I love Pinot Noir. And I love Italy.
So it was inevitable I end up in the Oltrepò Pavese, a now-obscure wine region of northwestern Italy that happens to hold most of the country's 12,000 acres of Pinot Nero.
A mere 40 miles south of Milan, in the Lombardy region, the rolling hills of the Oltrepò Pavese produce mainly sparkling wines, along with a dizzying list of still wines from native Italian grapes like Cortese, Croatina, Bonarda and Malvasia and international varieties such as Riesling and Chardonnay.
But with more than 7,000 acres of Pinot Nero and a history with the variety dating to the mid-1800s, the area earns the distinction of Pinot Noir’s Italian home.
"Pinot Nero was the mother grape here, and it's becoming the mother again," says Luca Bellani, 45, vice president of the Oltrepò wine consortium. He is also winemaker at his family's small Ca' di Frara winery, known for its Riesling and its dry, no dosage, metodo classico sparklers—wines made in the same method as Champagne, with the secondary fermentation taking place in the bottle.
Oltrepò began producing metodo classico sparklers from Pinot Nero in the 1860s, and the area reached its zenith in the 1960s. But in later decades, use of the local Pinot Nero crop was shifted to sparkling-wine production in neighboring Piedmont or in large-scale, generic spumantes.
In recent years, Bellani and a group of relatively young winegrowers have led a revival in locally produced Pinot Nero—for sparklers as well as still red wines, a newer category for the region. (Though Oltrepò Pavese has held D.O.C. status for nearly 50 years, a Pinot Noir–specific D.O.C. was added only in 2010.)
Leading the charge in still Pinot Noir is Conte Vistarino’s Tenuta di Rocca de’Giorgi—a sprawling historic fief on more than 2,000 acres that includes a forested hunting reserve, farmland and about 500 acres of vineyards, most of which is Pinot Nero.
Under the direction of Ottavia Giorgi di Vistarino, the estate is on the move. Three single-vineyard Pinot Nero bottlings from 2013 (the latest vintage of these reviewed in Wine Spectator blind tastings) scored 90 points or higher.
“Fruit! Fruit! Fruit! And freshness and length in the mouth,” exclaims Giorgi di Vistarino, a high-energy, 42-year-old mother of two, when asked what she seeks in her Pinot Nero. “I don’t want to imitate Burgundy. I want to make a Pinot Nero of Rocca de’Giorgi.”
Despite growing up with servants in her family’s ornate, 18th-century Villa Fornace, done in French Renaissance style with walls adorned by rich tapestries and oil paintings of ancestors, Giorgi di Vistarino is a down-to-earth wine entrepreneur who, over 17 years, has awoken things here.
“When I arrived in 2001, I said, ‘What a shame.’ The wine was generic. We had no brand,” says Giorgi di Vistarino, a slight woman with a dark mane of hair that flies about as she gesticulates for emphasis.
The vineyards of Rocca de’Giorgi, named after a ruined medieval hilltop fort on the property, spread for miles around sloping hillsides with varying clay- and limestone-based soils, microclimates and exposures.
In 1850, Giorgi di Vistarino’s great-great-grandfather married a French noblewoman and imported Pinot Noir vines from Burgundy to plant for sparkling wine production. He also imported Alsatian Riesling for the same purpose.
Giorgi di Vistarino’s forefathers bottled sparkling wine blends—still the largest part of the regional wine economy—that were sold throughout Europe. But in 1968, with the death of her grandfather, her father stopped bottling the wine, preferring to sell in bulk to négociants.
It was only in 1997, at the urging of Giorgi di Vistarino and others, that he restarted bottling a handful of wines, including what is now the estate’s flagship red, Pernice, source from a single hillside vineyard at nearly 1,000 feet in elevation.
Enter Giorgi di Vistarino the contessina, who took over after studying economics and wine. Immediately, she started to make over her family’s estate by focusing on improving vineyard management. She experimented with micro-vinifications to improve blends and to find her best vineyards.
“I began to separate all the parcels in the winery,” she says. “That had never been done before.”
Working with Caviola, Giorgi di Vistarino produced a bold, spicy and complex Pernice (91 points, $45), along with two other single-vineyard wines from that vintage: the delicate Bertone (92, $48) and the woodsy Tavernetto (90, $48).
“Pernice is like a black horse that’s very intense,” she says, when asked how she envisions the three crus. “Bertone is a white horse with a princess. And Tavernetto is a country horse on the farm.”
Oltrepò is evolving with winemakers like Bellani who see the greatest potential in a Pinot Nero alternative to Prosecco and with winery owners like Giorgi di Vistarino who see it in the dry reds.
It isn't Burgundy or Champagne, but I've tasted enough to become curious about what the future holds.