Away from the Langhe, Piedmont offers a tantalizing mosaic of emerging wine regions making outstanding – if still relatively unknown – low-intervention wines. Here are four under-the-radar wines worth seeking out.
Cascina La Signorina – Ovada Superiore La Bocassa 2007
Let’s start with Dolcetto, a grape variety that has long been on the verge of extinction, at least in the more “hyped” areas of Piedmont, where Nebbiolo monopolizes the scene. Reading the 2007 vintage juxtaposed to Dolcetto may baffle those accustomed to the fresh, uncomplicated – and often uninteresting – versions produced in the Langa, which rarely last more than a couple of years. However, in Ovada, the last outpost of Piedmontese viticulture before the tunnel that connects the region with Genoa, where houses already boast colorful Ligurian-style facades, a tradition of producing Dolcetto for the long haul has always existed: the father of Italian wine writing, Mario Soldati, described Dolcetto di Ovada as ” fuller and deeper (compared to its Langa counterpart)” in the late 1970s. That is mainly due to high-quality local clones, among which the rare Nibió stands out – recognizable by the stalk that turns red when reaching ripeness – but also to the peculiar terroir combining high elevations with a mild climate and allowing the grapes to achieve optimal phenolic ripeness.
While nearly all the wineries in the area offer an oak-aged, late-released version, no producer pushes aging further than Alberto Montagna, the owner of La Signorina, an almost archaic farm where vineyards are scattered among other crops, and goats, donkeys, and ducks roam freely. Alberto waits sixteen years from the harvest before releasing the Ovada “Bocassa,” the 2007 vintage of which sports a vivid color – with light garnet hues – and displays captivating aromas of cherry liquor, toasted hazelnuts, kir royal, and a gamey touch hinting at the low-intervention winemaking style. More than classic Dolcetto, it recalls top-notch Barbera with its mix of luscious fruit and tantalizing acidity, leading to a long and iodine-tinged finish. The quality-to-price ratio here is mind-boggling: it commands no more than 10-12 euros in Italy!
Stefano Occhetti – Langhe Nebbiolo Sanchè 2020
From Ovada, we head to Roero, the “rive gauche” of the Tanaro river. Experiencing it through the eyes of a winemaker who works his butt off to farm dramatically steep vineyards on sandy slopes is always exciting.
Stefano Occhetti isn’t a winemaker by training: born in Alba, he gave up a brilliant career as an engineer to transform the family home in Monteu Roero into a winery and start rescuing abandoned plots in the nearby Occhetti and Sanchè vineyards.
He only makes a few thousand bottles, which usually sell out before the following vintage hits the market. So we only got to taste the new release, including a bright and easy-drinking Barbera and an equally fresh and juicy Langhe Nebbiolo. Then we moved on to the Roero Sanché 2020: a classic expression of Nebbiolo from Roero with a light ruby color and a charmingly floral and fruit-forward nose. Hints of balsam herbs and iron add depth, echoing on the back of a bright and finessed palate. Don’t expect the palate depth of Barolo and Barbaresco when drinking Roero: the strength of this appellation lies in the delicacy and intoxicating aromatics of the wines. In this case, the aromas are amplified by well-integrated acidity and pliant tannins, leading to a moreish finish making you crave the classic Piedmontese fare. I am thinking about handmade tajarin with sausage ragout or Albese-style steak tartare.
Valchyara – Bambagia Rosé 2022
Piedmont might not be especially renowned for its rosè production, yet some of the low-production version made in the northern reaches of the region are well worth seeking out. The truly bizarre Rosato by Valchyara is a case in point – crammed into a remote – if breathtakingly panoramic – corner of Valchiusella, a valley on the foothills of the Morainic Alps, this tiny producer grows Riesling, Erbaluce, Freisa, and… Sardinian Cannonau!
A Sardinian immigrant is responsible for having planted Cannonau in such an unlikely place. ” I acquired the vineyard after he passed away – explains Valchyara’s owner Costantino – and I realized these plots gave an extremely green and bitter red wine that barely reached 11% alcohol”. Hence the decision to try the “vie en rose”, opting for a brief maceration and blending Cannonau with Freisa.
Unclarified and unfiltered, Bambagia has a very light color but bursts with alluring aromas: wild strawberry, baked tomato, and a hint of white pepper mingle with herbal nuances that are the hallmark of the alpine terroir. It boasts lovely fruit weight – with wild strawberries and fragrant redcurrants echoing on the back of the palate – yet the piercing acidity and herbal character take center stage, providing lift and shaping a taut and refreshing progression. It has enough balance and liveliness to drink well alone, but should also pair well with rustic charcuteries such as artisanal speck or hearty salami.
Cantina Togliana – Carema L’ Arsin 2020
” How many hectares do you have? 6000 meters: nobody owns “hectares” in Carema!”. This quote captures the essence of the last stronghold of Piedmontese wine before the border with Valle d’Aosta: a mosaic of small terraced plots carved out of narrow spaces between dramatic slopes of the Dora Baltea river valley. These are some of Italy’s most awe-inspiring vineyards!
It is hardly surprising that Carema has garnered a lot of attention in recent times: what happened here has no parallels within Piedmont. A group of young producers has slowly started reviving this magnificent place: they have rescued the ancient pergola-trained vineyards surmounting the above-mentioned terraces, and make tiny volumes of outstanding Nebbiolo-based wine.
Achille Milanese isn’t exactly young – and not even a beginner, considering that he has been harvesting and making wine for over 30 years. However, his production used to end up in a single restaurant in the area and didn’t even sport the “Carema” denomination on the label. It was shortly before the pandemic that he decided to start producing the charming Carema L’ Arsin, the name of which derives from the dialectal term for berries (not too different from the French “raisin”). Recently, he also contributed to the mapping of the denomination, which would potentially house at least a dozen different crus within its 40 or so planted hectares.
I am not exaggerating when I say that the latest vintage of L’Arsin is one of Piedmont’s finest wines. The 2020 vintage has the aromatic flamboyance and subtle earthiness of top-quality Gevrey Chambertin. The aromas are downright sensational: succulent redcurrants, medicinal herbs, face powder, wet earth, and pot-pourri give an impression of striking finesse. A fine line of alpine acidity lifts the gorgeous palate, and backbones the seamless flow of herbs, flowers, red berries, and exotic spice, with pinpoint tannins caressing the long finish. This terrific wine will easily stand up to the best Barolo and Barbaresco from the same vintage, uniting similar aromatic breadth with even greater drinkability.