Langhe Riesling: discussing origin, viticulture, winemaking and more

The noblest of white grape varieties, few wines captivate so broadly as Riesling. Seizing the collective adoration of wine lovers the world over, Rieslings unrivalled versatility makes it painfully difficult to dislike. The 5th most planted white grape variety, ca. 55,000 hectares are cultivated globally, of these plantings 45% and 6% can be found in Germany and France (Alsace) respectively. Riesling buds late, is mid-to-late-ripening and does well in cool climates, where it ripens slowly, developing a broad spectrum of aromas. Thought to have originated in the Rhine and first referenced in the 15th century, significant plantings, producing highly-regarded wines, can now be found in Australia, Austria, Canada, the United States and more. In both Europe and the United States, lesser quality cultivars genetically unrelated to Riesling proper have adopted its name. Among them, Riesling Italico, planted predominately in Northern Italy. Not to be confused with the Welschriesling plantings in Lombardy and Veneto, since the early 1980s, a handful of producers in Piedmont have cultivated Riesling proper. Today, production remains so small as to be unknown to many, approximately 30 producers farming roughly 30-40ha of Riesling planted in some of the region’s most well-known communes, including Barolo. In this article I discuss Langhe Riesling in more detail, examining origin, site selection, viticulture, and winemaking with Francesca Vajra, Andrea Zarattini (Poderi Colla), and more.

Plantings of Riesling Italico (Welschriesling) emerged in Northern Italy later than they did in central Europe, likely not before the early 1900s, since no evidence of its cultivation can be found before this period. It is said to have been imported during the Austro-Hungarian rule coming from the area presently known as the Czech Republic. One of Riesling’s innumerate, and arguably inferior would-be imposters, Welschriesling is genetically unrelated to Riesling proper, and should not be confused in any respect with plantings of the latter. Today, plantings of Riesling in Italy can be found in Lombardy, Veneto, Friuli, Trentino Alto Adige and Piedmont. In Piedmont, Riesling (bottled Langhe Riesling DOC) was first planted in the early-to-mid ’80s, amidst the onset of a cultural and winegrowing revolution.

Origin and uptake

Who first planted Riesling in Piedmont is not entirely clear, though one can be certain it was either Aldo Vaira or Beppe Colla. While I’m sure this would be contested only in jest, I shall tell both stories given the temporal proximity of each. By 1984, both had purchased land which would eventually be planted to Riesling, with vines in the ground in both cases by ’85. In 1973, Aldo Vaira was a student at the University of Torino in the faculty of Agriculture. It was here, thanks to prof. Annibale Gandini, where Aldo fell in love with Riesling. Having dreamed in silence for nigh on a decade, it was not until 1984, after purchasing a small parcel in Fossati (which later turned out to be unfit for Nebbiolo) that Vaira would seize the opportunity to plant Riesling’s flag in the Langhe’s bucolic hills. The following year regulation would formally allow him to plant Riesling, the first clonal selection of vines being from Geisenheim. Concomitantly, Beppe Colla, after talking with Dr Degiacomi, then owner of the Cascine Drago di Alba, sought to plant a white variety of character, structure and freshness. Together they decided on Riesling settling on the hill of Bricco del Drago (which the family would purchase in 1994) in San Rocco Seno d’Elvio di Alba and in 1985 the vineyard was planted, followed by further plantings in Alba in 2012.

Today c. 40 producers grow Riesling in Piedmont with roughly 30 bottling a Langhe Riesling DOC, the rest add their fruit to Langhe Bianco blends or blend it strictly with Chardonnay, as was previously the case at Oddero. Though remaining relatively small, total plantings and volume of producers grew considerably post-millennium. Noted below are the 27 producers I’ve been able to identify (those making a Langhe Riesling) alongside the location and date of their first and current plantings.

ProducerPlantingsYear Planted
GD VajraBarolo (Fosatti)1985
Poderi CollaAlba1985, 2012
Braida – Re di FioriTrezzo Tinella1988
Giovanni AlmondoMonta d’Alba1990 (30%), 2007 (70%)
Luigi BaudanaSerralunga d’Alba1993, 2009
CerettoAlbaretto Torre1993
Bric CenciurioCastellinaldo, Barolo (Costa di Rose) 1994, 2013
Ettore GermanoCiglie1995, 1998, 2001, 2004
Paolo MontiMontforte d’Alba1996
BorgognoCastino2004
Ca del BaioTreiso2004
Castello di NeiveNeive (Santo Stefano)2004
FontanafreddaCastino, Borgomale, Monforte, Montelupo2004
OdderoLa Morra2004
Anna Maria AbbonaFarigliano2006, 2015
Le CeccheBossolasco2008
MalviraAlba2010
Ca ViolaDogliani (Cissone)c. 2010
Diego PressendaMontforte d’Alba2011
Nada GiuseppeTreiso2012
Cascina AlbertaTreiso2013
MassolinoMontforte d’Albac. 2015/2016
PeccheninoAlta LangheUnknown
Paolo SaraccoCastiglione TinellaUnknown
ChionettiUnknownUnknown

Both geographical and cultural proximity meant that the Langhe people were somewhat aware of French varieties and wines, particularly the revolutionaries of the moment whose tasting of Burgundy helped fuel their yearning for change. In contrast, very few had heard of Riesling, Francesca Vajra tells me, citing both cultural and geographical differences. This unfamiliarity meant that even in the early-2000s, the word Riesling was something of a taboo in Piedmont, producers would avoid listing the variety on their labels, opting instead for descriptors idiosyncratic of the variety. In 1994, the Langhe DOC was formalised, including the production of Riesling and labelling as such. In spite of this, little Riesling could at the time be found on even local wine lists.

Domestic scepticism notwithstanding, a number of producers saw promise and purchased holdings (Ceretto, Ettore Germano etc.) in Montforte d’Alba, Treiso and Barolo. Ironically, given today’s prices, many purchased parcels outside of the Barolo production zone, parcels that ought to have been included in the zone were it not for the previous owners railing against inclusion, such that they could avoid tax hikes they could not afford to pay given the lower price of Barolo at the time. Perhaps most important here is that Riesling was not an afterthought, chosen sites were well-suited to and quality ubiquitous. Interestingly, Teobaldo Cappellano told Aldo Vaira that the second plot he had purchased had been a fruit source for his grandparents in the 1930s.

langhe-riesling
Fossati MGA

Today, Piedmont is an altogether different landscape, enjoying global acclaim and ever-larger demand. Despite this, many wine lovers, even those particularly learned, are either yet to taste Langhe Riesling or are altogether surprised to hear of its cultivation. Deserving of attention, the vineyards are noteworthy and the viticulture serious. Below I’ll explore both in more detail, comparing and contrasting growing conditions and landscape to notable areas of productions and discussing what makes Langhe Riesling special.

Vineyards and viticulture

When one considers the astronomical increase in Langhe land prices over the past decade, it follows that one might suppose Riesling ought only to be planted where economics allows, this is to say that the ‘best’ land is likely to be reserved entirely for Nebbiolo. This presupposes that what is to be considered the ‘best’ land is homogenous across varieties. This is of course false. Formed millennia ago, the Langhe’s rolling hills present geographical diversity of bewildering magnitude. Within scarcely more than a dozen metres, altitude and exposition vary dramatically. Even within particularly small vineyards, parcels of land boast streaks of subsoil differing greatly to that of the next ten rows of vines. This impressive diversity means that even amongst a land where Nebbiolo reigns king, there exist pockets of land perfectly suited to the cultivation of other varieties. In this case Riesling.

The Langhe DOC (Langhe Riesling DOC) spans 3,335 acres across 94 municipalities of Cuneo, stretching south of the Tanaro to Roddino and Borgomale. Riesling is planted across the length and breadth of the denomination. GD Vajra and Bric Cenciurio in Barolo (Fosatti and Costa di Rose respectively), Luigi Baudana in Serralunga d’Alba, Ca del Baio, Nada Giuseppe, and Cascina Alberta in Treiso, Oddero in La Morra, and Massolino in Montforte d’Alba. In Neive, Castello di Neive have planted Riesling at the crest of Santo Stefano (Albesani), most famous for the wines of Bruno Giacosa.

Broadly speaking, Riesling performs best when grown long and low, meaning the immediate climate allows for a long, slow ripening period supported by appropriate pruning, maintaining low yields and concentrated flavours. In search of a broad diurnal temperature variation and generally lower temperatures, Langhe Riesling tends to be planted at altitude. Paolo Monti at 490m asl, Malvira and Ca Viola at 600m, Massolino at 550-600m, and at Nada Giuseppe at the highest points of each of their parcels. The Langhe DOC allows maximum vineyard elevation of 800m asl, 260m above that of the Barolo DOCG. Though, in practice, most Nebbiolo tends to be planted mid-slope, at the lower end of the permitted altitude range. At these higher altitudes, Langhe Riesling is exposed to adequate solar radiation (many of the vineyards are planted East or South-east) while cool temperatures (particularly at night) prolong the ripening period, maintaining ample acidity and intensifying the production of flavour compounds in the skin over a longer period of time than would be the case lower down the slope where Nebbiolo basks in the midday heat. Riesling doesn’t face any particularly unique disease pressure; however, wind at elevation helps relieve challenges associated with morning fog.

langhe-riesling
Fossati MGA

With this in mind, the Riesling harvest usually begins halfway through September and can finish as late as mid-October. In Alsace, Washington State and Finger Lakes harvest begins during the first half of September and continues until November in the former and mid-October in the latter two. In Germany, harvest tends to begin in late September (though this date is beginning to shift) and can finish as late as January. The point of these comparisons is to encourage readers to consider the crucial climatic and geographical similarities in Piedmont to that of the world’s notable regions of Riesling production. In Alsace for example there are roughly 1800 hours of sunshine per year, 550-650mm rain and average vineyard altitudes of 200-400m asl. In Piedmont, there are 1600 hours of sunshine, roughly 1100mm of rain and vineyards located at an average 330-370m asl with many much higher. Temperatures are also fairly similar. There is little reason to doubt Langhe Riesling has the foundations to swing with the best of them.

The first Riesling to be cultivated in Piedmont was likely born of clones selected from Geisenheim, those planted by Aldo Vaira. Vaira would also later plant clonal selections offered to him by Dom. Mochel and Dom Marcel Deiss in Alsace and Weingut Von Buhl in Pfalz, something Aldo considered a great honour. Francesca Vajra notes that ‘only if he trusts you will take good care of them will a winemaker share his vines‘. Today there is little homogeneity in which clones are planted where, nor any particular preference among producers. In the case of Riesling, to some extent clone is subjugated by Riesling’s impressive responsiveness to both terroir and climate. In stark contrast to numinous notions of immutable characteristics coaxed out of the land, here I refer strictly to Riesling’s unique tendency to transform organoleptically dependent upon exposition, altitude and climate. And though not to suggest clone is not important, its phenotype is very much modulated by both the immediate environment and its rootstock.

ProducerRootstock
CerettoSO4, Kober 5BB, 420A
Le CeccheSO4, 310P
OdderoSO4
Nada GiuseppeKober 5BB
Ca del Baio5BB
Giovanni Almondo3309, SO4

The most popular rootstocks in Piedmont are SO4, 5BB and 420A. 5BB adapts well to the wide range of soil types in Piedmont and has good tolerance of limestone (active limestone can be an issue in Langhe soils). Selection Oppenheim 4 and 420A are similarly well-suited to high levels of active limestone. Both SO4 and 5BB are relatively high-vigour, the latter more so, and so are well-suited to Riesling’s tendency toward low-to-moderate vigour. Maximum production allowed for Langhe Riesling, should not, in any case, exceed 8 t/ha, and where the DOC Langhe Riesling is used for any vines less than seven years of age, the production of grapes p/ha allowed is equal to 4.8 t/ha in the third year, 5.6 t/ha in the fourth, 6.4 t/ha in the fifth, and 7.2 t/ha in the sixth year. In the Mosel, individual vines are trained to single stakes in order to allow vineyard workers to work the steep vineyard slopes (so steep workers have died) horizontally rather than the more tiring vertical. In Piedmont, Riesling is trained to Guyot (5000 p/ha and 8-8 buds per vine at Bric Cenciurio), as is Nebbiolo. Mid-season pruning is moderate, in some cases leaves are removed from the side of the row facing the sun least, helping with sugar accumulation.

Winemaking and wine style

The most pressing challenge facing those producers making Langhe Riesling is undoubtedly maintaining freshness and finesse. Both site selection and pruning support this endeavour, as does the handling of fruit and vinification. At Vajra, this pursuit begins during harvest, where Francesca tells me she and her team are particularly attentive around the time at which they pick, ideally early in the morning where berries are picked cool and transported directly to the winery. Bunches are picked into small 20/25 kilo baskets such that they are kept intact. Fruit is sorted thrice, first in the vineyard and later twice in the cellar. At Bric Cenciurio, bunches are picked into similar 20kg baskets and refrigerated to 0 degrees.

Bunches are sometimes destemmed before pressing (depending on the vintage) though usually, Vajra opts for whole-bunch pressing. Following a gentle pressing and a brief cold settling, fermentation takes places in stainless steel, lasting about 15-20 days or until dry. Finally, ageing is in stainless steel for c. six months. Not every producer opts for stainless steel, at Re di Fiori vinification is in French oak and maturation in stainless steel (a little like the Roulot method) and at Castello di Neive and Bric Cenciurio ageing is in French oak barrique and large oak barrels (perhaps foudre). There is even one producer (Cascina Alberta) ageing their Riesling in amphorae. Many producers also opt for extended time on the lees (22 months at Paolo Saracco), perhaps to help retain a fresh, reductive, lean profile.

Langhe DOC stipulates a minimum of 11.5% alcohol in the case of Riesling, though, in reality, most are a touch higher. Additionally, the minimum total acidity is set at 4.5 g/l. The DOC also maintains that Langhe Riesling must comprise at least 85% Riesling with other non-aromatic grape varieties of similar colour, suitable for cultivation in the Piedmont region, contribute a maximum of 15%. Again, in reality, the majority of those producers listed above opt for 100% Riesling. In Alsace, dry Riesling tends to hover between 2.0-5.0 g/l residual sugar and 5.6-6.6 g/l of total acidity depending on vintage, with alcohol 12-13.5%. In Piedmont, the numbers are not too different, in many cases acidity is a touch higher, alcohol can be as low as 11.5% and as high as 13.5%. The below shows technical information of Poderi Colla Riesling between 2011-2020. Structurally Langhe Riesling boasts what it takes to taste great as well as stand the test of time.

VintageAlcohol %Sugar g/lTotal Acidity g/l
201112,63,76,28
201212,5536,55
201312,3847,52
201411,932,37,09
201512,1026,72
201612,482,46,92
201712,3826,74
201812,15,27,16
201912,83,326,8
202011,884,696,41
Poderi Colla Technical Info 2011-2020

Langhe Riesling tends toward a more fruit-forward profile than its German counterpart, positioned to some degree more closely to the wines of Alsace. With subtle aromas of tropical fruit, citrus zest, spice, and idiosyncratic notes of kerosene, Langhe Riesling retains attractive linearity. The palate offers up hints of peach and melon with a sapid, savoury, textural finish. With ample freshness and acidity, the wines are medium-bodied yet delightfully refreshing and moreish. Some producers (including Giovanni Almondo and Malvira) also include some botrytised fruit in their selection, an interesting component for those wanting something a little waxier.

The state of play

Today, Langhe Riesling represents a fraction of the regions total production, a segment which realistically is unlikely to grow substantially in coming years. Production volume notwithstanding, the quality of Riesling cultivated in Piedmont is worthy of vastly more attention than it receives from the global wine industry. Much of today’s consumption can be attributed to local restaurants, local people and a small minority of those working in the wine industry. Even among learned drinkers, it is commonplace for folk to be entirely unaware of Riesling being produced in Piedmont. Nestled amidst some of the region’s very best vineyard sites, plantings are diligent and farmed as serious as the regions flagship Nebbiolo, far from a gimmick, these are wines deserving of praise similar to that of well-known and lauded areas of production. Tourists are visiting Piedmont in volumes larger than ever before and its wine experiencing overwhelming global demand, I hope to see a blossoming interest in Langhe Riesling in coming years.

2 thoughts

  1. Nice article. I’ve tasted a couple of Langhe Riesling, notably Vajra,and Oddero.

  2. Never had a Piedmontese Riesling. As a fan of the variety, I hope I do in the future. Very interesting article. The comparisons with other regions are very useful. Thanks!

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