I had the treat of tasting a few beautiful bottles of old nebbiolo around this time last month, thanks to the very kind (z)infidel who drowned a table full of cool folk in the riches of Burlotto and Conti Boca, the most stunning of which was Burlotto’s ’67 Barolo- one of the more complete and elegant wines of age that I have tasted in awhile.
We enjoyed some spectacular nebbiolo from the Langhe, but the lineup started out with old vintages from further north in Piedmont. They were the ’64 Cantine Curti Spanna, the ’67 Francoli Spanna, and the ’64 Bertelleti Gattinara, Ghemme, and Spanna. I found these wines to be pretty exciting, mostly because they are from little Piemonte appellations that have sort of been forgotten. And as much as I love the new, the present, the fresh, I also hate to forget. I wouldn’t say that these guys shone like the ’67 Burlotto, or some of the others, but they sure did sing their native song. And I don’t believe we can ask for anything greater than that.
These little regions- Ghemme, Gattinara, Sizzano, Boca, Carema were the winemaking regions back in the day of the kingdom of Savoy. Scattered around the base of the Italian-Swiss Alps, the place is quite pure. These were the wines of nobility before disease such as phylloxera came along in the late 1800’s and spoiled the vineyards. Vines were replanted, but these regions never really regained their popularity. The Langhe, a little further south, housing significant terroir such as Barolo and Barbaresco have come into their own and sort of stolen the show.
There are not a whole bunch of these guys on the market right now, but when you find them, know that they are almost always wines of excellent value. They are made in viticultural areas with long history, old vines, deep roots, and spanna farming running through their veins. Blending grapes such as Croatina, Vespolina, and Bonarda are usually found in these bottles as well- all sturdy varieties that could stand on their own in a respectable wine. Tom’s Wine Line gives a nice rundown of wines and producers from these areas that can be found around the market, as well as his thoughts upon tasting them.
As much as I love all of the wines of the Langhe, I’m rooting for these underdog regions to make a comeback in the next few decades. It’s no easy task though. Eric Pfanner explains in this recent piece on Northern Piedmont how difficult it is to attain even an 8 hectare plot of vineyards, or space to plant vineyards, because the land is so split up among so many landowners. Sounds like a jungle full of paperwork and negotiations; but still, anything is possible. If they try really hard, you know…like the little engine that could, I believe that northern Piemonte has what it takes to stun the world again.
And just because- here is someone else who belts out one hell of a native song. With his banjo and suitcase kick-drum sort of setup, this is Morgan O’Kane, a voice from Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains. I remember hearing or reading a description of his music as being played with ancestral spirit, which makes lots and lots of sense to me.