Alto Piemonte: Small Is Beautiful


Alto Piemonte remains one of the most glorious, under the radar regions in the world. Wines of delicacy and transparency communicate the essence of site in the handful of villages that comprise this series of small appellations in Northern Italy. Many estates featured in this report are quite small, making some bottles hard to find. Nevertheless, consumers and professionals seeking fine, artisan wines of place that can diversify any cellar will find so much to admire in Alto Piemonte today.

A Little Historical Background

Given the fame of Barolo and Barbaresco, readers may struggle to believe that in the 1800s, Alto Piemonte was the most famous appellation for Nebbiolo-based wines in Northern Italy. These vineyards once encompassed more than 40,000 hectares. Today, that number is closer to 700 or so. The turn of the century saw the arrival of Phylloxera, followed by a devastating frost in 1905 that wiped out many vineyards. These were rough times for the families that made their living off the land. Over time, younger generations moved to the cities, where factories offered more stable employment. The spread of industrialization gradually gobbled up the countryside.

A few historic wineries remained, but Alto Piemonte was very much a backwater. That was certainly my impression the first time I visited, more than twenty years ago. The landscape and the wines spoke of rusticity, neglect and faded glory. But things started to change in the late 1990s, interestingly, with investments from foreigners. Perhaps because they were able to see the region without any biases and without the burden of history, these visionaries were open to understanding the latent potential of the area. Swiss importer Christoph Künzli arrived in the late 1990s and founded Le Piane. A few years later, Dieter Heuskel, formerly Chairman of the Boston Consulting Group’s Germany practice and his business partner, Alto Adige producer/importer Peter Di Poli, bought an abandoned property in Brusnengo and began nursing it back to life. Their Le Pianelle estate is now one of the most dynamic wineries in Alto Piemonte. Roberto Conterno upped the stakes considerably when he acquired the historic Nervi cellars in 2018.

Today, a whole new generation of young owners and winemakers are returning to their roots, rediscovering the potential of sites that previous generations had been forced to abandon. This is happening because making wine is a much more viable profession than it was in the past.

Cristiano Garella is without question the leading figure of the current generation. Garella makes wines for his own Colombera & Garella estate, consults for many other properties and represents those and many others through his distribution business. His knowledge of the region and its producers is vast and matched only by his boundless energy and enthusiasm.

This view from Ioppa is a classic Alto Piemonte landscape, with the industrial district of Romagnano Sesia below and Gattinara visible in the distance.

The Landscape Today

Surveying the landscape today, Alto Piemonte can be roughly divided into the classic estates, meaning those with several decades of history. These include Travaglini, Antoniolo, Cantalupo, Sella, Nervi-Conterno and Vallana. Alongside them are many small, grower estates with tiny holdings of just a few hectares. Some of these estates are so small that they are sub-scale and therefore not viable as standalone businesses but rather are side businesses run by passionate owners. For now.

Challenges remain. One of these is a general lack of wine culture. Many growers are quite skilled at tending their vineyards, but that is very different from having the tasting perspective, background or even interest in wine to turn out whites and reds that can compete in a global market. That will come in time. But it also can’t be forced. It has to come from within, from a producer’s own curiosity. To be fair, this is true in other parts of the world too. Many wines remain extremely inexpensive. That might seem like a positive on the surface, but ultimately, it is an obstacle if wineries can’t earn enough to invest and grow. These very real challenges notwithstanding, I remain extremely optimistic about Alto Piemonte. Among other things, Alto Piemonte is a terrific region to visit for readers who want to get away from areas where sudden economic prosperity threatens to erode traditional values.

Recent Vintages

Getting a handle on vintages in Alto Piemonte always takes a bit of time because new vintage releases are always spread out across several years, which is quite unusual relative to most other regions. Moreover, Alto Piemonte is a collection of appellations, each with distinct attributes and unique varietal blends that influence the wines. For those reasons, readers should take these thoughts on younger vintages as general impressions more than anything else.

Two thousand twenty-two has the distinction of being the hottest and driest year since records have been kept. I have only tasted a handful of entry-level wines so far. These wines point to an extremely challenging vintage, but it is too early to have a complete view of the year. Even so, winemakers are not magicians.

The vintage that could have been. That is 2021. The year will be remembered for a severe hailstorm on June 29 that devastated vineyards in Gattinara and Bramaterra. Losses in the hardest hit areas are north of 90%. Frost was another issue. Typically, frost is most damaging to vineyards on lower slopes, but in 2021, currents carried cold air higher than usual, which meant frost affected sites at higher elevations than is the norm, typically where better vineyards are planted. It’s a different story entirely where hail and frost did not cause problems. Overall conditions were warmer and drier than in 2020, with some heat spikes but also cool evenings and diurnal shifts that appeared during the crucial final phase of ripening. Rainfall was low but not excessively so. Ultimately, 2021 is a vintage of balance (in areas that were not impacted by frost or hail) in which the wines retained notable acidity.

Alto Piemonte saw another productive vintage in 2020 with no significant hail or frost events. It was a warm year with well-timed rains and a harvest that started early but not excessively so. The wines I have tasted thus far are strong but perhaps lack the visceral thrill of the most exceptional years. Readers will find a lot to like in the 2020s, wines that offer plenty of early appeal and accessibility. Even conditions with no spikes but generally warm weather yielded approachable wines that are easy to drink and enjoy.

Two thousand-nineteen is a year of wines that exude classicism. Well-timed rains balanced warm temperatures throughout the year. There were no shock events. Conditions remained stable throughout the late summer, with strong diurnal shifts marking the final phase of ripening. Harvest took place during the cool days of fall, ideal for Nebbiolo. The wines are bright, structured and built for aging.

Two thousand-eighteen was the warmest vintage in history (until 2022 broke all records) but also a season with heavy rainfall. Budbreak, flowering and veraison all took place under benign conditions, which led to abundant yields. There was some hail damage, but it appears to have been limited. In tasting, the 2018s are marked by forward fruit and an uncommon level of textural generosity. It is a year characterized by both high quality and abundant yields.

The 2017s are inconsistent across the board. Some benefit from the extra richness of a year marked by hot, dry conditions and naturally low yields, while others clearly show the stresses of a year with several shock events. As it was throughout the rest of Piemonte, 2017 was quite warm but, even more importantly, very dry. These conditions made 2017 one of the warmest and driest years on record. Rainfall was 33% lower than average. Frost in April, hail in May and then hot, dry weather stressed vineyards. Ultimately quite a few wines taste, literally, stressed. Even so, the best 2017s are very much worth seeking out.

About This Report

I tasted most of the wines in this report in November 2023. The dispersiveness of Alto Piemonte and widely differing release schedules invariably result in some estates that are missing. I will endeavor to add reviews for those wines as soon as is practical. This article covers new releases from Alto Piemonte and the wines of Canavese, which includes Carema. Technically, Canavese is not part of Alto Piemonte, although the two regions are separated by as little as a few kilometers and share many attributes, including the general style of the wines and grape varieties.

From administrative, economic and social perspectives, the Alto Piemonte provinces of Vercelli and Novara have always been linked to Milan, while Canavese and its main town, Ivrea, are in the province of Torino, with Biella in the middle of the two provinces. Readers who want to learn more about each of the appellations in Alto Piemonte will find plenty of background information (including production guidelines) in my previous articles, all linked below.

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