In a number of recent wine press articles the Alto Piemonte, the region of northern Piedmont that abuts the Alps, is referred to as a new or even final ‘frontier’ for the wine world. It’s a similar miss-characterization as referring to the American West as a frontier because Europeans were ‘discovering’ it while ignoring the fact that there were already indigenous people there. The commercial wine world is just now remembering something that it forgot nearly a hundred years ago.
Historically parts of Boca, Gattinara, Ghemme and Carema had more land under vine than Barolo and Barberesco. Wealthy wine lovers from France and Germany sought out these delicious reds and the export market was strong. But beginning at the end of the 19th Century a whole string of misfortune began to befall the wine world at large and some historic areas such as Alto Piemonte were hit harder than others. First phylloxera, the American root louse began decimating all the vineyards of Europe. When we tell the story of this epidemic it almost always is a story of grafting coming in at the last minute to save everything. But this is only part of the truth. Like any natural disaster phylloxera may have hit all of Europe equally hard but recovery happened far faster for those with more wealth or resources. Poorer areas were not only slower to replant but commercial wineries having to replant all of their vineyards to American rootstock had to make choices about which vines were worth saving. Many grape varietals were removed from commercial production to make way for higher yielding more disease resistant plants.
As different parts of Europe recovered from this first epidemic at varying rates, two World Wars struck the continent and caused not only death and devastation but also led to huge disruptions to commerce. Vineyards can be forgotten when survival is at stake.
Following the wars people in Alto Piemonte as well as other parts of Europe found that the economic realities had changed. Industrial farming and globalized trade made it all but impossible for small country wineries to be a viable way to make a living, and young people began to abandon Alto Piemonte to move to Milan and other cities for steadier work. In many parts of Alto Piemonte the forests reclaimed the land and much of it’s history was forgotten.
Some small producers held on over the decades, modernizing in some small ways when possible, but more often continuing in the old ways even when they were harder or not profitable. Fueled by passion for the land and the produce it creates these people and the new generations that are returning to the land now have preserved a piece of history that the larger world can now discover as if for the first time. So perhaps instead of a frontier we should think of the Alto Piemonte as a time capsule; one that we forgot we buried but managed to unearth before it was lost forever. We can get a literal taste for a style of wine making and a way of life that maybe we were too hasty to leave in the past.
S & M Selections is proud to offer selections from Le Piane in Boca, Il Sorpasso in Carema and Villa Mercante in the Valli Ossolane.