Tasting with Lino Maga. Barbacarlo ages very well.

Monuments of Alto Piemonte and Oltrepo Pavese

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It seems that there’s been a of renewal of the wines of the Alto Piemonte, the wine district near Milano that includes Gattinara and Ghemme, and the even smaller Boca, Bramaterra, Fara, and Lessona. In New York we’ve had the fine wines from Vallana, of course, and Le Piane, and Conti, but the region always seemed sleepy and neglected when we visited. It’s likely that there was more good wine being made than we knew about, so perhaps it’s just the New Yorker’s view of the world that leads me to label this a renewal. Either way, there have been several fine wines introduced to this market in the last couple of years, and it’s exciting to be introduced to two excellent producers. The first is Mauro Franchino, who for a long time has been making tiny quantities of resolutely old-school Nebbiolo in Gattinara; aged in botti (very large wood barrels) the wine shows great expressiveness and purity. Colombera and Garella are two younger men who have revived a family property and who are making great wine – among the very best that I’ve tasted from the region. Last comes a wine that’s actually from Oltrepo Pavese in Lombardy – not far from the Alto Piemonte, and made with the some of the same grapes. Please read below for details on “the Bartolo Mascarello of Oltrepo Pavese." Jamie Wolff

 

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Franchino, Mauro 2008 Gattinara DOCG

Wine geeks know that a reliable way to assess an unknown bottle on a shelf or wine list is to see who imported the wine. Of course you might not always love the wine, but you can be sure that it’s going to be of good quality and a good example of its type.  For years we’ve been able to count on anything from Lynch, Dressner, and Rosenthal; recently we’ve known that wines from Jan d’Amore, Zev Rovine, Selection Massale, Jenny & Francois are all going to be exciting. Now you can add Portovino, an importer of Italian wine owned by Ernest Ifkovitz, who is doing a terrific job finding great wines, including Colombera & Garella, and this excellent Gattinara.

Franchino’s Gattinara is made from 100% Nebbiolo, and it’s right in line with other Nebbiolos we love. It’s not super-powerful, concentrated or extracted; it has balance and elegance, and fine cut and structure. We loved it on the spot (which sadly was not in Gattinara). Looking for a bit more information about the wine, I found a wildly enthusiastic article by Franco Zilliani, one of Italy’s best wine writers who is widely acknowledged as an Nebbiolo expert. We very rarely quote other writers; it’s quite a long article but this part is classic, in a way: “This is not a 36-24-36 wine; it’s not super-plus like Belen, or curvy like Belluci (you never know if those are real or not) that are all the rage today. To continue the metaphor of female beauty, it’s a wine to compare to Catherine Deneuve during her golden years, a Carole Bouquet, a Juliette Binoche — one of those classy women, who use elegance, charm, and innate class as their weapon of seduction — anti-spectacular, discreet, refined.”  Hopefully you will find that both amusing and instructive! Jamie Wolf

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Colombera & Garella 2010 Bramaterra DOC

Giacomo Colombera is heir to vines in Bramaterra; in the past the fruit was sold to other winemakers. Now he’s teamed-up with Cristiano Garella, who earned a great reputation making wines for Sella, and also for Gulfi in Sicily. Cristiano’s heart is in authentic, terroir-driven wine, and he left Sella when they started to move towards more internationally-styled wines. It’s a great development in Bramaterra; Cristiano is really talented, and access to high quality organic fruit is yielding exciting wine. Their Bramaterra is 70% Nebbiolo, with 20% Croatina and 10% Vespolina; the other grapes bring color and body to Nebbiolo, and add aromatic and flavor complexity. Both grapes require sensitive handling so they don’t over-power Nebbiolo — many wines of the region come out muddy in flavor; Colombera & Garella manage this beautifully so you don’t lose track of the Nebbiolo. The wine is deep and rich without being heavy. It has great depth of flavor, with intriguing quinine and savory herbs and dark fruit — and it’s delicious! Jamie Wolff

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Colombera & Garella 2011 Coste della Sesia

Costa della Sesia seems to produce wines that are a bit lighter and less structured than Gattinara or Bramaterra — at least that’s the case with this wine (65% Nebbiolo, 20% Croatina, 15% Vespolina). Not that it’s delicate — that would be out of character with the type — but it is actually quite elegant and easy to drink. The wine has lovely aromas of cherry, cherry kirsch, and baking spices; it’s stony and long and savory — a seasonally perfect wine for autumn. Jamie Wolff

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Maga, Lino 2010 Pavia Rosso IGT Barbacarlo

Italy is so rich and dense with life and culture that you only have to drive a few kilometers to find another monument, a new cuisine, a different landscape, a different dialect. Even with the internet and a mountain of guidebooks, there’s no substitute for a local guide — the obvious sources of information just can’t cover everything. Thus it was exciting when our friend Luca Mazzoleni took me to visit Lino Maga, who Luca described as “the Bartolo Mascarello of Oltrepo Pavese." Maga is of the same generation as Bartolo, and is similarly devoted to his idea of local tradition. On several occasions after our visit when I mentioned Maga to some Italian friends (more than one of whom called Maga “legendary”) it was clear that he is held in very high esteem, as a great winemaker, as a defender of the best of the past, and as someone who hasn’t yielded to what Maga himself referred to as “the globalization of wine”. Our visit was a great experience — most importantly I loved the wines, which are by far my favorite that I’ve tasted from the Oltrepo. The single-vineyard Barbacarlo is probably one of the most expensive Oltrepo wines, but when it appeared for sale in New York this year I couldn’t resist. Made from roughly equal parts Croatina, Uva Rara, and Vespolina, the wine is clean and it’s very distinctive. It’s dark and savory with very complex aromatics of rhubarb, plums, violets, and tea; it’s structured and tannic, and there’s a bit of spritz on the palate which gives lift. Chemicals have never been used in the vines; fermentation is spontaneous, in large old botti; aside from a couple of rackings no other processes are done — the bottled wine has sediment. After tasting at Maga, I could see my friend Luca’s point in drawing a parallel between Maga and Bartolo Mascarello; aside from being of the same generation and sharing the same philosophy of wine, Luca’s view was based on the quality of their wine: both winemakers reject flashy effects, both are determined to sustain the tradition and practices of their families and of their regions; both obtain authentic wines of the highest possible quality. Jamie Wolff & John Rankin

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