As a teenager in northern Piedmont, when most boys were enthralled by soccer, girls and cars, Cristiano Garella developed another obsession: Italian wine.
At 13, Garella bought his first wine guide, by the influential Italian writer Luigi Veronelli. A couple of years later, he spent his Christmas money on his first two bottles, one of them Barolo Brunate from Enzo Boglietti.
"Wine was like a sensation from a new world," says Garella, who can't pinpoint the origins of his precocious interest. "My father was a gymnastics teacher, my mother was a secretary, and my grandmother drank a lot of bad wine."
But this he knew: He wanted to be part of the booming Italian wine scene. He enlisted his older brother to drive him about 100 miles to southern Piedmont and knocked on the cellar doors of Barolo and Barbaresco producers—from Elio Altare to Angelo Gaja. He tasted wines and soaked up all the knowledge he could.
A science student in high school, Garella spent all the money his parents gave him on a wine cellar that grew to more than 1,000 bottles. He worked in vineyards without pay, learning all he could from an old winegrower in the tiny Bramaterra appellation. At 18, he and his brother bottled the first few hundred bottles of their Nebbiolo at home.
Today, rail-thin at 30, Garella could still pass for a teenager. He is the whiz-kid winemaker for several young estates reviving the once-great vineyards of northern Piedmont, in the foothills of the Alps.
In 2013, he left a seven-year run as CEO of Tenute Sella, the historic estate based in the town of Lessona, which hired him before he even finished enology school. At Sella, he brought life back to what had been a sleepy winery by winning national acclaim for the wines and expanding worldwide distribution.
These days he is focusing on small young wineries: Le Pianelle in Bramaterra, in which Alto Adige winemaking pioneer Peter Dipoli is a partner, and La Prevostura in the even tinier neighboring Lessona DOC, just to the west. He has also partnered with his friend Giacomo Colombera and Giacomo's dad, Carlo, to form the Colombera & Garella Bramaterra winery, started in 2010.
"When I started here, there was nothing," Garella says. "But I believed it would be a good place to make wine."
Garella's goal is to show off northern Piedmont, a cool, rainy region with acidic soils whose vineyards shrank after World War II, from 120,000 acres to about 5,000 acres today.
"The goal is to show the expression of Nebbiolo in different terroirs," he says, while driving his Ford Fiesta from one vineyard town to another.
Many of the vines he works with have been planted in the past decade, he explains. It will take time for these vines to root deeper into local soils and fully express complexity in wine.
"This is the richness of our area—the different expressions of place, municipality by municipality," says Garella.
In Lessona, with its sandy marine soils, "the wines are more feminine," he says. From neighboring Bramaterra's decomposed volcanic soils, "the wines are more masculine."
Such differences are, of course, slight. All northern Piedmont wines are lighter and leaner than their southern neighbors. Taste them side by side, however, and the subtleties become pronounced.
As the sun sets, Garella drives to the winery of Columbera & Garella at the edge of the town of Masserano, where he works in a cramped garage of the Columbera home, surrounded by century-old vines. Small concrete fermentation vats sit at one end of the garage and used barriques for aging are stacked at the other. Here he produces some 800 cases a year from nearly 25 acres—about half of it Bramaterra DOC wine, which is required to be a Nebbiolo-dominant blend with other local varieties.
Garella's mix is 70 percent Nebbiolo with darker, fruity Croatina and spicy Vespolina. He works organically, tending to use only native yeasts, intervening less and less in the winemaking.
"If you are making wine in a good place, you don't need an enologist," he says, laughing. "This is a good place."
In his travels through northern Piedmont, Robert Camuto previously visited Christoph Künzli of Le Piane in the Boca appellation. Stay tuned for another installment from this resurging region.