A very special vertical. Alto Piemonte 1842-1970

What is the oldest wine you’ve tasted? That is a question I often get when people understand that I am into wine. Most of the really old wines I’ve tasted are port wines or madeira wines, I’ve tasted a number from the 1800’s. I have also tasted a few odd bottles of red and white wine and even a champagne from the late 1800’s.

I have a new answer – now I can say that the oldest one is from 1842

old bottles in old cellar

A few weeks ago I was invited to Assaggioanordovest 2017 in Biella, Alto Piemonte, Piemonte by the Vignaioli Biellesi Association. During this trip they put up a quite extraordinary vertical. It was special in several ways. The wine was really old, from the following vintages: 1842, 1896, 1897, 1931, 1934, 1960, 1965 and 1970. The wines come from small number of producers that are very close to each other within the Biella and Lessona areas. All the wines are cellar finds, i.e. they have never been recorked or filled up. They probably are Nebbiolo wines, there might be some other grapes as well such as vespolina, uva rara and croatina.

Spanna

Most often you get to taste one old wine, as a rarity to give you something extra as you are about to taste the latest vintage. That is always a treat, this though was something else. These wines tell a combined story of the area, of the wines, on changes over time – they are a kind of a time machine.

Ride upon the time machine
It only costs a dime, it’s clean
Step inside, sit down and let it happen

(H.P. Lovecraft (the band), Time machine, 1967)

Our time travel, through the wines, covers a period going back 175 to 47 years in time. Most of the wines were made in period of time when Barolo and Barbaresco was not the king and queen of Piemonte. In late 1800’s phylloxera hit this area hard, some years later in the beginning of the 20th century storms and hail destroyed a lot that was left and that was followed by two world wars. Back in the days there was vineyards all over the place, today most of these are covered by forests.

City Biella

In the late 1800s Alto Piemonte had more than 40 000 hectares of vineyards. After the second world war they were down to a mere 600 hectares. However, there are some wine makers who never gave up and kept on making wines. Lately they do grow in numbers and hectares, today there is about 1500 hectares of vineyards and the wines are well worth to keep an eye out for. Four of these producers shared eight old wines with us, Vini Castello di Montecavallo, Centovigne (Castello di Castellengo), Villa Era and Tenute Sella 1671.

Flashing lights excite ascension
Whirl, twirl, swirl…

…you’re on the one and only home made time machine

(H.P. Lovecraft (the band), Time machine, 1967)

Tasting old wines is nothing like tasting new vintages, it is more of an almost spiritual experience. The wines are unique, they have flaws, blemishes and beauty spots. At the same time, they have the depth of history, the complexity of age and can provide an experience beyond the usual. They are wines that can provide insight into wine history, wine development and bring you along on a time travel. They are also wines that are very limited in numbers, that is why it is important to document them and share the experiences of tasting or drinking them.

Villa Era castle
The tasting was held at beautiful Villa Era, Biella

The two oldest wines have an obvious sweetness to them, this is also noted in the 1931 and 1934 wines, though in a lesser degree than the oldest ones, while the three youngest ones are quite dry.

The sweetness in the two oldest wines is something that is consistent with older descriptions of wines from the area. An example of this is Thomas Jefferson, who was the President of the United States 1801-1809. He visited Piemonte in the spring of 1787 and described the wines as lightly bubbly and sweet. In the wines we tried there were no bubbles but there are traces of the wonderful acidity that is also present in today’s wines from the area.

Wine tasting, Alto Piemonte, 1842-1970, notes

old vintages

Castello di Montecavallo 1842

The colour is almost brown or amber and the wine is a slightly cloudy. There is an element of oxidation in the scent and traces of medicinal plants.  The scent reminds me of a sherry with notes of flor and dried almonds.

The taste is sweet and has an reminiscent of bittersweet English breakfast marmalade, birch syrup, almonds and dried fruits. Despite the sweetness and the oxidized tones, there is a freshness in the wine due to a still alive acidity that gives the wine life. However, it is the autumn notes that are most present. Elements of undergrowth, mushrooms and a hint of leather gives proof the very old age. There are several errors in this wine, but it is still not dead or unpleasant. There is a small flame of life that flutter through the centuries and gives evidence of how long these wines can live and develop.

I’ll be honest and say I would not have guessed that this wine was made on nebbiolo. By style I’d probably guessed a sherry. In the context of the other wines in this tasting and younger ones that I’ve tasted from Alto Piemonte there is a common thread that can be found, primarily in the acidity.

old vintages

Castello di Castellengo 1896

Also this wine shows sweetness and a colour that goes against amber. In the fragrance there is a flor-like yeast notes, dried fruit and nougat.

The flavours include citrus fruits such as oranges and zest, honey, dried fruits, buttery mushrooms and a hint of birch syrup. This wine develops during the hour of the tasting and opens up after a while and gets a certain elegance. Here there is a more pronounced acidity and energy than in the previous wine, it has its faults but it also has a little more clean and fresh notes. It’s quite enjoyable.

This is as the previous wine a wine where I would not guess nebbiolo as grape the grape or Piemonte as the origin. I’d probably end up with guessing sherry or maybe an old wine from Colares from Portugal. The latter does not have sweetheart found in this wine but there is something in the acidity that makes them reminiscent of each other.

old vintages

Villa Era 1897 Vigliano Biellese

This is probably the wine that impressed me the most in this tasting. The colour still has some of the redness left, together with bronze and brick shades. The scent does brings me towards nebbiolo with a nice floral tone, a hint of strawberries, tomato leaves and crushed stone.

The wine has a taste of dried red berries, strawberries, rose petals and a nice earthy tone with elements of woody undergrowth and a highest living acid. The wine even has some tannins that still gives the wine structure. That a 120-year-old wine can deliver this good is amazing. Obviously it’s not young but still very much alive.

This is a wine where I’m pretty sure I would lean towards nebbiolo if I tried it blindly. Certainly, there are faults in the wine and is has started to go slightly downhill. Still it is very enjoyable and gives a true wine experience.

old vintages

Castello di Montecavallo 1931

The colour is amber and again there are yeast notes reminiscent of those in a sherry in the scent. It is not as sweet as the wines from 1842 and 1896 but it is sweeter than the other wines. The flavour contains dried fruit, orange peel and fine spices with anise and dried herbs. The acid is good and there is an element of ocean salt in the end.

In taste, it resembles an aged fino, slightly oxidized but still fresh. It’s not a wine where I would have guessed nebbiolo as the grape or Piemonte as the origin (though now I am learning that these flavours can be found there).

old vintages

Castello di Castellengo 1934

This was another of my favourite wines from the tasting. Initially, it felt flawed and incorrect. After the first sip I wrote – cork injury??? However, it woke up after about half an hour, that which had smelled bad was gone, so it was not cork damage.

There is a really good acidity in the wine and with oxygen the comes alive and the fruity flavours come forth. Here are sour cherries, blood orange and raspberry notes. The finish has nice saltiness that gives the wine length and an extra kick.

Again, the more typical nebbiolo flavours are present and I feel at home again. It was a wine that needed a lot of oxygen to wake up, though.

old vintages

Villa Era 1960 Spanna di Vigliano Riserva Speciale

The colour is red turning to bricks. The scent is a slightly earthy with elements of undergrowth and dried red berries as well as medicinal herbs.

In the taste there are dried dark berries, red orange, hazelnuts and a nice earthiness. The wine has a nice acidity, a bit of sandy tannins and nice tones of dried herbs and flowers in the finish.

This is a wine that is obviously aged, it is also a wine with a very nice balance. Here is a fine freshness in the acidity and with  long finish. The scent was a bit sharp but the taste really nice.

old vintages

Tenute Sella 1965 Lessona

The colour is red going towards brown with brick tones. The scent is a bit sharp, with an element of paraffin and acetone, but also with underlying red berries.

In the taste there are ripe red berries, dried fruits and citrus fruits, as well as decaying leaves, soil and dried medicinal herbs.

The wine is in decline and more interesting than good. There are some obvious faults and it does not keep up all the way, neither in the cent or flavours. The aftertaste comes with a some bitter medicinal notes that give an imbalance to the wine.

old vintages

Tenute Sella 1970 Lessona

This a 47 year old surprise. In contrast to the other wines it feels young, as it is – still it’s a an old wine.

The wine has a nice red colour with some bricks. The fragrance is fresh and here it scent of red berries, undergrowth and fresh herbs.

The taste is mature but feels surprisingly fresh and quite young. Here are classic nebbiolo flavours with red berries, red orange, some cherry, rose petals, a nice freshness and lots of herbs. The acidity is straight and in the finish, comes a beautiful salinity the builds on to the freshness. Very good and a wine I would love to have in my cellar to enjoy the coming 3 years – this really shows the ageing potential of the more modern Alto Piemonte wines.

None of these wines are available for purchase on the commercial market, although they may appear on single auctions. You might also be lucky, like me and get to taste them on location, given you are there at the right time.

It is when you put together all these wines, their flavours, scents and different styles, that they, together give an in-depth and more thorough understanding of the area’s wines. They tell the story of the area’s development and show the relationship between the wines for almost 200 years. To me, it has given increased knowledge, understanding and love of nebbiolo in general and Alto Piemonte in particular. I also strongly recommend a visit to any of these wineries and the area as such.

Magnus Reuterdahl

A version of this article was first published in Swedish at DinVinguide.se – they differ but have the same basic information. DinVinguide.se is my main platform for articles on wine and is one of the leading wine publications in Sweden.

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