This is the first article in a Boca Winery Hopping series that explores the mysterious Nebbiolo of the north. Discover three wineries that each represent a different Boca reality: Le Piane, Azienda Vitivinicola Barbagalia, and Cascina Montalbano.
In the northern reaches of Piemonte at the foot of the Alpine Mount Rosa lies a tiny wine appellation: Boca DOC. In the hands of its eight producers, the region is slowly making a name for itself among wine lovers at home and abroad.
A century ago, this area called Alto Piemonte cultivated more acres of vineyards than all of the Langhe, totaling over 40,000 hectares, or 100,000 acres, during its prime. Winemaking was the region’s major economic activity.
Then a double hit took the life out of its thriving viticulture existence. Phylloxera arrived in the late 1800s, decimating much of the cultivated area. Then in the mid-20th century, industrial cities Novara and Milan were booming, their promise of better pay for less backbreaking work a siren call to the younger generation.
Years passed. Just ten hectares of vineyards remained in all of the once-mighty Boca appellation. Forests overgrew the rest of the abandoned vineyards. Wild grapevines can still be found tangled among the branches today.
Boca DOC is a Nebbiolo-based wine made from 70-90% Nebbiolo, often called Spanna in the north, and 10-30% combination of local varieties Vespolina and Bonarda Novarese, often called Uva Rara. Compared to its more famous cousins south in the Langhe, Boca wines tend to be more aromatic, display a pronounced minerality, and overall have more stoffa – “stuffing” or “consistency.” They are also more elegant and less powerful; more acidic, and less tannic. Aging, often six or more years, allows Boca to lose its austerity and develop a stunning intensity that is all the more surprising for its lightness in color and mouthfeel.
Christoph Kϋnzli – Le Piane
Bringing Boca Back to Life
Enter Christoph Kϋnzli. This tall Swiss, originally from Interlaken, discovered Boca at a wine exposition over two decades ago. When he tasted bottles of the Nebbiolo-based wine from producer Antonio Cerri that were 50 years old and still drinking well, he was hooked. He knew he couldn’t let this wine die out. In 1995, he moved to Piemonte, taking over Cerri’s winery when he passed away in 1997. He began with just ½ hectare and has grown to 8 out of a total of 40 in all of the Boca appellation.
That first ½ hectare was cultivated in a curious way seen nowhere else in the world, as were the other vineyards left from before the great exodus: the Maggiorina system.
The Maggiorina cultivation, which exists only in the northern winemaking region of Piemonte called Alto Piemonte, consists of three central grapevines boxed in with eight trellised poles. The grapevine branches are guided to the square of trellises overhead. The result is that the vines are less vigorous than the Guyot system seen throughout much of Piemonte, but have a more balanced life cycle. They don’t have to climb each season, but simply grow grapes. In fact, this type of cultivation can produce wineworthy grapes for 100 years or more, whereas other systems tend to pass their prime around 50 years (give or take, of course, depending on zone, vine health, and grapes).
An interesting fact: Architect Alessandro Antonelli, known for the Sanctuary of Boca and famous for Turin’s symbol, the Mole Antonelliana, perfected this Maggiorina system, helping the grapes become more resistant to wind and weather.
The Maggiorina system takes at least five years before producers may harvest, while Guyot needs just 3 or 4. It also requires a heavier workload, and yields are lower; on the other hand, it is resistant to diseases of the trunk because branches are not trimmed so close, which exposes the fragile inner trunk.
Kϋnzli says his Maggiorina-cultivated hill, called Montalbano, is a “living museum.” When the region lost those generations of viticulturalists, they also suffered a loss of culture. “The younger generation is still far from the vines. What can we do to recover the knowledge we lost?”
Kϋnzli’s entry into winemaking and his subsequent success in creating a wide range of fine wines has helped the region to grow. His production includes not only Boca DOC, but a wide variety of bottles made from long-forgotten native grapes, such as the sumptuous Croatina, or his "field mix" Maggiorina from the Montalbano vineyard, where ten different grape varieties grow.
As for tourism, this region lags years behind compared to its counterparts in southern Piemonte. “I remember in 1995 when I was just beginning, no one came here. But now, there are always more tourists every year.” He pictures housing tourists in the small villas that once were the summer workers’ homes – another confirmation of the importance of winemaking at one time – immersed in vineyards and nature. Perhaps one day in the future, Kϋnzli will be known as the father of modern Boca.
T +39 348 3354185 – Christoph Künzli (Producer and Sales worldwide)
Piazza Matteoti, 1 - Boca (AT)
Have you ever had a wine from Alto Piemonte? We'd love to hear what you think of it! Share with us below in the comments.
A big thanks to the tourism board of Novara, ATL Novara, for the chance to visit Alto Piemonte, Le Piane, and to discover Boca.