Nebbiolo Shines in Alto Piemonte, Carema & Valtellina


It’s an exciting time to explore the small appellations that make up Northern Italy’s Alto Piemonte, Carema and Valtellina districts. There was a period, not too long ago, when many wines in these regions were either lackluster or muddled by overly pushed winemaking that obscured terroir. Outstanding wines were very much the exception rather than the rule. That has changed dramatically in recent years through a combination of dynamic young estates that have brought tremendous energy to the mix and older, more established names also raising the bar. Quite simply, I have never tasted more riveting, breathtaking wines from these appellations than I have over the last six months or so.

Alto Piemonte, Carema & Valtellina: An Overview

This report focuses on the Nebbiolos and Nebbiolo-based wines of Alto Piemonte, a collection of small appellations about a two-hour drive north of Barolo and just about an hour west of Milan. It’s a region I got to know well during the time I lived in Milan twenty years ago. Each of the main appellations has its own production guidelines, or disciplinare, that sets forth requirements on varietal blends and other technical specifications. Readers will find the main points in my previous articles, all of which are listed below for reference. Increasingly, producers bottle some of the blenders separately, which provides a great opportunity to discover the character of grapes that were originally intended to complement Nebbiolo.

I also include wines from Carema, which is technically separate but often grouped with Alto Piemonte, which makes sense for practical purposes given its location and the style of the wines. Valtellina lies to the east in Lombardia and is also a patchwork of several small appellations. Wines are at least 90% Nebbiolo, which is known as Chiavennasca in these parts.

Except for Sforzato, the Valtellina red made from air-dried Nebbiolo, the Nebbiolo and Nebbiolo-based wines of Northern Italy are generally characterized by lighter structure, brighter acids and a greater feeling of tension as compared to the wines of Barolo, Barbaresco and Roero. Despite these attributes, the Nebbiolos of Northern Italy have proven to age exceptionally well. The very best examples do what only Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir can do among red varieties: deliver tremendous flavor intensity without excess weight.

Le Pianelle’s Chioso Robino, a south-east facing block the estate is using for its new Bramaterra made with 100% whole clusters.

Recent Vintages in Alto Piemonte

Getting a grasp on vintages in Alto Piemonte is quite a bit more challenging than it is elsewhere. The staggered nature of releases across several vintages presents many difficulties in tasting a significant number of wines from any given year at the same moment. For example, an estate typically releases its entry-level bottling from a recent vintage alongside one or more wines from previous vintages. In the most dramatic of examples, such as at Cantalupo and Sella, top bottlings are released many years later, by which time memories are a bit less crisp than they may have been when events were more recent. On the other hand, these wines enter the market already ready to drink, which is a huge boon to consumers and restaurants that don’t have the space or financial wherewithal to cellar wines.

Any article on new releases such as this one will necessarily encompass several vintages. The varietal mix in most appellations means that establishing relationships or causality from the weather conditions of a given year to the wines is not always easy. With these caveats in mind, I still believe some general thoughts might be helpful.

Two thousand twenty-one was a very challenging year across Alto Piemonte. Frost and hail reduced production severely. Frost is typically 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. From there, weather turned dry and warm. Hail was a bigger issue, most notably a storm in July that decimated vineyards in Gattinara and Bramaterra, where losses are estimated to be in the neighborhood of 80%, in some cases more. Hot and dry weather returned, which led to quick ripening because of the generally low yields on the vine. Even so, early reports are that acidities remained healthy. The wines I have tasted so far are promising.

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. As mentioned previously though, the top wines have yet to be released. Readers will find plenty to like in the 2019s. It 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.

Two thousand eighteen is marked by high quality and abundant yields. It was 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.

And the Future…?

So far, Alto Piemonte and Carema have benefitted from climate change. Generally warmer, drier seasons have given these wines an extra bit of mid-palate pliancy that makes the wines far more appealing, especially on release, than the wines of the previous generation, which were often forbiddingly tannic and acidic in the early going. That has been a positive, especially in a world where consumers are increasingly looking for wines that are ready to drink on release. Today’s thoughtful growers have an eye towards the future, though, and are beginning to think more about sites that offer greater protection from the elements. I am also starting to see the first experiments with whole clusters, a new approach in Alto Piemonte, in wines like Le Pianelle's 2018 Bramaterras. Much of the same regarding climate change is also true in Valtellina, where the wines have a bit more generosity than in the past.

About This Report

I tasted the wines in this article in late 2022 and early 2023. One of the major challenges in preparing this report is simply the collection of samples from a number of small, artisan estates spread over many appellations. Several producers, including some big names I would have liked to taste for this article, did not have new releases to show. We will add reviews for those wines as soon as I have an opportunity to taste them.

© 2023, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.

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