For years we have longed to expand our footprint in Italy, most specifically in Piedmont but also with an eye to southern Italy which heretofore was completely absent from our coverage. With much good fortune, beginning with a casual encounter last December in Rome and continuing through an intense four day exploration we conducted in Italy in March 2012, we have the exquisite pleasure of announcing the addition of compelling wines from four estates, three of which are located in the Alto Piemonte, that region immediately northwest of Milan which sits in the shadow of the great Alpine mountain “Monta Rosa” and not many kilometers south of the grand Lago Maggiore, and a fourth from Calabria in the hills of Ciro that overlook the Ionian Sea. We are impatient to introduce you to this series of wines.
In the company, and at the suggestion, of my good friend and comrade, Luigi Anania, proprietor of La Torre which produces a most traditional and honest Brunello for us since the 1982 vintage, I dined in Rome last December with Giuseppe Ippolito, the dynamic and enthusiastic owner of his family’s Du Cropio estate situated in Ciro Marina, the very instep of the Italian boot in southern Italy. Impressed by the depth of a trio of red wines that we tasted (and drank) that night in Rome, we arranged to fly to Calabria as part of our rapid trip of exploration in late March 2012. We spent hours touring this profoundly historical area that faces Greece to the east. It has a spare beauty and an almost melancholy drama, a land blessed by a clean and abundant sea yet projecting an almost Lampedusean struggle between modernity and tradition. This fascinating ambiance was made that much more rich through a long night of dining in a small trattoria in the hills of Ciro, ultimately the best and only way to understand wine. Entranced by the brightness, density and balance of the three reds produced at Du Cropio, we were further convinced of the enormous potential once we toured the vineyards the following morning. Planted in spare soil on a series of rolling hills several hundred meters above the sea, the principal grape is the Gaglioppo, a dark, thick-skinned variety that can produce wines of depth and structure. It is either the exclusive or dominant grape in each of the three wines produced at Du Cropio: the “Serra, Sanguigna” Calabria Rosso, the “Dom Giuva” Ciro Rosso Classico Superiore and
the “Damis” Ciro Rosso Classico Superiore Riserva. The Ippolito family farms organically (although not certified). Expecting either overripe, jammy wines or lightweight, perhaps Rosé, wines compromised for a public taste far from our own, we were plunged most definitely head-first into wines offering complex flavors and bouquet supported by a pristine equilibrium that provides refreshing lift to these powerful wines. We are confident that this first foray into the southern zone of Italy will not only prove compatible with our selection but will enrich it considerably.
Our meeting with Massimo Clerico at his cantina in the village of Lessona, on the western bank of the Sesia River, was the first encounter of our brief but productive stay in the Alto Piemonte. We were immediately smitten. Lessona is one of the tiniest appellations and it is rare to stumble across one. Here, the Nebbiolo is understated but never less than complex and well-balanced, another testament to the grandeur of this grape when planted in the best (and varied) zones of Piedmont. The steep hillside vineyards planted to soils of glacial moraine produce a rigorous wine in Clerico’s hands that is aged gently and long in mid-size barrels. Further, the fascinating, and sometimes difficult, Vespolina grape plays a minor but intriguing role in the Alto Piemonte, providing brightness and spice to the mix. Clerico’s domaine is only slightly larger than two hectares so production is severely limited. We consider ourselves fortunate to have struck a quick and satisfying bond with Massimo and his wife, Concetta, thereby securing a healthy percentage of the annual production. Three wines are produced at the estate, the most noble being the Lessona (the first releases for us are the duet of 2005 and 2006 vintages) accompanied by the Spanna (local name for Nebbiolo) from the Costa della Sesia appellation and the single vineyard Costa della Sesia “Ca’ du Leria” which is a blend of Nebbiolo, Croatina and Vespolina.
Visiting the Rovellotti family in the heart of the town of Ghemme is a moment of deep immersion in the history of this area marked by its position just beneath the massive form of Monte Rosa, one of the highest Alpine peaks. Ghemme has been a
crossroads for both trade and war and the ancient brick buildings in the center of town hold a trove of tales as well as much of the wine produced by the Rovellotti family whose cellars are within the walls of the old fortress. Paolo and Antonello Rovellotti are outsized personalities with good humor and curious minds and a joint dedication to producing wines according to the noble traditions of this area. We begin our introduction to this estate by concentrating on the two versions of Ghemme produced here: the Ghemme “Chioso dei Pomi” and the Ghemme Riserva “Costa del Salmino”, both arriving with the advantage of having already experienced considerable barrel and bottle aging. There is an abundance of patience at work at the Rovellotti estate. The family produces other wines from the local grapes of the region which we will surely explore as time passes but there is no doubt that the two Ghemmes from Rovellotti are amongst the brightest stars in the Nebbiolo firmament.
Gattinara is certainly the most well-known of the three great “crus” of the Alto Piemonte (the others being Lessona and Ghemme) and we are pleased to present our candidate for entry into the gloried halls of this appellation. Monsecco is the creation of the Zanetta family, a clan with deep roots in the Alto Piemonte and its world of wine. The objective of the Zanettas is to produce the finest versions of each of the appellations they present to the public as Monsecco. That includes for us their powerful Gattinara, the elegant Nebbiolo known as “Pratogrande” from the Novarese hills and the tantalizing “Barbatasso”, a pure Vespolina that proves the worth of this challenging variety. Our ability to source a fine and profound Gattinara completes a “trifecta” for us, neatly supplementing a package with Lessona and Ghemme. What a joy to discover the glories of this often-overlooked region of Piedmont!