Legend has it that the ancient Celtic tribes who conquered the local inhabitants of Ghemme in 4 AD decided to stay not only for its strategic position, but also for its excellent wine.
“Not that! Indeed not! I can assure you of that!” exclaimed the heated Viscount in disgrace from too many glasses of Ghemme.
Small, ancient world
Its high quality has not strayed; today, local producers continue to make a wine so elegant that it was once compared to those of Burgundy by none other than the Count of Cavour, Italy’s first Prime Minister in 1861: Ghemme DOCG, made from Nebbiolo (locally called “Spanna”) and up to 25% of local varieties Vespolina or Bonarda. Like its better-known cousins Barolo and Barbaresco, this prestigious wine performs well after aging even more than 15 years.
Ghemme’s land produces grapes of such noble potential because of a combination of climate, soil, and the perceptive touch of the winemaker. A favorable microclimate is formed by the ventilation of fresh mountain air of northern Piedmontese Alps and warm breezes from the plains. The soil is rocky with little gypsum, a high amount of iron, and the residual elements from a prehistoric supervolcano that erupted about 280 million years ago in the Sesia Valley.
Entering this town from the west, cross over the canal with its quietly coursing Sesia river into an atmosphere of tranquility broken only by an occasional passing car and school children on bicycles. It seems as though everyone knows everyone in this village of less than 4,000 inhabitants, dogwalkers greeting restaurant owners and passersby asking after the family.
Along the main Via Roma is the Tourist Office. The information touchscreen outside is helpful, but inside you may meet manager Sergio Monferrini, a historian and veritable fount of information.
Stop first at the church of St. Maria Assunta in Piazza Antonelli, as it closes midday. This 17th century church houses the crypt of the Beata Panacea: “La Beata” was murdered by her stepmother while praying on the hills of Quarone. The carriage in which her stepmother deposited her dead body proceeded on its own way to her hometown, Ghemme, to stop in front of the grave of her real mother. The piazza is named after famed architect Alessandro Antonelli, creator of the symbolic Mole Antonelliana of Turin, born in Ghemme.
The Ricetto Castle along Via Castello truly gives Ghemme its ancient, Medieval atmosphere. This one-time fortification built between the 11th and 15th centuries is unique for being built precisely for protection, rather than to support a system of feudalism as many castles were at the time. The fortifications today recall what they looked like centuries ago: brick and stone showing through grey stucco, exposed wooden beams, and grass growing between the cobbled streets. Terracotta signs proclaim different family cantinas, or wine cellars; producers store their wine where families have for centuries, but today, only one family has a winery within the castle’s venerable stone walls: Rovellotti. The winery is housed in tiny, familial compartments of the castle’s first floor, now restructured to be one large room; and in the ancient ghiacciaia, the ice room that was once furnished with river ice and insulated with hay. Taste and purchase fine wines from the Novara hills, including DOCG Ghemme, Vespolina DOC, and Bonarda DOC.
Within the castle walls is also an excellent spot for dining, La Casa degli Artisti. Its interior is decorated in a vintage, artistic style, and the lower two stories house international art exhibitions in Spazio E as well as a personal library of owners Enrica Pedretti and her husband, open for borrowing and browsing. Return to Via Roma, and stop by the artisanal bakery Pasticceria Giorgio for a biscotto al miele, (honey cookie) typical of the region, or one of shopkeeper Giorgio’s many pastries. Don’t even try to resist the heavenly aroma that wafts out the moment you open the door.
At the northern edge of Ghemme is the estate Antichi Vigneti di Cantalupo. Take a tour of the cellar built right underneath the hillside of Alberto Arlunno’s vineyards, ask him about any aspects of his wine, and taste and purchase right on site; his wines are made from local grapes like Nebbiolo, Vespolina, and Erbaluce, as well as non-traditional Arneis and Chardonnay, among others.
Return to the town center, then follow Via Monte Rosa for various wine bars (enoteca), shops, and small restaurants. Stop by Piedmont’s biggest distillery, Francoli Fratelli, producers of smooth grappa from Vespolina, Nebbiolo, Erbaluce, and others. Monte Rosa becomes Via Romagnana; continue walking for 10 minutes before coming upon a roundabout and some points of purchase for wine plus a restaurant-pizzeria (look for the faux castle structures).
If the elegant wines of this medieval hamlet hold too much fascination to leave behind, spend the night at the antique noble residence on the hills overlooking the town. The Castello del Cavenago is a 15th century castle transformed into a noble residence in 1600-1700, open as agriturismo and restaurant.