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The name of the Alto Piemonte is reflective of its latitude and its altitude, relative to the more southerly and more famous Langhe zone. The “high Piedmont” is 90 miles northeast of Alba, at the feet of the Italian Alps, and sits at a higher elevation. Historically a thriving center of Nebbiolo production on its steeply terraced vineyards, this remote region succumbed over a century to the ills associated with vine disease, weather disasters, world wars, industrial modernization, and cumulative neglect and abandonment: today only 1000 of 40,000 hectares of vines planted in the late 19th century are still cultivated!
Barolo and Barbaresco rose to dominance over this same period. These Langhe wines are pure Nebbiolo, elegant, complex, powerful and age-worthy at their finest, but a challenge to grow and make well. Multiply that challenge by several times in the marginal climate and shorter growing season of the Alto Piemonte: ripening Nebbiolo fully is a risky bet. Thus Nebbiolo—known historically as Spanna here--was and still is usually blended with other local black grapes like Vespolina, Croatina and Uva Rara, not only to mitigate the risk but also to flesh and smooth out the leaner, lighter, edgier nature of Nebbiolo in this extreme environment. Alto Piemonte reds tend to be robustly tannic, full-flavored, earthy, mineral-edged and spicy.
The Alto Piemonte contains a handful of DOCG’s and DOC’s for Nebbiolo-based reds. The best-known are Gattinara, Ghemme and Bramaterra, rounded out by tiny Lessona, Fara and, last but not least, Boca, of particular interest here. Boca is the very highest growing region in all of Piemonte at 450-500 meters in altitude. It is also small, with a mere 30 hectares of vines (only 15 of them eligible for the DOC) across 5 hilly villages on an ancient mix of volcanic, glacial and alluvial soils. The climate is alpine: warm sunny days and cold nights, with steady wind that keeps fruit healthy, with protection from the coldest winds by surrounding woods and by Monte Rosa in the nearby Alps. There are around 10 Boca producers, most prominently Swiss native Christoph Kuenzli of Le Piane winery, who virtually singlehandedly brought this disappearing DOC back to life and helped engender its redevelopment.
Tiny Santuvario is part of this Boca rebirth. It is the project of Ivano Barbaglia and his wife Paola who live full-time in the nearby city of Borgomanero. Retiring from a career as a musician and instrument repair specialist, Ivano acquired 2.5 hectares of vines in Boca and neighboring Maggiora. He works them organically and by hand. The winery is named in reference to a beautiful and historic convent, the Santuario del Santissimo Crocifisso di Boca, overlooked by one parcel of Ivano’s vines from atop a nearby hill. The fruit is harvested by hand and brought to the Santuvario “cellar”, a small room next door to Barbaglias’ apartment.
They make miniscule quantities of 3 wines: a white from Erbaluce (not yet imported) and two reds. All are fermented with natural yeasts. The reds are classified as Vino Rosso and thus don’t reflect vintage or region on the labels. The first is called simply Santuvario: a blend of half Nebbiolo with Vespolina, Croatina and Uva Rara from younger vines in Boca and Maggiora, aged for a year in a huge 1700-liter botte. The second is Lozio, made mainly of Nebbiolo with a little Vespolina and not every year, from a higher-altitude parcel of older vines in Boca, aged three years in one 300-liter oak barrel. Both reds were then aged in bottle for a year before release. A single barrel of each means scant quantities available to for Louis/Dressner to import—we relish the opportunity to get to know these wines as they begin to trickle in for the first time in autumn 2017.