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A hidden gem of Italian viticulture: the village of Villareggia in the Canavese appellation

A hidden gem of Italian viticulture: the village of Villareggia in the Canavese appellation

By Marco Alessandro Felicissimo
Instagram: @marco_felicissimo_sommelier
Photos by Marco Alessandro Felicissimo

The Canavese is a historical geographical area in the north of Piemonte region and, since 1996, an authorised Italian wine appellation (Denominazione di Origine Controllata – DOC, Controlled Designation of Origin) covering an area of around 64 ha / 158 acres. The Canavese vineyards are located on the southern slopes of a hilly strip located along the border with Valle d’Aosta region and part of the provinces of Biella and Vercelli. The microclimate is mild, protected by the hills and balanced by the presence of two important rivers (Dora Baltea and Orco) and numerous lakes scattered throughout the flat area.

This area is very well known for the production of the white wine Erbaluce DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita – DOCG, Controlled and Guaranteed Designation of Origin). But according to official historical records, it has also been recognised as the birthplace for a variety of Nebbiolo grape called “Picotendro” or “Picotener” or “Picoutener” (soft petiole or peduncle), also called the Nebbiolo dimenticato (the forgotten Nebbiolo).

Among thousands of different grape varieties all around the world, nebbiolo is undoubtedly one of the most prestigious grape varieties from which high quality red wines can be made.

The first historical reference to Nebbiolo was found in a 1266 document in Castello di Rivoli (province of Turin) and this is why Nebbiolo grape variety was officially recognised as a Piemontese indigenous variety.

Since then Nebbiolo was also qualified with a biotype name (or sub-variety or clone name). It is in fact quite common to find Nebbiolo mentioned as “Lampia”, “Michet”, “Rosé” and “Bolla”, all these being sub-varieties. An article published in December 2017 by the renowned scientific magazine ‘Nature International Journal of Science’, outlined the complete genetic mapping of Nebbiolo and confirmed some important aspects related to the different biotypes.
The results confirmed the existence of many differences in the genetic characters of the single sub-varieties corresponding to different wines. With this, the importance of the biotypes for this vine was scientifically proven.

Moreover, the study found that “Picotener” (biotype: CVT 423) is one of the three most important subvarieties of Nebbiolo, the other two being “Lampia” (biotype: CVT 185) and “Michet” (biotype: CVT 71).

Picotener, in particular, has distinctive characteristics such as low production yield, low vegetative vigour, resistance to more severe climates, wider spectrum of aromas and more intense colours in wine.
Due to the low yield, it is difficult to grow Nebbiolo Picotener and this is why in the past most producers abandoned it, making this biotype extremely rare. As a consequence, initially authorities put Picotener aside and instead regulated the most known biotypes “Lampia” and “Michet”.
However, starting from the end of the eighteenth century, Picotener was not only renowned for producing high quality wines but also represented an element of value and pride in Villareggia village agriculture.

Unfortunately, starting from the end of the 19th century, the spread of phylloxera and diseases such as downy mildew and powdery mildew contributed to devastating the wine production throughout Europe. Furthermore, the creation of land improvement consortia, capable of making the flatter lands irrigated, led to the development of the crops most in demand at the time, such as corn, effectively canceling out the local wine production.

Some producers undertook the compelling challenge to bring back to light the local winemaking tradition through historical-landscape recovery of the areas once most suited to the production of quality wines.

The Canavese appellation includes all the wines produced with grape varieties that are grown in this area of Piedmont, which are Barbera, Bonarda, Erbaluce, Freisa, Nebbiolo, Neretto di Bairo and Uva Rara. The cultivation techniques used for black grapes are espalier rows, while for the Erbaluce vine, the only white grape cultivated in the area, the
pergola system is used, locally called topia canavesana. This type of cultivation involves complex cultivation without any mechanisation for both pruning and harvesting.

The characteristics of all Canavese wines are influenced by the mild temperature, the constant ventilation coming from the nearby Aosta Valley Alps and the strong day/night temperature variations, particularly in the pre-harvest period. In all types of wines, in particular, excellent acidity, flavour and low polyphenolic content are found.

The grapes coming from Canavese result in a wide range of wines, from fresh white wines from Erbaluce grape, to perfumed rosés made with Bonarda and Freisa grapes, to structured reds from Barbera, Croatina and Nebbiolo grapes.

The red “Canavese” type (Canavese Rosso) is obtained from good quality black grapes cultivated in rows, of which at least 60% must be from Nebbiolo, Barbera, Bonarda, Freisa, Neretto and Uva Rara, resulting in a ruby red wine particularly vinous and savoury, dry and with good acidity. The rosé “Canavese” is light ruby in colour, with a delicate and pleasant flavour. The “Canavese” Barbera type is obtained from at least 85% of the corresponding vine and 15% of non-aromatic red grapes. The wine obtained is intense ruby in colour, slightly fruity and full-bodied. The “Canavese” Nebbiolo type has a color ranging from ruby red to garnet, good body, suitable for aging. The white “Canavese” wine is made from 100% Erbaluce grapes, and it has a straw-yellow colour, a fruity aroma, an excellent structure and good acidity. The “Canavese” sparkling white wine is always made from 100% Erbaluce, and is harvested early to guarantee good basic acidity. It has a light foam and a pale straw colour. The “Canavese” rosé sparkling wine has a light ruby color produced from red Canavese grapes, with a fresh and fruity flavour. The sparkling wines are vinified using the tank (Charmat) method in the brut or extra dry versions.

Luca Leggero Winery and the push for the Canavese appellation renaissance

Luca Leggero was one of the first producers to bring back to light the winemaking tradition. He was born in Turin in 1990 and spent his youth in Villareggia, a small village in the province of Turin on the outskirts of the Canavese region.

Luca has always been in contact with viticulture and inherited his grandfather’s passion for viticulture.

In 2011 he founded his own winery and a few years later started giving a new light to local wines, namely Nebbiolo and Erbaluce. The winery adopted an organic and biodynamic approach as well as an important and modern focus on sustainability.

Villareggia’s morenic soil, rich in sand and rock fragments from ancient glaciations, defines the region’s wine identity. Low water retention forces vine roots deep for nutrients, resulting in concentrated grapes and mineral-rich wines. This terroir is unique and the wines produced by Luca are a true expression of it. Luca’s wines have an appreciable and

pleasant sensation of minerality, due to its significant content in saline substances, which is also accompanied by high acidity. This combination makes Luca’s wines fresh, deep and very pleasant with exceptional aging potential, remarkable complexity and elegance.
I recently tasted these wines:

1.La Vila 2022 by Luca Leggero winery, 100% Nebbiolo (Picotener sub-variety) .

This wine was aged 5 months in 50 hl oak barrels and 5 months in amphorae. This excellent wine is supposed to be the winery’s “entry-level” Nebbiolo and I can only imagine the quality of the other wines I haven’t tasted yet!

On the nose, the wine was almost immediately open and showcased pleasant descriptors with aromas of rose, crashed wild berries, orange peel, cinnamon, dried herbs, milk chocolate, vanilla. On the palate, the wine was fresh and vibrant, medium-bodied with a very good depth (typical of the Picotener sub-variety). The characteristic I enjoyed most was the very pleasant combination of high levels of acidity and minerality. The flavours detected included raspberry, wild strawberry, marasca cherry, licorice, milk chocolate, nutmeg and a slight balsamic note. Medium to long finish. The firm tannins provided the necessary frame for this very enjoyable wine which will certainly improve with a little more bottle ageing.

2.Erbaluce di Caluso DOCG “Turciatura” 2022 by Luca Leggero winery, 100% Erbaluce – 1590 bott les produced.

This wine was aged 7 months in 7.5 hl and 16 hl amphorae and then 2 months in bottle.

On the nose, this outstanding wine expressed enticing and pronounced aromas of acacia, orange blossom, wild flowers, followed by notes of white peach, pear, apricot in syrup, banana and pineapple. I also detected a slight note of peeled almond. On the palate, it was enveloping with a pleasant mineral texture and high acidity. Flavours of ripe peach, exotic fruit and slight notes of acacia honey, nuts and citrus balanced perfectly the acidity and the minerality. A light buttery note contributed even more to the wine complexity. The finish was long.

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