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Meet the High-Altitude, Underdog Region That Is Producing Some of the Best Italian Wines

We promise you'll want to stock up on bottles from the Alta Langa.

<p>Simona Sirio / Getty Images</p> One of the main centers of the Alta Langa

Simona Sirio / Getty Images

One of the main centers of the Alta Langa

You’ve heard of Barolo, Barbaresco, and probably even the Langhe — though renowned vignerons across these major appellations are setting their sights (and literally, sites) higher. Located high in the hills of the provinces of Asti, Alessandria, and Cuneo, the Alta Langa is home to Italy’s first traditional method sparkling wine, and could hold a massive future for Piedmontese wine as a whole. However, despite its rich history, the area remains relatively unknown to both consumers and industry folk alike; that is, until now.

Fifth-generation Gaia Gaja, of famed Barbaresco powerhouse GAJA, shares that as warmer vintages were becoming more challenging to handle, the family began seeking out alternative areas in Piedmont. “It’s important to find cooler places where grapes can ripen slowly and maintain good levels of malic and tartaric acid, especially for early ripening varieties such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc,” she explains. In 2016, the family purchased and began developing what will ultimately be the first Alta Langa-based winery, located just outside of Barbaresco in the village of Trezzo Tinella.

The family is very familiar with the area; Gaja recalls a childhood filled with hiking and biking in Alta Langa, as its cooler and quieter wooded areas offered a calm reprieve from Barbaresco. The 38-hectare Alta Langa property is located at 600-680 meters above sea level, and offers a variety of different soils and microclimates, which she says provides “a very interesting opportunity for experimenting.”

How climate change became a driving force toward Alta Langa

Federica Boffa, owner of Pio Cesare, shares that climate change was part of the impetus for seeking out vineyards in the Alta Langa. “In order to fight against climate change — which doesn’t mean simply warmer temperatures, but also lack of humidity and water supply in the soil and lack of intense rains — [my father], fourth-generation Pio Boffa, decided to invest in the Alta Langa region,” she shares. By 2018, Boffa’s family had acquired 10 hectares of vines in the village of Cissone, located 10 kilometers south of Serralunga. Boffa cites that the area’s chillier climates, ample precipitation, and cooling winds as the main reasons why Pinot Noir and Chardonnay destined for sparkling wine production thrive in the area.

For reference, Piedmont’s sparkling winemaking history impressively dates back over 160 years. Sergio Germano, current generation at Ettore Germano, shares that his family estate was one of the first to plant vineyards capable of producing traditional method sparkling wines in the Alta Langa. “I started cultivating Chardonnay and Riesling in Cigliè, at around 600 meters above sea level,” he reveals, citing the area’s stony, loose soils as capable of creating a backbone of freshness in minerality in both dry still and sparkling wines.

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Similarly, Enrico Serafino was also one of the first producers to craft traditional method sparkling wines — a process that incorporates allowing the wine to undergo a secondary fermentation in bottle — with roots dating back to 1878. “As an early innovator in the category, we were part of the movement to create the official Alta Langa appellation from the very beginning,” says Nico Conta, president and CEO of Enrico Serafino. Conta says that Enrico Serafino entered the Tradizione Spumante Consortium – Alta Langa project back in 1994; 30 harvests later,  wines from Alta Langa excel in aroma, finesse, elegance, and longevity. “The altitude of the region, coupled with the unique soil composition, leads to wines of remarkable quality,” he says, explaining that the DOCG’s requirement of high-altitude vineyards will continue to prove favorable in the wake of climate change.

Alta Langa native Giovanna Bagnasco of La Morra-based Agricola Brandini recalls quieter and more isolated days in the region, as younger generations were moving to Alba and Torino for better job opportunities. “Agriculture was mainly focused on hazelnuts and not providing enough to sustain a full family,” she says, though when the family got word of the impending Alta Langa DOCG, they immediately took part in the project. “The biggest inspiration was bringing back value, people, tradition, and life to this magic land,” she adds. Brandini produced her first sparkling Alta Langa wine in 2010, and since then, has seen a significant increase in the area’s overall production. “This is obviously a great sign,” she says, affirming that Alta Langa is capable of making “great wines that can sit in the company of the best sparklings of the world.”

Winemaker collaboration in Alta Langa

Roberto Bruno, chief commercial officer at Fontanafredda, shares that regional growers began banding together on the Alta Langa DOCG project in the early ‘90s. “We started with the Istituto Case Storiche Piemontesi project in order to identify a restricted area in the provinces of Asti, Cuneo and Alessandria to plant Pinot Nero and Chardonnay as bases of classic method with Piedmontese denomination,” he explains. The name Alta Langa was chosen, and strict rules around grape varieties, wine structure, and sur-lie time were implemented, and in 1996, the DOCG officially became recognized.

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Giorgio Rivetti (of Asti-based winery La Spinetta) is a relatively newer player in Alta Langa, having purchased his regional property, Contratto, back in 2011. “What really inspired me was the land, and the idea that with the microclimate of the highest part of Langhe, we could aim to produce outstanding wines. Rivetti shares that since settling in the Alta Langa, the number of regional producers has grown from 15 to 60, with approximately 550 certified hectares under vine. (Germano quotes 70 official companies producing wine in the area; Gaja cites 90 farmers, and Conta specifies 146 producers and 73 wineries.)

A shift in winemaking style

Beyond numerical stats, the scope of style and experimental vineyards has also shifted. “When I started here, the style was a little more ‘palate pleaser,’” Rivetti explains, citing blended wines with higher levels of dosage. “Now I see more and more Blanc de Blancs and Blanc de Noirs wines, and definitely more [non-dosed] expressions,” he says, describing this as a result not only of the evolution of consumer tastes, but also an increased confidence of the producers in the potential of the region.

Conta affirms that currently, only classical method  sparkling wines produced from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are permitted under the DOCG, though experimental vineyards are on the rise. At Serafino, the estate is experimenting with the cultivation and the performance of various red and white varieties, including one of Champagne’s signature grapes. “We have just released a new experimental project aimed to include Meunier in the list of grape varieties allowed in Piemonte vineyards,” he reveals, though there’s no update on whether this approval will be accepted.

Gaja states that the family’s Alta Langa focus will remain on Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, yet they’ve planted a number of experimental varieties like Incricio Manzoni, Timorasso, Erbaluce, Pinot Bianco, and Riesling, the first harvest of which will be in 2024. “We are confident in the quality that can be achieved,” she says. Similar to Germano, Bruno reveals that Fontanafredda has also been working with Riesling for dry white production, which currently falls under the overarching Langhe DOCG. Germano shares that while satisfied with Riesling, greater experience is needed for long-term answers and vision.

With regards to red varieties, Boffa notes that her father was always determined to plant Nebbiolo in the Alta Langa, despite its reputation for traditional sparkling wine varieties. Upon his passing in 2021, Federica tackled her father’s dream and planted 1.5 high-altitude hectares in the Alta Langa to Nebbiolo; similar to Gaja, 2024 will be the first harvest of this plot. “[We] are very curious to see how the grapes will perform—the acidity, the body, the structure, the tannins, the elegance,” she says, stating that the wine will follow the same traditional vinification methods as all other Nebbiolo-based wines made at the family estate (long macerations and extended oak aging). While Bagnasco currently cultivates exclusively Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in her Alta Langa vineyards, she finds the idea of planting Nebbiolo compelling.

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What’s next for Alta Langa?

So what can consumers expect from the future of Alta Langa? Only time will tell, but experimentation is seemingly the overarching theme. “I think that the Alta Langa area has a climate and soil suited to the production of fresh wines — both still and sparkling — with high potential for quality and complexity,” Germano says. Gaja agrees. “I think you will hear more about Alta Langa for sparkling, but also for whites and probably reds, too,” she says. Rivetti shares that although he received skeptical “side eyes” when beginning his Alta Langa project, more producers are now seeking to move up in elevation. “We are very lucky that Piedmont can provide the perfect environment for this movement,” he says.

Conta notes that given the fantastic success of Alta Langa in the local and global market (according to the consortium, sales are up over 60% from last year), he expects that more producers will apply for Alta Langa DOCG status. “Cultivating vineyards at higher elevations may be a way of continuing to grow the category as the climate changes, but only time will tell,” he says. Bruno sums it up best. “Alta Langa is the fundamental reason with which we wanted to strengthen the identity of a territory, giving a broader representation of the precious biodiversity of the Langhe,” he says. “Climate change can be challenging, but we look forward to the future with courage and trust in innovation.”

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