The Wines of Piedmont

by Chris Cree

From World Class Collectibles to Every Day Values

Located in the Northwest of Italy, the Piedmont region is the home of two of the most renowned red wines in the world, Barolo and Barbaresco. Sought after by connoisseurs and collectors, these magnificent wines are fairly expensive and can need years of bottle age before they are ready to drink. Yet what really puts Piedmont on the map for the majority of wine lovers is that it also produces a wide range of wines that are affordable, ready to drink, food friendly and perfect for everyday enjoyment.

Like all great wine regions, the style and quality of Piedmontese wines is the result of millions of years of geologic evolution combined with the influences of climate (Mediterranean meets Alps, Continental Eurasian meets African tectonic plate), the grape varieties grown and the traditions and wine making methods used to craft them.

Piedmont, which means “foothills” in Italian, lies at the intersection of two great geological forces where the African and European continents collide. This massive force not only created the Alps, which are visible on a clear day from much of the region but also pushed up an ancient seafloor to the surface creating a jumbled series of steep hills with a mix of different soils, slopes, altitudes and exposures that are perfect for growing the regions grapes.

The subtle differences between vineyard sites favor grapes with different ripening requirements and a host of grape varieties are planted in the region depending on the specific microclimate where they are planted. While Piedmont is best known for its reds, there are also delicious white, rosè, sparkling and sweet wines too.

Piedmontese whites are typically crisp, clean and mostly on the light, refreshing side. Some of the best-known are made from local varieties such as Arneis, Cortese (the grape in Gavi) and a few lesser-known indigenous grapes including Erbaluce and Favorita. There are some international varieties including Riesling, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc too.

Moscato is widely planted and is mainly used in the production of sparkling sweet wine called Moscato d’Asti and Asti (or Asti Spumante). Red grapes include Grignolino, Brachetto, Grachetto, Friesa, Croatina and Vespolina to name a few obscure local varieties. The Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot and Pinot Noir are the international representatives. But the majority of its red wines, and arguably Piedmonts best, are made from Barbera, Dolcetto and Nebbiolo.

Both Dolcetto and Barbera are fairly early ripeners making lovely fresh, lively wines that have the dual benefit that wine makers can sell them a year or so after harvest (and get paid sooner) and that wine lovers can drink them pretty much when they are released.

Since they ripen earlier, they can be grown in vineyards in cooler sites and are a little less demanding than Nebbiolo. Dolcetto has a dark, edgy cherry character with moderate tannins and moderate acidity. It can be made in a slightly rustic style with more structure or in a more modern style that is juicier and more fruit driven. Either way, it can be drunk young and fresh within a few years of the vintage. Barbera is typically a bit higher in acid and slightly lower in tannins than Dolcetto. Most Barbera is pretty simple and straightforward, yet deliciously juicy wine with bright red fruits and cherry notes. When it is planted in top vineyard sites, it can morph into a wine with much more stature, depth and power. Barbera can be vinified in a more traditional style in stainless steel, large neutral barrels or concrete or in a modern style and aged in new French oak barriques. The best can age and improve for 8-10 years.

Nebbiolo, the sole grape in Barolo and Barbaresco, is a late ripening varietal. It is rumored that it took its name from the mist and fog (Nebbia in Italian) that is typical in the late fall when the grape finally ripens. While Dolcetto and Barbera can thrive in cooler sites, Nebbiolo destined for Barolo and Barbaresco needs to be planted in the best of the region’s sun exposed, warmer and south facing vineyards to capture the heat and become fully mature. It produces wines that can range in style from fresh, lively and ready to drink (Langhe Nebbiolo for example) to solid, densely structured and firmly tannic wines that need a decade or two to reach their peak when planted in the Barbaresco and Barolo DOCGs. The main determining factors in the quality and style of Nebbiolo are vintage conditions, vine age, vinification method, and perhaps most importantly, vineyard location or terroir.

When made in the lighter style, it undergoes shorter fermentation and maceration in order to keep its red fruit and freshness. Nebbiolo destined for Barolo and Barbaresco undergoes much longer fermentation and maturation, with several years of barrel and bottle aging required by law before they can be sold and only the best Nebbiolo grapes are used.

Most of the wine made in Piedmont is in the vineyards around the towns of Asti, Alba and Alessandria but there are five main regions: Canavese (including Carema and Caluso), Colline Novarese and Coste della Sesia in the north, Langhe – including the hill country around the city of Alba and the Roero and Monferrato which includes the areas around Asti and Alessandria.

The Barolo DOCG has several sub zones – Castiglione Falletto, La Morra, Monforte d’Alba and Serralunga d’Alba – and each has its own unique terroir and style. Barbaresco also has several sub zones – Barbaresco, Treiso, and Neive – again with subtle influences on the style of wines produced. In both Barolo and Barbaresco, producer is important as styles can range from very traditional, austere and almost rustic to much more extracted, riper and more modern styles. The grape, with its firm tannins, good acidity and relatively low color component makes wines that are rarely inky dark purple rather they have a little more garnet and lighter hues, almost brick hints at the edges. Barolo and Barbaresco are often described as “big wines” but to me, while definitely intense, they are more nervy, racy and highly strung, less generous and fruit driven. They are more reserved and tight especially when young, with more dried fruits, earth and leather notes than sheer power and opulence. In this sense they can be a bit stand-offish at first for lovers of riper, oaky and more fruit oriented wines.

The more traditional approach employs longer macerations and fermentations, often in large, neutral casks or concrete with aging in large neutral casks. These feature more of a dried red fruit character, again, sometimes a bit rustic with firmer tannins and structure especially when young. The modern approach seeks to keep the nature of Barolo but often with shorter fermentations and efforts made to soften Nebbiolo’s grippy tannins, with aging in new or partially in new French oak barrels. There also are some who pull a little bit from both schools of thought.

In the northern reaches of Piedmont lie the lesser-known regions of Lessona, Carema, Gattinara, Erbaluce and others. Wines from these regions, especially the reds, tend to be slightly more rustic, lighter in color and body but in intensity. They often show the rugged mineral laden elements from their roots in the rocky steep vineyards at the very base of the Alps.

The wines of Piedmont are fantastic partners at the table. From light fresh whites which are perfect as an aperitif, with fish, appetizers, risotto or pasta with seafood, to medium bodied reds like Barbera or Dolcetto which are great with light meats, pasta with red sauce or pizza. The Barolo and Barbaresco with grilled lamb, veal chops or beef are well worth getting to know. For after dinner there are sweetly sparkling Moscato d’Asti with its peachy pear notes or Brachetto d’Aqui, a sweet sparkling red that is like sparkling liquid raspberry. A series of great vintages has made a wealth of wine available for affordable everyday drinking as well as for the collector looking to stock the cellar with age worthy gems making this a great time to explore this excellent wine region.

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