Piedmont, in the northwestern corner of Italy is known as one of the world’s finest wine regions and has more DOCG wines than any other Italian region, including Barolo, Barbaresco, and Barbera d’Asti. Piemonte means “the foot of the mountains”. The Western Alps to the north and west create a natural border with Provence, France. It is bordered to the south east by the Apennine Mountains and Liguria which separate it from the Mediterranean Sea.
The three red grapes of note in this region are Nebbiolo, Barbera and Dolcetto.
The ‘Burgundy’ of Italy, Piedmont does with Nebbiolo what Burgundy does with Pinot Noir. With a major focus on quality, small family-run wineries have built areputation for outstanding wines produced from the Nebbiolo grape. These include the four Piedmont DOCG of Barolo, Barbaresco, Roero and Gattinara. Due to the intense tannins these wines have excellent aging potential.
Barbera, a dark-skinned grape from the Monferrato hills, is the region’s most widely planted variety. While it has been used to make everyday wines under a number of DOC titles, wine makers are now using it to produce some outstanding wines. The best of these are Barbera del Monferrato, Barbera d’Asti and Barbera d’Alba. They are popular because they are less tannic than the Nebbiolo wines, being drinkable within a year or two of vintage.
Dolcetto has several DOCs devoted exclusively to it, including Dolcettos d’Alba, d’Acqui and di Ovada. While dolcetto means ‘little sweet one’, it is usually used to make dry red wines with an appetizing, gently bitter finish.
There are also a few white grapes including Cortese and Arneis. Cortese, used to make Gavi, struggles to produce wines of any aromatic complexity anywhere else. It is being challenged by the Arneis which is known for it’s delicate, interesting fragrance.
Approximately 40% of the region’s wine is produced at the DOC or DOCG level. While it has capitalized on its three outstanding grapes, the region’s winemakers continue to experiment with other grapes.
The vineyards and wineries in the Barolo commune have long been famous for producing some of Italy’s very finest red wines mostly from the Nebbiolo grape. The Barolo wine are so admired that when the DOCG status was first introduced, it was given the status immediately. It is very complex and tannic with aromas of tobacco, cherries, tar and leather giving excellent aging of 20-30 years.
There are about 3,100 acres producing Barolo DOCG wines mainly from the five key communes of Barolo, La Morra, Monforte d’Alba, Castiglione Falletto and Serralunga d’Alba. These communes are separted into two zones, the Central Valley to the east and the Serralunga Valley to the west.
The tortonian soil of the central valley is darker in color and more fertile. Rich with magnesium and manganese creating wines deep in color, smoother and very fragrant. These fresher wines mature quickly.
The helvetian soil of the serralunga valley is lighter in color and less fertile. High levels of iron and phosphorus create brick colored wines with more body and sharper tanins. These bold wines mature more slowly.
The geography and microclimates create qualities that differentiate the wines from each commune, as well as the vineyards within a specific commune. During the 1970s, Barolo wines were typically a blend of grapes from different communes to achieve a wine with the top qualities of each commune. Now, the Barolo region produces many great single vineyard (cru) wines, similar to the great wines produced in Burgundy. When considering Barolo wines, however, it is important not to characterize the wines of a specific commune similarly because differences occur as the result of soil types, site altitude, exposure to the sun, and specific viticulture and vinification techniques.
Barolo: This commune is located south of La Morra and ranks fourth most important of the five significant communes. It’s wines are said to have characteristics of the wines of La Morra (velvetly, supple and easy-going), Monforte d’Alba and Serralunga (considerable structure and concentration). There are approximately 375 acres of vines.
Castiglione Falletto: The smallest of the five communes in size and growers. It is a lovely village between Barolo and Serralunga d’Alba. The wines known to be full-bodied and concentrated with a rich, velvet texture. The most highly regarded crus are Bricco Boschis, Fiasc, Monprivato, Montanello, Rocche, and Villero. There are approximately 255 acres of vines.
Monforte d’Alba: This hilltop town is the third largest vineyard area in Barolo. Most vineyards are planted on steep hillsides and are said to produce wines with the greatest aging potential, big, bold and tannic with uncommon depth of flavor. The finest Monforte d’Alba vineyards include Bussia (there is a bevy of subvineyards within Bussia, such as Bricotto, Cicala, Colonella, Dardi, Gran Bussia, and Soprana) and Ginestra (another vineyard noted for its numerous subplots, such as Casa Mate, Ciabot, La Coste, Mentin, Pernot, Pian della Poldere, Sori Ginestra, and Vigne del Gris). There are approximately 480 acres of vines.
Serralunga d’Alba: Just under 500 acres, the second largest zone has more limestone resulting in the most mineral-dominated of the Barolos. They are known to be powerful and long-aging. They are the most full-bodied of the Barolos, rich with depth and very concentrated.
La Morra: This picturesque hilltop village, the largest of the communes, produces the most aromatic and feminine of the Barolos. Perfumed and supple, they are the easiest of the Barolos to drink young. With 955 acres, it is unquestionably the largest sub-region. Some of the most exciting, newer-styled Barolos are emerging from La Morra’s vineyards. The most highly regarded vineyards include Arborina, Brunate, Cerequio, Fossati, Giachini, Marcenasco, Monfalletto, Rocche, Rocchette, La Serra, and Tettimorra.
BARBERA D’ASTI WINES
Barbera d’Asti is one of the most famous wines from the Piedmont region. It was classified a DOC in 1970 and upgraded to DOCG in 2008. The Barbera d’Asti appellation encompasses the area around Asti and only red wines made from Barbera are produced here. Barbera is the most widely planted red-wine grape grown in the region. It is known as the “wine of the people” as it is softer and can be enjoyed young.
It is grown on the slopes surrounding Asti and Alessandria. Planted in altitude ranging from 300ft to 1000ft. The Barbera d’Asti DOC requires the wine must be at least 85% Barbera with the remaining 15% being Freisa, Grignolino and Dolcetto. The bottles cannot be sold prior to March 1st in the year after harvest and must be a minimum of 11.5% alcohol by volume. There is also a superiore designation which requires a minimum of 6 months aging in the barrel, and a minimum of six months in the bottle.
While it can be enjoyed young, it is a good ageing wine, with the potential to reward cellaring for up to eight years. Light tannins and high acidity make this a juicy wine. With a rich, ruby color which turns to garnet as it ages, it is a rich, full-bodied wine whose flavors become more balanced and appealing as it matures.
Gattinara is in northwest Piedmont. Wine-making in this area dates back as far as the Roman era. Classified as DOCG in 1990. The area centers around the historical town and stretches west to the hills of the Alps. Its 247 acres (100ha) of vineyards are located north of Vercelli on steep, south-facing slopes (at a height of 274–396m/900–1300ft) in iron-rich, volcanic soil with traces of carbonate, calcium and magnesium. This area has a continental microclimate with hot summers and cool fall and winter producing outstanding grapes.
Gattinara wine must be at least 90% Nebbiolo, the remaining made up of Bonarda di Gattinara and Vespolina. They are required to be 12.5% alcohol by volume and aged for 36 months, 12 in barrels. The riserva is required to be 13.0% alcohol by volume and aged for 48 months, 24 in oak barrels. With deep, dark fruits and hints of violet, it has well balanced tannins and acidity giving it great aging potential.