The history of Alto Piemonte, or Northern Piedmont, reaches back 300 million years to when a super volcano rumbled, shuddered, and exploded with violence. This event created a unique geological site that would ultimately contribute to the varied expressions of Nebbiolo planted on top of it.
The region’s modern story has unfolded with a series of events that are less dramatic yet still unequivocally influential in shaping the area’s status today as a re-emerging producer of fine yet affordable Nebbiolo.
Before Barolo or Barbaresco, there were Ghemme, Gattinara, Lessona, and Bramaterra. Located northeast of Turin, these sub-Alpine regions produced Nebbiolo-based wines that enjoyed popularity at home and abroad. Drunk by both the nobility and Milanese denizens during the 19th century, the wines were in demand throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the 1840s, however, the Empire imposed high tariffs on the export of Piedmontese wines to Austrian-controlled areas of Northern Italy, effectively cutting off this important market to producers. This would mark the first in a series of events that eventually led to the collapse of the booming industry.
Disasters of ecology and weather followed; soon after that, war. The arrival of fungal diseases peronospora (downy mildew) and oidium (powdery mildew) as well as the vine-ravaging louse phylloxera in the late 1800s left farmers beleaguered. Then, severe hailstorms and spring frost in the early 1900s wiped out huge swaths of vineyards. After this devastation, farmers had little motivation to replant, opting to join the flourishing wool cashmere industry instead. This wasn’t yet a wholesale desertion—but soon, after two World Wars and further investment in the textile industry, hope for a resurgence in winemaking effectively vanished.
The following statistics provide perspective on the scale of collapse. From 40,000 hectares of vineyards at the end of the 19th century, less than 1,000 hectares remain today, with Gattinara the largest at 65 hectares. The remaining regions, in order of size, include Ghemme (32 ha), Bramaterra (23 ha), Lessona (14 ha), Boca (12 ha), Fara (4 ha), and Sizzano (3 ha). Preventing the loss of the tiniest of these DOCs was the establishment of two larger regional denominations, Colline Novaresi (which includes Boca, Ghemme, Sizzano, and Fara) and Coste della Sesia (Lessona and Gattinara) in 2011. Today, Lessona and Bramaterra combined only have 2% of the vineyards they once boasted. In their stead has regrown the forest.
Only on a ramble through the woods might traces of ghostly terraces be recognized by trained eyes—eyes such as those of Cristiano Garella, who helped jumpstart the Northern Piedmont renaissance. Born in Castelletto Cervo, he became interested in wine at age 13, despite lacking family ties to the industry. He started working after school with an 83-year-old local producer in Bramaterra.
By 2002, at age 18, Garella was ready to tackle his own projects. At that time, he said, few people were focused on the region’s vinous potential. “It was sad to have such important wine history without any thought being given to its future. Luckily, in the last 10 years, I’ve seen a lot of changes—more producers, more vineyards. Given the number of wineries I work with, it’s incredible to think almost none of them existed a decade ago.” Garella, now in his early thirties and running a busy consultant-oenologist business, assists a growing list of young clients. He’s a partner at Le Pianelle and Colombera & Garella and provides input for Gilberto Boniperti, Cà Nova, and Fabio Zambolin, to name just a few.
To Garella’s point, it took nearly a century before disposable income, political stability, and market interest returned to Northern Piedmont. A new crop of visionaries, both Italians and outsiders, is looking to revive vanished vineyards, replant new ones, or reclaim family land. With the textile industry in decline due to global competition (largely from China), the local population has further reason to restore its lost civilization of wine.
The division of Northern Piedmont into appellations correlates strongly to soil type. There are seven DOC/Gs, though the diminutive Fara and Sizzano are, for now, relatively obscure and not well represented in the US market. Carema DOC, though technically part of Canavese, is often included in the conversation around Alto Piemonte. This discussion, however, will focus on the five appellations of Northern Piedmont where wines of scale are currently produced: Gattinara DOCG, Ghemme DOCG, Lessona DOC, Bramaterra DOC, and Boca DOC.
Piedmont has over 20 unique, indigenous varieties, including whites like Erbaluce. However, this overview will focus on the Nebbiolo-based reds, the main driver of the region’s modern resurgence.
Locals traditionally refer to Nebbiolo as Spanna. Most appellations allow blending with other native grape varieties, namely Vespolina, Croatina, and Uva Rara (sometimes referred to as Bonarda di Novarese, or simply Bonarda). The first provides color, fruit, and a touch of floral and white pepper notes. The second gives color, fruit, and tannin, although it can be rustic, bloody, and salty. The third brings softness and aromatics but must be handled carefully due to its propensity for bitterness.
Internationally, Gattinara remains the best-known appellation. The region was granted DOC status in 1967 and DOCG status in 1990. Regulations dictate that Nebbiolo must comprise a minimum of 90% of the wine, with up to 10% Uva Rara and no more than 4% Vespolina.
The soil is largely iron rich and volcanic, mixed with sedimentary rock and granite. Vineyard altitudes range from 1,050 to 1,575 feet. Gattinara’s slightly warmer climate leads to riper red fruits, polished tannins, and overall bigger wines blessed with fresh acidity that garner comparison to Barolo. While most producers have yet to achieve the ageability and structure of Barolo—which isn’t necessarily their goal—the comparison was first drawn when Antoniolo released a series of wines from the 1960s that displayed impressive development and character.
Antoniolo: A leading legacy brand established in 1948, Antoniolo proved that Gattinara can age. Now run by brother-and-sister team Alberto and Lorella Antoniolo, the property was the first to bottle cru wines within the DOCG. Their three vineyard selections—Osso San Grato, San Francesco, and Castelle—demonstrate the quality and nuance for value achievable within the region.
Travaglini: Founded in the 1920s, Travaglini has been making wine for three generations and deserves credit for igniting improvements in viticulture within the appellation. The estate’s 100% Nebbiolo wines, like those of Antoniolo, are well known for their longevity. Travaglini is also recognizable for its distinctive bottle shape, which serves both form and function: decorative on the table while catching sediment when wine is poured.
Situated opposite Gattinara on the east side of the Sesia River, this is the second most famous appellation of the region, although half the size of the first. Ghemme was granted DOCG status in 1997. Again, Nebbiolo forms the backbone of the wines, required at 85%, the remainder a balance of Vespolina and/or Uva Rara.
Soils here are a mix of alluvial rocks, pockets of clay, and decomposed granite, generally with high acidity. Ghemme has the region’s youngest soils, due to the retreat of the Monte Rosa glacier. Vineyard elevations range between 820 and 985 feet above sea level. Ghemme is slightly cooler than Gattinara, receiving a blast of air flowing down from Monte Rosa. This results in less robust and more linear wine, with fine tannins set to floral, spice, and berry aromas.
Ioppa: Ioppa was established in 1852. In 1995, the current generation started to reconstruct the cellars and vineyards. For cash flow, the proprietors took an interesting tack that has proved a successful move: producing Nebbiolo rosé to meet demand in Norway. Ioppa made 5,000 bottles in 2005; today, they are on track to hit 250,000.
Antichi Vigneti di Cantalupo: Ghemme’s leading producer, Alberto Arlunno, now runs this traditional estate with history back to the 1800s. Cantalupo’s young, austere expressions of Nebbiolo develop into lighter replicas of Barolo—both in price and profile—with time.
Rovellotti: Paolo and Antonello Rovellotti, whose family has roots in Ghemme as far back as the late 15th century, farm 15 hectares in the southern Baraggiola region. Ghemme is centered around an old castle, where Antonello makes the family's wine—he is the only producer still allowed to work there. Rovellotti is known for its long-macerated Nebbiolo wines.
Once one of Northern Piedmont’s leading regions for quality Nebbiolo and the first in Italy to bottle wine, Lessona is but a shadow of its former self in terms of production, but its resources remain as rich as ever. DOC regulations, established in 1976, allow producers to bottle exclusively with Nebbiolo, or they can add up to 15% of Vespolina and/or Uva Rara.
Lessona was located furthest from the caldera when it flipped the ancient sands of a 600-million-year-old marine seabed to the surface. The resulting mineral-rich sandy soil, coupled with pockets of loess, contributes to the lighter body and finesse of the wines. Altitudes range from approximately 700 to 1,200 feet above sea level. The wines display racy acidity with aromas and flavors of roses, red berries, and orange, with a savory, salty finish occasionally punctuated by iodine.
Tenuta Sella: Only a few families now make wine here, Tenuta Sella the oldest and in continuous operation. The first vineyards were purchased by Comino Sella in 1671. Today, Marco Rizzetti, a member of the Sella family, runs the estate with agronomist and oenologist Paolo Benassi. Previously a textile family, they fittingly use a former silk factory as their winery. Garella was hired at Sella before finishing enology school and ran the estate as CEO for seven years, departing in 2013.
Proprietà Sperino: Paolo de Marchi of Isole e Olena fame returned to his Piedmont roots to restore the family property Proprietà Sperino. His son Luca de Marchi now runs the estate. He believes firmly in the importance of historical context for winemaking. “Lack of history leads to a lack of modesty,” he explains.
Pietro Cassina: With six hectares of vineyards, Pietro Cassina is a relatively new producer, coming from a previous profession as an architect. Cassina employs a slightly shorter maceration period and uses gravity flow in his cellars. The wines are still young but show great promise.
Few outside Italy are familiar with this appellation, but it deserves observation for its distinct, characterful wines. Regulations allow for a blend of 50 to 80% Nebbiolo, a maximum of 30% Croatina, and a maximum of 20% Uva Rara and/or Vespolina.
This denomination has a complex mix of soils that includes volcanic deposits, sand, and clay. Vineyards range between 885 and 1,475 feet above sea level, contributing to a large diurnal range. Due to varied soils, Bramaterra lacks a textbook style. However, the best wines are structured and brawny with a firm backbone of acidity. Flavors range from red berry, spice, and iron to beefy, meaty notes with a salty tang on the finish.
Colombera & Garella: Giacomo Colombera, a young heir to Bramaterra fruit previously sold to other winemakers, has partnered with Garella to make and bottle the wine. From century-old vines, they produce a Bramaterra from 70% Nebbiolo, with 20% Croatina for color and fruit and 10% Vespolina for spice.
Le Pianelle: In 2004, Dieter Heuskel, a high-level German executive, partnered with winemaker Peter Dipoli from Alto Adige to buy land in Bramaterra. They’ve since brought on Garella as a partner. He uses a light touch to make the wines, preferring native yeast and minimal intervention.
Tiny in size, big on potential, Boca has been saved from extinction. From a high of nearly 4,046 hectares in the late 1800s, vineyards dipped to 10 hectares by the early 1990s. Boca is experiencing a slow but promising comeback. The DOC was established in 1969 and allows for 70 to 90% Nebbiolo with 10 to 30% Uva Rara and/or Vespolina.
Soils are largely uniform across Boca’s five villages: volcanic, morainic, and alluvial with occasional threads of limestone. The expositions, however, vary widely. This higher-altitude appellation—ranging from 985 to 1,805 feet—has a cooler climate and wider diurnal range, which drives Nebbiolo’s expression. The best wines are structured with fine tannins and have a crystalline quality; vibrant flavors include forest berries, violets, herbs, citrus, and tobacco.
Le Piane: Fragmented land ownership has been one impediment to the development of Alto Piemonte, as Swiss wine importer Christoph Kuenzli can confirm. After discovering Boca in the late 1980s, he went through a labored process of piecing together enough plots to create the eight hectares for Le Piane, where he now produces elegant, expressive wine. He is one of few producers to still have vines trained on a traditional Maggiorina training system, where three vines are grouped together to form a goblet.
Podere ai Valloni: The oldest winery in Boca is owned by the family who helped establish the DOC, the Sertorios. The family patriarch, a lawyer who decided to tackle viticulture, purchased their notable single vineyard Vigna Cristiana in the 1980s, when the property was abandoned. It was the first vineyard registered in the appellation in 1970. Today, the Sertorios farm three certified organic hectares.
Northern Piedmont is currently riding a wave of positive media exposure. It’s being heralded as an unsung, affordable alternative to Barolo and Barbaresco. But can the region lure drinkers away from these southern classics? Ian D’Agata, VINOUS Senior Editor and Scientific Director of Vinitaly International Academy, says they can—but with a caveat. “The future of Alto Piemonte looks brilliant, though clearly not all winemakers are at the same level as those in Barolo and Barbaresco, where you have the highest percentage of well-made, non-faulty wines of anywhere in Italy.”
Therein lie the region's main challenges: knowledge, time, and money. While plantings are increasing, its takes three years before a vineyard can produce wine for bottling, and much longer to hit its stride in complexity and ageability. Many young projects don’t have the benefit of knowledge passed down between generations, which often leads to mistakes and a longer trajectory toward quality. Furthermore, it will take years to determine the best crus.
Despite these challenges, what Northern Piedmont offers is precisely what’s in vogue: freshness, fragrance, nuance, and newness. Additionally, the region offers multiple facets of Nebbiolo for lovers of the grape to explore.
The delay in its revival, according to Cristiano Garella, was beneficial. Northern Piedmont missed the period of “internationalization,” when ripeness, tannins, power, and oak were the key qualities sought on the market and by influential critics. In this cooler climate, grapes have lower tannins than in Langhe and Barolo, leading to lighter and brighter wines. Says Garella, “We can’t cover everything by wood or ripeness. We were lucky to be late to this concept, and we never had to make the financial investment in new oak.”
Affordability pertains to real estate, too. Michaela Morris, wine writer and educator, explains, “The area is attracting talented and serious winemakers who have recognized the promising terroir and can actually afford land there.”
Style plus cost make the wines increasingly attractive to sommeliers. Garella thinks the region should campaign to buyers with experience in Nebbiolo, but also those with appreciation for other acidic wines like Riesling and Pinot Noir. “Normally, people who like those types of wine are the right customer for us,” he notes. “It’s easier for us to work with customers who have a palate closer to French wine.”
An honest discussion about Piedmont can’t ignore climate change. Lyle Fass, DTC Importer of Fass Selections, believes climate change, for all its detriment, at least presents an interesting opportunity for Northern Piedmont. “Global warming has changed the ballgame to a great extent in the Langhe,” he says. “Some vineyards that were formerly great because they had better sun exposure and consistently produced great wines now have winemakers struggling to avoid overripe wines in hotter years. At the same time, the prices of Langhe wines continue to increase.” Alto Piemonte, however, produces "old school" aromatic, balanced Nebbiolo, and the best bottles are far less expensive than those of the Langhe. Fass expects to see collectors adding these wines to their cellars soon.
D’Agata adds, “Climate change is extremely important for Alto Piemonte as it allows Nebbiolo to ripen fully… This was not the case just 20 years ago, when producers had to make do with their fruit or buy the grapes elsewhere.”
For now, due to small production and relative obscurity, Alto Piemonte remains a niche. While some people know Gattinara and Ghemme, few have heard of Bramaterra or Fara. As Morris points out, “Awareness takes time, and most of these denominations are still quite small. Recognition will increase as savvy sommeliers continue to discover and champion the wines.” And for consumers, while the wines of Northern Piedmont may prove hard to find at retail, they are a gift to those with the curiosity and drive to discover them.
Such lovely wines, such a nice piece! Thanks so much for this excellent summary...! Think I need to open another Colombera and Garella...