Never one to worry about overkill, at least when it comes to nebbiolo, I’m back in Piemonte again, right after our recent visit to Alba (knowing that there is a devoted, almost slavish cult of readers of this column, I assume you’ve all just finished tasting through the December 2004 Barolo recommendations, and are now prepared to try some nebbiolo of a different stripe).
We kick off 2005 with a visit to Gattinara, one of a string of villages/wine zones in northeastern Piedmont where the nebbiolo grape flourishes. Whereas the vastly more famous Barolo and Barbaresco wine zones are located in Piedmont’s southeastern corner, Gattinara anchors what I’d call the “northern nebbiolo” territory, which extends roughly from Torino to Lago Maggiore. Gattinara wines, as well as those of the other well-known northern appellations, such as Carema, Ghemme, and Fara, are typically based on nebbiolo but incorporate other weird northern Piedmont varieties such as uva rara, vespolina, and bonarda.
Gattinara undergoes an aging regimen similar to that of Barolo; it is aged a minimum of three years before release, with a minimum of one of those years in wood (Barolo spends two of its minimum three years in wood). And, like Barolo, a good Gattinara is all about the heady, rosy perfume of nebbiolo. Generally speaking, Gattinara wines are a little higher in acid and a little leaner than their southeastern cousins, but I’ve had many a Gattinara wine that can rival Barolo in depth and complexity.
Most of us American Italophiles were introduced to Gattinara via a brand called Travaglini, which is distinguished by an oddly shaped bottle that looks like it was melted under a heat lamp. Overall, the Gattinara zone is tiny even in comparison to Barolo, and there are exponentially fewer Gattinara producers than Barolo producers. But as Barolo has finally won some justly deserved fame, prices have begun to shoot up sharply, so in many cases the budget-conscious nebbiolo-hound may want to look northward for value.
That said, here are a couple of gems on our current list:
Gattinara “San Francesco,” Antoniolo 2000
This is the wine I use when I want to illustrate how much nebbiolo and pinot noir have in common. This is a smooth, cherry-scented, beautifully aromatic wine with a terrific balance of ripe,sweet fruit and trademark nebbiolo leather/spice.
Gattinara “Vigneto Valferana,” Bianchi 1997
Another bright, pinot noir-ish nebbiolo at a fantastic price.
Gattinara Riserva, Dessilani 1997
Built more like a Barolo, this dark and spicy red has lots of savory notes. A powerful wine for some of our richer dishes, such as beef cheek ravioli.