An Ode to Red Wines from Italy’s Alto Piemonte
Inevitably, when the weather turns colder and I can finally pull out my stacks of wool sweaters, all I want to drink is Barolo. It’s complex, deeply fragrant, comforting. The only thing keeping me from drinking cases of it all winter is that the best ones can be very, very expensive—not to mention they often need decades in the bottle (they’ll age forever) for their dark, intense tannins to soften.
Earlier this year, I mentioned my dilemma to Dana Frank, wine director at Ava Gene’s in Portland, Oregon. She told me about her burgeoning love of the wines from the northern part of Piedmont; like Barolo, most of them are made with the Nebbiolo grape. In fact, she’s just given these wines an entire page on her list. The area—called Alto Piemonte and made up of teeny regions like Boca, Bramaterra and Gattinara—produces Nebbiolo that is “elegant, alive and finessed,” Frank told me. “And it’s much more affordable and approachable than Barolo when it’s younger.” I was all ears.
“The soils are different in Alto Piemonte because you’re getting closer to the Alps,” Frank said. “It’s at a higher altitude, and it’s a little bit cooler, so Nebbiolo there produces a totally different kind of wine.Whereas Barolo is kind of open rolling hills, Alto Piemonte feels hidden, with vineyards tucked into the forests.”
Enticed by the thought of woodsy, Alpine Nebbiolos, I called in a dozen of Frank’s recommendations and set to work in the Food & Wine Tasting Room. Some of the wines are blends—Nebbiolo livened up with indigenous varieties, like Vespolina and Uva Rara, making the wines fresher and easier to drink when young. The 2010 Antoniotti Bramaterra is a tremendous example of this. Same with the 2011 Monsecco Sizzano, which was surprisingly floral and dark berried. Other producers, like the Antoniolo family, are committed to making wines exclusively from Nebbiolo, and these were my favorites. Antoniolo’s 2010 Gattinara was focused, like Barolo, with a neat licorice edge.
It was apparent that these Alto Piemonte wines didn’t have to age like Barolo does, but could they? I explored this question one afternoon over a dozen or so bottles with my friend Joe Campanale, the sommelier and co-owner of Dell’Anima restaurant in Manhattan’s West Village. He opened a 2001 Petterino Gattinara, a wine that’s $92 on his list; a Barolo with 14 years of age might cost twice that. The wine was earthy and pure, with remarkably youthful fruit. Finally, he opened a 1989 Boca, from a producer called Conti. “This reminds me of crunchy brown leaves on the ground in autumn,” Campanale said. And now I have a whole new cache of wines to go with my sweaters.