Exploring the Diversity of Piedmont with Collisioni
To the majority of wine lovers, the word “Piedmont” automatically brings to mind the wines of Barolo and Barbaresco. If that wine lover is also a foodie, then maybe thoughts of white truffles may follow, and if that wine lover has a serious interest in the region, then they may also know and enjoy a Barbera, Arneis or Dolcetto from time to time. The fact is that Piedmont provides a diverse array of grapes and expressions, which pair very well with the regional cuisine. However, an unfortunate reality is that when that same wine lover thinks of the region and its wines, they are thinking of a very small portion of Piedmont, one that exists around the communes of Barolo and Barbaresco. To a certain degree, Alto Piemonte has gained notoriety, yet it is still fighting to show its importance and the unique expression that Nebbiolo finds there.
But wait, there’s another region that has just as much importance, if not more, and it has been quietly working to introduce itself to the world’s stage. That region is Monferrato, in the southeast corner of Piedmont.
For most of us, the grape that will bring you to Monferrato is Barbera, labeled Barbera d’Asti. It’s natural for someone who enjoys Barolo to find themselves tasting their favorite producer’s Barbera (usually a Barbera d’Alba), and if they like what they’re tasting, to look for the best places to find the variety. This is how I found Monferrato, through the iconic wines of Braida, with his Barbera Bricco dell’Uccellone, or Vietti, and their esteemed Barbera d’Asti La Crena. Both of these wines come not just from Monferrato, but from the place that is considered to be the best location in Piedmont to grow Barbera: Nizza.
That said, the Monferrato region has much more to offer than Barbera, but if you had to name a champion that would officially put it on the map, then it would be Nizza and the community of growers that have pushed quality to the max. Although the wines of Braida are still produced, in Nizza, you’ll find much better value in the wines of Olim Bauda, Dacapo, Berta Paolo, La Gironda and Alfiero Boffa. Up until recently, most Nizza Barbera would be labeled as a Barbera d’Asti, yet now they have officially earned their own DOCG status.
This is a location that is primed for the production of world-class wine, and the best part is that prices have yet to catch up. If I had to make one protest, it would be the use of new oak for aging, something that many famous Barbera producers in Barolo struggled with at one time and learned from. As I would highly recommend all of the producers listed above, there are a number of others who are relying on new wood to soften the wines while also making them more “Age-worthy”. Luckily, the region as a whole realizes that this should not be the future of Nizza Barbera.
What Makes Barbera d’Asti and Nizza Different?
For one thing, it’s the location, if for no other reason than growers here prioritizing Barbera, versus producers in Barolo, who in many cases have ripped up Barbera plantings in good expositions to add more Nebbiolo within their vineyards. In Barbera d’Asti and Nizza, a winemaker can look to the highest elevations, southern exposures and best soils to grow Barbera. What’s more, these naturally-draining soils of clay and sand often play host to old vines, which produce small berries that are packed with flavor compounds and are able to produce balanced fruit through diverse climatic conditions.
When tasting a Barbera d’Asti versus Barbera d’Alba, the first thing you’ll notice is a higher level of acidity, but also intense minerality. When mixed with the purity and complexity of fruit, these elements can create wines that will mature wonderfully in the cellar. Whereas with Barbera d’Alba, you’ll usually find a soft expression up front, with often darker fruit but also less complexity. Granted, many people just want to drink their Barbera young and fresh, and that’s just fine with an Asti Barbera, because there’s an entire category of freshly-made, young Barbera to choose from, and those same elevated acidities make them great for food pairings or warm weather sipping.
Berta Paolo Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza 2015 – The bouquet was a display of ripe dark red fruits, along with sweet florals and smoky mineral tones. On the palate, it was especially deep and fleshy, perfectly balanced by zesty acids and tart red berry fruits, as inner florals developed and mixed with the wine’s earthy minerality, creating a balanced and rich expression. The finish was long and zesty, lingering on dried black cherry and earth tones. (92 points)
La Gironda Barbera d’Asti La Gena 2015 – The La Gena was intense yet also perfectly balanced and remarkably pure. Here I found a dark and spicy display of crushed red fruits with hints of smoke and sweet spice. On the palate, silky textures were given life by brisk acidity and a mix of tart cherry and savory minerality. The finish was long and persistent, with masses of dried cherry and savory minerals to counteract the lingering acidity. (92 points)
Olim Bauda Barbera d’Asti Superiore Le Rocchette 2015 – The nose of ‘15 Le Rocchette was wonderfully perfumed, showing crushed cherries offset by savory spices, minerals, and dark wood tones. On the palate, I found silky textures contrasted by stern acids, sour cherry, and minerals. Sweet botanicals and inner florals added lift and created a remarkably pretty expression, as the wine finished on structured refinement and dried red fruits. There’s a lot in store for the patient collector with a cellar, as the ‘15 wants a few more years in bottle. (92 points)
Monferrato Is Not Just About Barbera
Now that I’ve gotten you in the door with Barbera, let’s talk a little about what else Monferrato has to offer, because I can tell you from first-hand experience that a trip to the region will open your mind to indigenous varieties that you may have never experienced before–and will fall in love with. One such variety is Ruché, from the DOCG Ruché di Castagnole.
What if I told you that I’ve been on the hunt to buy a bottle of Ruché ever since I got back from my trip? Seriously. However, the sad part is that I’ve failed to find one. Ruché is on our shores, however it is still in the early stages of being introduced to most wine lovers here, and your best bet today would be to search off the beaten path and ask wherever you go, because this is a wine that should be, and in my opinion one day will be, in every Italian-themed wine selection.
Ruché is a highly aromatic, indigenous red variety that would remind the experienced Italophile of Lacrima (of the Marche), yet the similarities between the two of them end on the palate. While Lacrima often “tastes like it smells,” Ruché presents the taster with much more complexity on the palate, still lifted by gorgeous inner florals, zesty acidities and bright fruit, yet there’s a substance to Ruché that most other aromatic varieties often lack.
I had tried Ruché prior to this trip, yet never in any organized fashion, and to be given the opportunity to taste with its producers across multiple vintages and styles was a remarkable experience. Seek out Crivelli, Amelio Livio, Dacapo and Luca Ferraris.
Dacapo Ruche di Castagnole Monferrato Majoli 2017 – The nose was gorgeous, showing floral-infused black cherry, violets, geraniums, black tea, rose hips and hints of pepper. It was soft on the palate, displaying incredibly refined yet also energetic textures, with notes of ripe cherry, inner florals and minerals. The finish was medium-long and wonderfully fresh, with lingering hints of spiced cherry and violets. (92 points)
Luca Ferraris Ruche di Castagnole Monferrato Vigna del Parroco 2016 – (From the original vines and vineyard planted by Don Giacomo Cauda) Here I found a remarkably fresh and pure expression of Ruche, as pretty red fruits gave way to lifting exotic florals and a dusting of sweet spice. On the palate, I found a soft, zesty expression of red fruits, minerals and spice, which gave way to a medium-long and lifted finale. The purity here was remarkable and moving. Bravo to Luca Ferraris for creating such a benchmark from the original source. (92 points)
Crivelli Ruche di Castagnole Monferrato 2017 – The nose was gorgeous, like a basket of mixed flowers and botanicals, giving way to exotic herbals tones, bright cherry and hints of earth. On the palate, I found a soft yet zesty expression, as brisk acids intertwined with sweet cherries and spice to create a refreshing experience. The finish was medium-long and fresh, resonating on pretty inner floral tones and crushed red berries. (93 points)
Here’s another variety that you may have come across if you are a fan of Barolo. The houses of Bartolo Mascarello, Giuseppe Rinaldi, GD Vajra and many more produce Freisa, and each of these are experience wines. However, you have to pay dearly for them.
In Monferrato, there is a wide variety of producers making Freisa, again using prime locations to do so, and AGAIN at much better price points. One of which, the Freisa of Olim Bauda, was among my favorite wines of the entire trip.
For the Nebbiolo lover, Freisa is a bucket-list variety to try, as you’ll find many aromatic and structural similarities between the two, especially as a bottle of Freisa matures. This is because of a parent-offspring relationship between the varieties. In the past, many winemakers would allow Freisa to retain some of its residual sugar or produce the wines in a bitter frizzante style. The reality is that these wines from the most traditional producers can be quite enjoyable to anyone that appreciates old-school Piedmont wines, yet they would be lost on the average modern palate. The importance of Freisa began to resurface as producers focused on fully dry versions that were refined longer in the cellar and bottle.
In Monferrato, that’s exactly what they’ve done, and experimentation continues. It’s an exciting category to watch.
Erede di Chiappone Armando Sanpedra Freisa d’Asti 2011 – The nose showed crushed ripe strawberry with notes of forest floor, earthy florals, savory spice and hints of animal musk. On the palate, I found soft textures with balancing brisk acidity, giving way to sour cherry and strawberry with exotic inner floral tones. The finish was long with staining tart black fruits, herbs and still-youthful tannin. (90 points)
Ivaldi Dario Freisa d’Asti 1921 Superiore 2016 – The nose was brooding, showing medicinal cherry, with hauntingly dark florals and smoky minerality. On the palate, I found soft, silky textures offset by a mix of zesty spices, acids and minerals, as saturating dark red fruits washed across the senses. Tannins mounted on the finish, with lingering dried red fruits and spice. (92 points)
Olim Bauda Freisa d’Asti Secco 2015 – You might think this Freisa was whole-cluster fermented and amphora aged with its wild floral tones and textures. It’s an incredibly unique wine for sure, only the first vintage, and I’m loving it. Here I found an exotic bouquet, displaying floral-infused strawberry, marine-inspired minerality, new leather and roses. On the palate, soft textures gave way to masses of inner violet floral tones, fresh strawberry, and savory minerality, as a mix of young fine tannin and brisk acids firmed up the experience going into the finish, leaving pretty inner florals and a hint of green olive. (93 points)
Out of all of the varieties I tasted on my recent trip to Monferrato, this may be the one that would be the most polarizing between different palates, yet absolutely worth the experience.
Grignolino has had a storied past here in the United States, as most readers who know the variety know it from Heitz Cellars in Napa Valley, who has been producing a Grignolino since the seventies. The problem with the variety is that it isn’t appealing to all palates, mainly because of its high level of tannins and strong acidity. It doesn’t help that the color is also quite light, so much so that many of them resemble Rosé more than red wine.
However, there’s a very good reason to seek out Grignolino, and that’s because the people who love them, love them dearly. It was actually quite interesting to watch as we tasted through a lineup, and comments and questions began to come from my fellow tasters. For one thing, many of the sommeliers in the room were amazed by the variety’s food-pairing potential. Others with palates that naturally leaned toward tactile wines enjoyed them for the way that they play with the senses, both aromatically and texturally. I, for one, could certainly imagine craving a crisp, slightly chilled Grignolino on a warm summer day. These are worth checking out.
Montalbera Grignolino d’Asti Grignè 2017 – The nose showed dark woodsey red berries, hints of floral undergrowth and crushed flowers. On the palate, I found a soft expression with tart red fruits, clove and spice, bergamot and inner florals. It finished long and drying with a zing of lingering acids and saturating tannin. (89 points)
Tenuta Olim Bauda Grignolino d’Asti Isolavilla 2017 – The nose was remarkably fresh and vibrant, showing strawberry, raspberry, lavender, hints of violet, and moist soil tones. On the palate, I found soft textures contrasted by energizing acidity, zesty spices, ripe red berries and mounting tannins. The finish was long with staining red fruits, lingering young tannin and spicy inner florals. (91 points)
Monferrato Mixed Varieties Honorable Mentions
Berta Paolo Dolcetto d’Asti Livroje 2017 – The nose showed crushed ripe cherry and blackberry with fresh red beets, mulling spices and hints of confectionary crust. On the palate, I found soft textures showing a mix of tart blackberry, peppery florals and spice with zesty acids. It finished long and spicy with tart red and black fruits. (89 points)
Cascina Gilli Malvasia di Castelnuovo Don Bosco 2017 – The nose was zesty, showing sweet spices and herbs, pear, melon, and crushed cherry. It was incredibly fresh and wonderfully sweet on the palate with great energy and a hint of fizz–like the best fruit salad you’ve ever had. It finished fresh, lingering on ripe cherries, strawberries and hints of spice. (92 points)