We have to talk about Alto Piemonte.
There is a town perched on the northern edge of Piedmont called Carema. One theory for where the name came from is the latin word Quadraginta, or ‘forty’, as in ‘forty miles to Augusta’, the next town of note to the north on the way through the Alps to Gaul. It’s an old place, is what I’m saying. It’s one of those tiny villages in Italy where a piece fell off the corner of the barn in 1627 and no one has since got round to patching it. Streets too narrow even for Vespas twist and meander up and down the side of a mountain. Every now and then you pass between two crumbling barns and see more glimpses of mountain. In fact, if you look around you see an awful lot of mountains. Huge chunky lumps of granite covered in the sort of lush yet measured vegetation you get when you have all the sun and rain a plant could ask for but only crags in the rocks for soil. If you ignore the giant freeway on the valley floor that is one of the busier routes connecting Italy to France, you could convince yourself that nothing has changed since Roman times.
There are terraced vineyards in the village itself, pergola trained vines held up by stone pillars so they look like Eco-houses with roofs made of grapes. These are Nebbiolo vines. Once famous, long neglected, nearly forgotten, recently “re-discovered” Nebbiolo vines. These days Carema is a simple denomination. There are about 30 acres remaining of haphazardly maintained vineyards set on stone terraces. There are exactly two producers. The famous one, Luigi Ferrando, makes the expensive Caremas, wines of intensity, complexity, and elegance that can age with most of the splendor of fine Barolos and a bit more finesse. The less famous one is the aptly named Produttori di Carema, the local cooperative. They make one wine; a refreshing, ruby red Nebbiolo as easy to drink as it is to open, and as friendly to food as it is to the bank account.
These wines – few as they are – matter; because in this awkward place far from any particularly large city and famous through history chiefly for being a mile post – the terraces of Carema and their bright, lean, aromatic wines represent a persuasive answer to the ubiquity of the famous name. Barolo is great and no mistake, but wine’s great strength is its diversity of expression, and the Nebbiolos of Piedmont’s alpine rim are among the most eloquent expressions of the grape. A shop may devote an entire shelf to Barolo and half again to Barbaresco, then choose one bottle to represent the galaxy of denominations up north, all born of equally ancient traditions, and each well worth your time. If your next Carema, Lessona, Gattinara or Boca is your first, I’m willing to bet it won’t be your last.