Osso San Grato, an old fashioned Gattinara (1)

by Francesco Annibali 02/10/16
674 |
Osso San Grato, il Gattinara fuori dal tempo (1)

The Sesia River runs down from Monte Rosa to the Po River carving out winemaking areas that seem lost in time and yet they depicted by a large number of wines. Perhaps too many for some.

From north to south these include the appellations Boca, Sizzano and Fara, just to name the better-known. These are all situated along the river’s left bank, while only one, the most famous appellation and the one that has achieved the greatest quality, is on the right bank: Gattinara.

This area along the river is regaining the fame it had in the 19th century, when the vineyard land was greater than it is today, a fame it lost towards the end of the 20th century.

Gattinara is made from Nebbiolo and it is perhaps the wine that more than others together the grape’s transparency and strength.

It can be blended with Vespolina, which gives it spiciness, and Bonarda Novarese (which has nothing to do with Bonarda dell’Oltrepò wine made from Croatina) that is probably used more out of habit. Gattinara, however, is best when it is made with only Nebbiolo.

The Antoniolo estate was founded by Mario Antoniolo in the 1940s. He was not from Gattinara but from Rome and he was not even a winegrower, nor was his family. Mario fell in love with the area, its hills and local wines, and decided to invest there. He started off buying vineyards, focusing on those in the hills and with the best exposures and rocky soils. At the time this type of soil for vineyards was not in demand because the yield was low and the land difficult to cultivate. He later replanted his vineyards after contour ploughing and terracing the ground and then Guyot-trained his vines as opposed to the more popular systems used at the time. At the beginning of the 1970s, Antoniolo was joined full-time at the estate by his daughter Rosanna who, alone in a world of men, ran the estate for many years with professionalism and total dedication.

On the advice and insistence of her friend Luigi Veronelli, in 1974, Rosanna began to produce wines from single vineyards which resulted in the creation of Osso San Grato and San Francesco, while in 1985 a wine began to be produced using only grapes from the Le Castelle vineyard.

The estate is currently being run by Rosanna’s son Alberto who carries on the family’s winemaking style distinguished by austerity, consistency with the land and elegance. His sister Lorella has been working with him for some years now.

At present the estate has some 14 hectares of land and produces around 50,000 bottles of wine a year. They own all their vineyards and only make wine with their own grapes.

The vines grow in a volcanic soil with a high acidity, given that the hills were created by a now-extinct volcano.

The volcanic soil is full of porphyry with significant amounts of potassium, magnesium and iron, while the consistency is mostly rocky not too deep. The vineyards for the most part have a southern and western exposure and have an age, considering the replanting, which varies between some 60 years for Osso San Grato and San Francesco to 45 for the Castelle vineyard. Most of the Nebbiolo clones were of the Spanna sub-variety (for the older rootstocks) or Lampia for the more recent ones. The most common rootstock 420a and the vines are Guyot-trained.

Tradition determined the decision to not use yeasts in fermentation and to make the wine in cement vats. All Antoniolo Gattinara wines age for three years in wood, mostly large 30hl barrels of Slavonian or French oak. Some of the wines – not Osso San Grato – in part use smaller, French-wood barrels. The wines later age for a year in the bottle.

The characteristics that the estate wants to bring out the most are those derived from the land the wine comes from, the only thing that cannot be imported. Thus their intention is to express the terroir, the specific characteristics the wine receives from the earth and that determine its typicity and originality.

The Antoniolo winery is distinguished by its consistency, being able to remain true to the same philosophy without being seduced by fads, trends and changes suggested by the market.

Doctor Wine: In an old, 1960s cookbook by Carnacina, Veronelli wrote that Gattinara was on the same level of Barolo and Barbaresco. By the mid-1990s, however, it had all but disappeared from wine lists and the thoughts of wine lovers. How could this happen?

Lorella Antoniolo: There were a number of factors contributing to the decline in vineyards in Gattinara from some 750 hectares 100 years or so ago to around 100 today. And this was the case not only in Gattinara but all of upper Piedmont where the number of hectares of vineyards plummeted from 40,000 to 1,300 during the same period of time. Among the more significant factors was massive storm of 1905 that almost totally destroyed the vineyards in Gattinara and forced many farmers to emigrate. Then there were the two World Wars and the industrial boom that drew many away from farming, which in turn led to vineyards being abandoned. Then some bottlers, who had been drawn to the area by the popularity of the local wine, damaged Gattinara’s reputation by marketing inferior wine. Added to this was the market trend lasting a couple of decades that favored wines that were less complex, less territorial and typical, wines that were easier to comprehend and had a strong wood component. In other words wines that were much different than ours. All these factors and more created the situation that existed in the 1990s. Fortunately, some estates, like ours, were able to “hold the fort” and the situation has now been turned around. Consumer tastes and interests have changed and sparked new interest in all wines from this area of Piedmont, which differ depending on where they are made.

As for what was written in Carnacina’s book, I would like to point out that it was wrong to compare Gattinara to Barolo or Barbaresco. This because even though we use the same grape variety, the soils and climate are totally different. Comparing them would be like considering all forms of pork to be the same. Can you really compare a cooked ham to a cured one? Or can you really compare two cheeses made from the same race of cow, without taking into consideration where and how the animal was raised or what it ate?

DW: Spanna, Lampia, Michet, Chiavennasca and Prunet: are there significant differences between these Nebbiolo clones?

LA: We do not have Michet or rosé cones nor, obviously, Chiavennasca or Prunent. Nevertheless, we can say that the basic differences are that Lampia has a medium-large bunches that are conic, long and quite compact with pronounced wings. The Michet bunch is smaller, shorter, with little wings and not compact. Rosé has seen a sharp reduction in recent years while Spanna is similar to Lampia but longer and fatter and with very distinct wings. It is thus impossible to compare then in regard to yield and winemaking.

Tomorrow will follow the second part of our interview to Antoniolo family and the vertical tasting of the Gattinara Osso San Grato.

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