Sunday, August 11, 2019

Alta Langa DOCG: Piemonte's burgeoning answer to Franciacorta?

During the Labor of Love pre-launch dinner party, Giampiero Cordero, the Sommelier at Ristorante Il Centro (Prioca d'Alba), introduced me to a sparkling wine -- Contratto Metodo Classico -- with which I was unfamiliar. The wine was intriguing so I sought out Giampiero later on in the evening, seeking additional information. He indicated that the wine was from a new sparkling wine DOCG called Alta Langa and promised to make arrangements for me to visit the winery on the Saturday post the dinner. He did make the arrangements and Parlo and I did make the visit. Before discussing the winery and its wines, I provide some background on the region.

The leading lights of Italian sparkling wine are Prosecco, Franciacorta, and Asti. If you confine your horizon to Piemonte, Asti and Moscato d'Asti are the most prominent. Alta Langa -- DOC in 2002, DOCG in 2011 -- is the new kid on the sparkling-wine block but the combination of its terroir, traditional Champagne varieties, traditional production method, skilled growers, and savvy producers bode well for the future.


Growers in the region have looked enviously at Champagne since the early 1800s. So much so that the Counts of Sumbay planted Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines with an eye to making a Champagne-like sparkling wine. The chart below summarizes the history of the effort to make a Metodo Classico wine in Piemonte.

The Alta Langa DOCG is spread over 142 communes in the provinces of Alessandria, Asti, and Cuneo. Given the geographic scope of the region, one encounters a variety of climates, exposures, elevations and soil types. In general, the soil is a mildly fertile calcareous clay marl.

Vineyards are required to be planted at 250 m and above on the region's steep, terraced hillsides. Allowed varieties are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and other non-aromatic grapes. Planting density is a minimum of 4000 vines/ha with the vines trained using the low espalier system and pruned traditional Guyot and spurred cordon. The maximum allowed yield is 11,000 kg/ha.

As is the case in Champagne, the Alta Langa producers -- 27 currently -- do not grow enough fruit to meet their needs. That gap is bridged with fruit from 80 growers who own their land and are guaranteed producer-payment for their grapes and labor.

Alta Langa DOCG covers a Spumante and Spumante Rosata, each built from a minimum of 90% Chardonnay and/or Pinot Noir and a maximum of 10% non-aromatic grape(s), fermented in the traditional method, and aged for a minimum of 30 months on the lees. A Riserva has to spend 36 months on the lees. An Alta Langa Rosso DOC has the same varietal requirements but no stated aging requirement.

Using Avezza Paolo's (one of the producers) practices as an example, the grapes are hand-harvested (a requirement) and taken to the cellar where they are crushed whole. Only the free-run juice is fermented.

Most of the producers ferment in stainless steel tanks but Bera Valter uses a mix of stainless steel and wood, with the majority done in steel. The base wine is placed under crown seal with the liqueur de tirage for the second fermentation (Bretta Rossa blends in a small amount of cuvée from the prior year's production.). The wine rests on its lees for a minimum of 30 months prior to disgorgement and dosage. The aforementioned Contratto always produces a vintage wine with zero dosage and a minimum of 48 months on the lees.

Franciacorta is the most significant Metodo Classico wine in Italy so some comparisons are in order.

Category Franciacorta Alta Langa
First Sparkling wine
Size (ha)
Grape sources Estates (104) Estates and Growers (107)
Soils Glacial morainic (4 types) Calcareous clay marl
Elevation “Gentle hills” Minimum 250 m

One of the things that I find disconcerting about Franciacorta is its richness. This stems from fruit ripening afforded by its relatively southerly location and acidity-robbing, low elevation vineyards. Alta Langa has the potential to produce a crisper sparkling wine given its more northerly provenance and its relatively high elevation.

The Piemonte region has a good track record in handling the Chardonnay grape. While not in the same geographic region, Gaja's Chardonnays take a back seat to no one and I am personally enamored with Aldo Conterno's Bussiador.

In most of the cases, the Alta Langa product is one component of a red-wine centric portfolio for both the growers and the producers. Contratto is one of the exceptions in that it is a standalone sparkling wine establishment within the broader Rivetti portfolio. The challenge for the region will be its relatively small size in a red-wine centric region where there will always be competition for attention and vineyard space vis a vis the the region's red wines.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

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