Wine trip to Lombardia: Oltrepò Pavese

I am a member of the Dutch association of Vinologists (Verenigde Vinologen Nederland) and after the great wine trip to Piemonte last year, I joined this year’s trip to Lombardia. Our guide for the trip was Fred Nijhuis, just like last year.

Lombardia is not as famous as a wine region as Piemonte or Toscana, but it does have more wine producing areas than we could visit in a 5-day trip. The most important wine producing areas of Lombardia are Valtellina, Franciacorta, and Oltrepò Pavese, which are the only three areas with a DOCG denomination in Lombardia. This is the first article in a short series, in which I describe the first day in which we visited Oltrepò Pavese. Next will be Franciacorta, Valtellina, and Valcalepio. We did not visit the other wine producing areas in Lombaria, which are Cellatica, Botticino, Garda, San Martino della Battaglia, Lugana, Garda Colli Mantovani, Lambrusco Mantovano, San Colombano al Lambro, and Capriano del Colle.

There are two parts of Lombardia that are on the other (southern) side of the river Po than the rest of Lombardia. Oltrepò Pavese is the part “on the other side of the river Po” (literally: Oltrepò) near the city of Pavia, and Oltrepò Mantovano is the part near the city of Mantua, where Lambrusco Mantovano is produced.

Oltrepò Pavese (OP) has one DOCG denomination since 2007: Oltrepò Pavese Metodo Classico DOCG. It is a sparkling wine that can be white or rosé, and is always made with at least 70% Pinot Nero and the rest Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, and Pinot Bianco. If Pinot Nero is written on the label, then it needs to contain at least 85% Pinot Nero. OP is the 3rd largest production area for Pinot Noir in the world, after Burgundy and Champagne, and the first metodo classico in the world after Champagne. The ‘classic method’ for making sparkling wine is the same as is used in Champagne, which is to create the bubbles by a second fermentation in the bottle. Just like Champagne, the minimum time to age on the lees after the second fermentation is 15 months (24 months for single vintage). Two important differences with Champagne are the warmer climate and the predominance of Pinot Nero in OP with a minimum percentage of 70%. (Champagne with 70% or more Pinot Noir certainly exists, but there is also a lot of Champagne that has less Pinot Noir or is even 100% Chardonnay, blanc de blancs). Pinot Noir was introduced in OP from France in the mid 19th century to produce still white (blanc de noirs) and sparkling wines. Like Champagne, OP has chalky soils, which gives the grapes higher acidity and thus makes them more suitable to produce sparkling wines. OP also has more Pinot Nero than in Franciacorta.

There used to be one DOC for all wines from OP, but now there are several DOC denominations next to the DOCG for metodo classico:

  • Pinot Nero dell’Oltrepò Pavese DOC: still red from at least 95% Pinot Nero, also riserva (aged at least two years, of which at least six months in wood);
  • Bonarda dell’Oltrepò Pavese DOC: dry red wine of at least 85% Croatina, often but not always frizzante (sparkling);
  • Oltrepò Pavese DOC: red, rosé, and white wines, both still and sparkling, from many local and international grape varieties, both varietals and blends, the most important being Barbera, Riesling, and Moscato;
  • Sangue di Giuda DOC: a sweet red wine, usually sparkling (but still is also allowed), that is a blend of 25%-65% Barbera, 25%-65% Croatina, and maximum 45% Uva Rara, Ughetta del Canneto (Vespolina), and Pinot Nero.
  • Buttafuoco DOC: dry red wine of the same blend as Sangue di Giuda except that no Pinot Nero is allowed, usually still (but sparkling is also allowed).

Our first stop in Oltrepò Pavese was for lunch at La Locanda in Calvignano.

We started with a nice risotto as primo piatto, made with radicchio, scamorza (smoked mozzarella), and Bonarda wine, paired with Lunano by Travaglino. This dry aromatic white wine is a blend of Pinot Grigio, Moscato, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay that is Provincia di Pavia IGT. The secondo piatto was breast of veal, stuffed with spinach and served with roasted potatoes. It was paired with an Oltrepò Pavese Barbera Campo dei Ciliegi 2018 by Travaglino, a nicely balanced medium-bodied Barbera. We finished with tiramisù.

The first winery of our trip was Travaglino, established in Calvignano in 1868 in a former monastery dating back to the year 1111. It is a family-owned boutique winery with 80 hectares of vineyards. Only 25% of the production is used to produce 200,000 bottles of wine, the remainder of the harvest is sold. There are 8 families that have lived and worked for generations on the estate.

Travaglino specialized in Pinot Nero, both metodo classico sparkling and still wines, and Riesling. The sparkling wines age for 24 to 60 or 70 months on the lees after the second fermentation in the bottle. Aging al those bottles takes up a lot of space in the cellars of the winery. Alessandro showed us around the estate.

For the top sparkling wines, the remuage (turning the bottles to move the dead yeast to the neck of the bottle) is still done by hand.

But the remainder is turned by machines.

We were received in the nice tasting room by Christina, where we tasted 6 more wines by Travaglino, after the 2 already tasted with lunch.

The wines we tasted were:

  • Cuvée 59, OP Metodo Classico DOCG (without vintage), 80% Pinot Nero, 20% Chardonnay, aged for 24 months, Brut 7 grams/litre
  • Montecérésino, OP Metodo Classico Pinot Nero Rosè 2016, 100% Pinot Nero, aged for 48 months, Extra Brut 3 grams/litre
  • Campo della Fojada 2021, Oltrepò Pavese DOC Riesling
  • Pernero 2021, Pinot Nero dell’OP DOC
  • Poggio della Buttinera 2018, Pinot Nero dell’OP Riserva DOC, aged for 3 years, of which 11 months in oak, of which 10% new
  • Marc’Antonio 2019, Oltrepò Pavese Rosso Riserva DOC, 60% Barbera and 40% Croatina, aged 1 year in French oak barriques

Personally I liked the two metodo classico wines best, which were both well balanced and elegant with a very creamy mousse. The Riesling was fruity and did not have the characteristic high acidity of a German Riesling. The alcohol was a bit too present in the last two reds, probably due to climate change. If you like Pinot Noir from California, then you will probably like the Poggio della Buttinera. The simple but very pleasant Campo dei Ciliegi Barbera we had with lunch was my favorite red.

Our third and last stop in Oltrepò Pavese was at the Consorzio Tutela Vini Oltrepò Pavese, the association of wine makers of the region. The director Carlo Veronese presented a comprehensive overview of the wine region, naturally with accompanying wines. OP has 13,800 hectares of vineyards. The area used to be able to value quantity over quality, selling large quantities to people from Milan from tanks rather than in bottles. Like the other wine areas in Italy, OP has now made the move from quantity to quality, as people are drinking less wine than before. Many of the wines in OP are still adapted to the typical fatty foods of the region like salami, sausage, and cheese, that go well with sparkling wines that clean the palate. Sparkling wines have been produced here since the mid 19th century; for the last 50 years or so also still wines.

The wines we tasted were:

  • Oltrenero 2017, OP Pinot Nero Metodo Classico DOCG Brut Nature, aged 52 months on the lees
  • Defilippi Crocetta OP Pinot Grigio DOC 2020
  • Casteggio Rusan, OP Pinot Grigio Rosato DOC 2020
  • Il Molino di Rovescala 2021, Bonarda dell’Oltrepò Pavese Frizzante, 100% Croatina
  • Quaquarini Ughetta di Canneto 2021 Provincia di Pavia IGT, 100% Ughetta di Canneto, which is the same grape as Vespolina from Alto Piemonte
  • Fiamberti Il Cacciatore 2020 Buttafuoco DOC, 60% Croatina, 30% Barbera, 5% Uva Rara, 5% Ughetta di Canneto, aged 18 months in wood, a full-bodied red with quite some tannins, still a bit young, won tre bicchieri from Gambero Rosso this year
  • Tenuta Mazzolino Noir 2018, Pinot Nero dell’OP DOC
  • Quaquarini Sangue di Giuda dell’OP DOC 2021, 65% Croatina, 25% Barbera, 10% Ughetta di Canneto, sweet and slightly sparkling, only 6% alcohol by volume

The wines are great value, for instance the Sangue di Giuda is 8 euros and the Buttafuoco 14 euros.

There was also food with the wines, as an early dinner before our bus trip to Franciacorta. The antipasti included local Salame di Varzi DOP, coppa (cured pork shoulder) from the Valle di Staffora, and local cheeses. There was also risotto made with Bonarda and sausage. Some of the wines, especially the Ughetta di Canneto, improved when paired with the typical foods.

This concluded our visit to Oltrepò Pavese. Coming up: Franciacorta.

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