Think of Italy and one thinks of the genius of Michelangelo, breathtaking Roman architecture, the posh Milan fashion week, mouth-watering cuisine, and its superb wines. The country is filled with touristic pleasures, but for the gastronome, it is not the busy city spots but rather the liquid treasures of the country to cherish. Amongst the most definitive wine destination are the lush vineyards of Piedmont producing almost all possible wine-styles – from the robust reds to fruity whites, dry Spumantes to fizzy sweet drops, and even some aromatised ones.
Piedmont, set in the north-eastern border of the country, literally means ‘at the foot of the mountain’ as it’s dominated by the snow-kissed Alps. With Switzerland to the north and France to its west the region is mostly a cool-climate hilly terrain. It is amongst the biggest production areas in the country and thus offers varied terriors and climates ideal for many different wine styles. The region also has the biggest land under Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) and Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) wines production, the two highest wine designations in the country. There are no Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT) wines in Piedmont, (a lesser regarded designation) thus ensuring quality production behind every wine style. Though some commendable white wines are made here, it is the big reds of the region that are firmly holding its reputation. The much-sorted three big B’s of the region – Barolo, Barbaresco, and Barbera – have collectively earned more accolades for the region worldwide than any other wine produced in Italy. Seafood doesn’t play as big a role in the local cuisine as much as the game and cattle meat, especially veal, and these robust reds marry alongside perfectly well. Truffles are a local speciality in Piedmont and attract lots of tourists for truffle hunting. It is said that truffles and wines rarely grow together: the land bad for wines produces great truffles and vice versa, but when the two come together on the same table it’s a delight to see the harmony of flavours flowing out of the two put together.
The mountains are well planted and have breathtaking views from various turns of the steep mountainous drive. Fiat cars are easily spotted here as Torino, the capital of the region, is their home ground and also a destination for its gourmet food and fine chocolates. The hills provide ambient conditions for the local favourite varieties to flourish to their best. Ample sunlight, free draining soil, and clean melted snow water filled rivers make sure the vines receive all what they want. Asti and Alba are the two important towns here and most of the wines are produced around them. Barbera, Nebbiolo, and Dolcetto are the important varieties to look out for here amongst the reds and Cortese and Moscato for the whites. Some local varieties like Arneis, Erbaluce, Malvasia Nera, and Vespolina, along with the well-known international varieties like Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Shiraz are also produced here and are quite a surprise to taste as single varietal wines.
Barolo and Barbaresco, in the southern territory, are the two most important wine styles here and are both Nebbiolo-based. Nebbiolo gets its name from the Piedmontse word ‘nebbia’ meaning fog as the late fog enhances its maturation. It’s the monarch of the red varieties and produces some age-worthy and character-driven wines thus providing both these wines a DOCG designation. Barolo, also known as the king of wines and the wines for the kings, is considered the finest of Italian wines and hence demands a higher premium. They are much robust and concentrated and display the best of their potential with long ageing. All Barolos are a minimum of two and a half years old when released and a majority of this time it sleeps in oak barrels followed by some resting in the bottle. Barolos are marked for their high acidity, tannins, and alcohol. Upon developing it showcases a wide spectrum of developed flavours including dark fruits, spices, mushrooms, leather, earth, and liquorice. The oak adds another element of strength, flavour, complexity, and richness to the wine and makes it round and softer. Barbaresco on the other hand, wittily called the queen of the wines and the wines for the queens, is a much lighter wine style thus easily approachable. As it’s a softer wine, when compared, and requires lesser aging to reach its prime. It may not have the concentration and complexity of a Barolo but its fruit-forward style makes it amongst the most demanded wines from the region. One of the better producers of Barolo is Renato Ratti and that of Barbaresco is Gaja and their wines are a delight to taste.
Moving towards the cold snowy Alps up north we see Nebbiolo shedding off its robust masculine robe and offering more elegant, richer, and stylish wines at Ghemme and Gattinara. As the mountains provide cooler winds and cloud cover over the vineyards the grapes develop slower than in the south thus producing more concentrated, rounder, and rich reds. As the area is lesser known the winemakers work harder to produce equivalent quality and the wines represent the native creativity and individuality of the Italian character. Torraccia Del Piantavigna produces some excellent Ghemme and Gattinara wines representing classy interpretation of the wine style.
Barbera and Dolcetto are another two important wine styles in Piedmont. Good examples of Barbera are found in towns of Asti and Alba and are called Barbera d’Asti and Barbera d’Alba. Wines from Barbera are generally highly expressive and fruity and are best consumed in their youth. Due to high acidity and lighter body they make an apt aperitif in the local trattorias. Dolcetto production is more concentrated in the Alba area. Dolcetto wines are marked for their softness, little tannins, richer body, and simple fruity notes. The variety gets its name from the word ‘dolce’ meaning sweet as the grapes have high sugar when growing. It is not carried forward to the wines because surprising the wines have a sharp bitter aftertaste that sometimes put amateur wine drinkers off. Poderi Luigi Eianaudi winery produces a great Barbera wine which is not only an easy-drinking style but can also be laid down to age for a few years.
Moving to the town of Asti, the shackles of robust reds are broken as the simple, light, white sparkling wines await. Asti is the home for perfumed and aromatic white grape variety – Moscato. It is loved for its fresh playful character and produces high quality sweet wines rated amongst the best in the world. It’s produced in two styles here – Moscato d’Asti and Asti Spumante (now shortened to simply, Asti). Moscato d’Asti is a simple semi-sweet semi-sparkling youthful wine known for its low alcohol value (5.5%), refreshing acidity, and perfumed grapey notes. As the wine is only partly fermented it has high natural residual sugar and is only prickly, not sparkling. It is not a complex wine and is rather easy to like. Asti, on the other hand, is a completely fermented dry style of Moscato sparkling. The wine is not complicated and is popular local aperitif of choice. Some producers like Michele Chiarlo also produce a still Moscato which demand a high premium on the wine shelves. Moscato is not best suited for ageing thus these wines are recommended to be enjoyed best while youthful to appreciate their lively exuberance.
East of Asti is a small area producing the only DOCG designated white wine from Piedmont called Gavi. The wine is made from Cortese grape and is a simple approachable sip. Gavi is marked for its crisp minerality, refreshing citrus acidity, and green herbaceous notes. Ideally it is not aged and best consumed when young. It pairs well with the seafood and the local delicacy of white truffles.
The capital Torino is also the home to one of the two ingredients of the world’s most famous cocktail, Martini, and that’s Vermouth. Vermouth is an aromatised wine made on the base of wine, red or white, with flavourings and aromatics added to it along with grape spirit. The aromatics are steeped in spirit for a couple of days and then added to the base wine. It is used in many classic cocktails and is an important ingredient for any bar. It is a local favourite and is usually served chilled as an aperitif by itself along with soda or tonic water.
Piedmont is an astounding destination for a true Italian holiday away from the main touristic cities of the country. For a true experience best visit the region in September and stay at one of the agrotourismos at the local winery. The smell of the harvest and freshly crushed grapes will leave you enticed and asking for more. Enjoy the best known wines in the world and meticulously prepared local delicacies and enhance the experience further every time the dinner table is laid. For the Italian good life, Cin Cin!