Spanna is the local name for the Nebbiolo grape in north-eastern Piemonte. Others include Barolo, Babaresco, Picutener, Picotendro and Pugnet.
Spanna along with the others are cultivars; vines that have adapted and mutated to a specific type or climate or soil. Nebbiolo was recognized as a quality grape in the 13th century, with most vines staked high in trees, with grains growing beneath. Greek style wine was in demand, so Malvasia and Moscato were brought in and trained low to the ground. This caught on with other varieties and both styles were seen next to each other for centuries; Altinis et Spanis. Low staked wines made better quality wines, but less of it. One can see that growing stronger more aromatic wine was a specialized branch of viticulture, practiced by land-owner who did not have to subsist on what they grew. Some feel that the word Spanna refers to a vine being trained a hands span from the ground. Others think Spanna is the name of a wine stake. Most wines produced here centuries ago were sweet and unstable. High trained vines could not be sprayed with Bordeaux mixture, so there was a lot of Oidium. Wine scientist Louis Oudart started making dry wines for clients and changed the style to a dark, dry, age worthy wine in the 1850's. At this time high training was abandoned for lower training as yields were brought down in favor of quality. Spanna is far less suited to excessive yields than others anyway. Less than 5% of Piemonte vineyards are categorized as flat. The best soils are fine, gravelly and volcanic, and fast draining. Soils here generally have more acid than in the Langhe. They tend to give less weight to the finished wines. The best benefit from a southern exposure in this sub-alpine climate. Spanna loves the afternoon fog in the autumn. This is the northern outpost for Nebbiolo, with vineyards on both sides of the Sesia River. Not surprisingly, the best Spanne come from hot dry years. They are described as having the medium body similar to Pinot Noir, but with much higher tannin and acid. Compared to Barolo or Barbaresco, Spanna is a softer and lighter wine. Although very perfumed, it doesn’t have as much grandezza. Spanna grows in 6 DOC’s and 1 DOCG. Gattinara is the only DOCG, with 250 acres (100ha) planted. Gattinara allows only one year aging, and two for reserve. Spanna from Gattinara can have similar aging qualities to Barolo. Le Colline Monsecco is considered the most noble. The 6 DOCG’s represent six different soils types. Ghemme has 210 acres (85ha) planted just east of Gattinara. Up to 25% Vespolina and Uva Rata (local variety of Bonarda) can be blended in. Gattinara and Ghemme make the most age worthy Spanna wines. Lessona only has 20 acres (8ha) planted in the Vercelli hills. While DOC regulations authorize 10% Vespolina and Bonarda to soften the wine in all other provinces, Lessona allows 100% Spanna. Although much is blended, the lime poor soil can produce single varietal Spanna. Bramaterra lies on 74 acres (30ha) of volcanic soil in the Vercelli hills. It is less full bodied but develop an elegant violet and rose aroma with age. The DOC requires an addition of 30%+ of Cratina, Bonarda, or Vespolina to add fruit character. Sizzano has 99 acres (40 ha) with Spanna only planted on about half. This explains why the wines are less tannic, lighter, and develop more quickly. Fara (54 acres/15ha) and Boca (37 acres/15ha) are located in the province of Novara. They produce light but high tannin versions of Spanna, with flavors of wild berry, tea, and violets. Piemontese still habitually drink wine with meals, ranging from soft Dolcetto to austere Barolo, from hearty Barbera to svelte Grignolino, from fizzy dry Freisa to sweet and bubbly Brachetto. The sense of history has elevated Spanna and other native grapes to new heights. However, this does not mean that Spanna doesn’t have its share of problems. Excessive oak aging and wines not undergoing malolactic fermentation were major problems in the past, but are less frequent due to better care during production. Other problems include a market that has shifted toward the Langhe, and loss of workforce to the nearby textile favorites of Biella.