This is the third 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 Barbaglia, and Cascina Montalbano.
Alessandro Cancelliere of Cascina Montalbano is living testimony to the payoff of determined, hard work. Even in Boca, a difficult region to navigate bureaucracy and begin a winery, cultivate, and promote – with no technical background, mind you – it can be done successfully.
A thin, spare man tanned from working in his one hectare of vineyards all day, Alessandro seems to be physically transferring parts of himself into his work. “If you want to own a vineyard, you need a budget and a great desire to work,” he says, hands on hips as he surveys his land.
Alessandro Cancelliere – Cascina Montalbano
Starting from Scratch
Alessandro studied to be an architect, in which field he worked for some time. However, his passion has always been wine. “I liked the idea of living the life of a contadino,” he says, or a farmer. He praises the word, saying it is too often looked down upon, conveying something of both “peasant” and “farmer” in its Italian meaning. “But it is a great word, a noble word.”
Twelve years ago, his mother bought their 14th century, frescoed villa in Montalbano. Alessandro cleared the forest that surrounded it, excavated the earth, and planted his single hectare of vineyards in Guyot style. 2007 was his first vintage, and it is excellent. “2007 was a year when everyone did a great wine,” he says, downplaying the elegant Nebbiolo with its fine and clean bouquet displaying notes of rose, cherry, raspberry, pepper, and a great minerality. But his later vintages drink very well, too.
“These wines stay very young.” Indeed, Nebbiolo is well known for its age-worthy wines. Boca is no exception, and some claim that its longevity is even superior to that of Barolo or Barbaresco. But where many excellent Nebbiolos can display a weight that tends to tire the palate if not drunk with food, Boca wines are decidedly more fresh and light. This can be explained through the territory's local geography and soil.
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.
Geographically speaking, the Boca appellation sits at a slightly higher elevation than Nebbiolo vines grown in southern Piemonte, but what affects the wines more is its proximity to the Alps. With the cool Alpine air from the northern foothills, Boca is generally lower in alcohol because the grapes can ripen without too many sugars forming.
→ Hot weather = more sugars developing in the grapes. More sugars = higher alcohol. Why? During fermentation, yeasts eat the sugars to create alcohol and carbon dioxide.
More importantly, Boca's soil is extremely interesting: it is unique not only in terms of vineyard soil, but in terms of geology all around the world, anywhere. This is because 300 million years ago, a supervolcano once existed in this area. When it erupted, it sank into the earth, creating a volcanic soil unlike any other.
What is so “super” about a supervolcano?
In the heart of the western Alpine mountain range in Piemonte lie the fossilized remains of what was once an immense supervolcano. About 300 million years ago, when Earth's landmass was still united in a single continent today called Pangea, an enormous quantity of material erupted from this supervolcano with the energy equal to 250 atomic bombs. From 60 to 30 million years ago, the same tectonic processes that formed the Alps uncovered the exploded parts of the supervolcano, revealing its underground system that still plunges to 30 km underground.
This supervolcano is unique in the world. And it is possible to see it in Piemonte, in an area that includes the Sesia and Sessera Valleys until Lake Maggiore. In a promotional movement for this geological wonder, in 2011 the geotourism Association Supervolcano Valsesia was formed. Since September of 2013, the area of the supervolcano is part of the UNESCO-recognized Sesia-Val Grande Geopark.
Lower Piemonte has marine soil from an ancient sea that once covered its land 15 million years ago during the Miocene period (in the Langhe) to 5 million years ago during the Pleiocene of the Tertiary Era (in the Roero). The soils are richer and damper, generally. Up here in the wild northern reaches of the Boca appellation, the volcanic soil is dry and rocky, poor in nutrients, clay, and chalk. It is ancient morainic, igneous, pophyritic, subvolcanic stuff that makes the wines lean, light, and mineral – though no less aromatic and complex than its more famous cousins of the south.
With no enologist and a cellar philosophy that he explains is “trial and error,” Alessandro represents a purely instinctual way of winemaking. Cristoph Künzli’s market for Le Piane is 80% international; Silvia Barbaglia is growing Antico Borgo dei Cavalli at an ever-increasing rate; but Alessandro’s market is purely local. Cascina Montalbano produces just 8000 bottles a year.
Alessandro pours several wine glasses full of his Boca and sets them on a table of Toma cheese, prosciutto crudo, and grissini. “Boca creates its own world inside the bottle,” he reflects. Then he smiles and says, “My greatest satisfaction is hearing that people like my wine.”