A Guide to Italian Wine Regions: Piemonte
By David Brookes
Dear reader. We need to talk. It’s not about us. It’s about one of my favourite wine regions, Piemonte in northwestern Italy. It’s one of those dreamy places that seems to be the perfect confluence of wine and food. As soon as you step foot in Alba, exit your rental car (as coolly as you can), and depending on the time of year you will smell one of two things: Hazelnut and chocolate from the nearby Nutella mothership that dispenses that glorious gooey substance around the globe; or a faint waft of truffle from a nearby restaurant, should the season for the delicacy be in full swing. Both are excellent smells.
Sure there are infuriating things. Italians will always dress better than us and they give you a dirty stare if you have a coffee with milk after 10am, but I can forgive these small tics, as no one does food and wine as effortlessly as the Italians. They seem to get bitterness too. The wines delicately walk that ridgeline of sweetness and bitterness as sure-footedly as a mountain goat; savoury too - they seem so versatile and so at home on the dining table that they could be considered an extra implement like a knife or fork. It’s just a part of life.
So let’s take a little virtual journey to Piemonte. We shall approach it thusly over a series of articles. First up, a brief overview of the region, the grapes, wine styles and sub-regions. Then we shall drill down a little further looking at the famous wine regions of Barolo and Barbaresco and then perhaps a few of my favourite producers. Maybe even a few restaurant recommendations should it be on your travel radar. How’s that sound? Piemonte 101.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves; high altitude stuff first. Piemonte lies in northwest Italy. It’s nice up there. It’s a hilly region, wrapped in the cool embrace of the Alps. It lies at a similar latitude to Bordeaux with summer temperatures lining up but it’s much cooler in winter with less rainfall.
To the northwest lies the region of Valle d’Aosta and to the east you’ll find Lombardy and Liguria. France and Switzerland are a staggering distance away and the main centres for humanoids are Turin, Asti and Alba.
Piemonte boasts 42 Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) and 17 Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG). If your eyes just glazed over I feel your pain. Those ominous acronyms decree that wineries producing within those zones have to meet certain standards that govern the type of grapes used, yields, the alcohol content, how long the wine is aged and a bunch of other stuff. All you need to know is that little neckband or stamp on the bottle is a good thing and DOCG is the top tier.
Of course, wine likes to make things hard for itself and the Europeans are a dab hand at over-complicating things, so the EU has separate categories for quality… of course it does. In the local lingo these are Denominazione d’Origine Protetta (DOP) & Indicazione Geografica Protetta (IGP), but just to bang that final nail in the coffin, EU wine law allows countries to continue to use traditional quality terms that existed in their national wine law before 2008. Still, bureaucratic vino-babble aside, it is nice to have some guarantee of quality, so don’t get sucked into that black hole, all we want to do is find the wines that taste nice. That’s not too much to ask.
Well, you’ll probably need a drink after all that so we’ll concentrate on the Langhe region of Piemonte, that hilly area around Alba and the Roero that is home to some of the world’s most famous wines. Perhaps we’ll talk about some of the regions further north such as the Gattinara DOCG and others a little later, as there is great value to be found there.
The principal white grape varieties include arneis, chardonnay, cortese, erbaluce, favorita (vermentino), moscato, mascetta, pinot bianco, pinot grigio and sauvignon blanc. You’ve probably heard of Moscato d’Asti DOCG. That impossibly perfumed, slightly sweet, slightly sparkling (frizzante) wine that is more than slightly delicious on a warm day. At around 5.5% alcohol by volume it is a great pick-me-up and you can still ride your bike home after a couple of glasses at lunch.
If your tastes lie more in the savoury spectrum, arneis from the Roero, Cortese di Gavi or a delicious favorita might be more your style with crisp finishes flush with citrus fruits and a stony, sapid minerality that gets the saliva glands dancing. Favorita is a lovely name. It’s the local moniker for a wine style that you may have tried before, vermentino and it is an energetic white wine that is dry, brisk and great drinking.
The principal red grape varieties in Piemonte are albarossa, barbera, bonarda, brachetto, cabernet sauvignon, croatina, dolcetto, freisa, grignolino, merlot, nebbiolo, pelaverga, pinot nero and syrah, but it is nebbiolo that is the undisputed heavyweight champion of the region. We’ll get to nebbiolo in a second but we should talk about a couple of the others first.
Dolcetto and barbera might play second-fiddle in the fame stakes but they make for delicious drinking all the same. Dolcetto is high in tannin, low in acid and deeply coloured with a structure that pleads for food. Barbera on the other hand is low in tannin, high in acid, lushly-fruited with a sprightly gait across the palate. Freisa is deeply coloured and crunchy and my current Piemonte fetish is for a little known grape variety called pelaverga that is light in body and colour with notes of red-fruits and pepper and in the hands of top producers such as G.B. Burlotto in Verduno, is capable of greatness.
That leads us to nebbiolo; the region’s, and arguably Italy’s greatest grape. And while great value-for-money lies in Langhe Nebbiolo DOC, Roero DOCG and Nebbiolo d’Alba wines, it is in the Barolo DOCG and Barbaresco DOCG that the grape reaches its apex. Wines from these two renown DOCG may only account for around 3% of Piemonte’s production, but quality-wise, it is the pointy end of the spear.
The Barolo DOCG is located southwest of the city of Alba and is centred around a system of two distinct valleys and their associated hills. There are 11 townships or communes within the Barolo DOCG, each with their own identity, with various altitudes from 150-550m, differing soil types, aspects and mesoclimates, in turn manifesting in very different characteristics from the defined subregions.
Throw in farming of the vines, winemaking, be it traditional, modern or somewhere in between and house style, it makes for quite an complex matrix and we shall dig deeper into these intricacies in further instalments about Piemonte.
The Barbaresco DOCG lies on the other side of Alba to the northeast of the city and has four townships or communes where the wines are centred. It’s slightly warmer, slightly lower and has slightly sandier soils than Barolo; closer also to the main river of Alba, the Tanero, which acts like a giant set of lungs, drawing air in and out of the surrounding hills leading to gentler climatic conditions.
As a general rule of thumb - and of course there are always exceptions - Barbaresco is slightly lighter, more fleshy, less tannic and more approachable than the structured, sometimes terse Barolo’s from just down the road. That said, both Barbaresco and Barolo are capable of profound wines that have an enviable reputation for ageing gracefully in the cellar. They are world class wines.
So that is the very abbreviated birds-eye view of this important wine region. It may only be the sixth largest region in the country by production, but for this geeky wine hack, it is home to the greatest and most long-lived wines in Italy. In a winey sense, it’s important and we’ll give it the attention it deserves.
In the not so distant future, we’ll first take a deep-dive into Barolo, its townships and the differences in the wines that come from them. We’ll perhaps have a chat about the traditionalist vs modernist debate and we’ll cover some producers to look out for. Until then, stay thirsty my friends.