Andrea Monti Perini
Twenty days after his birth in Biella, Italy, in 1978, Andrea Monti Perini was on a flight to Nigeria. Natives of Masserano, a commune of the DOC Bramaterra, in northern Piemonte, Andrea and his family spent his first nine years in Nigeria for his father’s work. After too many years of constant civil unrest in the region, they finally returned to Italy. Following primary school and student exchange programs in France and Spain, Andrea attended the University of Novara, where he studied economics and did his final thesis on the wine history of Biella.
Quick-witted, with a heavily Italian-inflected accent but a perfect grasp on the English language, Andrea’s clever tongue delivers subtle, dark, cynical, often self deprecating, and perfectly timed Italian color commentary right on cue, though it comes so fast that if you’re not paying attention at all times, it can be easily missed. He has a lanky build, a stage actor’s expressive use of body language and a face that clarifies the mood of an anecdote with as few words as necessary. His connection and passionate interest in history and culture makes for interesting conversation and perspective. At just over forty years of age, he’s already lived a very atypical life that’s more deeply connected to the world than the average native Italian living in an Italian wine backcountry.
What follows is an abridged historical account of the Alto Piemonte and its connection to Biella by this hobby-wine-historian turned winemaker.
The Fall and Rise of the Alto Piemonte
The story of Piemonte wine begins with the Romans. The vinous epicenter for almost two millennia in what is referred to today as the Alto Piemonte, or “high place at foot of the Alps,” is in stark contrast to today’s most celebrated Piemonte wine regions further south in the Langhe hills, home of the famous Nebbiolo hot spots of the last century or so, Barolo and Barbaresco. The Romans could grow wine anywhere, and wherever they set up shop, vines were sure to follow.
The Elvo River, a short forty-mile tributary that begins in the lower Alps, is—or at least was before the Romans came along around the second and first centuries, B.C.—rich in gold, and people still pan the river today in search of nuggets and gold sand. The Romans moved north in their conquests after the Punic wars and began to fight the Salassi, a mountain people in control of the Bessa gold mine close to the Evlo. The Romans won, seized control of the mines and set up a new central hub at what is today’s Aosta, to be better situated to control the mountain areas and the road to Gaul as they began their conquests further west and north.
Before the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when a series of especially catastrophic events began to reshape the land and the mentality of its people, the Alto Piemonte wine production zone was larger than the modern day Langhe and Monferrato regions, combined. Those events began with the arrival of the root louse, phylloxera, and the mildews, Powdery (simply called mildew, in Italian) and Downey (peronospera, in Italian). Almost half a century passed before solutions to these problems seemed to become manageable, then a hailstorm of biblical proportions in 1904 completely destroyed the region’s recently replanted vines. After this demoralizing final natural catastrophe, it was man’s turn to further wreak havoc with back-to-back World Wars that devastated the population along with any remaining economic strength and willpower of this ancient wine community.
Biella was one of the ten wealthiest regions in Italy in the nineteenth century. When that series of unfortunate events began, many of the field workers left to join the region’s famous textile industry, which offered regular pay and even made many people wealthy. Biella is home to perhaps the most famous luxury brand in the province, Ermenegildo Zegna, more simply known as Zegna, which began in 1910.
Alto Piemonte: The Ancient Origin of Barolo and Barbaresco
Along with the draw toward textiles in favor of the constant troubleshooting of agriculture, a mass emigration of poor Piemontese went to South America before the World Wars, most notably to Argentina, where you’ll find pasta, steak and wine, all very similar to Piemontese food. After the Great Wars, Northern Italy became the industrial center of the country and the Alto Piemonte, sandwiched between Milan and Turin, lost almost the entirety of what remained of its workforce to these cities. Forests and pastures reclaimed the former glory of Italy’s historic land of Nebbiolo along with its supporting cast of Vespolina and Croatina, and probably many more different grape types. During this time, all agriculture in the area decreased, not only wine. About the time that the Alto Piemonte was all but completely gone, the Langhe wine region slowly began to prosper and by the mid-1900s it begin to flourish with still, Secco Secco (dry) Nebbiolo wines—a term coined by the late Bepe Colla, and the precursor to today’s Nebbiolos produced in Barbaresco, Barolo and other Nebbiolo appellation wines.
During the end of the twentieth century the textile industry fell into crisis as a result of an increase in global competition, so the wine industry in the Alto Piemonte began to once again show signs of life. Many foreigners and Italian outsiders began to take interest and took over many of the ancient terraces inside the areas overgrown with wild forest. Until about twenty years ago, Tenuta Sella was the only surviving relic of commercial wine production from yesteryear outside of Gattinara, and remained alone for the better part of the twentieth century. A few other historic cantinas still remain in Gattinara as well, including Travaglini and Nervi (recently purchased by Roberto Conterno), who maintain about 80% of the production of the entire Gattinara appellation.
Anyone in the import wine business who hasn’t been living under a rock knows that over the last decade the Alto Piemonte has become a central focus for the rise of indigenous Italian wine regions, without much in the way of invading internationally successful grape varieties, like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay, etc. Now there are dozens of cantinas and it remains a very exciting place (at least regarding quality wines, not so much its cities and small villages) that has attracted big names from the Langhe, like Roberto Conterno, of the famous Barolo producer, Cantina Giacomo Conterno.
Winemaking and grape growing is a new practice for Andrea. His years in wine prior to starting his own project were spent traveling the world as the ambassador for the historic Gattinara estate, Travaglini, known for its rustic wines captured inside an odd-shaped, Burgundy-like bottle that appears to have been hand-blown by a constantly tipsy bottle maker with a penchant for making the same mistake millions of times. There, Andrea learned the way the wine-world market functions, but it was not enough for him. Prior to 2015, he met with Cristiano Garella, a local, well-known enologist, who encouraged Andrea to start his project and committed to helping him along the way. His first vintage was 2015 and this Bramaterra is nothing short of inspirational and refreshing for a region known for its deep, coarse textures in a wine’s youth. If 2015 and his superb follow-up vintage, 2016, are a sign of what is to come with wines made under the Monti Perini label, there is hardly a more promising prospect in all of the Alto Piemonte for those who prefer wines led by elegance over power.
Monti Perini Vineyard Practice
What’s most interesting about Andrea Monti Perini’s wines is their opposing nature to all others from Bramaterra (at least those that I’ve tasted). Andrea builds on the strength of his terroirs in a way that obviously focuses on finesse as a naturally guiding principal. His overarching interest is to prioritize authenticity in his wine by employing as many natural processes as possible along the way, while always applying properly managed enological principles.
“Unfortunately, we are not a Mediterranean island, so farming organically is extremely hard,” Andrea explained. In Monti Perini’s vineyard, 95% of everything is by organic method and treatment, with the remaining 5%, or less, wherein some other methods are employed, as imposed country-wide by Italian law, in order to prevent the spread of a particular insect, as well as mildew during problematic seasons. The region suffers greatly—not moderately—from mildew pressure, which requires a lot of treatments when under organic methods; likely too many treatments in this green land full of thick, humid, alpine foothill forests. In especially difficult years, Andrea remains flexible if business-saving decisions are necessary. In any case, all the soil treatments—fertilizers, amendments, etc.—in his vineyards are organic, and every process in the vineyard and cellar is done exclusively by Andrea Monti Perini’s own hands.
(It is indeed easy to criticize those in the fine wine world who don’t make any effort to utilize a more nature-friendly defense against pests, as it is in the vast majority of all French, Italian and Spanish wine country. The Alto Piemonte is far from one of the easy places to be an exception to this rule and given the wine prices most growers are able to fetch, the limited production in the area and the modest global interest in the wines—which is slowly but steadily growing—it is especially hard to make a living. Even many of the Piemontese don’t know much about this wine area. Interestingly, I met a very nice Italian man from Torino, the capital of Piemonte, living in Portugal who fancied himself passionate about Nebbiolo but didn’t have a clue what I was talking about when I mentioned the wines from Alto Piemonte, and that’s only an hour away by car from where he spent the first sixty years of his life!
Before the foreign invasion of phylloxera, followed by Powdery and Downey mildew, there was no need to work against these scourges, so things could be managed in an entirely natural way—the only way up until that time. Things are obviously different today; we live in an industrial and mechanized world of mass production, so to force these puritanical, rigid and ideological standards on every small grower when their livelihood is at stake is a dubious approach at best, rife with selective hypocrisy and unfair and ignorant expectations. Andrea, like many growers in high-mildew-pressure areas, does his best in each season and we applaud him for taking the measured risks that walk a thin line he skirts between success and disaster. We believe that without those risks, his beautiful, subtle and soft-edged wines, made by as natural processes as possible within each wildly different vintage would be impossible to achieve with standard, unconsciously industrial and mechanized methods. The best and most measured defense against the use of unnatural treatments is to have an active and very present winegrower in their vineyard at all times. This serves to manage small and localized challenges as they occur, rather than needing to carpet bomb with treatments after things have already gotten out of control.)
In the Cellar
The natural yeast co-fermentation of Nebbiolo (80%) with a field blend of Vespolina and Uva Rara that make up the rest, takes place in wooden vertical tronconic tanks (called tine, in Italian) to soften the natural edge of the wines produced in these metal-rich vineyards. Fermenting in tine is unusual in today’s local wine production with most employing stainless steel which tends to sculpt wines with harder lines and more stern tannins. However, a century ago, Piemonte was a significant producer of wooden barrels with one of the last producers, Gamba, still quite present in many cantinas in Piemonte. Veneta Botte is the producer of Andrea’s twenty-five hectoliter Slavonian oak tino (cleaned only by steam and brush) made from forests between Hungary and Croatia. The cap during fermentation is punched down by this one-man crew two or three times per day over a three-week period. The fermentation temperature is not controlled during this time but the wood helps to regulate it, allowing for a maximum of around 28/29°C (82/84°F).
Depending on the year, cellar aging in wood lasts at least eighteen months (a requirement for the DOC Bramaterra), if not as many as twenty-four. Before bottling, the wine is lightly filtered (not sterile filtered) for clarity; no finings are used. Other than an occasional wine labeled Spanna (only in 2015 thus far), the final result from each vintage is a single Bramaterra: a soft-colored red wine with striking finesse and deep character, led with the aristocratic polish and profound depth of Nebbiolo from its most historic homeland. It’s a Nebbiolo wine that doesn’t for a moment exhaust the palate, which holds true even in the absence of food—a rarity when this grape is involved. Andrea’s Bramaterra is the culmination of years of understanding and studying his regional culture and its wines, and finding inspiration to work for a wine designed to walk the line of finesse and beauty without sacrificing its noble breed or discarding important matiére in the wine is, to many such as myself, an enlightened level of craft usually found in the twilight of one’s winegrowing career, not the beginning as it is for Andrea Monti Perini.
Lay of the Land
Alto Piemonte & Langhe Comparison
Alto Piemonte is different from its more famous neighbors to the south in the Langhe, Barolo and Barbaresco, and it’s worthy of exploration so as to see how Nebbiolo wines from these general areas can be so very different. From a terroir perspective, they don’t have much of a relationship with regard to climate, viticultural setting and geology, but they are similar in that not only do they age effortlessly, they continue to improve after a long time—some easily for decades before reaching the start of peak maturity.
Climate & Viticultural Setting
The Langhe is subject to a tug-of-war between the warmer, humid weather of the Mediterranean and the drier, cooler weather of the Alps. The vineyards are also exposed and situated—at least in the cases of Barbaresco, and even more, Barolo—inside a strongly monocultural environment dominated by the vine on nearly every hillside exposure. The Alto Piemonte is foothill country, surrounded by mountains, hills, rivers, and lakes, located between Milano and Torino. The mountains allow for cooler days than in the Langhe, and the nights are even more so. There’s significantly more rain, too, which often requires more treatments against the unwelcome dynamic duo of Downey and Powdery mildew. While there is no Mediterranean influence, it can be extremely humid, an influence from the dense forests and wild vegetation; some areas almost seem subtropical. Fortunately, the summers are typically hot and dry and the grapes are largely spared from too much precipitation from July until harvest. Spring frosts and late season hail are always a threat in the area as well, adding more difficulties to an already challenged viticultural environment.
The climate also generates a longer growing season for the Nebbiolos in the Alto Piemonte than in the south, with a difference of a week or two on average, when factoring in the slightly later bud break of Alto Piemonte and it’s even later harvest. Perhaps a week doesn’t seem like much, but for Nebbiolo, a grape whose depth of complexity is predicated on a long growing season, an additional week is helpful to push colder years to above the potential of 12% alcohol, where in the Langhe most vineyards, even in cooler years, can easily climb above 14% while maintaining balanced phenolic maturity.
Geologically, the Alto Piemonte and Langhe have almost nothing in common. Indeed they have a close proximity in distance and general time of geological development—that is, both were geologically defined within a fifteen million year period—but that’s about it. The Langhe is an area of extremely soft limestone bedrock (if one can say there is a bedrock hard enough to call it a rock to start with) with a variable topsoil composition of calcium-rich sands and/or clay-rich marls, both derived from the bedrock below. With the support of full solar power on the most exposed aspects, warmer weather, and this alkaline soil that assists in keeping wine pH levels down, the Nebbiolo wines of the Langhe are far more powerful and alcoholic than the average Alto Piemonte Nebbiolo-based wine.
The Alto Piemonte’s geological history was even more volatile than the previously mentioned 100-years of major difficulties. All of its regions sit on the southern foothills of the Alps, a mountain range created by the collision of the African and Eurasian tectonic plates, something that’s still underway. Through these orogenic processes, there was a lot of volcanic activity, and aside from the remnants of a volcanic explosion in the area that predates the Jurassic Age (201.3 million to 145 million years ago) by nearly a hundred million years, the more recent volcanic activity laid the foundation for most of the soils the vines are planted on.
Alto Piemonte Notable Appellations
If one were to cleave the Alto Piemonte into two areas, as the Sesia River naturally does, they represent two very different geological settings. However, both are still on the opposite side of the spectrum from the Langhe in terms of soil and bedrock constitution and pH level. In the Alto Piemonte, the bedrock and topsoil are extremely acidic (adding to the notably salty/saline character of the wines), while the Langhe’s limestone-derived rock and soil is heavily alkaline.
On the east side of the Alto Piemonte, the Ghemme appellation is largely on moraine depositions (from glaciers) and Boca’s hillside vineyards are on volcanic bedrock. On the west side, starting with Gattinara, known for its big rock outcrops and steeply terraced vineyards, it becomes much more geologically complex. The bedrock and topsoil in these areas are mostly on the volcanic rock, porphyry. This igneous volcanic rock in the Alto Piemonte is typically light and dark purple, reddish, orange, pink, and sometimes grey. It’s hard rock but still highly friable and crumbly rock due to its large grain mineral composition, similar to the igneous rock granite in grain, but not specifically in its mineral composition. This makes it easy to break down with mechanical/physical and chemical erosion, making viticulture a natural fit. The small but very significant appellation of Lessona is composed mostly of yellowish orange marine volcanic sands and is known to be the most elegant and perhaps deeply complex of all the appellations. There’s a lot to say about Lessona, which you can read here.
Monti Perini’s Bramaterra Vineyards
Bramaterra is one of the largest appellations of the Alto Piemonte and is composed of seven municipalities, starting with Lozzolo furthest east and Masserano furthest west and bordering the Lessona appellation, with Villa del Bosco, Curino, Sostegno, Roasio, and Brusnengo in between. The geology is somewhat variable within the seven communes but is largely of volcanic origin.
The vineyards employed for Monti Perini’s first few vintages (2015-2018) are located at 400-450 meters in altitude on a southwest face within the commune, Brusnengo. The vines were planted in the 1980s on a property in Brusnengo historically known for exceptional wine— which comes as no surprise with one taste of Andrea’s wines. The blend of grapes in this vineyard is 80% Nebbiolo, with an unspecified ratio of Croatina and Uva Rara that make up the majority of the remaining 20%.
The weather in Brusnengo is warm, but not the warmest of the Alto Piemonte communes (which still means it’s still not even close to as warm as the Langhe). It’s windy in the summer, and there is very little threat of spring frosts once the buds have burst and the shoots are still small and fragile.
There is some variation between the bedrock and topsoil of his Brusnegno vineyard, despite its small, 2.5 hectares, with 1.5 of them currently planted, the remainder still forest that he is slowly chipping away at alone to make way for new vines. Some sections are sandier, others rockier, and some impossible to plant because they are exclusively bedrock with no topsoil. The exposed rock on the surface is especially crumbly, friable and soft, and quickly decomposes into sand and the root systems exploit this advantage by plunging deep into the soil. Despite their naturally low yield (likely due to the extreme pH of 4.0 acidity and heavy metal content of these volcanic soils that makes flowering difficult) this renders wines naturally light in hue and appeal to anyone (like us at The Source) in search of more elegantly measured wines with layered complexity.
Despite barely eking out a living with this small parcel of land, Andrea has recently added a new vineyard to his collection. It’s located in perhaps the warmest subzone of the Alto Piemonte: Masserano—his family’s hometown, and the location of his minuscule winery and underground cave. A medieval village, Masserano was founded around the year 1000 A.D, and between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries it had links with the papal state. It’s still home to the Palazzo Ferrero Fieschi, the former palace of the Ferrero Fieschi family, who created their own mint and currency. The wealthy and the church (also wealthy) had a knack for hanging around areas that produced top quality wines, and Masserano and the neighboring Lessona were no exception.
The general difference between these two communes and vineyards is that Brusnengo is a little cooler while only three kilometers away, and with perhaps a touch more—but only slightly more—sandier soil. In the cave that holds Monti Perini’s single large botte, the layers of volcanic sediments are on display and evoke the image of a Rothko-esque layer-cake of deeply colored and damp alternating yellowish, orange volcanic sands, easily scratched away from the wall with bare fingers.
The future is bright for the Alto Piemonte, and Andrea Monti Perini is a welcome new addition to this ever-rising tide. His wines are of the most elegant and progressive in a more natural way, with a soft demeanor than any youngish wines I’ve had from this part of Piedmont, save those from Lessona, the high queen of Piemonte. The only challenge with Monti Perini is his minuscule production—a problem that will really come to light when the world discovers his talent and wants more from him.
Andrea Monti Perini - 2016 Bramaterra
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