Azienda Vitivinicola Nervi was founded by Luigi Nervi in 1906. He needed no formal qualification to set up shop. His family had produced and traded wine for the three and a half centuries that had passed since Giuglielmo Nervi was elected Gattinara’s Procuratore della Communitá (mayor) in 1555.
Several of Luigi’s father Carlo’s vineyards in the cru areas of Molsino, Molsinetto (Garavoglie) and Ronco had been in the family since 1679 when they appeared as the property of Benedetto Nervi in Gattinara’s Catasto, a land register used for municipal tax assessment.
Valuation of Carlo Nervi’s vineyards in Parmolone, Molsinone, Molsinetto and Ronco from 1922
Just 20 years prior to Benedetto becoming Procuratore della Communitá, his relative Giovanni Nervi had been appointed Sommegliere di Bocca -sommelier- to the Duchess of Savoy. In 1658 Giovanni was awarded the use of the Nervi family’s stem, and charged with the selection, procurement and serving of wine to Savoy’s first Madame Royale, Christine Marie of France. The Louvre born daughter of Henry IV of France and his second wife Maria de Medici ran the Duchy of Savoy from her husband’s death in 1638 until her own passing away in 1663.
In 1653 she moved into the newly developed villa and vineyard complex known as La Vigna di Madama Reale on the hills outside Turin. When Giovanni Nervi was called upon as her Sommegliere from 1658, the vines around the magnificent villa were starting to bear fruit and produce a fine wine. Insisting on rivalling the splendour of the courts of her siblings Louis XIII of France and Maria Henrietta married to Charles I of England, it is safe to assume her Sommegliere Giovanni Nervi had a trusted palate. At the time, wines were mostly drawn directly from the barrels and served from pewter vessels like this Gattinara decanter from 1640.
The label used by Luigi Nervi in 1906
When Nervi started his business in 1906, he did not own vineyards but bought wine locally and produced some own wine from his father’s holdings in the Molsino, Parmolone and Ronco vineyards. Central to the venture was his location. From his cellars in the Piazza Stazione Tram he could source wine from Gattinara’s many small producers, blend it, and ship to Milan and Turin via the tram service to Vercelli, 30 kilometres to the south. His label depicted the village of Gattinara and Monterosa, Europe’s second highest mountain and climatic key to Gattinara and North Piedmont’s status as the cradle of Nebbiolo.
Luigi married Margherita Ferretti in 1910. His business was growing rapidly. The ledger shows a doubling from monthly sales of Lira 173.60 in 1909 to Lira 367.55 in 1910. It also shows that spese matrimonio, the cost of Margherita and Luigi’s wedding, was Lira 1 703.25, akin to five months sales. The business was either modest, the wedding grand, or both. But the wine trade proved profitable. By the time their only son Italo was born in 1913, the capital had grown to Lira 4 000 from about Lira 850 at the time of the wedding three years earlier.
Margherita brought vineyards in Valferana from her father Clemente into the Nervi family. Later she would also provide meaningful capital to grow Nervi’s business. The source of her capital was peculiar. Following the 1911 World Expo in Turin, her grandfather lent money to her Zio – uncle – Carlo Togniacca so that the latter could acquire the machinery brought to the Turin exposition by the Japanese industrial association.
Bringing it all back to Japan was not an option so Zio Togniacca got it for a knock down price. He made a sizeable profit from the resale of the goods, and later repaid handsomely to all his nieces and nephews, Margherita included.
During the first world war, Margherita tended the business alone while Luigi served as an officer at Susa in Moncenisio on the French border. Luigi forged valuable friendships with other officers, many of them restaurateurs and hoteliers. Upon his return in 1919, Luigi started shipping wine to his new friends all over Italy.
It proved a boon. In the three years from 1919 to 1922 Margherita and Luigi grew the capital of their company from Lira 4 000 to Lira 35 490 and ended the year of 1922 with a stock of fine wine valued at Lira 18 000 in their cellar.
With a profitable business and funding from Zio Carlo Togniacca, Luigi and Margherita started investing. Nervi’s 18th century cellars in Corso Vercelli 117 were bought from the Bertolazzi and Vegis families in 1919.
In 1920 the Nervis started marketing their wine at fairs both in Italy and abroad and in 1924 they started expanding their vineyards. In the 50 years to follow, Luigi, Margherita and Italo acquired 30 hectars of vineyards in the Gattinara DOCG area of which 22 in the historic cru vineyards of Casaccie, Garavoglie, Molsino and Valferana.
The focus of the Nervi’s acquisitions of vineyards was the Molsino. It is a steep south facing natural amphitheatre stretching from 302 to 414 meters above sea level. This vineyard has aspect, slope, soil and mezzo climate perfect for Nebbiolo. The first mention of the Molsino vineyard appears in a 1471 Pergamum citing Vigna ad Molexinum. In local dialect the term means morbido, akin to soft like velvet in English. It is unclear whether the name referred to the soft soil composition or the velvety wine made in this vineyard.
The Molsino amphitheatre
Already in 1556 Procuratore della Communitá Giuglielmo Nervi had a small holding in Molsino. By the time Benedetto Nervi became Procuratore della Communitá in 1679, the holding had expanded to six stare, about a quarter of an hectare. When Italo Nervi passed away three centuries later, Nervi’s holding in Molsino covered the entire 13 hectar southern face of the Molsino hill as well as the adjacent five hectar Molsinetto (Garavoglie). Generations’ persistent acquisitions were crowned with command of the central parts of this 550 year old historic cru.
When assessing terrains to buy, the Nervis had good use of the notes taken by Luigi’s uncle Pietro Giovanni Nervi. He worked at Italy’s second Royal Enological Research Station, established in Gattinara in 1872. Wine from 327 vineyards across North Piedmont was analysed and tasted, among these Sebastiano Gibellino´s 1860 Gattinara (row 9) and Bertolazzi´s 1865 (row 20), today part of Nervi´s Valferana vineyard. Only 20 years after the Bordeaux classification was issued, this analysis resulted in the 1875 quality classification of North Piedmont´s terroirs.
It placed Gattinara on top, followed by Lessona, Grignasco, Ghemme, Cossato, Sizzano, Boca and Briona. The hills of Gattinara had 628 hectares of vineyards mostly planted with Spanna – at the time considered a variety distinct from Nebbiolo. Head of the research station Ing. G.B Cerletti commented in his report of 1875 that “…the price for a hectolitre of good Gattinara was Lire 600 – 800, a level rarely reached by fine French wines, even when genuine Clos Vougeot, Chambertin, Medoc or Hermitage.“
Gibbelino Sebastiano Gattinara vintage 1864
Gate to the Regia Stazione Enologica di Gattinara 1872
Towards the end of the 1920s Luigi got involved in Vini Tipici, a project aiming to designating Italian wines by their origin. Driving the project was Arturo Marescalchi, an Italian Senator and oenologist who had established the Italian Federation of Oenologists in 1891. His 1924 description of Gattinara as Vino Tipico was as follows:
Gattinara Spanna turning Gattinara Nervi DOC from the 1964 vintage
The varieties are now reduced to just a few, with only the best remaining. Among these Spanna holds the top spot for importance, the main varietal, the noble and valuable creator of the great wines of the Pre-Alps. We are talking about the great Gattinara, with its genuine, frank, exquisite taste, subtle and sweet fragrance, crystalline garnet colour, with its vigorous and sincere strength. A great wine with roasts and deserts, the first born son of Spanna from the Novara Pre-Alps which perhaps is better than any of its brothers, because of its own virtue and the soil that produces it, knows how to fully obtain the heart and soul of this noble variety. This great wine is born rich in colour and extractive matter, in acids and minerals, rough, tart and strong in alcohol. Aging changes its colour from bright red to sunrise red to light garnet and after years crystalline orange red. Through aging it loses its roughness, tartness and rustic alcohol, to become supple, mellow and delicate; the characteristic taste of raspberries, very pronounced when young, later provides delightful hints of it, so as to caress and brighten the palate of the connoisseur. And finally its aroma, vague at first, gradually becomes thin, penetrating, vaporous, sweet with the particular essence of violets, roses and tar. Because of the complete harmony of all its components, the refinement and delicacy of its taste and aroma, it is easy to understand its great tolerability and its behaviour for being well accepted by even the most delicate, tired and worn stomachs. Because of its vigorous punch, its caressing softness, its subtle fragrance, its iron minerals and richness in phosphorus pentoxide, perhaps greater than any Italian or foreign wine, it is easy to understand its admirable beneficial actions on vigorous humanity. In old age, in the bleak darkness of your later years, a glass of aged Gattinara can open a cheerful glimmer of vivid and caressing light.
The proposal for an Italian system for Vini Tipici later to be called Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) was passed by the Italian Parliament as Law 1164 in 1930. This was five years prior to the establishment of Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO) in France. However, it was not until 1967, the Italian DOC system became reality. The 1930 law had been passed without any clear rules of implementation. It took the Italian wine community and bureaucrats a staggering 37 years to work them out. The first vintage allowed for designation as DOC was retroactively set to 1964. Gattinara Spanna could no longer be written on the labels. The result was a bifurcation where Gattinara DOC gained reputation as the premier quality and Spanna were relegated to second. The hitherto popular titles like Spanna Stravecchio, Superiore di Collina and Vino del Ronco were banned and single varietal wines like Vespolina could no longer be marketed as originating from Gattinara. Italo deviced the new label Ganè, short for Gattinara Nervi with a suttle hint to the latin gannò which means to deceive. However, the fiaschi, descriptive titles and monovarietals soon drifted into oblivion.
The 1930s and 1940s were difficult years. Nervi struggled with depressed export markets, ever increasing fascist regulation and finally war. In the fascist corporative world both Luigi and Italo had to obtain a qualification in order to trade wine at the Salone delle Contrattazioni Vinicole and at some stage Nebbiolo was spelled with a single b, according to pundits a result of the forced Italianization.
Italo and friends at Castello San Lorenzo, overlooking Gattinara, 1930
Entry card for the Milano wine market, Salone delle Contrattazioni Vinicole, 1942
Italo and friends practicing armed protection of the vineyards
Diploma from the Agricultural and Industrial Fair 1930 with the patronage of His Majesty (SM) il Re and His Excellency (SE) Cav. Benito Mussolini
Nervi Nebiolo with a single b, vintage 1931
Diploma from the 6th National Grape Festival 1935, denoted as year XIII EF, Era Fascista, year 13th in the Fascist Era
In the 1940s classic Nervi labels were replaced with a gothic version showing Cardinal Mercurino Arborio di Gattinara holding a bunch of Spanna while inspecting his barrels. It was meant as an homage to the man who brought Spanna to the court of Madrid while he was Senior Counsellor to Carlo V in the years from 1519 to 1530. The new collar was covered with Luigi Nervi’s motto Nectar in tempore, suggesting patience and aging was key to producing a delicate Gattinara.
Advertisement for Nervi Gattinara with Gothic label
Detail of Cardinal Mercurino Arborio di Gattinara perusing his Spanna
Nervi family photo with Margherita, Luigi and Italo in the centre, 1950
Nervi Gattinara 1955 enjoyed from the barrel
When Luigi passed away in 1953 his only child Italo was already running the winery. He was known as intelligent, kind, generous, able to listen and make decisions. His vision was making a sublime Nebbiolo, his expression for an elegant wine true to Gattinara’s unique terroir. He enjoyed good help from his director friend Mario Soldati. Starting in the late 1950s, Soldati introduced Nervi’s Gattinara as sublime to millions through his innovative TV shows focusing on Italians’ favourite pastime; food and wine. Nervi Gattinara was enjoyed by John F. Kennedy while at Belaggio in June 1963 and repeatedly served at state dinners at the Quirinale, the Italian president’s residence in Rome. Exports boomed and soon Nervi Gattinara and Nervi Riserva del Titolare entered the world of fine dining from Stockholm to Mogadishu and from Tokyo to San Francisco. A frequently used strapline, borrowed from the author Paolo Mantegazza, was Gattinara, the wine which brings you glimmer of youth in senile age.
John F. Kennedy at Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni, Bellagio June 1963
Menu from a state dinner between the Austrian and the Italian President, 1971 (front and centre page)
To enhance elegance of his sublime Nebbiolo, Italo started cooperating with the oenologists Jean Seigrist, a renowned oenology professor at the University of Beaune. Giorgio Aleata from Gattinara studied with the professor at Beaune and became consulting oenologist at Nervi upon his return. The cooperation lasted for 40 years. Seigrist, now of considerable age, hosted his last tasting of Burgundy versus Gattinara at Nervi’s premises in 2001.
In the 1960s a laboratory was developed and Nervi’s cellars were modernized. In 1971 a new adjacent cellar was constructed under the courtyard. It was a state of the art gravity fed facility with ten 100 HL cement tanks, six 120 HL oak fermentation tanks, eight fully refrigerated 65 HL stainless steel fermentation tanks and 20 Slavonian oak barrels from Garbelotto, ranging from 35 to 75 HL.
The Molsino and Garavoglie vineyards were rearranged and partially replanted to allow for modern trellising and the passing of tractors between the rows of vines. A violent hailstorm brought terrible havoc in July 1971.
Informed about the disastrous impact on grapes and vines while he enjoyed his breakfast, Italo calmly replied We will restart the work. The real misfortunes of life are something completely different. Italo proved himself right. He passed away in 1975, only 62 years old.
Rearranging and replanting Molsino 1967
Italo and friends 1967
Podere dei ginepri under construction
Italo and friends 1967
Italo had dedicated his life to developing North Piedmont’s finest wine and died without heirs. His will allocated the shares in Azienda Vitivinicola Nervi to five of his cousins, his secretary Carla Ferrero and the consulting oenologist Giorgio Aleata. They owned and ran Nervi for 16 years, balancing between the cousins’ requests for dividends and Aleata and Carla’s desire to invest in the business. The uneasy truce came to an end in 1991 when the steel magnate Germano Bocciolone bought Nervi.
Germano had high ambitions for Nervi. He immediately focused on the single vineyard wines, made a white sparkling Nebbiolo, redesigned labels and started a massive investment program. Not less than 30 large Slavonian oak casks were ordered from Garbelotto and the entire Molsino was to be rearranged and replanted. He never lived to see the splendid results of his investments. He died from a traffic accident only a year after his acquisition. But his four children implemented their father’s plans. They brought in Italy’s leading consulting oenologist Donato Lanati, they replanted 15 hectares of obsolete vines, replaced 40 large Slavonian oak casks and cemented Nervi Molsino’s position as North Piedmont’s finest cru.
Replanting of Molsino 1995 and 19 year old plants in 2014
In 2011 four Norwegian families acquired Nervi. The Astrup family took a majority stake while the Moestue, Skjelbred and Wicklund families share the minority. Together with Enrico Fileppo, Nervi’s oenologist since 1984 and Ettore Bornate, Nervi’s head of viticulture since 1973, they share Italo Nervi’s vision; making a sublime Nebbiolo, an elegant wine true to Gattinara’s unique terroir.
Head of Viticulture Ettore Bornate and Bjørn Wicklund
Head of Viticulture Ettore Bornate and Isabel Astrup harvesting Spanna
Oenologist Enrico Fileppo and Stella Astrup inoculating yeast
Astrup family on top of Molsino
Karl Skjelbred at Prowein 2013
Christopher Moestue and Erling Astrup at Vinitaly 2013
Bjørn Wicklund harvesting Nebbiolo 2014
Nervi oenologist Enrico Fileppo reciving top 50 italian wine award for Nervi Molsino 2006