One client of mine bemoans the fact that wine prices have escalated – part of that is down to inflation and part of that is down to discovery. I can’t do much about inflation (right now I am wondering who can?), but I can do something about discovery. When regions or producers become more touted, interest builds and prices are drawn higher. That said, there are still pockets across Europe where great wines are produced in lesser-known areas that do not register with many consumers. If you want to find value, one such area to explore is Alto Piemonte, a lesser-known region to the north of Barolo and Barbaresco.
I regard this area as producing some truly stunning wines, invariably with softer tannins than you would find in Barolo and at remarkably fair prices. In fact, it seems many consumers overlook great wines from unknown villages in Alto Piemonte, such as Boca, Ghemme or Bramaterra (to name but a few), perhaps incorrectly believing that modest quality must accompany modest price. But they are wrong, and it seems there is a growing realisation that Alto Piemonte is on the up – unsurprising given the quality of recent vintages and perhaps a beneficial shift in climate. It is hard to find a region where you can buy great examples of characterful, cellarage-worthy wines for such fair prices.
A few years before Roberto Conterno purchased a stake in Nervi in Gattinara, Antonio Galloni once commented on Vinous that ‘there aren’t too many secrets left anymore in the world of wine. Alto Piemonte and Valtellina are two of them.’ Following that high-profile Conterno acquisition, he might very soon only be able to cite Valtellina. One of Nervi’s first releases since Roberto Conterno’s involvement, the 2018 Gattinara Molsino, was the highest scoring wine of that vintage across Piemonte and Alto Piemonte with 98+ points. That means he rated it higher than any wine produced in Barolo or Barbaresco that vintage. And to suggest that ‘Molsino will soon be the Monfortino of Alto Piemonte’ is not only high praise for the team at Nervi but also signals that Alto Piemonte has potential and plenty of it. I think this is well worth noting. Funnily enough, if you go back in history, the wines of Alto Piemonte commanded higher prices than Burgundy…
The dominant grape variety in Alto Piemonte is Nebbiolo, just as in Barolo and Barbaresco, yet here it is often blended with Vespolina, another indigenous variety peculiar to the region, which adds to Nebbiolo’s aromatics and helps soften the palate, whilst adding a certain spiciness of its own. Whereas Barolo faces challenges in hotter vintages – where some full south-facing slopes are delivering more weight and alcohol – Alto Piemonte, with its cooler climatic profile and dramatic shifts between day and night temperature, often benefits from such conditions.
I tasted the 2018 Guardasole, Boca and quite quickly decided that it was an absolute bargain. The 2018 had an immediacy – you could broach the wine straight-away. The 2019 vintage is a touch more serious – and frankly I was stunned by just how good it is. Antonio Gallloni seemed to make a fleeting visit to the estate – he scored it 90-92 points and commented as follows on tasting a young sample from tank: ‘Tasted from tank, the 2019 Boca appears to have good depth and complexity, but gleaning anything more than that from this sample is impossible.’ He must have tasted at a much younger stage than I, and my visit was extensive as we tasted through various vintages and every wine the estate produces – simply put, what I gleaned is this estate is one to watch.
The Guardasole estate is absolutely tiny with just two hectares of vines across three historic plots planted with 80% Nebbiolo and 20% Vespolina. The vineyards are at an altitude that ranges from 460-490 metres and consist of volcanic rock and porphyry pebbles (basically coarse ground crystals embedded in igneous rock if my GCSE Geography serves me well). These factors contribute to the style of Boca, which is also shaped by the northern air currents from Mount Rosa, which leads to a significant shift in day to night-time temperatures (mentioned above) – a pattern that serves Nebbiolo particularly well. The region typically experiences mild winters and warm, sunny summers, permitting a relatively long growing season for a late ripening variety such as Nebbiolo; harvest normally commences in early October.
Boca has to be aged for 34 months before release, and 18 of those months must be in oak – not dissimilar to Barolo.