Discovering Alto Piemonte and Azienda Vitivinicola Barbaglia

Boca the DOC in Alto Piemonte where Azienda Vitivinicola Barbaglia sits is located 500 meters above sea level, and is the highest winegrowing region in all of Piedmont. It boasts ancient volcanic soils that date back to the formation of the Alps. Nebbiolos from the little-known region of Alto Piemonte in the foothills of the Alps were once the most important region in Italy for Nebbiolo. 

In the late 1800s the area was destroyed by phylloxera, and many growers did not replant do to the high cost of farming on the terraced slopes. The industrial revolution further decimated Alto Piemonte as people left farming for easier, higher paying industrial jobs.The 40,000 hectares of vines was reduced to less than 600 hectares. 

Recently Alto Piemonte has become rejuvenated with a new generation of winemakers rediscovering the unique terroirs and the special wines it can produce.

Grape Collective talks to Silvia Barbaglia of Azienda Vitivinicola Barbaglia about the challenging history of Alto Piemonte and why they believe in the greatness of Boca.

BarbagliaChristopher Barnes: Talk about the history of the estate.

Silvia Barbaglia: So the history of our estate, me and my father, now that we work at, in our small cellar. We have got four hectares in Alto Piemonte. The cellar in 1999 in our area has got a lot of history because we are talking about an historical area of production of the Nebbiolo. And we started to put vineyards up again in this area that has got good value. So we are talking about Nebbiolo from the soil of a volcano That exploded two-hundred and eighty millions of years ago, and so really old, ancient.

How would you describe the terroir in Alto Piemonte?

Yes, so we are in Alto Piemonte. We are in the north part of Piemonte. We are just under Monta Rosa. And so Monta Rosa is our mountain because it is the second highest mountain in Europe.

The second highest mountain?

Yes, four thousand and six hundred meters of altitude. We are from three to five hundred meters altitude. Alto Piemonte is really particular because in only thirty five kilometers has seven different terroirs. So this is why if you put a Nebbiolo in this different soil, you just call the wine with the name of the village. So we are talking about Boca, Ghemme, Sizanno, Fara, Gattinara, Bramaterra and Lessona.

And what does volcanic soil do to the wine? What kind of characteristic does it represent when you make the wine with volcanic soil?

Yes, we have got the roots of our plants on this volcanic soil it is extremely breakable. So you can break it with your hands. The roots can go down and so you can feel in Alto Piemonte this acidity, this minerality in the mouth. Really important. Our most characteristic things.

BarbargliaMost people when they think of Nebbiolo, they think of Langhe, which is obviously very close. How are the wines different from the famous wines of Langhe?

When we think about Nebbiolo, Nebbiolo is a grape really famous but if you see what is planted, there are a few areas in Italy, only three, Langhe, Alto Piemonte and Valtellina. Change the soil and so change the grape because Nebbiolo is a really sensible grape. Depending whether the roots are inside and then you can feel this characteristic on the wine. The most famous area, Langhe with Barolo, Barbaresco. Our area is less known because we have got a lot of industrialized area around us and so all the farmers folks were taken by the industry. We lost a lot of vineyards. Alto Piemonte used to have forty thousand of hectares. Now we are less than one thousand. So, we are talking about a lot of vineyard disappearing. There are a lot of bush forest. It is a really wild environment, but now our force is that we are going to replant again the vineyards. We don't use chemical for a lot of years. And also we don't have international grapes. Only native grapes.

And, Alto Piemonte, is it quite high up? Is it higher than Langhe?

Alto Piemonte, because we are in the northeast part and then we are really near to Switzerland. And so we are a different area. A different microclimate. We are near the Alps. Nebbiolo is the first grape that start in spring is the last grape that we are going to pick up in autumn. And so the fact that to be in good position to take the sun and also in summer time it is a different temperature night and day to develop all the perfumes. 

Talk a little bit about some of the native grapes that you grow apart from Nebbiolo.

We grow also Vespolina it is another native grape. Genetically, a parent of Nebbiolo. This is why you can find in all the old vineyards. And, using a blend, also for Boca. It is not 100 percent a Nebbiolo, but there is Vespolina from 10 to 30%, just directly in the vineyards. It is a really spicy grape, I mean Boca. Boca is our appellation that has got the Nebbiolo which is fruity, but also Vespolina give these spicy perfumes to the wine.

BarbagliaHow many producers are there in Alto Piemonte? It is quite small, right?

Yes, Alto Piemonte, we are 40, 50 producers, no more. A lot of young people are arriving. This is good for the future.

So you know everybody, right?


Talk a little bit about your philosophy of viticulture and your philosophy of winemaking.

We would like to preserve all we can because we don't choose chemical products because we have got a really good terroir. We have to preserve it. We are in acidic soil, so really complicated for the roots to stay inside the soil. But, the plant also grows really slowly, so you can also find 100 year old plants in our area, and they are not too big. They grow slowly. So we use nature and we do a lot of work by hand. Because we don't want to pressure too much the soil.

Also in the cellar is my father the oenologist of our firm. We work together. In the end, when you have wine like this that two years in big barrels. Then you continue to age in the bottles, you understand that it is a good terroir that is the base of it all.

So it is a pretty non-interventionist type of wine making?

My father is a really precise man. So he really think that okay the grape is fundamental to good wine, but then you have to stay in the cellar to control all, not to abandon the wine. But, we think that we have got so specialized grape that we would like to know every single grape in vinified separately to let the people understand what that grape can do. Historically they were all a blend. We decided to vinify every single grape of our area. So you can taste the different characteristic that that grape can give you.

So most Alto Piemonte wines are blends traditionally, and you are making single varietals. 

In Boca the most important wine is a blend. In the other case it is our choice to do 100 percent of each grape Vespolina, Croatina, and Uva Rara, Nebbiolo, and Erbaluce the only white grape in our area.

So, many people think of Langhe as the home of Nebbiolo, but really, you could say that Alto Piemonte is the home of Nebbiolo.

Yes, because Nebbiolo arrived historically in our area. And so we are talking about on the first DOC in Italy in Alto Piemonte, and so because they recognize that there was particular wine made from Nebbiolo in our area. And then we lost a lot of vineyards because people go away from the farm.

It is very important because it explains to us that it is really important to maintain this tradition that was lost because people go away from the vineyards to work in the industry. But because it was easier to work in industry than in the farm, and not because the wine were not good. Now that the vineyards are coming back and people are investing in that, in a few years Alto Piemonte wines are arriving on the best table of restaurants in Italy and the world because there is big value on this terroir on this wine. Because we are all small farms we try to do the best to work in the vineyards and the cellar to promote how we can. I think it is the wine that talks more than us.