The sleepy hilltop town of Novello nestles at the southwestern edge of the Barolo appellation, typically overshadowed by its more famous neighbors: Monforte d’Alba to the east and Barolo to the north.
Influenced by the frigid Alps to the west and the warm Ligurian Sea to the south, Novello’s microclimate is known for constant winds, big winter snows and turbulent weather. A generation ago, the realities of farming left few wineries here.
“The old people in the village talk about how, in the 1950s, it hailed for seven years in a row, and there was no harvest,” says Valter Fissore, co-owner and winemaker of Elvio Cogno, one of the wine leaders of Novello. “Everyone went to work at Fiat in Turin, and those who remained sold their grapes to large wineries in the region.”
But in recent years, Novello has reawakened, thanks to two main factors, steered by Elvio Cogno—both the winery and the man who founded it, Fissore’s father-in-law, who died in 2016. First, there’s a newfound appreciation of the fresh, elegant Barolos from its loamy, high-in-limestone soils. Second is the rebirth of Novello’s long-lost white wine, Nascetta (or Nas-cëtta). From nothing 27 years ago, 12 Novello wineries now make Nascetta.
I discovered Nascetta this summer, thanks to a Zoom tasting by the Nas-cëtta Producers Association of Novello, led by Fissore. I was intrigued. Nascetta is a semi-aromatic grape with a lightly perfumed nose, good minerality and a saline quality. Could a quirky white from Barolo-land be Italy’s next great white?
A few weeks later, I drove to Novello to meet Fissore at Elvio Cogno, the winery and modest-sized estate he helped launch 30 years ago.
“Nascetta has a lot of structure and not a lot of acidity, but it does age very, very well,” said Fissore, a barrel-chested and bearded, affable 55-year-old. “It’s a wine that has a reason for being.”
Elvio Cogno, a native of Novello, spent most of his career in La Morra making wine—and later becoming partner—at Marcarini, where he produced some legendary Barolos, some of the first to bear the name of the cru on the label. In 1990, he left for the chance to buy an abandoned Piedmontese farmstead and vineyards in Novello’s Ravera cru. Fissore, who had worked under him at Marcarini, followed.
While Fissore learned from Cogno, the two men took the lead on a project that was bubbling around Novello. The mayor and viticulture researchers were fascinated with the potential of Nascetta, a near-extinct white grape that had been described in the 19th century as a delicate variety producing fine sweet wines that were used for church masses.
While the variety is believed to be native to Piedmont, university researchers who have studied the vine’s DNA haven’t been able to settle on its origins. One theory is that it’s a mutation of Nebbiolo that changed from red to white.
In 1993, a small group of local producers uncorked some 1986 Nascetta found in the personal stock of a defunct artisanal winery. “We were stunned by the character,” says Fissore. “It tasted like good Sauternes.”
Nascetta vines were still scattered through Novello’s older Nebbiolo, Barbera and Dolcetto vineyards. The following year the men bought all the Nascetta grapes there they could find, producing a dry, white table wine. They also began selecting cuttings and propagating them to plant, eventually filling four parcels in Ravera for a total of 6 acres.
Year after year, despite the variety’s inconsistent yields and late ripening, Cogno and other Novello producers were encouraged by the results.
Yet all the while, they had to fight the Italian wine bureaucracy. Nascetta wasn’t listed in the National Register of Vine Varieties, meaning technically they couldn’t even sell a wine containing it. As a Vino da Tavola (the same designation many now-famed super Tuscans had to use when they debuted) from Piedmont, neither the grape nor vintage could appear on the bottle at the time. Cogno bent and broke the rules, trying different ways to get the name and harvest year on the bottle in small print on the back label. He used one old local moniker to visibly label the wine “Anas-Cëtta”—a name that has stuck.
“There were many years when the wine was sort of clandestine and experimental,” explains Fissore, shaking his head. “We had to pay thousands in fines.”
In the early 2000s, acceptance of Nascetta grew. First, it was added to Italy’s National Register; soon thereafter, it was permitted under the broad and fairly new Langhe D.O.C., an appellation that encompasses some of Piedmont’s most famous winegrowing areas but has more flexible production rules to allow for innovation. In 2010, the appellation created a subcategory for 100 percent Nascetta bottlings from Novello, the Langhe D.O.C. Nascetta (or Nas-cëtta) del Comune di Novello.
The wines have been improving as well: In 2015 and 2016, Elvio Cogno produced the first Novello Nascettas scoring 90 points, or outstanding, on Wine Spectator’s 100-point scale. (Both vintages are priced at $35.)
To say that local winemakers have experimented with the grape to get to this point is an understatement. “In 26 years, we have tried everything—wood and no wood, malolactic fermentation and no malolactic, selected yeasts and indigenous yeasts,” says Fissore.
He pours the most recent two vintages of Anas-Cëtta. The 2019 was the first in which the winery utilized techniques such as cold stabilization and bâtonnage, resulting in a taut, more “Nordic” wine than the 2018, which is fuller-bodied and “Mediterranean” in style.
“It has been a long, hard road,” Fissore says. “It’s a matter of pride. And I am convinced we can make it even better.”