Albugnano, an enclave of Nebbiolo in Monferrato

Author: Marco Negro

Nebbiolo grape enhances its peculiarities in different ways, depending on the soil and microclimate. For example, we recall the different features of the four best-known Nebbiolo wines in the Langhe and Roero hills: Nebbiolo d’Alba Doc, Roero Docg, Barbaresco Docg and Barolo Docg! Other extraordinary wines from Nebbiolo grapes are produced in the north of Piemonte (Ghemme Docg and Gattinara Docg wines just to name the most famous), in the lower Valle d’Aosta (Donnàs wine) and in Valtellina (Valtellina Docg and Sforzato Docg wines ). If you want to read my tasting notes of some of these wines click here.

the garnet reflections in wines from Nebbiolo

Thanks to the “climate change”, the Nebbiolo vineyards are increasing in Piemonte. This grape is in fact able to give wines characterized by great freshness and elegance, characteristics that are lost with other varieties during very hot and dry years.

However, there is an area of ​​Monferrato where Nebbiolo vineyards are not new, following the most recent trends. Our team of Sentieri di Vino visited the Monferrato Astigiano, the hills that stretch from Asti to Turin, to discover an ancient enclave of Nebbiolo. We reach the small town of Albugnano, the highest hill in this part of Monferrato: we are at 549 meters above sea level. The first obligatory stop is the Belvedere Motta, a panoramic balcony that embraces in a single glance over 220 ° of view of the Alps. We want to document the fact that Nebbiolo has been grown here for historical periods.

Nebbiolo has been grown here for centuries

a grape of Nebbiolo from Pianfiorito vineyards

The journalist Giancarlo Montaldo welcomes us to the “Associazione Albugnano 549”. He shows us the oldest mention of the cultivation of Nebbiolo grapes on these lands: it dates back to 1268. Other historical citations from the early 1300s and 1600s follow, as well as numerous more recent ones. Historical sources report that a member of the royal house of Savoy particularly loved the “Chiaretto da Nebbiolo” produced in Albugnano (“chiaretto” is an expression that indicates a clear wine, perhaps rosé – “clear” in Italian is the equivalent of bright). In 1868 a Nebbiolo di Albugnano presented at an international wine fair was awarded; it was a sparkling version.

A marked identity from the terroir

The current disciplinary governing the Albugnano Doc denomination provides that Nebbiolo is present for at least 85%. Small presences of Freisa, Barbera or Bonarda are allowed. It is a small production area: in 2019 there were only 32 hectares of vineyards, for a production of just 150,000 bottles.

The most important aspect to understand is what prompted the legislator to create this small denomination: an evident and marked identity. These are characteristics that make the Nebbiolo wine produced on these high hills unique. As always, it is the terroir that strongly marks the traits of a wine.

It’s a combination consolidated over time of different factors, such as soil, altitude, exposure to the sun,  the microclimate, genetic diversity, cultivation practices, traditional winemaking techniques and finishing process. All these factors interact with each other to create a wine with a specific, immediately recognizable distinctive features.

The vineyards of these hills have quite varied soils on the surface (limestone soils can be alternated with local banks of sand and pebbles). The superficial soils, however, all rest on a layer of Miocene marls (a variety of white- beige tuff that crumbles easily). Frequent are the findings of blocks of limestone rich in fossils, often shells and fragments of coral reefs.

fossil coral rock in Albugnano

The average altitude is quite high (the vineyards are located in the range of 400-500 meters above sea level) and the slopes are quite steep. The average summer rainfall is definitely higher than the normal for the rest of Monferrato. The microclimate is strongly influenced by the massive presence of woods, which generate daytime breezes and mitigate the high summer temperatures.

Albugnano’s landscape

All these geological and microclimatic factors on the hills of Albugnano favor the slow maturation of Nebbiolo; the result is a broad development of aromas and a good level of acidity.

Visit at Pianfiorito

The Italian economy has pushed the accelerator of viticulture, thanks to the appreciation that our wines collect on markets around the world. However, some sacrifices have been made in terms of natural resources and biodiversity. In some regions of Italy the vineyard, although fragmented among small owners, is in fact an intensive monoculture. This does not happen in this small enclave of Nebbiolo: the hills of Albugano, Castenuovo Don Bosco, Passerano Marmorito and Pino d’Asti. On these steeply sloping hills, mechanized agriculture is not easy. Here the woods alternate with the cultivation of the valley floor and meadows; on the hills an alternation of ancient forests, orchards and on the slopes with the best exposure the vineyards.

Pianfiorito vineyard in Albugnano

All this biodiversity can be found by visiting the Pianfiorito farm, family-run by the two generations of the Binello family. About ninety hectares of property among vineyards, orchards, pastures, vegetable gardens and woods. They produce first of all wine: Albugnano Doc, Barbera d’Asti Docg and a very fragrant Malvasia. In addition, they produce seasonal vegetables, apricots, peaches and plums which they sell partly in the covered markets of some cities of Northern Italy. The rest of the production is transformed into jams and other food preserves. The Binello family also raises cattle of a fine local variety, highly sought after for meat.

Tasting Albugnano Doc  

Visiting the Pianfiorito winery we had the opportunity to taste the wines of the Albugnano Doc appellation. This company has chosen to produce Albugnano Doc using only pure Nebbiolo grapes. Andrea Binello will tell us more about these two wines. He explains that for the Albugnano Doc wine he prefers aging in steel vats (to understand, this wine does not undergo aging in wooden barrels) and a long rest in the bottle. It is his desire to let the fruity scents of Nebbiolo grapes express themselves at their best, without evolving.

Albugnano bottle from Pianfiorito winery

From my wine tasting notebook, the tasting of Pianfiorito Albugnano Doc 2017 wine. “Of a beautiful bright ruby ​​color, with garnet reflections. Very evident fruity hints, red currant can be recognized. After a few minutes, delicate spicy notes appear. In the mouth it is a wine of great structure. Great balance between the alcoholic structure and the sensations of freshness. Tannins still quite sharp“.

The great aptitude of wines from Nebbiolo grapes to improve with slow aging is highlighted by the other wine produced in Pianfiorito. This is the Albugnano Doc Superiore. The grapes come from one of the highest vineyards, characterized by vines that produce a very modest amount of grapes.

Albugnano Superiore bottle from Pianfiorito winery

The refinement of this wine takes place first in large barrels and then with a long rest period of the bottles before being sold. Let’s taste the Albugnano Doc Superiore 2016 wine. I carry the tasting notes from my notebook. “Ruby color, with the typical garnet reflections of Nebbiolo wines in the ripening stage. Very whole olfactory sensations; on a texture of red fruit scents you can notice delicate sensations of tobacco. In the mouth it has a great structure and with the sensation of fruit preserved in alcohol. Warm and enveloping, harmonious. Long aftertaste of raspberry, with very soft tannins ”.

After this interesting tasting, we can’t wait to taste the other wines produced by this winery. However, we will taste Freisa d’Asti and Barbera d’Asti Docg later, during the dinner to which we are invited by all the members of the three generations of the Binello family.

Visiting the surroundings

The north of the province of Asti is an open-air museum. Within a radius of 30 kilometers there are the most beautiful churches and country churches of the Romanesque period (11th and 12th centuries). We suggest you take some time to visit some of them. Among these slopes, right in the Albugnano area, there is the most attractive jewel of Romanesque architecture: the rectory of Santa Maria di Vezzolano.

the Vezzolano abbey in Albugnano

The facade is characterized by remarkable decorations in carved stone: frames, arches, capitals, columns in the form of cherub angels, human and animal heads.

sculpted details in Vezzolano abbey

Inside there is a beautiful bas-relief dated 1189; the external arcades of the cloister are decorated with frescoes from the 14th century.

Our journey to discover the Nebbiolo enclave in the Monferrato sub-region has brought us many new discoveries: Albugnano Doc wine, the art of the Romanesque period and new friends.

20th January 2021,

Marco Negro

Picture of Marco Negro
Marco Negro
Expert of communication of Italian wine. He has a knack for connecting people.
Picture of Marco Negro
Marco Negro
Expert of communication of Italian wine. He has a knack for connecting people.

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