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Anson on Thursday: The hills of northern Piedmont

Wine lovers would probably choose to visit Piedmont in October, when the late-ripening Nebbiolo grapes are luscious on the vines, while truffle hunters might plump for the frosty November fogs, when the delicate white truffles of Alba are advertised on chalk boards outside local trattorias in every village, and haggled over in open air markets.

Travaglini vineyards in Gattinara, Piedmont. Image credit: Travaglini

But right now, in spring, it is the rice paddies taking centre stage, as patchwork squares of water dominate the valley floors, germinating the young shoots of the round, short-grained Carnaroli and Arborio rice.

Over half of Italy’s rice production comes from Piedmont, with the biggest concentration in the foothills of the Alps where fields are subject to controlled flooding from the Sesia river. It’s an agricultural heritage that dates back to 15th century when Benedictine monks introduced rice cultivation to combat famine and plague, so it’s little surprise that Piedmont is home to some of the best risottos of Italy.

Barolo is of course famous for its risottos,’ Alessandrio Guagliardi is telling me over a line-up of his wines. Export director for Travaglini vineyards in Gattinara, this is a man who takes his food just as seriously as his wine, and I’m putty in his hands. ‘But the one you really want to try is Risotto al Gattinara. The Carnaroli rice area is right next door to our vineyards, and our wine is better suited than those of Barolo because the tannins are less powerful, so give a better balance to the risotto. All you need is a few cups of rice and stir in butter, Toma and Parmigiano cheese with a Gattinara reduction, and an extra bottle to open alongside. Perfection.’ It’s a Sunday afternoon in the crowded halls of a German wine fair, but I’m ready to book the next flight to Milan.

The Gattinara wine region lies just on the far side of Monte Rosa, the second highest mountain in Europe after Mont Blanc, rising up to 4,000 metres and providing the source for the Sesia river. Besides the rice – that has its own DOC protected origin status in recognition of its quality – this little known corner of Piedmont is also the source of fragrant, haunting wines made from the Nebbiolo grape that are a touch lighter and more nuanced than the famous examples from southern Piedmont.

I count myself, gingerly but increasingly, among the Nebbiolo hunters, by which I mean I am prepared to put my money where my mouth is and go searching for the best examples, so this is music to my ears. Inevitably I have long woken up to the possibilities of Barolo and Barbaresco, and very happily to the more modest but utterly delicious examples of the regional Langhe denomination. But Gattinara is something quite different.

For a start, it’s tiny. Just 100 hectares of the DOCG, spread mainly between 200 and 400 metres in altitude across four hills that are comprised of volcanic soils so tough that dynamite blasting was needed before planting. It may be obscure today, but can lay claim to being the grandfather of Barolo, as it was the first place in Piedmont to put Nebbiolo in large oak casks for ageing – perhaps why the DOC of Gattinara was one of the first in Italy back in 1967, receiving its DOCG in 1990.

Before the devastation of phylloxera Gattinara, with neighbouring towns of Ghemme and Boca, counted up to 40,000 hectares of vines, and was a bigger wine producer than southern Piedmont. But there was less incentive to replant here in the 20th century, as factories and textile mills in nearby Milan offered jobs to despondent agricultural workers. What was left was used to produce fairly standardised wines until the 1950s when producers started to reach towards quality.

It also makes an intriguingly different style of Nebbiolo to Barolo, mainly because of the influence of the Alps. It takes just half an hour to reach the first ski slopes from Gattinara. ‘The mountains change everything here compared to Barolo,’ says Guagliardi, ‘as every day there is a gentle breeze that protects against rot or disease, and a wide day-night temperature variation, which gives both natural concentration to the wine and keeps acidities fresh, while the mountain snowfall allows slow drips of water into the soils that would otherwise simply run off the slopes’. The acidity in the soil of Gattinara is also among the highest of any vineyard in Italy, meaning the wines are sometimes lighter in colour, and feel more delicate than their southern Piedmont counterparts.

Even more intriguingly, there are just three main producers – Travaglini, Antoniolo and Nervi – alongside dozens of smaller landholders. Clearly this presents a tantalisingly manageable challenge, and I have spent the last month since meeting Guagliardi tracking down a range of bottles from each producer and tasting them both on their own as samples, and as all Italian wine is meant to be, round a table with friends. Twice I’ve had them with risotto, although I’ve not felt able yet to turn the precious wine into a reduction.

The three estates don’t market or promote their wines together (‘this is Italy,’ says Guagliardi with a smile), but each tells a different piece of the story that makes this region so fascinating. The largest of the three is Travaglini, with just a breath under half of the total area of vines in the appellation, and plans to plant almost seven more. The 24-hectare Nervi estate is the second largest, and the oldest property in the area, founded by Luigi Nervi in 1906 (although one of their vineyards dates back to 1242). Nervi has been owned by Norweigan couple Erling and Katherine Astrup since 2009 – or rather 2011 by the time they made it through the bureaucracy – and they are busy renovating and restoring, inching the property back to wider renown. Antoniolo is the smallest with just 12 hectares, but is gaining a name for its perfectly-crafted, complex bottles with excellent ageing potential.

So far this has been a thoroughly enjoyable research project. There is an austerity to the young wines that a Barolo or Barbaresco don’t always have, and nearly all have benefited from two or three hours in carafe. The colour can be deceptive, as the light rose-purple hue hides an intensity and complex build that has already got me hooked. Clearly these wines can age well, and among my favourites have been Travaglini’s Gattinara Riserva 2008 and Antoniolo’s Osso San Grato 2006. Osso means bone in Italian and it is clear on drinking this why that fits so perfectly – flinty, linear, angular at first, and then opening up to flesh, perfume and heart.

Written by Jane Anson

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