Albugnano, the “historic” Nebbiolo in Monferrato

Author: Giancarlo Montaldo

There are four villages in the northernmost part of the province of Asti that have been linked to Nebbiolo cultivation since time immemorial. They are Albugnano, Castelnuovo Don Bosco, Passerano Marmorito, and Pino d’Asti. Individually, they are small administrative entities; together, they form an important and promising wine-producing area. Indeed, they are the region of origin for Albugnano Doc, one of the wines produced in Piedmont with the Nebbiolo grape.

It’s curious that this area has often been included in what is referred to as “Basso Monferratoin relation to the altitude of the hills. But for Albugnano and the neighboring villages, this designation sounds a bit like a joke. This small land, known for Nebbiolo, has numerous hilly spaces at a significant altitude, such as Albugnano itself at 549 masl or others that follow closely with hills rising above 400 meters. Castelnuovo Don Bosco’s center, situated at approximately 250 meters in altitude, is a partial exception, but the surrounding hills where vine cultivation is embraced extend well beyond this level.

The other two villages also have significant altitudes, with Passerano Marmorito at least 320 meters and Pino d’Asti at 410 meters, confirming a territory that can benefit from a considerable altitude as a productive factor of particular interest for Nebbiolo grapes produced here.

Albugnano vineyards are located on a hill of considerable elevation, 549 masl

It’s not hard to be convinced that vine cultivation in this small part of Piemonte is an identifying characteristic of its agricultural reality. This is evident when admiring the undulating and often steep lines of the hills, where the vine has taken root for a long time—hills that chase each other, collide, or stand side by side without ever meeting.

Among the hills, there are valleys, more or less extensive and more or less carved, which host cultivations other than grapes and outline another type of agricultural reality. Although for years, the producers of this territory only partially understood its greatness and productive capacity in making quality wine, today Nebbiolo has finally become a beloved and respected grape variety here.

After all, it’s not just now that Nebbiolo has found a privileged space on these hills. Going back in history and tracing the path this grape variety has taken to establish its presence in Piemonte, it becomes apparent that Nebbiolo has been present on the hills of northern Asti for centuries. In the territory of Albugnano, there is still a prestigious building today—the Vezzolano Abbey—whose monks knew how to give space and attention to Nebbiolo when it was traversing the Piedmontese lands to reach the hilly coasts of the area surrounding Alba, which would give rise to great wines like Barbaresco and Barolo.

It’s also worth remembering that the first mention of Nebbiolo, dating back to 1268, was traced to Rivoli, in the province of Turin, not too far from here, as can be seen by consulting the “Documents on the History of Piedmont“.

This territory, with its red wine Albugnano Doc, where the vineyard has a significant presence, represents well the cultivation and production style of Nebbiolo, a variety that doesn’t love large numbers or vast areas. Its global spread, well below 10,000 hectares, demonstrates that it’s a variety that loves small lands, secluded areas, and sheltered places, making it the ideal tool for producing precious wines with an irreplaceable character.

Facade of the Abbey of Vezzolano

In this area, Nebbiolo doesn’t have the exclusive rights to vine cultivation but shares space with other varieties. Thus, the characteristics of each hillside find in this varietal heterogeneity the opportunity to interpret the diverse soils that are scattered here and there. Alongside Nebbiolo, there’s the cultivation of Freisa, a grape variety closely related to Nebbiolo itself, revealing a long tradition of cultivation here. Then, there’s Malvasia di Schierano and Long Black Malvasia, the production base for Malvasia di Castelnuovo Doc Bosco Doc; then again, Barbera, linked both to Barbera d’Asti Docg and Monferrato Doc. Additionally, other varieties, whether white or red, native or international, early or late, play a part in the production of Doc Monferrato and Doc Piemonte (Bonarda, Grignolino, Dolcetto, Albarossa, Chardonnay, Riesling, Merlot, to name a few).

Environment, landscape, and biodiversity

The origin area of Albugnano is the heart of a broader territory that involves, on one side, the Turin Hills with its 28 municipalities and, on the other side, the northern part of Asti with another 36 villages.

In this area, viticulture reveals an interesting symbiosis with other crops, especially forests, hazelnut groves, orchards, arable land, and meadows, providing fodder for livestock breeding. Fruit cultivation is linked to hazelnuts with the Tonda Gentile Trilobata and other fruit trees (cherries, peaches, and apricots).

In the woods and marginal spaces, where interesting managed fallow lands are found, there are traditional local trees (willows, lindens, and oaks) that yield white truffles. In Albugnano, there is also a very rare flower, the Albugnano Wild Lily or Martagon Lily (Lilium màrtagon), a rosy-wine-colored flower speckled with dark spots, which grows wild in the woods, and its collection is prohibited. This lily is found in the decorations of the altar of the Vezzolano Abbey and with three specimens in the municipal coat of arms of Albugnano.

Crops in the Albugnano area: woods, fruits, flowers and more

From a climatic perspective, a continental style prevails here, with summer seasons usually characterized by constant breezes and light winds, thanks to the rich supply of forests and the good altitude of the hills. This creates a favorable climate for viticulture, especially for Nebbiolo, which – during the grape ripening phase – appreciates the temperature fluctuations between day and night that promote the accumulation of sugars and the slow degradation of acidity.

The rules governing the production of Albugnano Doc

The regulation governing the production processes of Albugnano Doc in the vineyard and the cellar was established by the Ministerial Decree on May 6, 1997.

There are three producible types: Albugnano, Albugnano Rosato, and Albugnano Superiore. All three types share the same ampelographic base, consisting of at least 85% Nebbiolo. It is possible to accompany this variety with up to 15% of other local grapes, either alone or in combination (Freisa, Barbera, or Bonarda). The blending with other varieties (especially Freisa and/or Barbera) gained much approval in the late nineties and early 2000s. Starting around 2014-2015, the idea of producing Albugnano exclusively with Nebbiolo grapes gained momentum, a condition that is now nearly generalized among various producers.

The origin area of Albugnano comprises four villages in northern Asti (Albugnano, Castelnuovo Don Bosco, Passerano Marmorito, and Pino d’Asti), within the designated origin area for their entire territories. In this area, Nebbiolo cultivation benefits greatly from the pronounced altitude of its hills. Other equally favorable factors include the Miocene-origin soil, predominantly composed of marls rich in limestone and silt, and sometimes clay or sand.

Twin bunches of Nebbiolo

In the vineyard, the maximum yield of grapes per hectare is set at 9,500 kilograms for Albugnano and Albugnano Rosato, and 8,500 kilograms for Albugnano Superiore. The maximum grape-to-wine yield is fixed at 70%.

Regarding cellar maturation, Albugnano and Albugnano Rosato have no specific requirements, while Albugnano Superiore must mature for at least one year from January 1st after grape harvesting. Of this period, at least 6 months must be spent in wood.

As for the characteristics of the wine, the minimum alcohol content is set at 11.50%Vol for Albugnano and Albugnano Superiore, and 11.00%Vol for Albugnano Rosato. The organoleptic features of Albugnano and Superiore are complex, emphasizing floral and fruity aromas in their youth, gradually evolving to include ethereal and spicy notes over time, making the wine even more captivating. Notably, the wine possesses a remarkable ability to age gracefully, maintaining the distinct characteristics of its origin for several years.

Main production data

The economic data for the last two vintages reveal a relatively stable trend in terms of claimed vineyard area: 35.87 hectares in 2021 and 33.53 hectares in 2022. As for actual production, in 2021, the wineries in the area brought in 211,215 bottles to the market, while the 2022 vintage resulted in a lower production (154,924 bottles) due to climatic conditions with low precipitation, leading to lower vintage fertility and grape-to-wine yield below average.

Breaking down the production among the types, the most significant share belongs to Albugnano Superiore (89.2%), followed by unspecified Albugnano (8%), and Albugnano Rosato (2.8%).

The Regional Wine Shop of Albugnano

The Regional Wine Shop of Albugnano was founded on April 12, 2019, with the involvement of about twenty companies producing Albugnano Doc, along with the Municipality of Albugnano. The purpose of the initiative was to promote the wines, agri-food products, and crafts of the Albugnano Doc production area and neighboring areas, particularly the Turin Hills and northern Asti.

The location of the Regional Wine Shop of Albugnano is in Albugnano, at Via Roma, 9, in the former “Camilla Serafino” Elementary School owned by the Municipality of Albugnano. The history of the school building dates back to 1927 when the noblewoman Camilla Serafino left 100,000 lire to the Albugnano school board for the construction of a public school. The generous donation, along with other contributions and various types of support from many families in the village, allowed the construction of the building, which was inaugurated in 1931.

The Regional Wine Shop of Albugnano is part of the network of Regional Wine Shops, which serves as an extraordinary promotional tool for high-quality Piedmontese winess

The “Albugnano 549” Project

In recent years, starting from 2017, there has been movement in this hilly territory, thanks to the new generations of producers. In harmony with those who have zealously preserved the identity of the Nebbiolo grape and its wine in this area, they have begun to work together and identify common promotional solutions.

Thus, the association “Albugnano 549” was born, working to prioritize the production of Albugnano Doc with pure Nebbiolo to obtain wines of quality, structure, and longevity. The reference to “549” is inspired by the altitude of Albugnano, whose historic center is precisely located at 549 meters above sea level.

The “Albugnano 549” association currently brings together about fifteen local companies and is working to provide increasingly significant opportunities for those who have demonstrated in this area a belief in the Nebbiolo grape and its ability to produce high-quality wines with remarkable longevity.

30th October 2023,

Giancarlo Montaldo

original in Italian published in Barolo&Co nr IV-2023 / courtesy of Barolo&Co

translation by Barbara Fassio

Picture of Giancarlo Montaldo
Giancarlo Montaldo
Business consultant on wine issues, journalist and writer.
Picture of Giancarlo Montaldo
Giancarlo Montaldo
Business consultant on wine issues, journalist and writer.

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