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The Lost Vineyards of Lessona (July 2010)

Isole e Olena’s Paolo de Marchi and his son Luca fulfil the dream of a lifetime. News editor Joanna Goodman finds out about the rebirth of a forgotten vineyard.

Many members will be familiar with the name of Paolo de Marchi, longtime supplier to The Society of delicious Chianti from his Isole e Olena property. It may come as a surprise to learn, however, that Paolo is not a Tuscan but comes from northern Piedmont and that it has been a lifelong passion of his to restore the family’s vineyards there. Since 2000, he and his eldest son Luca have started to do just that, reclaiming the hillside vineyards and bringing back to life a wine that had disappeared.

The Sperino cellars overlook the new terraces of the Covà vineyard

The de Marchi family inherited Villa Sperino in the small town of Lessona near Biella in northern Piedmont in the 19th century. Wine was still made there until the 1970s. As a child, Paolo used to play in the tiny vineyard and it was here that he developed his love for viticulture. But by the time Paolo finished his studies at Lessona, all winemaking had stopped so he moved to Isole e Olena, a property bought by his father in the 1950s. Paolo always regretted the decline of the family estate; his son, Luca says that he used to look at a picture of Lessona covered in forest which hung in the kitchen and say ‘there should be vines there!’ Luca reports that quite suddenly in 1999, Paolo declared that he had bought out other members of the family and that Lessona was theirs. Finally work could start on its restoration.

A rich viticultural past

Winemaking all but vanished from this part of northern Piedmont more than 100 years ago. In its heyday, there were more than 40,000 hectares under vine. By the late 19th century Lessona still had some 3,000 hectares falling to just five at its lowest point. There are a number of reasons for the decline. The area is prone to hailstorms which ruined many a crop compounded by the fact that the highly acidic soils here result in very low yields. As in Burgundy, inheritance laws meant that estates were sub-divided into smaller and smaller unworkable plots. The final nail in the coffin came with the dawning of a new industrial era. Many were tempted away from the land to make their money in the textile industry in Biella, and to the cities of Milan and Turin, just 45 minutes by train or Switzerland, less than an hour away.

The renaissance of Proprietà Sperino

Finding anyone to carry out the work at the family property proved to be a modern-day problem too, so Luca, who was studying literature and philology at Turin University, spent his weekends working on the estate. He soon found that, like his father, he had a passion for viticulture and developed a love of the nebbiolo grape. He switched to studying viticulture at university and soon after became involved full-time in the restoration of the Sperino property. The work of reclaiming 25 hectares of vineyards was hard. Most of the vineyards needed to be replanted and forests had to be cleared from great historic vineyard sites. Most of the replanting took place in 2000 and 2001 in Orolungo and Castello, Lessona’s prime areas. A further two hectares of 90-year-old vines were purchased in the Bramaterra district and they were given two more hectares of the oldestsurviving Lessona vines.

Luca and Paolo replanting the historic Covà vineyard

The soil in this area is the most acidic in the viticultural world. Because there is no calcium or clay to trap minerals, the roots of vines planted in acidic soils are able to transfer the minerals to the grapes and into the wine. Lessona has very deep (over 60 metres) old marine sand and ancient granitic soils which traditionally produce fine, aromatic wines.

The climate here ensures one of the longest growing seasons for the nebbiolo grape. The protection of the Alps to the north results in mild winters allowing for an early bud-break. Summers are cooler than in southern Piedmont and the harvest is often ten days behind the Langhe. Slow maturation of the fruit encourages the development of aromatics in the grapes and wines with a certain finesse; tannin and alcohol are a touch lighter here than in nebbiolo wines from other regions.

Uvaggio is reborn

‘Uvaggio’ means blend and is the name used for the traditional mix of indigenous grapes nebbiolo (known locally as spanna), vespolina and croatina. Coste della Sesia is the DOC (DOC Lessona tends to be made from 100% nebbiolo). Vespolina and croatina were traditionally added to nebbiolo (the grape of Barolo) to make the wine more approachable younger. Croatina (aka bonarda of Argentina) is quite common to Piedmont and Lombardy. Its thick skin gives dark colour, tannin and a certain rusticity and so is only used in small amounts. Vespolina is the opposite; a grape with refined aromatics and tannin which genetic studies at Turin University suggest may be the ‘father’ of nebbiolo.

Realising the dream

Seeing the first cluster of grapes in the newly replanted vineyards and then holding the first bottle of Proprietà Sperino in almost a hundred years are two of the highlights of this project for Luca de Marchi. But as he rather soberly reminds me, in the wine world you are talking about more than a lifetime’s work. Much of what you achieve in this lifetime is for the benefit of future generations. In the meantime, we will continue to enjoy the fruits of their labour today.

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