Francesco Brigatti is an exemplary small wine grower in northern Piedmont. He makes small amounts of elegant, expressive wines based on the classic Nebbiolo variety, and he also makes delicious varietal bottlings of the indigenous varieties that are normally blended with Nebbiolo in this area, such as Vespolina and Uva Rara, and a top-class Erbaluce white wine. His cellar is in Suno, not far from the southern end of Lago Maggiore.
Nebbiolo-based wines from this region (Alto Piemonte) are strikingly different from those from Barolo and Barbaresco, particularly in structure (they are usually less tannic and less alcoholic). The climate is somewhat cooler here, with breezes from Monte Rosa to the north giving excellent day/night temperature variation; and the soils are entirely different, acidic morainic clays rather than alkaline calcareous clays in the Langa.
Francesco Brigatti: ’My grandfather started the family farm in 1920. He had a few cows, and grew grapes, some grain, and fruit, but eventually fell in love with grape growing, sold the cows and became a full time grape-grower. So I am the third generation on our farm. I graduated from the University of Turin in agronomy, and worked for a few years at the university doing clonal selection of grapevines; then a new boss moved me from the field to a desk job behind a computer, so I left the university and dedicated myself to our family estate.
Today I farm a little more than six hectares (15 acres), I use the **Integrated Pest Management farming method. Some of my vineyards are planted with massal selection and some with clones. The soils are very acidic (pH around 5-5.5, very rich in potassium and magnesium, giving a savory character to the wines. There is a fair amount of clay in the vineyards.’
Erbaluce is a very distinctive white grape variety indigenous to northern Piedmont. This example is made from grapes grown in two vineyards, one planted in the 1980s and one in the ‘90s. The bunches are allowed to sit overnight at low temperature to extract flavors from the skins, then pressed and fermented with no added yeasts. Fermentation and aging takes place in stainless steel tanks, malo-lactic fermentation is avoided, the wine is aged on the fine lees until Christmas and bottled in the spring following the harvest.
‘Mottobello’ is pale straw in color, with greenish glints; aroma and flavor of peaches, herbs, flowers; slightly chewy texture with very good fresh acidity; complex, distinctive white wine. Ian d’Agata says that Erbaluce from this area can be just as good as the better-known examples from Caluso, and from this evidence I
would say he’s right.
Uva Rara ‘Selvalunga’
Uva Rara is a black-skinned grape found in northern Piedmont and the Oltrepò Pavese; ‘rara’ here means ‘sparse,’ as the grapes are sparsely distributed on the bunches. The soil is morainic clay, acidic and rich in minerals; the grapes are picked in late September, after they are destemmed and crushed the wine is fermented on the skins for about five days. After the primary and secondary fermentation the wine is the aged in stainless steel tanks for six months, before bottling.
Ian d’Agata describes the variety very well: ‘…bright dark-ruby in color…The aroma is … very complex, with hints of red roses, violet, red, almost black cherries, and raspberries and sweet spices.’ Very fresh acidity, mid-weight tannins, a good complement to cured meats, most pasta dishes, roast chicken…
Ian d’Agata* describes the red grape Vespolina as ‘one of Italy’s best native grape varieties’, strong praise from this expert. Until fairly recently it was mostly blended into wines made predominantly from Nebbiolo, but the quality and distinctive character of the best varietal bottlings are encouraging more producers to try it, despite the fact that it is hard to grow. Brigatti’s Vespolina was planted in the 1980s in acidic soil of morainic origin. The grapes are picked in September and fermented in stainless steel tanks, spending about a week in contact with the skins. The wine is then aged in stainless steel for about six months before bottling.
The wine combines bright red fruit notes with clear herb and spice overtones (the grape is rich in rotundone, an aromatic component of some herbs such as Marjoram and also black pepper). This bottling shows fine tannins and fresh acidity to complement the juicy fruit notes, and is an outstanding everyday red wine.
Brigatti Nebbiolo Colline Novaresi ‘Mötfrei’
The Mötfrei vineyard was planted to Nebbiolo in the early 1980s, in iron-rich sandy reddish soil, at about 300 meters (1,000 feet) above sea level. The harvest is normally in mid-October; the grapes are de-stemmed, crushed and allowed to ferment in a stainless steel fermenter with no added yeast. (Francesco does use a ‘pied de cuve’, starting the fermentation a few days before the harvest.) The wine is pumped over once a day, and macerated with the skins for about two weeks; malolactic fermentation and aging take place in puncheons (not new) for 18 months. The wine is fermented to dryness, and bottled without fining or filtration. Around 3,000 bottles a year are produced.
The Colline Novaresi appellation is the equivalent of Langhe Nebbiolo in the Barolo/Barbaresco area, but this wine is finer than that would suggest.
This Nebbiolo is simply beautiful: translucent garnet color, aroma and flavor of red fruit (red-currant, raspberry), with hints of angelica, leaf-mold, and baking spices; gorgeous texture, mouth-filling but silky; very long and complex.
Many of the best Nebbiolos from northern Piedmont are both drinkable and worth aging, like this one; don’t hesitate to drink it now with red meat, but I will certainly age it too.
Brigatti Ghemme ‘Oltre il Bosco’ DOCG
Made entirely of Nebbiolo, from two vineyards in the Pelizzane and Livelli areas of Ghemme, on the edge of the wood that divides the two sub-areas of the appellation. The soils here are morainic clay, very acidic (5.5 pH), and planted at moderate density (4,000 vines per hectare). The harvest takes place in mid-October; after de-stemming and crushing of the bunches the must is fermented using indigenous yeasts in cement tanks, keeping the cap submerged in the must with a grid (‘cappo sommerso’), as is traditional, for 60 days. The wine is then aged in large (1,500 liter) oak barrels for two years. No filtration and no fining.
* in his excellent book Native Wine Grapes of Italy
**Agriculture: Integrated Pest Management, which is to say mostly organic practice but systemic treatments in difficult vintages.