Alto Piemonte

A brief history of Alto Piemonte by Walter Speller

Until the end of the 19th century, before phylloxera ravaged its vineyards, every slope and hill in this area was covered with vines. At the time, wines from Ghemme, Boca and Gattinara, to name just three of the seven, nowadays dwarf-like denominations, commanded higher prices in the grand cafes and restaurants of Turin than the crus of Burgundy. The area never recovered from the double whammy of phylloxera and a devastating spring frost in 1904 that eradicated whole swathes of its vineyards. The ensuing crisis forced many grape growers to abandon their properties and to emigrate overseas or move to Turin and Milan to build a new existence there.

Nature took its course and shrubs and woods soon took over the ancient vineyard sites. Remnants of its former glory stubbornly survived into the 20th century, until in the 1970s it was dealt another blow when a wave of modernisation swept through Italy’s cellars. It triggered a fashion for concentrated, fullbodied, deeply coloured wines, often aged in French barriques, and strongly advocated by Italy’s all-powerful wine guides. In the process the fresh, elegant wines from Alto Piemonte were reduced to mere anachronisms in what had now become ‘modern Italy’.

Statistics give a glimpse of the enormous scale of the decline. From the reported 40,000 ha (100,000 acres) of vineyards at the end of the 19th century only 780 ha remain today, with Boca (9.61 ha), Bramaterra (26.6 ha), Fara (4.82 ha), Lessona (17.5 ha), Ghemme (25.74 ha) and Sizzano (4.80 ha) mere snippets compared with Gattinara’s 63.93 ha. The total extinction of the smallest of these minuscule DOCs was prevented only by the creation of two overarching denominations, Colline Novaresi (which includes Boca, Ghemme, Sizzano and Fara) and Coste della Sesia (Lessona and Gattinara) in 2011. Although farmers continue to cultivate grapes here, their holdings are often less than half a hectare, which makes estate bottling not a viable option, which is why most of the grapes are sold off to co-ops or merchant-bottlers.

The reds from Alto Piedmonte are typically blends of Spanna AKA Nebbiolo with a splash of Croatina or Vespolina depending on the sub-Region.

Nervi-Conterno's Latest!

Colombera & Garella's Lessona!

Cristiano Garella has emerged as the voice of the younger generation in Alto Piemonte and is, along with Roberto Conterno, the region’s greatest ambassador. Garella makes wines for his Colombera & Garella project and also consults for a number of other estates. I was deeply impressed with these current releases.

Antonio Galloni

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