Journey to the Oltrepò Pavese kingdom

Who makes the best Pinot Noir in the world?

But of course, the producers in Burgundy!

It’s true, Burgundy is the undisputed homeland, the king of Pinot Noir. But you know what? Curiosity got the better of me and I went to explore an area in Italy that has a lot to say when it comes to Pinot Noir: the Oltrepò Pavese.

Has anyone turned up their nose yet? I understand. When we talk, or rather we used to talk about Pinot Noir from the Oltrepò Pavese, many people think of the era in which grapes were grown here to sell to wine producers throughout Italy and Europe. The Oltrepò Pavese was a very beautiful grape production area and few labels bore its name.

But a lot has changed since then and I have a great desire to break this cognitive bias that connects the Oltrepò Pavese to the simple “producer of grapes” when in fact in this land wine is produced and what a great wine! 

Credits: Consorzio Tutela Vini Oltrepò Pavese

Where is the Oltrepò Pavese?

In Italian the word “Oltrepò” means Beyond the Po. The Po is the most important Italian river in terms of length and flow. It originates from Mount Monviso in the Piedmont Alps and crosses the entire Pianura Padana – the largest Italian plain – before flowing into the Adriatic Sea. The word “Oltrepò” therefore makes you think of plain lands, flat lands, while instead…

Oltrepò Pavese is a geographical area south west of the Lombardy region which borders 3 other Italian regions: Piedmont, Liguria and Emilia Romagna. It is bordered to the east by Piacenza, to the west by Voghera, to the north by Stradella and to the south by Bobbio. If you decide to arrive from Voghera I recommend stopping at the first bar immediately after the roundabout. It’s a sort of dissemination, information and gossip center, essentially, very entertaining. Having had a coffee and a chat, proceed 500 meters, turn right until you find the wall of a house. Look what’s beyond the wall…this is the Oltrepò Pavese!

Is the Oltrepò Pavese flat?

No it’s not! Behind the wall of the house you will find the typical Oltrepò Pavese vineyard clinging to land with sudden slopes of up to 45°, as if it were an Escher painting. 45° inclination hillside in Oltrepò Pavese Basically, as soon as you cross the Po river and head South, you leave the Pianura Padana, the Po Valley and in no time at all you start climbing towards the Apennines until you reach 1900 m! You don’t go up gradually but suddenly so as to have the impression of being in front of exquisite Panettone!

Panettone is one of the traditional italian Christmas cakes

Like exquisite panettone where one slice leads to another, the temptation to touch these hills up close becomes irresistible. One of the most fun, eco-sustainable and pleasant ways to discover this fascinating area is riding an electric mountain bike. 

With a standard bike only Louis Armstrong or heroic people with trained legs can manage all these short steep climbs and sudden descents. One follows the other without interruption: imagine yourself at the bottom of a descent immediately finding yourself climbing the adjacent hill! I got a taste for it, so much so that at the end of the day I saw hills everywhere…

Up and downs on Oltrepò hills

Fascinating landscapes

The succession of hills takes your breath away, not because of the effort but because of the beauty of the views it offers us. It is a land dotted with medieval castles, mystical abbeys and romantic seats from which to enjoy heart-breaking views. It is no coincidence that already in 40 BC -therefore 2000 years ago- the geographer Strabone spoke of it as a land of hospitable people, where you eat and drink well and I would add, where you sit comfortably admiring the alternation of vineyards, woods and perched villages.

Pinot Noir in Oltrepò

It is in this landscape context that the cultivation of Pinot Noir has found its place. We know that this variety is very difficult to grow, due to its very fine skin sensitive to diseases and the soil and climatic conditions it requires. In summer, while the Po Valley is terribly hot, a decidedly cool breeze blows down from the Apennines! If we look north from the Via Emilia which runs along the Po we would be able to see Monte Rosa with its 4,634 meters above sea level but at the same time we could feel the sea breeze coming south west -from the Ligurian Sea- bringing salinity to the wines.

Not only the climate, obviously, but also the soil plays its part: the Oltrepò is mainly made up of chalky calcareous marl with an incredible slope thus giving rise to extremely draining soil, soils sometimes collapsing under the pressure of intense rain.

Mountain wines in Oltrepò Pavese

With these characteristic limestone soils, the wines in Oltrepò Pavese therefore have the characteristics of mountain wines.

Actually, the territory is so varied that at the end of the 19th century, as many as 300 different vines were cultivated. Today Pinot Noir is the mainstay, making this the most important district in Italy with 3000 hectares of vineyards.

Given the different varieties of soil, Pinot Noir d’Oltrepò manifests itself with 3 types of wines: more immediate, ready-to-drink wines produced in the sandy marls area adjacent to the plain; savory and saline wines coming from the chalky calcareous marl so-called first hill resulting from the salinity crisis; structured wines characteristic of the southernmost clayey soils area.

The art of making wine in Oltrepò Pavese

We said that Pinot Noir is a difficult vine to grow but the people of Oltrepò have been doing it very well for centuries. A writing on parchment testifies that already in the Middle Ages the Carthusian monks spoke of the presence of vine cultivation and wine production in Oltrepò Pavese.

In 1848 the Marquis Leopoldo Incisa della Rocchetta planted Pinot Noir in his nursery then in the 1860s the great impulse was given by Conte Vistarino who imported Pinot Noir from France and bottled the first bottle of Classic Method Pinot Noir in 1865 together with Carlo Gancia. 

The cultivation and production of wine took off at this point so much so that at the beginning of the 1900s the Montu Beccaria and La Versa wineries were founded, then the Società Vinicola Italiana di Casteggio. The advertising poster of the S.V.I.C. welcomed Italian migrants in front of the Statue of Liberty! 

The resourcefulness of this land is also demonstrated by the precious document of the Frecciarossa winery which grants it the import license in the USA, license n.19. 

Frecciarossa and Alfred Hitchcock

Given the growing success, in 1970 the DOC was born and followed by the DOCG and DOC Pinot Noir in red. Today the producers of Oltrepò Pavese work to make the quality of their wines known with the same resourcefulness and strength that pushed the first great entrepreneurs of the area in their time.

Oltrepò Wine makers. From left to right:
Azienda Montelio, Tenuta Mazzolino, Cordero San Giorgio, Tenuta Travaglino, Conte Vistarino

A map as a friend

Whatever it is your preference in terms of taste, my advice is to leave the speedy Via Emilia and lose yourself in a slow and tortuous journey through the Oltrepò Pavese hills. 

To make it easier for you, I leave you my very personal map of the area: if you ever manage to understand it, it will guide you to discover the history and curiosities of a land that can offer unexpected surprises. The first Pinot Noir classic method sparkling wine of Italy was born here in 1865, did you know that? 

If my map isn’t clear enough, clic on Terroir and select the Lombardia region 🙂

My very personal map