Piedmont means ‘at the foot of the mountain’. The region is enclosed to the north and west by the Alps and to the south by the Apennines, which seal it off from Liguria and the Mediterranean coast. Much of the terrain is unsuited to viticulture, consisting either of mountains or the flat valley of the River Po, which opens out onto Lombardy in the east. The principal wine areas are situated in the Alpine foothills to the east and southeast of the regional capital of Turin, around the centres of Alba and Asti.
Piedmont boasts more DOCGs and DOCs, and produces more quality wine, than any other Italian region including Veneto and Tuscany. Although especially noted for Barolo and Barbaresco, production is dominated by Asti and Moscato d’Asti and, to a lesser extent, Barbera d’Asti. Unusually, there is no regional IGP/IGT; instead, the region is covered by the generic DOC appellations of Piemonte, Langhe, and Monferrato.
As may be inferred from the geography, winters in Piedmont are harsh, but the ripening season is long and relatively dry. The principal black grape varieties are Nebbiolo, Barbera, and Dolcetto; the principal white grape varieties are Moscato, Cortese, and Arneis. Nebbiolo and Barbera tend to be planted on warmer sites, Dolcetto and Moscato on cooler sites. Several other indigenous and international grape varieties are also planted.
Although Barbera is the most planted grape variety, Nebbiolo is the most noble, not only in Piedmont but also in Italy. It is very late to ripen, with harvests typically taking place in mid-to-late October, after the autumn fogs (nebbie) have risen. Nebbiolo underlies several DOCs and DOCGs, including Barolo, Barbaresco, Roero, and Gattinara.
Back in 1980, Barolo obtained one of the first three Italian DOCGs together with Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. The Barolo delimited area lies in the Langhe hills south of Alba and the River Tanaro. The bulk of it sits on five communes: Barolo, La Morra, Castiglione Falletto, Monforte d’Alba, and Serralunga d’Alba. Though smallish, the area harbours a plethora of subtly different mesoclimates, soil types, altitudes, and aspects. Broadly speaking, it consists of two valleys: the Central Valley encompassing the communes of Barolo and La Morra, and, to the east, the Serralunga Valley encompassing the communes of Castiglione Falleto, Monteforte d’Alba, and Serralunga d’Alba. The soils are primarily calcareous clay, but those of the Central Valley are richer in calcareous marl and yield more delicate and perfumed wines, while those of the Serralunga Valley are richer in sandstone and yield more full-bodied and tannic wines.
Average holding size is very small and emphasis on quality very strong, leading to comparisons with Burgundy. Although there is no official cru system as in Burgundy, some vineyards are considered superior and their wines priced accordingly. DOCG regulations for Barolo call for 38 months ageing (62 months for the Riserva), of which at least 18 in oak—traditionally large casks (botti) to avoid contributing even more tannins to the wine.
Although full-bodied, Barolo is light in colour, typically with a brick or rust red tinge that can make it seem older, sometimes much older, than it really is. The nose is potentially very complex and often short-handed as ‘tar and roses’. Other notes include damsons, mulberries, dried fruit, violets, herbs, dark chocolate, liquorice, and, with increasing age, leather, camphor, tobacco, forest floor, mushrooms, and truffles. The palate is marked by high acidity and alcohol, and, above all, very high tannins, which, in the best of cases, are experienced as a silky or velvety texture.
There is also a more modern, earlier drinking style of Barolo that is fruitier and less austere, often with obvious new French oak influence. Some traditional producers argue that the more modern style is unfaithful to the spirit of Barolo, and seem to be gaining the upper hand in the ‘Barolo Wars’ against the modernists. However, even the staunchest traditionalists employ some modern techniques in their wineries, and, at least in that much, their Barolo is a compromise between the traditional and the modern.
Barbaresco lies to the east of Alba, fewer than 10 miles from Barolo with which it is often compared. The delimited area is considerably smaller than that of Barolo and can be broadly divided into three areas: Barbaresco, Treiso, and Neive. The soils of calcareous marl are similar to those of Barolo but lighter and more uniform. The climate is warmer and drier, enabling the grapes to ripen a full fortnight earlier.
In terms of style, there is some overlap with Barolo, but Barbaresco tends to be more feminine, that is, more aromatic, elegant, and refined, with softer fruit and suppler, riper tannins. Although tight and tannic in its youth, it requires less cellaring time and is less long-lived. According to DOCG regulations, it must be aged for one year fewer than Barolo. The region’s star producer is Gaja. Note that wines from Barolo and Barbaresco can, if required, be declassified to Langhe Nebbiolo DOC.
Other notable Piedmont Nebbiolos
Roero is a small, recently promoted, DOCG that lies across the river from Barbaresco. The soils are sandier than in the Langhe, resulting in a wine that is lighter, more delicate, and earlier maturing. DOCG regulations stipulate that Roero must contain 95-98% Nebbiolo and 2-5% Arneis, and be aged for 20 months (32 months for the Riserva) of which six in cask.
Further north, north of Novara, are the small, neighbouring areas of Gattinara and Ghemme. The climate here is cooler than in the Langhe, and, despite the steep south-facing slopes, the wines are even more tannic, acidic, and long-lived than Barolo. Gattinara DOCG consists of 90% Nebbiolo (Spanna) along with Bonarda (Uva Rara) and Vespolina to ‘soften’ the wine. Ghemme DOCG consists of the same blend, but with 75% Nebbiolo. Both Gattinara and Ghemme must be aged for at least three years prior to release.
The best Nebbiolo wine from outside Piedmont is Valtellina Superiore DOCG from Lombardy.
Barbera accounts for half of Piedmontese plantings. Although it plays second fiddle to Nebbiolo, it can produce wines of great distinction, especially within the delimited areas of Barbera d’Asti DOCG, Barbera del Monferrato Superiore DOCG, and Barbera d’Alba DOC (which overlaps with Barolo and Barbaresco). Compared to Nebbiolo, it is higher yielding and earlier ripening, and much more adaptable.
In the mid-1980s a number of Piedmontese producers added methanol to their Barberas, killing over thirty people and blinding many more. Barbera’s reputation is still recovering from this scandal.
Barbera ranges in style from light and delicate to heavy and powerful. It is typically deep ruby in colour with an intense and mouth-filling fruitiness (often dominated by black cherries), very high acidity, low tannins, and a dry finish. Some modern examples are aged in oak, which imparts tannins and notes of vanilla and spice.
Dolcetto and other black grape varieties
Being adaptable and early to ripen, Dolcetto is often planted on cooler, less distinguished sites. It is generally made as a simple and undemanding ‘early to market’ wine, generating income for the producer while his Nebbiolos and Barberas are still maturing. Dolcetto skins are rich in anthocyanins, yielding a dark colour that ranges from deep ruby to purple. A short and gentle fermentation that aims to limit tannin extraction produces a wine that is soft, fruity, and uncomplicated—often thought of as Italy’s best answer to Beaujolais. Notes of black cherry, soft spice, and liquorice are accompanied by moderate acidity, high alcohol, and a characteristic dry, bitter almond finish. Piedmont has a number of DOCGs and DOCs for Dolcetto, most notably Dogliani DOCG and Dolcetto d’Alba DOC.
Other black grape varieties in Piedmont include Grignolino, Freisa, and Brachetto, the latter being made into a medium sweet, semi-sparkling wine.
The spiritual home of Cortese is in the steep chalk-clay hills around Gavi in the far southeast corner of Piedmont. Its most famous incarnation is Cortese di Gavi DOCG, the first Italian white wine to achieve international acclaim. Cortese di Gavi from Gavi itself is labelled ‘Gavi di Gavi’. Cortese wines are characterized by their zesty acidity, which can be searing in cooler vintages. Cortese di Gavi is light and dry, fruity and floral, with notes of lime, peach, and white flowers, hints of grass or herbs, and a citrusy finish. The wine can improve with some age.
The historical function of Arneis (Piemontese, ‘little rascal’) was to soften and perfume Nebbiolo. Despite being difficult to grow, naturally lacking in acidity, and prone to oxidation, Arneis can yield delicate and characterful wines. It is most at home in the Roero Hills, and, in the main, bottled as either Roero Arneis DOCG or Langhe DOC. It is rather full-bodied, oaked or unoaked, with dominant notes of ripe pears, apricots, white flowers, and hops, and a dry finish with an aftertaste of almonds.
The principal white grape variety in Piedmont is neither Cortese nor Arneis but Moscato, which underpins sparkling Asti and semi-sparkling Moscato d’Asti. We discuss these Moscato wines further in our book.
Neel Burton is co-author, together with James Flewellen, of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting.