont had me schtum for quite a time - well at least when I was tasting wine! Let me fill you in on my adventure.

First a fight to Milano - meeting fellow wine scribes - heading north west for a couple of hours - destination the foot of the Alps towards the borders of Switzerland. This was new wine territory for me so I had my eyes peeled when in the mountains to gauge the soils, elevation, aspect, foliage etc. This would hopefully give me some idea what to expect from this stunning unspoilt area.

Alto Piemont

My research told me that this locality was famous for other great Italian wines namely Barolo and Barbaresco. These historic wines were situated to the south west of our destination. Albeit they are made with the same grape - Nebbiolo - I was eager to see if there was any resemblance.

Our accommodation was at the amazing Santuario di Oropa a wondrous collection of buildings, cloisters and Basilicas built over the past 300 years with pillar stones going back further to 1192.  Our rooms at the hotel were once the dormitories of Monks with furniture and beds to match. Also housed in this extraordinary collection of buildings (at a height of 1,159 metres) we observed around eight restaurants, Ice cream vendors and Christian gift shops attracting different pilgrims and visitors all year round. We were certainly in a very special place.

The morning beckoned as we visited an intriguing collection of wineries some ensconced in villas of great import, others in restoration and one being built from new. We were near Lessona, to me a totally unknown district, named after the town, home to a north/south cigar shaped area of land that has around 8 hectares of grapes planted. This equates to about 12 football pitches!

This is beyond tiny! As we visited and walked the vineyards we realised we were in a very special place one which was in the early stages of restoration. So what happened to what might have been prolific vineyards of yesteryear? One word - Textiles; we were in a district that had started to abandon the vineyards around 70 years ago replacing them with natural woodlands and sheep grazing.

A similar fate became the neighbouring district to the east namely Bramaterra. Apart from a handful of estates grape growing simply dried up. Kaput! Vanished! No wonder few of us know about this historic area that before was as famous as Barolo and Gattinara.

70 plus years on a small dedicated bunch of land owners and wine makers have started to transform the lost vineyards and create the historic wine of yesteryear. Along the way seeking permission to cut down forest plantations and re-plant ancient vineyards. This is hard and costly work in an industry used to giant vineyards and computer driven wineries; this is thinking small! Step by step and plenty of graft we now have wines bearing the names of Lessona and Bramaterra that had all but disappeared.

With the great noble grape (some would say Italy's greatest grape) Nebbiolo also known locally as Spanna, being the main source of fruit they have a chance of making something special, something age worthy, something worthwhile.

So armed with these extraordinary grapes we must now take a look at the soils to see what this combination can produce. Lessona consists of marine sand, clay and silt whilst Bramaterra (not far away) consists of mainly red minerally soils. Both are acidic, the climate is quite temperate as it enjoys a long growing season the grapes being ready to harvest around October. This combination of vineyard knowhow plus low yields and hand picking make for top drawer wines. Next week I will explain why these wines are special; how they taste and why have they become sought after as the wine hunters quarry?