Nervi Conterno is the oldest cellar in the Gattinara DOCG.

When the nebbiolo bug hits, it hits hard – hurling its captive deep into the hedonistic abyss of Piedmontese food and wine culture in Italy’s north-west. It’s a culture quick to torment both the waistline and bank account, which beg for reprieve as the Barolo and Barbaresco wines start hitting the dinner table. And hit the table they should. These diverse and stunning terroirs deserve all the praise bestowed, bringing rise to further interest into varied and often cheaper iterations. Enter Alto Piemonte – the cool sub-alpine region at the heart of nebbiolo’s rise to fame.

Located 150km north-east of the city of Alba, Alto Piemonte (meaning ‘High Piedmont’) is an undulating, forest-clad terrain at the base of the looming Italian alps. Its steep sites, acid-rich soils and high diurnal shifts result in fragrant, complex, mineral and ageworthy nebbiolo-based wines leaning more to freshness compared with the power of southern Piemonte. It’s all thanks to a Mother Nature masterstroke some 300 million years ago; a major continental collision combined with the implosion of a super volcano created a significant caldera, laying the foundations for vine production millennia later.

In fact, long before Barolo and Barbaresco, it was Alto Piemonte’s Gattinara municipality in the province of Vercelli that basked in the limelight. With vineyards planted by the Romans in the second century BC, the perfumed and elegant red table wines based on ‘Spanna’ (the local name for nebbiolo) were all the rage. But an unrelenting amalgam of phylloxera, downy mildew, and calamitous weather hindered the region’s vinous trajectory through the 18th and 19th centuries, and with the added harrowing effects of war and the industrial revolution, the land under vine shrunk from 40,000ha to 600ha with forest gradually replacing vineyard. Fast forward to the 21st century and a renaissance has begun. Younger generations are breathing life into the region, inspired by the lively dinner table stories of their grandparents.

The Wait Vineyard.

There are four provinces and 10 appellations in Alto Piemonte, all governed by different laws predominantly controlling alcohol by volume, ageing requirements and cépage (blending). For the latter, nebbiolo must always make up the majority of the blend. The balance can be made up of indigenous varieties vespolina, croatina and uva rara; these lesser-known varieties held more importance in a time gone by, supporting nebbiolo when it couldn’t ripen sufficiently. Today, a combination of global warming, lower yields and improved viticulture means the grape ripens more consistently. As a result, more producers are moving to 100% nebbiolo wines, in turn increasing its popularity.

There are two appellations that hold the coveted Denominazione di origine controllata e garantita (DOCG) classification: Gattinara and Ghemme. The rest hold the less strict Denominazione di origine controllata (DOC) classification: Bramaterra, Boca, Fara, Lessona, Valli Ossolane, Sizzano, Coste della Sesia and Colline Novaresi.

Gattinara lies in the heart of Alto and arguably holds the highest reverence. The first to be granted DOCG status in 1990, it has just 65ha under vine and is still the largest appellation from a production standpoint. Within the appellation, Gattinara arguably produces the most ripe and sweet-fruited wines with resolved and polished tannins.

Producers like Antoniolo Wines lead the charge here. Established in 1948 by Mario Antoniolo, it was the first to bottle a Cru wine from the region. Antoniolo is known for salvaging some of the great vineyards in the 1950s and ’60s when many were deserting viticulture for the lure of factory jobs in Milan’s burgeoning textile industry. Mario’s daughter, Rosanna, is now the proprietor. She’s a pioneer of the Gattinara region, having heeded the advice of renowned Italian wine journalist Luigi Veronelli to bottle her San Francesco and Osso San Grato as single vineyard wines in the mid-1970s.

Such is the trajectory of Gattinara, that it attracts investment from major players further south. When it comes to Barolo producers, Giacomo Conterno sits atop the tree with its famed Monfortino fetching stratospheric prices and fostering insatiable demand the world over.

In 2018, proprietor Roberto Conterno purchased a 90% stake in the historic Gattinara producer, Nervi, sending a clear message to a wider wine audience that Alto Piemonte was the real deal. Founded in 1906 by Luigi Nervi, it’s the oldest cellar in Gattinara, with holdings of some top Crus such as Molsino and Valferana. Nervi was purchased by Norwegian investors in 2001, with Erling Astrup in charge. After 17 years of full ownership, Astrup gave his friend Roberto Conterno first option for buy in, beginning the transition to Nervi Conterno.

Vignerons Schmölzer & Brown.

Ghemme was elevated to DOCG in 1997. It sits in the Novara province east of Gattinara and over the Sesia river that winds its way north to south dividing the region. The sites are at lower altitudes than those of Gattinara, and the soil make-up is complex and more varied than most appellations in the region. This is thanks to an ancient Monte Rosa glacier, which deposited granite, quartz and other rocky matter that fractionates into a sandy consistency after winter rains. The wines of Ghemme tend to be leaner and more linear than those of Gattinara.

Third-generation Mario Platinetti picked up the pieces of his father’s early 20th-century work. In the 1970s, he founded Platinetti Guido and began planting on the hill of Ronco al Maso near the Ghemme township. Now, Mario’s son Andrea Fontana is a top-rating winemaker for Platinetti, and the president of the Consorzio Tutela Nebbioli Alto Piemonte – an association dedicated to the protection, education and perpetuation of the Alto Piemonte story. When asked if he thinks the region will continue to flourish, Fontana is optimistic. “The bases to do so are all there,” he says. “Many producers are planting new vineyards, every year they are also increasing the number of young people who return with passion to cultivate the vineyards.”

Platinetti Guido is a key nebbiolo producer in the Ghemme DOCG.

Bramaterra DOC sits in the province of Biella in Alto’s north-west. Before WWII, its production volumes were higher than that of Barolo – a fact difficult to fathom today.

Le Pianelle is a top producer of the region. Founders Dieter Heuskel and Peter Dipoli acquired their first plot of abandoned land in 2004 and have since taken the region to new heights.

As have La Palazzina – a small, traditional, quality focused producer founded in 1986 and housed in a 17th-century house working with old vine material. The wines of Bramaterra tend to be more herbal and austere than Gattinara and Ghemme, especially in the cooler years. To assuage this, the DOC stipulates the blend be 50-80% nebbiolo, up to 30% of croatina, and up to 20% of uva rara and vespolina.

One of the smallest appellations is Boca DOC in Novarra, which has around 12ha under vine. In the 1990s, there was only one noteworthy producer left in Boca, then 80-year-old Antonio Cerri who is said to have often stated: “With me, Boca will die.” Thankfully, Cerri’s wines caught the attention of Swiss wine merchant Christoph Kuenzli and the two struck up a friendship, with Kuenzli later leasing Cerri’s cellar and vineyard. Cerri passed away in 1998, at which point Kuenzli purchased the estate and expanded to create Le Piane, now a benchmark. Although there are only a handful of producers in this tiny region, Boca lives on.

Alto Piemonte’s story is a rich tapestry of prosperity, adversity and resurgence – the momentum of the latter suggesting a bright future. So, immerse yourself in the wines of nebbiolo’s birthplace, let the bug take hold, and throw a Spanna in the works.

Winemaker Michael Corbett (pictured) agrees the meaning is hard to pin down.

Alto Piemonte Nebbiolo to Try

2016 Le Pianelle Bramaterra, A$90
High-quality kirsch, candied cherry, pine needle and foresty alpine spice aromas. Red cherry mineral notes surround a core of more dense iodine, cut leather and pine mushroom. Palate is cooling and compact, with dark cherry, red apple skin, redcurrant and pine needle. Its mineral finesse is a feature, and the chalky tannin drive slowly uncovers a latent lick of red-fruited acidity. 80% nebbiolo, 10% vespolina, 10% croatina.

2016 Platinetti Guido Vigna Ronco al Maso, Ghemme, A$89
Opens with sour and dried cherry, rocky minerals, lavender and pomegranate before making way for autumnal notes – decaying leaf, damp forest floor and heady perfumed red florals. Pure, layered and pretty. An impeccably balanced palate walks the line of tension and weight with sour cherry, cranberry, rose and kirsch. The grainy tannins are fine but present and carry cohesively with a long cleansing acid line. 100% nebbiolo.

2015 Antoniolo Osso San Grato, Gattinara Riserva, A$220
Opens with complexity, harmony and charm. Ripe red cherry, graphite, orange peel, sweet red rose, lavender and cola make way for thyme, mushroom, earth and dried cranberry. The palate is brooding, integrated and structured, with redcurrant, spiced cherry, dried cranberry and earth framed by resolved but firm grainy tannins and red-fruited acidity pulling it long. 100% nebbiolo.

2017 Nervi Conterno Gattinara, A$130
Restrained aromas of cherry, cranberry, mint, gentle alpine spice, cured meat and a subtle salty mineral edge. Balsamic, dried herbs and soy sauce umami characters unfurl with air leading to mushroom and tilled earth. The palate shows lovely tension and poise straight off, with stacked chalky tannins bracing around cherry, rose and cranberry to an amaro-infused close. 100% nebbiolo.

2015 La Palazzina Bramaterra Riserva, A$85
Dried cherry, decaying red rose, subtle cherry cola, cranberry and gentle pepper spice straight off, followed by thyme, rosemary and lifted lavender. There’s verve and youthfulness to the palate, with buoyant red cherry, amaro and cranberry braced by puckery chalky tannins and bright lively acidity. 70% nebbiolo, 15% croatina, 10% vespolina, 5% uva rara.

2016 Le Piane Boca, A$125
Bright aromas of maraschino cherry, wild strawberry, crushed rock and cherry liqueur leap out of the glass, supported by gentle pepper spice and burgeoning red florals. Time in glass yields more savoury notes of old leather and peppered meat. The palate is bony, lithe and buoyant with cherry and red apple skin melding with cooling pumice stone minerality. The tannins are fine but persistent culminating in a crunchy cherry scented close. 85% nebbiolo, 15% vespolina.