Christoph Künzli of Le Piane doesn’t sound like an Italian winemaker. In one sense, he isn’t – he’s from Switzerland – but in the more important sense, he is. Some forty minutes north of Milan’s Malpensa airport, Künzli makes wines from an appellation only the most dedicated oenophiles have heard of (Colline Novaresi), and one that’s even less-known to anyone who doesn’t live there: Boca.
No, it’s not a retirement community in Florida.
One among a string of nearly-forgotten appellations along the northern limits of Piedmontese viticulture (the best-known of which – barely – is Gattinara, but that also includes Lessona and Bramaterra), Boca is a nebbiolo-dominated area that was both famous and one of Italy’s largest in the 19th century, but has since fallen into oblivion as the region’s workers left wine for the factories of Torino.
A chance meeting with an old local winemaker led to Künzli taking over an acre of land, which took three years to work into shape (machines doesn’t work on Boca’s difficult terrain, and many of Künzli’s older vineyards are still planted with the maggiorina training method, making hand-harvesting a necessity). Since then, other plots have been added. Some are old vineyards in need of similar resurrection, while others are new plantings on old, abandoned sites. In the end, around fifty plots (many of them small) were sold, and now form the core of Le Piane’s vineyards, though many of them are quite a few years from being able to supply grapes.
The soil is volcanic rock, over which there’s a layer of gravel, and while the subsoils abound with the sort of complex minerals that vines love, there’s no chalk (which is common elsewhere in the Piedmont, especially where nebbiolo is grown).
Commercial yeasts are used for the Colline Novaresi wines (“vespolina goes volatile with indigenous yeasts,” insists Künzli).
Le Piane 2004 Colline Novaresi “la maggiorina” (Piedmont) – Old vines, 50% nebbiolo, 35% croatina, uva rara, and vespolina, in stainless steel. Mineral-driven to such an extent that I feel like I’m drinking a red riesling. Very dry. Full of dark fruit dust and tart acidity. Very masculine and hard, with a long finish. A striking wine. (3/08)
Le Piane 2003 Colline Novaresi (Piedmont) – From 100-year old pre-phylloxera vines, and a blend of 70% croatina and 30% nebbiolo. Lush orange blossom and stone fruit, balanced except for the vintage’s signature tannin, but dried out on the finish by that same tannin. (3/08)
Le Piane 2004 Colline Novaresi (Piedmont) – Showing (or perhaps revealing) more dirt than the 2003, with a little bit of well-ridden horse, but not what anyone but the most averse would call bretty; the overall impression is more like that of iron-rich blood. Very interesting floral aromatics, with great balance and a longer finish finely delineated by acidity. Very promising. (3/08)
Le Piane’s Boca wines are around 85% nebbiolo and 15% vespolina, grown between 1200 and 1500 feet (the highest nebbiolo vines in the already altitudinous Piedmont). Yeasts are indigenous, though why the volatility noted in the Colline Novaresi wines doesn’t affect the vespolina in Boca goes unexplained. Thirty days of skin maceration in open tanks, with hand punchdowns, are followed by three years in Slavonian oak (none of it new), then another eight months in bottle.
There are nine parcels under production in Boca, mostly young vines, with another ten acres on the way. Vines are propagated by a mixture of massale, selection from Künzli’s own vineyards, and some clones from the university. Künzli is hesitant about some of the older clones from his oldest vineyards (though he does get some older material from Valtellina), believing that his new vine material is superior, meaning that it’s “the qualitative equivalent” to the old vines despite a lack of maturity.
Le Piane 2000 Boca (Piedmont) – Beautifully aromatic, with flowers (rose-dominated) and a pretty finish. Just starting to soften, but there’s plenty of life ahead. (3/08)
Le Piane 2001 Boca (Piedmont) – Tighter than the 2000, with its floral aspects glimpsed through the gauze of a semi-closed stage. Tart cherries and massive minerality form the foundation and core of this wine, with graphite-textured tannin. Really terrific, and promising many, many years until maturity. (3/08)
Le Piane 2003 Boca (Piedmont) – The fruit of the ’00 and ’01 takes on a sweeter, more strawberry-like character here, with big tannin and a dense, somewhat shortened finish. I don’t think this will live up to the promise of more balanced vintages, but it might have an earlier appeal. (3/08)
For now, Künzli is pretty much a one-man show in Boca, at least in terms of non-local attention, though he expects this to change in the future. Though the vineyards employed by Sella (in Lessona and Bramaterra) never fell so out of favor as those of Boca, the projects strike me as having some similarities: one dedicated producer out to rebuild the reputation of forgotten land on the strength of their unique expressions of some of the world’s most aromatically and structurally fascinating grapes.
The wines are represented by Adonna Imports of Waltham, Massachusetts. Prices range from the low teens for “la maggiorina,” to around $40 for the Colline Novaresi and $50+ for the Boca.
Disclosure: wines provided by producer and importer, some food provided by importer (who also owns the restaurant in which this tasting occurred).