- Q & A
Italy - Piedmont
Piedmont is Italy's most important wine region. It accounts for two of its finest reds, Barolo and Barbaresco, as well as two of Italy's finest whites, Gavi and Arneis. Oddly enough, however, most of its production is the white, sweet, bubbly and widely adored Asti Spumante.
Practically all of Piedmont's classified wines derive from native vines. Besides the noble Nebbiolo - source of Barolo, Barbaresco and Gattinara, which are all DOCG - Barbera ranks as the most popular vine for reds and Dolcetto is admired for its soft, full-flavored wines. Freisa, Grignolino, Brachetto and a host of other varieties round out the honour roll of red wines.
Italy's westernmost region with borders on Switzerland and France, Piedmont is hemmed in by Alps and Apennines, which explain why its name means "foot of the mountain." Though it ranks only seventh among the regions in total production, in every other way Piedmont is a giant of wine. It has the most DOC-DOCG zones with 38 (taking in 43 distinct types of wine) and the most vineyards dedicated to classified production. For craftsmanship, respect for tradition and devotion to native vines in their historical habitat, the Piedmontese have no rivals in Italy.
The region's climate is rigid by Italian standards, with distinct changes of season. Winters are cold with plenty of snow; summers are usually warm and dry; spring and autumn are usually cool with fog normal at harvest time. Most vineyards are located in two major areas; the Langhe and Monferrato hills which are connected to the Apennines in the southeast and 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 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 half that. Both come from Nebbiolo, which gives them the powerful structure that makes them capable of improving for many decades.
The traditional Barolo and Barbaresco were admired almost as cult wines, though often criticized as too elaborate for modern palates. But the combination of a series of fine vintages and newly studied 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 the Roero hills, as well as table wines of class sometimes under the name Langhe.
But the most surprising progress in both the Alba and Asti areas has been made with the ubiquitous Barbera, which after years of being considered common has rapidly become chic. Certain barrel-aged Barberas from choice plots around Asti and Alba 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 be attractive in its youth. Three other red wines that have recovered after decades of decline are the pale Grignolino, the often frizzante Freisa and the sweet and bubbly Brachetto from Acqui.
In the other major area of Nebbiolo production, the hills to the north, more modern styles are emerging in such reds as Ghemme, Carema, Lessona, Sizzano, Fara and the long vaunted Gattinara, which has become DOCG.
Piedmont ranks with Italy's leading producers of sparkling wines. Foremost among them is Asti Spumante, the world's most popular sweet sparkling 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.
Among still whites, Gavi has emerged as one of Italy's most coveted, with a crisp, lively style. Admirers consider it one of the best with seafood. Arneis continues to gain ground in Roero, where the light, zesty Favorita is also beginning to emerge. Some predict a revival of the ancient white Erbaluce di Caluso produced near Turin. Although Piedmontese growers were among the first to experiment with such outside varieties as Cabernet and the Pinots early in the 19th century, these vines largely faded from favor. Just recently, though, Cabernet Sauvignon and especially Chardonnay have shown unusual promise as table wines. But the principle grapes from hear are so tied to the area that they each bear a stamp that is unmistakably Piedmontese.