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robert camuto: letter from europe

From Mechanic to Winemaker: One Man's Journey in Northern Piedmont

Tiziano Mazzoni rises to become Ghemme’s star for Nebbiolo
Photo by: Robert Camuto
Tiziano Mazzoni stands among his prized vines in northern Piedmont, which are hitting their stride at 15-plus years.

Posted: Apr 13, 2015 10:00am ET

Tiziano Mazzoni spent most of his adult life as a mechanic, working on engines for race cars and boats.

Now he makes wine. In fact, very good red wine in the relatively obscure Ghemme appellation in Italy's northern Piedmont region.

“I decided to do something crazy,” says Mazzoni, 55, explaining why he retired his wrenches when he turned 40 and bought some vineyards to indulge his passion for red wine—particularly Nebbiolo.

Mazzoni, a compact man with clear blue eyes and a graying mustache, is today a leader for quality in Ghemme. His wines have been imported into the United States for three years, and in late 2014, the Ghemme dei Mazzoni 2009 ($39) scored 90 points in a Wine Spectator blind tasting.

Ghemme’s wine—though prized for centuries—fell into steep decline with the rest of northern Piedmont in the 20th century and has only partially recovered in the 21st.

Located above the eastern banks of the Sesia river, opposite Gattinara, the Ghemme DOCG today includes about 20 independent producers working more than 200 acres in the communes of Ghemme and Romagnano Sesia. The same vineyards can also be used for wines labeled with the larger and more varied Colline Novaresi appellation.

The terroirs are very different from the volcanic slopes of Gattinara and Boca. Ghemme’s vineyards are planted on a series of clay plateaus that give the wines more body, structure and fruit than their northern Piedmont neighbors. (Read the blog posts "To Boca with Love" and "A Youthful Obsession" for more on the region; members can read "Gattinara Stands Tall" in the April 30 issue of Wine Spectator.)

The Mazzoni family traces its history back to the 14th century in the town of Cavaglio d’Agogna, just east of Ghemme. Mazzoni’s father was the first in the family to quit farming, in the 1960s, to work in a nearby plumbing-faucet factory, but he continued to make a small amount of wine for the family.

Like many Italians who are helping wake up Italy’s once-sleeping appellations, Mazzoni has made the full return to local soils, working with his strapping son, Gilles, and wife, Rita.

An outgoing man who speaks in rapid-fire Italian, Mazzoni learned commercial winemaking by talking with relatives and friends—from a local enologist to other area producers, including the Antoniolos in Gattinara.

Starting in 1999, he bought 3 acres of vineyards in the Ghemme appellation and replanted for quality, with higher densities for lower yields. Today Mazzoni produces some 1,200 cases from 11 acres in Ghemme and Colline Novaresi.

His most prized Ghemme vineyard, called ai Livelli, is 2.5 acres first planted in 1978; he increased the vineyard density in 2000 by adding a row of massal selection Nebbiolo in between each existing row. The vineyard produces 100 cases of his top single-vineyard wine, Ghemme ai Livelli (2008, 88 points, $55), the bulk of which is exported to the United States.

In his old cramped winery, Mazzoni works classically. His Ghemme wines are long-fermented on native yeasts in steel tanks, then aged in large oak barrels and larger casks—Ghemme dei Mazzoni for the appellation's minimum of 20 months and Ghemme ai Livelli for three years—plus nine months in bottle. Mazzoni's four Colline Novaresi DOC-labeled wines include two Nebbiolos with no cask aging, one Vespolina (a Nebbiolo relative usually used for blending) and a white Erbaluce.

Mazzoni has done impressive work with relatively young vines—most of them only in their 15th year. As these vineyards mature, the wines will get more complex. “Nebbiolo expresses itself with age,” he explains. “At 15 you start to have good quality.”

Over these last 15 years, Mazzoni has seen Ghemme and northern Piedmont change dramatically. The number of small quality producers is growing and finding markets. His wines are sold in Tuscany, Milan, Japan and even Piedmont’s elite Barolo appellation. But one of the most difficult markets has been the one at his doorstep. The north Piemontese, who had for decades turned their backs on local wines, are slowly coming back.

“It’s changed completely,” he says. “Restaurants here are starting to buy our wines.”

In his travels through the resurging region of northern Piedmont, Robert Camuto previously visited Christoph Künzli of Le Piane in the Boca appellation and Cristiano Garella of Columbera & Garella in Bramaterra. WineSpectator.com members can read his feature, Gattinara Stands Tall, in the April 30 issue of Wine Spectator.

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