Monday, July 2, 2012

Journey to Piemonte: land of myth, majesty and fabulous wines

Italian wines form the Upper Piedmont: Prestigious wines at the foot of the Monte Rose Massif

GHEMME, ITALY---Piemonte is one of the most varied regions of the wine world. The majestic backdrop of the Italian Alps is visible at almost every point.  In Monferrato to the south, the infinite range of vineyards and vines lends the region its singular charm.  The smell of Jasmine is everywhere. From the north to the south, vineyards dot the landscape like a string of pearls, each with a distinctive treasure to reveal.

 A light rain descended as our tour bus pulled into the Agriturismo “Il Cavenago” winery in the Upper Piedmont, one of Italy’s most lush and historic wine producing regions. In attendance were a dozen or so wine producers from the area presenting a broad spectrum of wines representing the native varietals of the region. Some of the grapes are familiar to wine lovers; Nebbiolo, Gattinara and Barbera. Others, such as Ghemme, Boca and Canavese date back to antiquity and are little known outside this closely-knit cluster of small wineries. With growing curiosity over Italian wines and inquisitive buying public, the word is quickly spreading over the beauty and complexity of the wines of his historic region.

Upper Piedmont is a diverse land area that includes mountains, hills and plains. The cold winds that descend from the Monte Rosa Massif bring with them extreme temperature shifts that have a dramatic impact on the grapes.

The diverse soil types and climatic variations produce wine of astounding complexity. Extreme temperature changes between night and day bring out a variety of aromatic components ranging from herbs to spices, which make the wines compatible with a broad range of foods. That is the singular most intriguing aspect of the wines of the Upper Piedmont.

A tasting tour of the wines provided an introduction to a virtual rainbow of flavor profiles ranging from earthy and herbaceous to sweet and aromatic.

-Ioppa Ghemme 2005 Santa Fe ($40). This wine from winemaker Polo Minuto is a stunning representation of the Nebbilo grape. A blend of 80% Nebbiolo and 20% Vespolina, this is a medium dry wine with a pronounced clear and bright color. Terrific for just drinking as a “meditation” wine, it distinguishes itself by also being compatible with game meats, cured meats and salumi and hard cheeses. A delightful aromatic goat’s milk cheese consumed at breakfast would have been a perfect accompaniment!

-Azienda agricola Antoniolo Gattinara DOCG Classico 2007 ($20). Winemaker Lorella Antoniolo is also the president of the local wine consortium and an outspoken champion of the wines of Gattinara. The quality of the wine is characterized by the factors of climate, soil and grape variety. Volcanic soil gives the wine its pronounced acidity as well as a distinct mineral quality.  For a red, the wine is extremely versatile. I had it with a local fish variety, similar to swordfish. The wine cut perfectly through the oil of the fleshy whitefish and created a delightful sensation in the mouth.

-Halle’ Sparkling Rose’ from Colline Novaresi($35) showed the versatility of the Nebbbiolo grape. Consisting of 100% Nebbiolo, the wine is made from the earliest maturing grapes, according to winemaker Enrico Crola of Azienda Vitivinicola Enrico Crola. The wine is distinctive because of its perfect balance; it has the right acidity without possessing an excessive alcohol level. This makes it an appealing aperitif with enough complexity to carry it into a meal of fish, lighter meats such a poultry, lamb or veal and a variety of salads and cheeses. The first in the territory to produce this type of wine, it is re-fermented entirely in the bottle according to the “Metodo Classico.”

These are just a few of the viticultural treasures experienced in this privileged land where passion and history converge to make wines of poetic proportion and noble expression.

Lush panaromas unfolded as we ascended to the Monferrato to the south. This is a region full of history and tradition. With its medieval castles and towering cathedrals, it is a land of myth and majesty.  This is the world where Barbera reigns supreme. It is also the birthplace of Moscato, the sweet, succulent grape that is now taking the U.S. wine drinking public by storm. Alto Monferatto is an undiscovered beauty whose wines are a revelation. They are meant to go with food and present many challenges to the untrained palate. However, if you dig beyond your prejudices and accept the wines at face value and consider the endless possibilities that matching varied cuisines with the wines can present, you will find a treasure trove of real beauties as I did during an extensive tasting at the estate of Mauro Gaudio.

Monferatto is positioned along the Po river. It is redolent of a time when kings and knights ruled the city states that dominated the scene. Many myths surround the origins of the name, the most logical being that it is named for the fertile Mons ferax hills. In the Middle Ages, many kings and conquerors have passed through Monferrato, the armies raging wars, sieges and bloody battles that shaped the boundaries of this vast region, but never disfigured its inherent glory. Despire the ravages of foreign invaders, the land survived and now produces some of the finest examples of Italian vinification that the wine-loving world enjoys.

Our day began with the tasting at Gaudio estate, where I tasted many spectacular examples of Barbera D’Asti and Barbera del Monferrato and ended with a fabulous dinner at the castle of Gabiano.   

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