The first time I ever traveled though the rice fields around Vercelli was on my way to the Malpensa Airport north of Milano, in the early morning, to catch a flight back to JFK. What I saw has stayed with me ever since. There was a mist rising off of the rice fields, which were flooded with water, which reflected the rising sun to the east. It was Italy in its most stunning beauty, and a face of the country I had never seen before. What was once swamp was transformed by Cistercian monks into miles and miles of rice fields.
While easy on the eyes, these watery conditions yield nothing in the way of interesting wines, but fortunately there is a dizzying array nearby in the hills to the west and north.
To the west, around Ivrea, is the region of Carema, which were it a larger area of production, would be considered one of the great wines of Italy. Terraced hillsides are primarily planted with Nebbiolo vines that are trained along pergolas that are supported by stone pillars, which help to absorb the warmth of the sun during the day, and continue to radiate it into the evening hours to create wines that are elegant, structured and subtly powerful. Luigi Ferrando is long recognized and the master of this magnificent red.
To the south of the Carema region lies the town of Caluso, home to the white Erbaluce di Caluso, one of Piemonte’s most satisfying whites. Erbaluce can be made into a crisp, dry white with mineral and floral notes and bracing acidity, as well as a similarly toned sparkling wine, and a passito dessert wine that have lush, tropical flavors and a slightly spicy edge. There are not too many producers of these wines in our marketplace, but fortunately the best is available to us in the form of the Ferrando and Orsolani wineries.
To the north of Vercelli is the whole swath of regions that flank either side of the Sesia river, that originates far to the north from a glacier that flows off of Monte Rosa and flows south, past Vercelli, to join the Po at the eastern end of the Monferrato Hills. The most famous of these wines are from the Gattinara region, but there are many others. On the western side, where Gattinara is found, there also lie the lesser known regions of Lessona, Bramaterra, and the catch-all region of Coste della Sesia. To the east of the Sesia the most renowned region is certainly Ghemme, which is flanked by Boca to the north and Sizzano and Fara to the south. On this side of the Sesia the catch-all appellation is called the Colline Novaresi. The wines from either side of the river are often blends, but most always based on the spanna grape, which is known as nebbiolo further south in the Langhe hills, where is produces Barolo and Barbaresco, two of the greatest wine appellations of the world. These wines don’t have the profundity of the Langhe wines, but instead portray subtle, earthy, mineral notes that can be equally delightful, but different. One does neither oneself, nor the wine any favors by expecting them to have the depth of flavor of a Barolo or the grace and elegance of a Barbaresco.
These are wines for the Italian oenophile. There are many different producers, too many to list here, but some of the ones that really stand out are Proprietà Sperino and Tenuta Sella in Lessona, Antoniolo in Gattinara, Cantalupo in Ghemme, and Dessilani in Fara, Ghemme and Gattinara. There are others, but these are some strong candidates to look for the test the waters and stock your cellars with. Their wines are age-worthy and often a fraction of the price of Barolo or Barbaresco.