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Why it’s Oltrepò Pavese’s time to shine

With Oltrepò Pavese recently attracting a number of big players, Louis Thomas explores how this Pinot Noir-producing part of Lombardy could become Italy’s next fine wine destination.

“Burgundy and Champagne are the two most important regions for Pinot Noir in Europe; the third is Oltrepò Pavese,” claims Matteo Casagrande Paladini, managing director of Colline e Oltre, a company spearheading the economic development of Oltrepò Pavese.

With 13,500 hectares of vineyard spread over four valleys (Valle Staffora, Valle Coppa, Valle Scuropasso and Valle Versa), Oltrepò Pavese’s area under vine is approximately twice that of Chianti Classico. Situated south of the River Po in the Western Lombard province of Pavia, it has a winemaking history stretching back as far as the ancient Romans.

Today, it is not only Lombardy’s most valuable agricultural sub-region, but also constitutes 11% of the total value of Italy’s agriculture, and viticulture plays no small part of that. So, why have so few of us heard of the region? Given the sheer scale of its wine production, it seems unusual that Oltrepò Pavese is not more widely recognised for its wines. Hugh Johnson’s World Atlas of Wine (fourth edition) notes as such, remarking: “All that is lacking in this productive but scarcely celebrated area is a name to conjure with.”

When Oltrepò Pavese has been thrust into the limelight, it hasn’t always been positive. In 2020, it emerged that the Cantina Sociale di Canneto Pavese cooperative had been accused of using prohibited grape varieties to make fake Oltrepò Pavese DOC and PGI wines in order to increase production volumes by upwards of one million litres. Five people were arrested. A similar incident had occurred in Oltrepò Pavese just a few years previously. However, the region has been undergoing a significant rebranding.

It was reputedly Agostino Depretis, who was born in Oltrepò Pavese and served three terms as Prime Minister of Italy in the late 19th century, who pushed for the introduction of Pinot Noir to the region. Today, 3,300ha of Oltrepò Pavese’s vineyard area is planted with the variety.

By contrast, in Franciacorta, probably Lombardy’s best known wine region, about three-quarters of the almost 3,000ha total vineyard area is planted with Chardonnay, whereas Pinot Noir only makes up about 17%. Other widely-cultivated varieties in Oltrepò Pavese include Riesling, and the red varieties Croatina and Barbera.

Overall, Oltrepò Pavese produces 40 DOC/DOCG wines – 62% of all the wine produced in Lombardy comes from here. In 2022, a total of around 70.7m bottles of wine were produced.

The key Pinot Noir/Pinot Noir-based wines of the region are the still Pinot Nero dell’Oltrepò Pavese DOC, and the sparkling Oltrepò Pavese Metodo Classico DOCG (referred to as Cruasé when made as a rosé).

Such mass production might naturally lead one to approach the notion of Oltrepò Pavese being a future fine wine region with some trepidation, but there are reasons to believe that it is ripe to become a hotspot for premium sparkling and still wines in Italy.

Key attributes

Paolo Tealdi, winemaker and estate director of Oltrenero, which is part of the Zonin1821 portfolio, thinks that Oltrepò Pavese has key attributes needed for a fine wine region. “It has a really similar terroir to Champagne,” he says. “The soil type is characterised by marine sedimentary rocks and some areas are chalky, with clay components. The climate is dry in winter, and windy in summer. This means that Pinot Noir, and all the grapes used for spumante, find a good terroir here.” Tealdi credits the soil composition of Oltrepò Pavese with giving remarkable longevity to its single-varietal Pinot Noir traditional method sparkling: “After 20 years, we opened some bottles up, and they were still really fresh. I cannot find this in Pinot Noir-based spumante from Trento DOC or Alta Langa, for example,” he says. For producers of still single-varietal Pinot Noir, such as Castel del Lupo, warmer plots are sought, sacrificing the high acidity required for a good traditional method sparkling base wine in favour of the phenolic ripeness desirable for a red table wine.

The Consorzio Tutela Vini Oltrepò Pavese has attempted to bolster the global profile of Oltrepò Pavese wines, undertaking promotional activities in the US, Japan, Germany and the UK. However, this appreciation hasn’t yet translated to a rush in sales. Phill Morgan, head sommelier at Bocca di Lupo, the London restaurant that has championed regional Italian cuisine for more than 15 years, describes it as “quite an unknown region” that is seldom imported into the UK. He also suggests that it doesn’t currently “compete well on price” with New World expressions of Pinot Noir.

“New World producers have the advantage of large vineyards and yields, so they can bring it to the mass market,” Morgan says. “And, importantly, they’re very good at marketing, which arguably Italy is only good at for classic appellations.”

The outlook is similar within Oltrepò Pavese itself. “The majority of local producers have underestimated international consumers and out-of-the-region markets,” suggests Alessandro Rovati, owner and winemaker of Zerbosco. “We need to get better at presenting ourselves.”

This relative obscurity could all be about to change. Summer 2023 saw two major players buy wineries in Oltrepò Pavese. In August, Cristina, Arturo and Paolo Ziliani, the owners of famed Franciacorta producer Guido Berlucchi, purchased Oltrepò Pavese winery Vigne Olcru and its 8ha of vineyards from the Brambilla family. Then, in September, Masi Agricola SpA, best-known for its work in Valpolicella, signed a preliminary agreement to buy the Casa Re estate in Oltrepò Pavese, including its 13ha of vineyards, from the Casati family. Masi CEO Federico Girotto argues that Casa Re offers “a good size to have a foothold in the appellation,” and that the acquisition “gives us potential to expand”.

Both Masi and the Zilianis cite the quality of the Pinot Noir as a major draw of Oltrepò Pavese, especially for sparkling production. Cristina Ziliani, head of external relations at Guido Berlucchi, says the company will focus on rosé sparkling wine, made from Pinot Noir, mirroring the way in which Guido Berlucchi launched its Pinot di Franciacorta Max Rosé in 1962, which Ziliani claims was the first Italian traditional method sparkling rosé. She also plans to “further develop production and the number of bottles produced without compromising quality”.

Striking a deal

As for how an established producer like Zerbosco reacted to the arrival of these new investors, Rovati says: “It will make the Oltrepò Pavese brand more famous, especially abroad, if they decide to invest in quality products with local denominations.”

Both winery acquisitions were facilitated by Colline e Oltre, established in November 2021 as a joint project between Intesa Sanpaolo, Italy’s leading bank, and regional bank Fondazione Banca del Monte di Lombardia. Two years later, Colline e Oltre gained a third shareholder, Fondazione Social Venture Giordano Dell’Amore, which holds a 24.5% stake, the same as Fondazione Banca del Monte di Lombardia, with Intesa Sanpaolo having the remaining 51% shareholding. While Colline e Oltre managing director Casagrande Paladini cannot disclose the exact value of the Masi and Ziliani family deals from last summer, he says that most wineries in the region have a fair value of €3m-€8m. Colline e Oltre’s role in the transaction was to build the business relationships between buyers and sellers, and showcase the land’s quality. The deals have caused a flurry of interest in this part of Lombardy.

“Many top investors are contacting us in order to better know this region and its we and are working with Colline e Oltre to claim a stake in Oltrepò Pavese.” Casagrande Paladini reveals that two further “important” foreign companies are preparing to buy in the region, though he cannot yet reveal their identities.

One area where the ripples of this increased interest can clearly be seen is the change in land prices since summer 2023, according to Casagrande Paladini. “In Oltrepò Pavese, the price per hectare last year was around €40,000,” he says. “Now, the average price per hectare is substantially higher, at €65,000-€70,000, and in the next year we would like to reach an average price of €125,000-€130,000 per hectare. The greater the number of top investors there are in Oltrepò Pavese, the higher the average price will be.”

In Franciacorta and Trentino, he adds, “land costs five or six times more than in Oltrepò Pavese. There is no reason for this.” It isn’t just the new arrivals who are betting big on Oltrepò Pavese’s Pinot Noir. Winemaker Tealdi reports that Zonin1821’s Oltrenero winery is increasingly prioritising production of the variety. “We have some plots of Cortese and Malvasia that we used to use that we will be replacing with Pinot Noir this year, because the market is growing and we need a greater quantity,” he says. At present, Oltrenero produces 160,000 bottles of sparkling wine per year, from 92ha of vineyards.

Beyond the wineries themselves, Oltre e Colline is also developing Oltrepò Pavese’s hospitality offering, mirroring how the likes of Napa Valley in California and South Africa’s Stellenbosch have created lucrative wine hubs from the ground up. Among the projects Oltre e Colline is undertaking is working with Switzerland’s Ecole Hôtelière de Lausanne to develop “a top-class educational offer for the Italian hospitality industry”, Casagrande Paladini reveals. He hints that the project could be based at Villa Castello Torrazzetta. “The aim is to create a new line of hospitality managers, chefs, and sommeliers,” he says. “We are also dealing with hospitality management companies and real estate funds in order to facilitate the development of a five-star hotel in Oltrepò Pavese.”

Those who are prepared to spend on hotel rooms may also be the sort to splash the cash on wine tours and a few bottles to take home. Consorzio president Gilda Fugazza notes that many producers now offer experiences such as “dinner in the vineyards and wine tastings in the cellar” to visitors. “If you merge a real estate hospitality investment with the heritage of wine and nature, you can welcome high net-worth individuals with top quality experiences,” Casagrande Paladini argues.

Developing a wine tourism industry specifically aimed at wealthy visitors certainly would help to compensate for the relatively small export market. The region also has geography on its side, according to Casagrande Paladini. “Oltrepò Pavese looks like Chianti, but it is close to Milan – it takes less than one hour to go from Milan city centre to Oltrepò Pavese,” he says.

However, Oltrepò Pavese’s greatest asset as a wine region, its reputation for highquality Pinot Noir, may also be a hindrance. Bocca di Lupo’s Morgan shares his view on where Oltrepò Pavese’s still Pinot Noir in particular stands. “I see no real reason why great Pinot Noir from Oltrepò Pavese can’t be up there with wines from Tuscany and Piedmont,” he says. “After all, Pinot Noir is a noble variety and is capable of great things elsewhere. I guess, though, that’s exactly the challenge it faces. If you want great Nebbiolo, you have to take Barolo or Barbaresco. If Sangiovese’s your thing, with few exceptions, Tuscany is your place. Pinot Noir flourishes all over the world, so unless you’re looking specifically for Italian wine, as we do at Bocca di Lupo, then Oltrepò Pavese will struggle. For now.”

Morgan is also unconvinced that Oltrepò Pavese Pinot Noir will ever hold a candle to red Burgundy, which he simply calls “a different world”.

Break through

As for the region’s sparkling wines, it might be some time before they really break through in foreign markets, according to Girotto: “We cannot deny that Italian méthode Champenoise expressions internationally suffer from competition from Champagne, crémant and even English sparkling wine – we see more of a future on the domestic market at the moment.” Ziliani, however, is slightly more optimistic, suggesting that “the trend in international consumption is favourable to quality Italian bubblies”.

Perhaps the crucial difference is that Oltrepò Pavese’s future strategy doesn’t focus on bringing its wines to the world, but rather vice versa. Developing the region as a luxury oenogastronomic holiday destination to attract those big spenders who ultimately determine the ebb and flow of the fine wine market – especially those who may have come for business in the financial capital of Milan – may yet give Oltrepò Pavese its moment in the sun.

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