Ben and Emma Robson of Bat and Bottle at Oropa

Visiting Alto Piemonte – the wines are all about the people

Ben and Emma said “We are off to Alto Piemonte in February to visit our producers…. Do you want to come over and join us? ” Well… don’t mind if I do, thank you very much!

What a wonderful opportunity to visit Alto Piemonte and in the company of two people with some serious on-the-ground knowledge as my guides. The prospect of a trip reminded me that one of best aspects of working with wine, is the chance to meet wine producers in their own region, wineries and vineyards. It is the best way to get a sense of why they produce the styles of wines they do.

So where am I going exactly?

Consulting my expert travel guides, I was advised it was easiest flying into Milan Malpensa (who knew Milan had two airports?), renting a hire car and driving about 95km pretty much due west to Biella. Arriving in the dark, so we didn’t get to see much of the countryside en route, but it seemed pretty rural as we had chosen the non-motorway option. So, on reaching Biella it was quite a revelation to be presented with a large and historically very wealthy city, with a very modern grid layout for the newer, larger part. The amazing, old fortified city, which was our destination, perched above.


What do I know about Alto Piemonte?

To date I had only worked with the one producer from Alto Piemonte, but never actually visited. I find it useful to check things out, starting with Biella’s location on good old google maps and piece together a general sense of the vineyard areas from reference books: Alto Piemonte is the northern part of Piemonte (c.200km north of Barolo, which is southeast of Turin). It has a climate bordering on sub-alpine. You don’t have to travel too far north or west from Biella to start thinking about ski stations and snowy peaks. It is also still very much Nebbiolo country, also known by the local name of Spanna. The Nebbiolo, alongside other varieties, tend to have a more extended growing season, ripening later than the more famous vineyards to the south. Generally, you could describe them as potentially having a fresher acidity, courtesy of the cooler temperatures and altitude of some of the vineyards.

It’s hard work but somebody has to do it…

I had been advised by my hosts there was some lovely views of the mountains, but these didn’t make an appearance until the last day when we finally got to see the sun. This was after putting in two fairly jam-packed days out meeting producers in the pouring rain (which felt a bit more sub-aqua at times than sub-alpine!)

It does, I think, sometimes sound a bit ‘glam’ visiting vineyards, but it can also be hard work and long tiring days.  When doing this in a professional buying capacity, as an importer, it can be very demanding, gleaning all detail and working out what wines will work to actually import based on pricing, quantities etc, whilst dealing with the language differences and building good relationships with the producers.

I have travelled in the past as a wine buyer myself, but this time I was just visiting with my trusty notebook to hopefully soak up, sponge-like anything I could, so that was ok!

Meeting the producers

As I said, you can’t beat being on the ground to start building a better picture in your head. There can be a lot of technical detail you can look at, such as ‘terroir’, climate, pruning, clones, ageing… However, without delving too deep into all of this (going down the wine nerd rabbit holes..), particularly on your first visit, things do start to make a little more sense when you see where the wines originate from and talk to the person who made the wines.

I had heard of wines from Gattinara DOCG which produces probably the most sought-out wines. What I hadn’t understood was the relative locations of the DOCs to the main River Sesia, running north south, dividing up the region:

  • East bank: Boca, Ghemme, Sizzano (Fara) – Colline Novaresi
  • West bank: Gattinara, Lessona, Bramaterra – Coste della Sesia

We did most of our travelling around visiting producers to the west of the River Sesia, although some also have vineyards in Sizzano and Boca.

Day 1

Paolo Monta, La Palazzina – Roasio
[heading east towards the river from Biella]

Palazzina adopt a vine

Aside from really enjoying meeting Paolo, my lasting impression was of someone from the newer generation of winemakers being totally immersed in preserving the older values of his region. We were stood on a hillside looking at some very old vines Paolo had rescued and realised that much of the surrounding woodland would have been vineyards in the past. Paolo is on a mission to track down remaining parcels, the vines often needing some TLC to get them back to full health. He also encourages local school children to a adopt a vine, ensuring the passing on of traditional skills.

Palazzina Paolo

Some of the oldest vines have been trained in the traditional Majolina style. This combines 3 vines and gives very extended canes, fruiting a long way from base of the vine. 

The Bramaterra DOC covers 7 different villages, all of which offer Paolo the potential to unearth lost sites and forgotten ‘cru’.
He may have on paper the less glamourous DOC Colle della Sesia and Bramaterra on his labels, but the wines are beautifully made and elegant, reflecting the finesse gained from the cooler growing conditions and his careful attention to detail.

 Massimo Clerico – Lessona
[heading west back towards Biella]

In contrast Massimo Clerico is the epitome of the classic family producer whose winemaking history stretches back over hundreds of years. He has such a knowledge of his area and takes an obvious joy in sharing, tasting and discussing what he has been able to create.
Massimo Clerico and sand

Biggest learning revelation here was the main soil characteristic in Lessona is sand! The ancient seabed was pushed to the surface after a volcanic caldera flipping over. Massimo declared “we are on a beach up a mountain” showing us a detailed map with the different depths of the sand, which gradually reduce toward the north, where he has his tiny 2.5ha vineyards at around 400m.

Lessona is probably next in line to Gattinara in reputation and price. It can be 100% Nebbiolo or a blend with Vespolina and Croatina. He also makes a lovely approachable (both in terms of vintage and price) Ca’ du Leria Coste della Sesia. We got a quick masterclass on preserving the origins of his old vines and the importance of having a mix of different Nebbiolo clones – just when you thought you were getting to grips with one grape variety, they are not all exactly the same grape…..

Daniele Diona, Villa Guelpa – Lessona

Still near Lessona, we made our last visit of the day. We received a hospitable respite from the rain in one of the beautifully restored rooms in Daniele and Sonia’s home. Theirs is a complete contrast to Massimo’s traditional background, Daniele having moved to the region and met Sonia, renting vineyards in Lessona whilst working on buying and renovating small plots including some in Sizzano and Boca. They released their first vintage in 2016. Their main production is Sizzano and their 2020 was the first to gain Tre Biccherri (the top award from Italy’s most highly regarded wine guide, the Gambero Rosso.)

Villa Guelpa family

They have four sons, three are already involved in the business and his main pre-occupation is staying abreast of the complicated and ever-changing wine laws and regulations. We had a wonderful insight into real-life farming practicalities facing producers. He is not afraid of embracing new technology and explained how he and his sons were currently training to qualify for their drone licences to able to pilot them for spraying in line with new rules coming in. We were treated to some lovely snacks prepared by Sonia and a chance to see Daniele with his two young daughters who wanted to join in. Very much a new wine family with an astute and talented approach to getting the best from Daniele's adopted region.

Day 2

Lorella & Alberto Antoniolo – Gattinara
[heading east again from Biella to the Sesia]

After a lovely morning coffee and croissant (the Italians really do know how to do coffee!) we made our way to Gattinara to meet Lorella Antoniolo, who I had been forewarned was “a force of nature.”

Antoniolo are one of the most respected of producers of Gattinara.  Here was another opportunity to learn more about the producers real life, rather than at the sometimes more superficial, glossy image portrayed, when wines are internationally known and in demand. A common theme with everyone we visited was the havoc wreaked by the weather in 2021 and 2022. An important component for the required ageing before release are the large casks ‘botti’ of different sizes.

The hail meant a complete loss of production for Antoniolo, and consequently there was nothing to refill these valuable barrels, which then start to dry out and potentially may need replacing.  Their lovely Gattinara Riserva legally requires 3 years ageing in botti before release. 

It might seem like a good thing if there is more demand for your wines than you have wine available to sell, but this comes with its own problems. Lorella gave us some insights in to how the hard work and many years of establishing a reputation and building markets can be threatened by the loss of production. 

Colombera e Garella – Masserano
[back west towards Biella]

Travelling back from Gattinara towards Lessona we arrived in Masserano to meet Giacomo Colombera. His father Carlo had bought their (huge!) house with a small, very old vineyard attached, back in 1992. He didn’t consider making wine from it until much later. 

Giacomo is similar to Paolo in having followed the previous generation into wine and is now also a strong advocate for the quality potential across their part of the region. His friend Christiano Garella joined him in 2010. They are working a combination of their own and leased vineyards, with some newer plantings, they are very proud of.

Giacomo’s thinking is more about pushing the boundaries of the DOC rules to allow him to bottle his Bramaterra wines using 100% Nebbiolo. They are currently required to be a blend with Croatina and Vespolina. He feels this would give a much-needed boost to promote this less well-known DOC. He feels, as Paolo does, it would help broadcast its great potential from the 7 different villages with distinct terroir and characteristics. Opposing arguments pro and against the importance of Nebbiolo was certainly a hot topic for debate wherever we went. It was helpful to taste a couple of vintages, the 2020 and 2019 Bramaterra ‘Cascina Cottignano’ together, to get an idea of how it evolves with age and differences in vintages.


Silvia Rivetti, Villa Era – Vigliano
[in the hills on the eastern outskirts of Biella]

Ancient, huge houses which require a lot of work and restoration seemed also to be of a theme on our visits, whether ancestral home or a more recent acquisition. Villa Era was certainly the icing on the cake in this respect. A huge stately villa built at the end of the 19th century. We were lucky enough to have a private tour (joined by some more Bat and Bottle customers) of the many beautiful rooms restored by Silvia’s husband’s family, The vineyard is an unusual amphitheatre shape behind the house and the origins of wine production, buildings and cellar date well before the current villa. They restored the vineyard propagating vines from

the original Nebbiolo clones known as Spanna di Vigliano. There are also some Croatina, Vespolina and Barbera grown. The Villa Era Coste della Sesia is 100% Nebbiolo and produced in tiny amounts. Silvia is a wonderfully warm and vivacious person who took over the wine project after her husband’s death. Her winemaker is Andrea Manfrinati and it was lovely to hear of their thoughtful approach to every detail of their tiny production with a very compact and bijoux winery contained within the Villa’s outbuildings. Some of the very old bottles from Villa Era’s long history have been preserved in a special cellar, as testament to its long winemaking history.


Arrivederci! Alla prossima!

The third and final day of our stay was dedicated to appreciating the mountains, with a visit to the Santuario di Oropa high up at 1100m in the Alpine foothills behind Biella. We were very lucky that the sun came out give us a clear blue sky as a lovely contrast to the snowy white peaks that had finally appeared from out of the rain. We also got to sample some seriously hearty alpine cuisine, delicious.

This is only a brief snap shot with some of my impressions. I know from experience, that there is a wealth of information to grasp in order to understand producers and their wines. It takes time and effort to build trust and lasting working relationships with them and it was a privilege to visit alongside Ben and Emma and to see them, 'past masters' in action.

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