Over the last three decades, we’ve been fortunate enough to meet, dine, and taste with many of the most revered winegrowers in Italy. But if we were to choose just two Italian winemakers who have served as torchbearers, drawing the critical spotlight to their perspective regions — Barbaresco and Chianti Classico — it would be Angelo Gaja and Paolo De Marchi.
We met Signor Gaja in 1984, and soon were treated to the unforgettable 1961 Gaja Barbaresco, made by Angelo’s father. Ten years later, we met Paolo De Marchi at a coffee shop in the city. The following summer of 1995, we visited Isole e Olena for the first time, tasting vintage Cepparello back to 1985.
In June 2007, our first summer at WineAccess, Paolo called. As always, De Marchi covered lots of ground in just 15 minutes. He spoke of global warming and the effect it was having on the new, low-producing Sangiovese clones in what would turn out to be one of the most torrid summers in Tuscan history. He spoke of the design of his new state-of-the-art cellar. But then Paolo’s voice seemed to go up an octave, his usually measured speech pattern quickening to a staccato, as he spoke of his “new, but very old” winery project in Piedmont. As he finished, he didn’t invite us to Tuscany, but rather to his grandmother’s tiny estate in Lessona, where Paolo insisted the sandy soil makes for Nebbiolo that smells and tastes like Grand Cru Burgundy. We booked the fastest flight we could into Turin.
From the town of Biella, Paolo’s white Toyota slalomed through the foothills of the Alps looking down upon northern Piedmont. As we approached the hillside village of Lessona, De Marchi slammed on the brakes, pulling abruptly to the side of the road. He led us to a small knoll just before town. The soil was reddish in hue. Paolo got down on one knee, scooped earth into his palms, allowing the sandy, sedimentary soil to sift through his fingers. De Marchi’s broad smile would prove unforgettable as he uttered just three words: “Benvenuto a Lessona.”
Over dinner, Paolo walked us through the proud history of his hometown. Back in the 19th century, Lessona and Gattinara were considered the top winegrowing regions in Piedmont, regularly outperforming Barolo and Barbaresco. But due to a combination of factors — a more challenging microclimate (cooler and far more humid than Barolo), several economic crises, and finally, the ravaging of Nebbiolo vines by the aphid-like pest, Phylloxera — nearly every vineyard in Lessona had been abandoned. Of the 40,000 hectares that had once been planted, just 20 remained! Just as he had done at Isole e Olena with Cepparello, Paolo, working with his son, Luca, re-introduced the wine world to the grandeur of Lessona. Suddenly, the tiny zone had the world’s attention again.
The De Marchis would not be alone in Lessona’s return to prominence. Their neighbors the Sellas have produced wine from their own vineyards since 1671, their cellars stocked with back vintages dating to 1881. Production remains small in scale, largely owing to the low yields from the Sella family’s 20 hectares of estate vineyards in Lessona.
In 2010, the De Marchis and the Sellas were rewarded with one of the most extraordinary growing seasons in Upper Piedmont history.
The fruit set in the spring of 2010 was small, as rain in early May lasting into the last week of June delayed flowering. Then July turned exceedingly dry. Most importantly, throughout the summer months, days were warm and nights cold, a dramatic diurnal temperature shift — much more so than in the Langhe — that slowed down the maturation process and allowed late-maturing Nebbiolo to ripen slowly and incrementally. A near-perfect mid-September to October harvest followed, making for two estate-bottled Lessonas that somehow seem far more at home in Chambolle-Musigny than Piedmont.
The top Lessona of 2010? Unquestionably, it’s Paolo and Luca De Marchi’s Proprietà Sperino, which garnered 94+ points from Antonio Galloni. It fetches $80/bottle, and is worth every NICKEL if you can find one!
The Sella family finished just a neck behind with the most stunning Lessona ever drawn off this tiny 20-hectare estate, a mouthwatering 80-20 Nebbiolo/Vespolina blend. Galloni called it “another sublime wine from Sella … that just oozes precision and class.” 94 points, and Galloni says it won’t hit its peak until 2030 — at nearly a fraction of the price of its neighbor.
360 bottles are up for grabs today. Usually $36, a STEAL at $26/btl. Not to be missed by Piedmont and Red Burgundy enthusiasts!
Drinkable but not worth remembering.
a little too light for me
This wine is rather thin in body and character at this time. I believe that more time will help but even waiting until 2030 may not make a significant improvement.
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