Barolo and Barbaresco, Italy´s icon wines are based on Nebbiolo grape: its exceptional aroma and flavour potential is much praised. Less known is the fact that Nebbiolo is originating from North Piemonte´s wine hills, it is even not completely sure. But very probable, because in 196 BC the Romans found viticulture near Novara and there is some grape indicated as ´spanis´ by Pliny, which refers to Nebbiolo which locally is called Spanna.
But even without this connection with antiquity North Piemonte´s wines have a great history. Italy´s first bottled wines are from this area (Lessona, Gattinara and Ghemme), especially Gattinara was well-known in international circles in 16th century, 200 years before the first Barolo was bottled. It is in North Piemonte where we find two almost forgotten wine regions that are continuing the story and they do this with flair and passion but without being discovered yet: LESSONA and BRAMATERRA, maybe Piemonte´s most forgotten wines.
Lessona and Bramaterra´s wineries were having success already in 19th century, and were considered of the same quality level as Gattinara. The climate of Lessona and Bramaterra is moderated by fresh air from the mountains alternated by warm air from the plains. Soils though, could not be more different on such a small scale.
Alas, after the Second World War, when the textile industry in Biella province started its post-war boom, most of these unique vineyards were abandoned and by now most are overgrown by forests. Is that all? No! There is a small sign of revival because a little group of producers is bringing life into this territory. Some have always continued like Sella in Lessona and Antoniotti in Bramaterra, both historical producers with cellars dating from 19th century. But it started with young Luca de Marchi who brought new elan entered the area. And other young, talented winemakers are starting production too.
Still it is very hard to have these abandoned vineyards back into production. Legally there is problem, as the law permits the rooting out of old forests if it can be proved that there were vineyards before. But it´s the owners, mostly old people, refusing to sell, not knowing that they are blocking development. Winemakers need a lot of persistence and patience, because the recovery of these old vineyards is going as slowly as the buying process. But soon we may taste new wines from Lessona and Bramaterra, and then patience is needed again as these wines have excellent aging potential. A good Bramaterra can best be drunk not before 10 years of age because before it isn´t showing its complete potential before. Bramaterra and Lessona have more aging potential than even Barolo, as the level of acidity is higher in these wines due to the soils. It´s an expression of the soil, nothing else, as climate is not much different from the Langhe.
In North Piemonte Nebbiolo is often mixed with Croatina, Bonarda or Vespolina. Especially Vespolina can be very interesting like the one of Pietro Cassina. Blends produced as Coste della Sesia DOC can be quite interesting too.
Photo: Vineyards in Bramaterra
(DOC since 1976) Lessona knows a long wine history: already in 14th century Lessona was surrounded by vineyards. It seems tiny on the map but there used to be more than 300 hectares of vines. The softly rolling hills are outcrops of the Alps and most are not steep. The soil of Lessona is one of the most unique in Italy: sand. But these sands are marine deposits with some mineral characteristics, not to compare with dunes by the sea. Below are some layers of chalky stone. This allows the vine to grow deep, but it gives wines that are fresh with much acidity when young and open very slowly. Due to this terroir Nebbiolo grape shows very different characteristics and winemaking is also much different. Only after 8 or 10 years a Lessona DOC will show it´s potential and it can age for decades. It is allowed to mix other grapes, Vespolina, Croatina, Bonarda, but Lessona is best when almost 100% Nebbiolo.
In fact Lessona still exists thanks to the historical Sella family who persisted proudly to produce Lessona when the decline of the region started after the Second World War. We taste a vertical of old Lessona´s back to the vintage 2004. What a fortune! And some older vintages are still available. All wines are vivid, lively, no sign of age, freshness, great drinkability: it shows again the potential of Lessona´s wines! Tenute Sella is investing in new vineyards in Lessona: so there might be more quantity of these excellent wines available in the future.
Recently new blood came into the area with Proprieta Sperino: Luca de Marchi is a brillant winemaker (he is son of Paolo de Marchi, famous for Isole e Olena from Tuscany). Luca has replanted his family vineyards and produces excellent Lessona. Another newcomer is Pietro Cassina, architect himself, his new winery with its daring architecture will definitely create more interest. His wines are still young but show potential. Newcomer La Prevostura shows also potential with some excellent wines. Also wineries Massimo Clerico, La Badina and Castello di Montecavallo produce interesting wines.
Photo: the team at Sella at the tasting Paolo Benassi and Marco Rizzetti
Photo: the energetic Luca de Marchi brought new life in Lessona since 2004
(DOC since 1979). Bramaterra is almost the only DOC of North Piemonte covering various comunes: it is produced in Masserano, Brusnengo, Roasio, Curino, Villa del Bosco, Lozzolo and Sostegno. Before the Second World War production volumes were higher than Barolo – only Roasio used to have 300 hectares and Bramaterra´s total might have been more than 2000 hectares.. It is one of Piemonte´s most curious wines: extremely difficult to find, but when you find a bottle it is always great!
With Antoniotti we drive into the hills along steep slopes where Bramaterra is produced. Sometimes it looks more like driving through forests in central Italy, this area is that much different from all others in Piemonte. At some points layers of rare minerals come to the surface showing the uniqueness of this soil. It is a very thin top layer of ca 80 cm of red-brown soil and below are the rocks called ‘porfido tufaceo’, containing minerals like silicon, boron and others. This porfido is originally vulcanic stone, created by the supervulcano which according to recent scientific research was situated here before the creation of the Alps. Because of this thin topsoil the vines never have problems with rain, and even in the monsoon vintage 2014 Bramaterra will produce interesting wines – in very dry years the vines can have heat stress though. As a result of the rocky structure of the soil, it takes the vines many years to develop the rootstocks and the stems remain thin even when old and never give abundant production. But acidity is high and the tannins are closed when young so the wines need much time to develop: it should be considered a sin to open a bottle of Bramaterra before 10 years old. At that point it can produce beautiful wines dominated by fresh fruit and longevity, elegant perfumes with some violet and a still powerful, tannine-rich structure with a long finish. Bramaterra has great aging potential and is very scarse so it is quite strange that Sotheby´s and Christie´s did not show more interest in these rare wines. Bramaterra (and in fact also Lessona) could be some of the world´s most sought after auction wines!
Photo: father and son Antoniotti in their vineyards in Bramaterra, with examples of the porfido rocks
Apart from wines of Antoniotti we taste some good wines of La Ronda, Colombera & Garella wineries: all show the typical Bramaterra characteristics. Especially the wines of La Palazzina excell in freshness and purity, again showing the potential of this terroir.
A quick visit to the vineyards shows how much the wine world is missing. Dense forests are overgrowing old vineyards on these wonderful, sometimes steep hills. Indeed the loss of so many great wines means a huge loss to the wine world. What a pity that production is so few! In this unique territory of old, mineral sands in Lessona and heavy porfido rocks with a thin toplayer of sandy clay in Bramaterra we find some unique Nebbiolo wines: Piemonte´s most forgotten wines. But with this new revival the regions of Lessona and Bramaterra contribute to North Piemonte becoming the new Côte d´Or of Piemonte.
Photo: Pietro Cassina, who has started an ambitious new winery in Lessona
Photo: Villa Monolo, the new chateau of La Ronda winery in Bramaterra – in restauration
Some interesting wines:
Proprieta Sperino, Lessona DOC 2010
Aromas of blackberries, juniper, very intense, freshness, strong fruit, complex, very long finish.
Sella, Lessona DOC 2004 Omaggio Quintino Sella
Interesting is that Sella still has old vintages for sale, like this excellent 2004: brillant colour, pure fruit aroma´s and a very long intense taste, good acidity, length, wonderful wine.
Massimo Clerico, Lessona 2010
Fine, precious perfume, complexity, intense somewhat dark fruit, tannins, length. Good example of the interesting Lessona DOC
La Palazzina Coste della Sesia DOC
Pure fruit, acidity, good tannins, balance, length, a beautiful wine!
Antoniotti, Bramaterra 2010
Tasted quite young, this wine needs age. With time fruit will develop and the wine will show elegance and freshness.
Colombera & Garella, Bramaterra 2010
Good Bramaterra, typically needs time to express its fine fruit
Pietro Cassina, Coste della Sesia Vespolina DOC 2010
Beautiful expression of Vespolina grape, refined, pure fruit, raspberries, fine tannins, length & elegance.
La Prevostura, Coste della Sesia DOC 2010 Muntacc
Dark fruit, length, intense, strong tannins, interesting wine, quite strong, needs some aging to show its fruit.
La Prevostura, Coste della Sesia DOC 2012 rosato
Most interesting rosé wine, pity that production is so tiny – Nebbiolo can offer a great rosé´s too. Pure raspberries and mint aroma´s and a long balanced finish, great wine.
Photo: Castello di Montecavallo, near Biella
Photo: old vintages of Bramaterra, also the oldest are still quite fresh and drinkable. As Bramaterra DOC did not yet exist in the 70-ies, it was simply labelled as ´Spanna´.
Photo: historical vineyards of Sella winery in Lessona
Thanks to Ermanno Mino for his excellent organisation, many thanks to all producers, especially to Chiara Reda for her great hospitality! Thanks also to Giuseppe Graziola for his informations on the history of Lessona.