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A memorable tasting of old wines took place in northern Piedmont at the end of 2016. At Villa Era near the town of Biella, the vintages 1889, 1891, 1904, 1908, 1921,1961, 1964 and 1973 competed to prove once again the ageing potential of Nebbiolo. But how do northern Piedmont wines matured for more than 100 years present themselves? Are they even edible?

The north on the sidelines

Northern Piedmont is deeply overshadowed by the resounding names Barolo and Barbaresco, which are big stars in the heart of the famous wine-growing region and are in demand all over the world. The north, on the other hand, is the stepchild. Advanced wine connoisseurs are familiar with the Gattinara and Ghemme appellations, but there is much more to discover. Not far from the textile town of Biella, home to world-famous fabric manufacturers such as Cerruti or Ermenegildo Zegna, there are a number of little-known origins vying for attention. The winegrowers there have realised that they are stronger together and in the DOCs Lessona, Bramaterra and Coste della Sesia, 20 wineries have joined forces to form the "Associazione Vignaioli Colline Biellesi", which organises joint activities and appearances.

One hectare as a role model

The president of this association, Silvia Rivetti, has just one hectare of vines. She is the owner of the beautiful late 19th century Villa Era in Vigliano Biellese. Behind the villa, the rising garden turns into a vineyard slope that surrounds the buildings like an amphitheatre. This location creates a perfect mesoclimate for the vines and the ripening of the grapes. Only ten years ago, the vineyard here was restored, but the wine, a Nebbiolo Coste della Sesia, already convinces with fine complexity, characterised by cherry fruit, edgy acidity and fine spice. The vineyard of Villa Era, which once covered three hectares, has a very long tradition and was already mentioned in the well-known Veronelli Guide in 1973. Nebbiolo used to be called "Spanna di Vigliano" here and the archive of bottles from long ago dates back to 1813.

Villa Era Weingarten

Villa Era Vineyard


Extremely acid soils

The winemaker Daniele Dinoia from Centovigne also believes in the special terroir of the region. When visiting the vineyard of Castello di Castellengo, he briefly gets down on his knees and takes a bit of loose soil in his hand. Tiny shiny quartzite crystals are clearly visible in the light sandy soil. "Our soils are light, low in nutrients and very acidic," Daniele explains, "so the pH levels are low." In the Colline Biellesi, where there are glacial moraines with clayey-sandy deposits or even quartz porphyry, the average soil pH is only 5.5. In certain locations with alluvial soils (alluvial soils with sand), such as "La Badina" or "Castello" and "Drumma", the pH values are even in the extremely acidic range with 4.6 and 4.9 respectively.

What role does the pH value play?

In general, pH values in the soil between 6.5 and 7.2 are called the "neutral" range, to which the majority of plants are best adapted. A high pH value of 8 indicates an alkaline soil with a high lime content. The pH value influences which nutrients the plant can absorb. In the extremely low or extremely high range, certain nutrients are no longer available to plants. On the other hand, under extreme conditions, some nutrients can be released in such large quantities that they have a damaging effect on the plants. In very acidic soils, for example, aluminium, which is toxic to most plants, is released from solid compounds and thus becomes available to plants. Copper, which damages plants in high concentrations, is also absorbed more at low pH values. Some plants have conquered precisely these extremes as their habitat and are established in this niche. Typical of the area in northern Piedmont are Robinia forests, which are particularly at home in acidic soils, but rhododendrons, acacias and azaleas are also common.

Independent in spirit

The soils unmistakably leave their mark on the wines. "Minerality, elegance and a very fresh acidity are typical of our wines," says Daniele Dinoia confidently. Nebbiolo in such a light and floral style, as it is produced here in the north, has little to do with the powerful Barolo wines produced only about two hours' drive south. Salty minerality and a powerful, sometimes almost biting acidity provide not only durability, but also fresh charm and drinkability. The colour of the wines is traditionally light and the tannins support the structure well, but are always fine and rarely present in excessive quantity. The regional varieties Vespolina, Croatina, Uva rara and the white Erbaluce are incidental - actually, everything revolves around Nebbiolo, which the winemakers clearly love and like to push its independence to the extreme. At least, this is how one could interpret Daniele Dinoia when he complains that Nebbiolo is a highly complicated variety in the vineyard and concludes with pride: "Nebbiolo is a mental state."

The old wine tasting

The wines for the unique rarity tasting at Villa Era came from the cellars of four wineries - Villa Era, Montecavallo, Tenuta Sella and Castello di Castellengo. Italian sommeliers had carefully opened the selected bottles shortly before the tasting and decanted the wines with the utmost care. How had the wines aged between 43 and 127 years held up? The oldest vintage,

Villa Era Archiv flaschen

Villa Era archive bottles


Castellengo 1889, was poured into the glasses first. Slightly brownish and light red in colour, it showed itself to be very ripe on the nose, in a pleasant and inviting way. On the palate, there was even a hint of fruit. In summary, a very mature wine - still nicely drinkable due to the refreshing acidity that held the wine and prolonged the finish.

The next wine, Montecavallo 1891, did not disappoint either. Although a sweet whisky note seemed a little dominant and delicate residual sweetness flattered it, the fruit had almost exotic hints. Only one of the eight wines, Villa Era 1964, was no longer enjoyable. Some were marred by oxidative notes and had clearly passed their peak. Overall, however, the wines showed a certain saltiness throughout and the very fresh acidity ran through as a feature. French sommeliers present repeatedly drew comparisons to mature Burgundies - a nice compliment.

Flaschen Altweine

Villa Era bottles of old wines


The notes

1889 Castello di Castellengo

Nutty nose, autumnal cool and fresh, walnut nougat wafer. Still a touch of ripened red fruit on the palate; acidic, silky finish. Just about held its own, amazing.

1891 Castello di Montecavallo

Clearly matured; whisky notes, herbal tea and floral hints. On the palate comes exotic fruit pushed by delicate sweetness, notes of tar and hansaplast. Interesting piquancy, still shows length.

1904 Castello di Castellengo

Starts cheesy; still shows grip and bite on the palate. Lively acidity, clearly matured with floral and tart notes; nut liqueur, wilted leaves. Then breaks away in the finish, morbid character.

1908 Villa Era

Fine nuts, pickled walnut. Creamy on the palate, a little tar, oxidative sour cherry, toasted notes and caramel underneath. Fine and pleasantly firny, but quickly loses itself in the glass.

1921 Tenuta Sella

Slightly smoky, musty tendency with smoky cooking and chimney. Clearly rough on the palate, totally reduced with zero fruit, persistent with taut acidity. Austere, no age mildness.

1961 Tenuta Sella

Shows clear fruit, violets and pickled cherries, very interesting and varied. Delicate green tea, fresh herbs; good grip, though a bit rough on the finish; has length and mineral pull.

1964 Villa Era

No longer enjoyable.

1973 Montecavallo

Aged, pomegranate and fine herbs. Well-integrated acidity with lively freshness, edgy. Has a certain length, but seems haggard and is no real fun.

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