“Wine is the poetry breathed from the land”, said Mario Soldati, an eminent film director and writer who was born in Turin. No visitor can discover Piedmont without exploring and experiencing the rich and ancient culture of good food and wine: in autumn, perhaps, when the country air has the fragrance of fermenting grapes and ripe truffles.
An overwhelming majority of Piedmont’s wines derives from native vines. Besides the noble Nebbiolo, source of Barolo, Barbaresco, Gattinara and Ghemme, which are all DOCG, Barbera ranks as the most popular vine for reds, followed by Dolcetto, which is enjoyed for its mellow, round flavors. Brachetto makes sweet, fragrant bubbly red that is DOCG as Brachetto d’Acqui. Freisa and Grignolino lead a host of local varieties in rounding out the honor roll of reds. Still, among classified wines, whites represent about a third of the volume.
First comes Asti, whose DOCG applies to both sparkling Spumante and the softly bubbly Moscato d’Asti. With an average annual output of nearly 60 million liters, the Asti appellation ranks second in volume to Chianti among Italy’s classified wines. An established star is Gavi, a dry white made from the native Cortese grape and a recent addition to the DOCG list.
Piedmont, Italy’s westernmost region with borders on Switzerland and France, is hemmed in by the Alps and the Apennines, which explain why its name means “foot of the mountain.” Though it ranks only sixth among the regions in total production, Piedmont is considered a giant of Italian wine in every other way. It is admired above all for its red wines, led by the regal Barolo and Barbaresco. But the most popular of the region’s wines worldwide is the white, sweet, bubbly Asti.
Piedmont has the most DOC/DOCG zones with 52 and stands proud as the region with the largest percentage of its wines officially classified. It has no IGT. For craftsmanship, respect for tradition and devotion to native vines in their historical habitats, the Piedmontese have no rivals in Italy.
The climate is rigid by Italian standards, with distinct changes of season. Winters are cold with plenty of snow. Summers are for the most part hot and dry. Spring and fall are temperate to cool with fog normal at harvest time. A majority of the region’s vineyards are located in the Langhe and Monferrato hills, which are connected to the Apennines in the southeast. But several wines of significance are also grown along the foothills of the Alps to the north, between Lake Maggiore and Valle d’Aosta.
The focal point of premium production is the town of Alba on the Tanaro River. In the nearby Langhe hills, Barolo (“king of wines and wine of kings”) is produced at the rate of about 6 million bottles a year and Barbaresco, which many experts rate its equal, rarely reaches 2.5 million bottles. Both come from Nebbiolo, which gives them the powerful structure that makes them capable of improving for many years from fine vintages.
The traditional Barolo and Barbaresco were admired almost as cult wines, though often criticized as too elaborate for modern palates. But the combination of favorable vintages from 1996 on and perfection of techniques among winemakers, many of them young, seems to be changing the old-fashioned image. Barolo and Barbaresco have retained their ample dimensions while becoming better balanced and more approachable than before.
The Alba area is renowned for its smooth, supple Dolcetto under several appellations, and for first-rate Nebbiolo and white Arneis from Roero, where it is DOCG with the red. But the most dramatic progress in the Asti and Alba areas has come with the ubiquitous Barbera, which after ages of being considered rather common has rapidly taken on aristocratic airs.
Certain aged Barberas have emerged to stand comparison with fine Nebbiolo reds. Piedmontese drink more red wine than white, and about half of the red is Barbera, which can also be attractive in youthfully fruity and bubbly versions. Three other red wines that have recovered after decades of decline are the crimson Grignolino, the often fizzy Freisa and the buoyantly sweet and bubbly Brachetto from Acqui.
In the other major area of Nebbiolo production, the hills to the north, modern styles are emerging in such reds as Carema, Lessona, Sizzano, Fara and the long vaunted Gattinara, which along with neighboring Ghemme has been granted DOCG.
Piedmont is a leading producer of sparkling wines. Foremost among them is Asti, the world’s most popular sweet bubbly wine. The market for this fragrant white is actually larger abroad than in Italy. In fact, worldwide demand is so great that a shortage of Moscato di Canelli grapes has developed. Piedmont is also a major producer of dry sparkling wines by both the classical and tank fermentation methods, though many of the Chardonnay and Pinot grapes used for them originate outside the region, mainly in neighboring Oltrepò Pavese in Lombardy or in Trentino-Alto Adige.
Among still whites, Gavi, from the Cortese grape, shows a crisp yet elegant style that explains why admirers consider it one of the best with seafood and why it was recently promoted to DOCG. Smoothly fruity Arneis continues to gain ground in Roero, where the light, zesty Favorita is also emerging. The ancient variety of Erbaluce di Caluso makes both dry white wines, also sparkling, and the esteemed Passito Riserva that ages for five years.
Although Piedmontese growers were among the first to experiment with such foreign varieties as Cabernet and the Pinots early in the19th century, those vines had largely faded from favor. Just recently, though, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Bianco and Nero and, especially, Chardonnay have shown promise. The regional Piemonte DOC applies in part to sparkling wines from Chardonnay, Pinots and other varieties. Still, as admirers have noted, even wines from international varieties bear a stamp that is unmistakably Piedmontese.
The Piemonte wines match very well the Piemonte cuisine, with its local recipes.
Acqui or Brachetto d’Acqui
Dolcetto di Dogliani Superiore
Gavi or Cortese di Gavi
Barbera del Monferrato
Cortese dell’Alto Monferrato
Coste della Sesia
Dolcetto di Diano d’Alba
Dolcetto di Dogliani
Dolcetto di Ovada
Erbaluce di Caluso or Caluso
Freisa di Chieri
Grignolino del Monferrato Casalese
Malvasia di Casorzo d’Asti
Malvasia di Castelnuovo Don Bosco
Rubino di Cantavenna
Ruche di Castagnole Monferrato
Verduno Pelaverga or Verduno
Alessandria food and wines
Asti food and wines
The nebbiolo region
Piedmont wine trails
Wines in Piedmont
The hills of the Langhe, Roero and Monferrato; Canavese; Coste della Sesia; and the hill country around Novara. These are known as the “distretti del vino”, the wine growing areas, par excellence, the hills and mountains where the land is given over to grape growing.
In Piedmont, the strength of tradition of wine making can be clearly seen from the extent of the vineyards and the range and number of wines produced, but above all at the village fairs celebrating the grape and the new wines of the season. Wine is not simply a product to be marketed, but an essential part of life, a fundamental influence on the philosophy and culture of the people as a whole. For the country communities in Piedmont the grape harvest is an important event in the year. It is a time when memories of the past and deep rooted traditions are reinforced, as the art of wine making is practised yet again. Yet this does not mean that this art is closed to modern techniques and innovative technology. There are a whole host of events that allow a visitor to experience the excitement of the grape harvest, to savour the tastes and the fragrance, to be part of the fascinating rituals enacted annually, from the grape picking in the vineyard to the arcane mysteries of the cellars where the final product is carefully stored to continue in silence the magical process that will give us next year’s wine.
The most interesting opportunities are offered by the Vinum fair, held in Alba, and Cantine Aperte (Open Cellars) in the Langhe and Roero.
The secrets of Piedmont’s winemaking culture and skills have been jealously protected over the centuries, through an exclusively oral tradition passed on from generation to generation, and consisting of stories, anecdotes, maxims, and peasant lore. In Piedmont today, wine museums have been set up to record and illustrate the history of winemaking and its role in the life of the people. Thus wine lovers from all over the world can understand and enter into the spirit of this traditional world through degustations, history, music and theatre performances.
To promote the DOC and DOCG wines of the region, a new agency has been set up: the Enoteca del Piedmont, a Consortium uniting together ten enoteche (groups already dedicated to presenting Piedmontese wine to the public). Every year the cantine sociali, (communal cellar and commercial facilities shared by a number of producers in the same growing area), attract 400,000 visitors for tastings and presentations. Often located in castles or historic stately homes, they have become excellent showcases for the products and wine culture of Piedmont. Another yearly event, Turin’s international wine fair, the Salone del vino, always immensely successful and packed out by local and international visitors, promotes Piedmontese food and wine very effectively. Here wine buffs can participate in degustations of the prize winning wines (even those that have been awarded Italy’s most prestigious title, the Tre Bicchieri – three glasses) and buy bottles of the wine of their choice directly from the producer.