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Wine from Piedmont

Wine from Piedmont

Savoring Piedmont: Discovering Its Distinctive Wines

The birthplace of modern Italy, one of the true iconic car companies of the world, the country’s most successful football club, the region where hazelnut chocolate came from – Piedmont’s list of achievements is basically endless. And this is spectacularly true of its wine, too, as some of Italy’s (indeed Europe’s) most celebrated names are Piedmontese, both in terms of its famous areas of production to the great wineries themselves from those areas. For decades, the success of this region has been inextricably tied to the success of Italian wine as a whole, and it’s not hard to see why.

Piedmont makes up the bulk of the northwestern corner of Italy, and is its second largest after Sicily. It borders the regions of Valle d’Aosta, Liguria, Tuscany, Lombardy and a touch of Emilia-Romagna, as well as the countries of France of Switzerland. The climates, terrains and topographies are immensely diverse, from the Alpine mountains of the north to the rice fields of Vercelli, from the mountainous Lake Maggiore to the mighty River Po (which rises in Piedmont), from small rural villages to the great city that dominates the region, Turin. In wine terms, however, the most important places are Alba and Asti, which account for 90% of the Piedmontese wine production. But isn’t that what the next section’s for? So let’s get right into it!

Paolo Scavino Winery and Oak Barrels
Burlotto's Vineyards

The wine

It would be unprofitable to try and summarise here the entirety of Piedmontese viticulture. The region has the highest number of DOCs and DOCGs in Italy, with a staggering 58 combined! As we said, however, much of that winemaking is very concentrated in particular regions, and so there are some important things we can say quite briefly.

The region is primarily known for its red wines, especially those made from three particular grapes: barbera, dolcetto, and above all the mighty nebbiolo. Barbera and dolcetto are used to make wines from the basic level up to really very special bottles indeed, and are each extremely notable for their special characteristics: barbera, the most planted grape in the region, is notably tangy and juicy, with bursting berryish fruit and a trademark hint of violets that elevates finer vinifications (it is a pleasantly early-ripener, and is thus popular with farmers); dolcetto is its mellow counterpart, medium-bodied but extravagantly flavourful, an overall effect not unlike Black Forest Gateau. They can blend together marvellously, complementing each others’ qualities, but they also make fabulous varietal wines, each a star solo performer which either make up 100% or 90% of their wines (it’s been speculated that Piedmont’s historical connections with Burgundy had an influence on this preference for single-variety bottles).

But there’s no doubt that nebbiolo is the king of the region, the leading light of Piedmontese red wine and one of Italy’s most important grapes in general. The grape responsible for the Barolo and Barbaresco DOCGs (surely two of the most celebrated in Europe) is far from the most planted in Piedmont due to its finicky, difficult nature (the name, connected to ‘nebbia’ – ‘fog’ – might refer to how late it ripens, into the early autumn when the mists start rolling down from the Alps and into the region). But its rewards are unique, extraordinary, a signature translucent brick-red colour masking a fistful of tannins, which in turn yields to the most incredible, ethereal, complex, perfumed flavours and aromas (the usual, beautiful thing to say about great nebbiolo is that it tastes of ‘tar and roses’).

There’s really nothing like it, and it presents certain challenges. Barolo and Barbaresco have hefty ageing requirements (38 and 26 months respectively, or 62 and 50 for riserva) to counteract its famously severe tannins, with many old Barolo producers insisting that you shouldn’t touch a bottle of Barolo until ten years after vintage at least. This was intensified by the fact that the wine was always traditionally aged in massive oak botti whose impact on the wine was very subtle – something that was to lead to massive tension when some producers began to use smaller French barriques to make a younger, more drinkable wine, sparking what became known as the ‘Barolo Wars’, which pitted traditionalists against the modernisers. Nowadays the two live more peacefully side by side, but fierce positions are still held on both ends.

Both Barolo and Barbaresco are part of the broader Langhe region southwest of Alba, an area of such remarkable topographic and microclimatic diversity that, again, it would be impossible to go into here. The basics, however, are that Barolo forms a series of areas southwest of the town of Alba, among the hills of the western Langhe, starting with the historic village of Barolo itself and extending across the villages of Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga d’Alba, La Morra, Monforte d’Alba, Novello, Verduno, Grinzane Cavour, Roddi, Cherasco, and Diano d’Alba. Barolo is towards the southwestern edge of these, and on either side of the road to Alba the soil is distinctly different, with more sandstone on the southeastern side (Serralunga d’Alba and Monforte d’Alba) and more chalky marl soils to the northwest (La Morra, Verduno). The streaks of clay throughout the whole region are crucial for counteracting the sometimes souring acidity of nebbiolo, as are DOCG rules which make it impossible to plant too low in the muggy valleys, for example – quality is maintained at all costs. Barbaresco is located a little way over to the northeast of Barolo, mostly south of the river Tanaro. It consists of four main areas: Barbaresco itself to the west, Neiva to the northeast, Treiso in the south and San Rocco Seno d’Elvio, which these days is technically in the comune of Alba, the principle soil of which is all marlstone and chalky limestone. The general consensus is that Barbaresco is lighter than Barolo, with more focus on the leanness than the richness side of things (slightly cooler average temperature, less time on skins, less maturation in cask and so on). Both, of course, are considered extraordinary treasures of the oeniverse.

The rest of the Langhe zone might not carry the prestige of the Big Two, but is renowned as something of a land of bargains, especially regarding wines made from nebbiolo by many of the top Barolo and Barbaresco houses that you might call their ‘second wines’. These wines are permitted to be blended with up to 15% non-nebbiolo varieties; this is in contrast with the wines labelled Nebbiolo d’Alba, which are the 100% nebbiolo wines of the Roero north of the Tanaro, renowned for their knuckly style. It has to be aged for 12 months in oak prior to release but, as we’ve seen with nebbiolo, that isn’t always a huge amount for this most maximal of black grapes.

Way over to the north, east, and northeast is the region of Asti, a powerhouse zone of production and one responsible for a great many famous names. On the red side of things it is a greatly important area for the production of barbera and dolcetto under the official DOCG label of Barbera d’Asti and the Dolcetto d’Asti DOC respectively. The area is easily most famous, however, for an exceptionally light, sweet, white wine from the moscato grape called Moscato d’Asti. It’s produced by a unique method involved by chilling fresh grape must (juice) and then allowing a certain amount of fermentation before filtering out the yeast, leaving a wine of around 5.5% percent which retains a lot of natural sweetness. These wines taste famously ‘grapey’, and are increasingly renowned for their gentleness and low alcohol. The area also makes important drier sparkling wine styles, including the Asti Metodo Classico, a Champagne-style dry fizzer.

While the moscato is identical to the grape known in France as Muscat à petits grains, the other most important white grapes of the region are native. Firstly, cortese is virtually unheard-of outside Piedmont (there’s a little in Lombardy and Veneto), but it is responsible for one of Italy’s most immediately identifiable whites: Cortese di Gavi, also known evocatively, if confusingly, as Gavi di Gavi. Located in the Province of Alessandria south of Asti and east of Alba, cortese produces a remarkably crisp, zingy and sometimes hauntingly-citrus white wine, an exceptionally versatile food-matcher. It’s also responsible for the DOCs further west of Cortese dell’Alto Monferrato and the Colli Tortonesi.

The third and final white grape is the most unusual of the three, the haunting and strange arneis. It is responsible for the highest level white wine of the Roero, the Roero Arneis DOCG, as well as for the DOC white in Langhe. Tough and finicky to cultivate and vinify (its name means something like ‘little brat’ in dialect), it produces rich white wines with a distinctly full-fruited character, pears and apricots and so on, as well as the capacity to develop a pronounced and unusual nuttiness.

All this barely scratches the surface of what the wine of Piedmont is all about. Far in the north, for instance, are the regions of Ghemme and Gattinara, producers of underrated (though increasingly less-so) reds based on nebbiolo. Back in Asti an increasingly celebrated subzone is that of Nizza Monferrato, a barbera wine that is the region’s newest DOCG. Between Asti and Turin, in the Asti and Chiera DOCs you’ll find the domain of the freisa grape, a probable parent of nebbiolo and an extremely strange, extremely sour wine often used to make unusual dry red fizz that divides drinkers against each other like factions (you’ll also find some in Langhe and the Colli Tortonesi). Two other strikingly rare dry red-producing varieties can also be found in and around Asti, named grignolino and the deeply rare malvasia nera, while down in the Acqui Terme zone you can find one of the greatest secret pleasures of the area, the Brachetto d’Acqui made from brachetto that is the same method and style as Moscato d’Asti – only red. Finally, there are a couple of unique whites from the area to note as well: north of Turin the domains of the zapping, lemon-bomb erbaluce grape, especially notable for the Erbaluce di Caluso DOCG and the Canavese DOC; and finally the ultra-rare timorasso found in the Colli Tortonesi, virtually the exclusive handiwork of winemaker Walter Massa, a grape whose elegance, freshness and malleability have been likened to that of Mosel riesling (in the wine world, there is no higher praise). But there’s so much more we haven’t mentioned.

Piedmontese wine is an inexhaustible thing, a region of constant giving and giving, an endless source of variety and discovery. From some of the world’s most famous wines to some of the rarest, from the weightiest reds to the gentlest white sweet sparklers and everything in between, the region at the foot of the mountain (as the name means) is without any doubt one of Italy’s – and the world’s – most important viticultural treasures.

The breakdown

Piedmont

Location: northwest border

Climate: cool continental

Soils: sandier, pebblier in the north; grey-blue marl, ‘Diano sandstone’, clay and limestone in Alba and Asti

Elevation: high-to-medium-high

A few DOCs and DOCGS: Barolo DOCG, Barbaresco DOCG, Ghemme DOCG, Gattinara DOCG, Barbera d’Asti DOCG, Nizza Monferrato DOCG, Bracchetto d’Acqui DOCG, Moscato d’Asti DOCG, Gavi di Gavi DOCG, Erbaluce di Caluso DOCG, Roero Arneis DOCG; Dolcetto d’Alba DOC, Dolcetto d’Asti DOC, Nebbiolo Langhe DOC, Chiera DOC, Canavese DOC.

Main red grapes: nebbiolo, barbera, dolcetto, bracchetto, freisa, grignolino.

Main white grapes: cortese, moscato, erbaluce.

Hidden gem: timorasso white wine from Colli Tortonesi

About Wine Shop all’Amarone

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Wine Shop all’Amarone in Venice offers an exceptional selection of Italian wines, spotlighting the distinguished Amarone della Valpolicella. In addition to our Amarone focus, we proudly feature select wines from Piedmont, showcasing the diversity and richness of Italy’s winemaking regions. Our curated collection is designed to offer wine lovers a taste of Italy’s finest, from the robust flavors of Amarone to the unique profiles of Pugliese wines.

Open Tuesday to Saturday from 10:30 AM to 7:30 PM, Closed on Sundays and Mondays.

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