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A Piedmont Primer
John Fodera (JohnMFodera)
As I sat preparing to put pen to paper and begin this article, I was torn about whether to approach the discussion from an artistic angle, where I would wax poetic about Piedmont, its wine, and its cuisine, which is so inextricably linked to its wine – or whether I would author a more pragmatic article, reminiscent of a collegiate textbook; a reference of sorts to be used as a tool. Even as I type, I am still uncertain and I suspect that what will emerge below, will be something of a hybrid. So grab un bicchieri di vino rosso (a glass of red wine) and let us get started.
Piemonte, after Sicily, is the largest province in Italy. Its diversity in culture is matched by its climate, cuisine and wine. Along with Tuscany, the two regions produce the best wines Italy has to offer; wines that easily stand among the greatest in the world. That diversity also comes with a certain degree of confusion. I will try to clarify and ameliorate some of that confusion through these pages.
Without some form of self imposed limitation, a writer could bring the bandwidth of this site to a screeching halt with a discussion of Piedmont wine. Therefore, I have chosen to restrict this article to the types of wine that are 1) the main players in Piedmont and 2) the most readily available in the marketplace.
Any discussion of Piedmont wines must begin and end with Barolo and Barbaresco.
Barolo and Barbaresco
European wineries, with limited exception, name their wines for the place where the grapes that made the wine were grown. Piemonte is no exception. So then what are Barolo and Barbaresco? Are they towns? Are they wines? The answer to both is yes!
Barolo and Barbaresco are made from a single grape called "Nebbiolo." The grape gets its name from the Piemontese dialect word "Nebbia", which means fog and is a direct reference to the fog that blankets the Langhe hills during harvest time. Back up you say! I was with you there and now you are talking about Langhe ... what's that?
As I said, Italian wines are labeled by geography. Let me provide an admittedly simple analogy using my home state of NJ to illustrate what I mean. When thinking about Piedmont:
So in this case, Barolo and Barbaresco are towns, within the Langhe area of Piedmont. They are wines, and will be labeled as such, and they are made from 100% Nebbiolo grapes.
Barolo, without question, is one of the greatest red wines in the world. What began in the early 19th Century as a sweet wine, quickly evolved into a powerful dry red wine that the Royal House of Savoy came to call "The wine of Kings and the King of wines."
The Barolo production zone is located about six miles southwest of the town of Alba and includes the five communes of: Barolo, La Morra, Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga d'Alba and Monforte d'Alba. It is here where the majority of Barolo is produced. Barolo is made from 100% Nebbiolo grapes and must have at least two years aging in oak and one year aging in bottle prior to being released. Barolo Riserva requires five years of total aging before release, at least three of which must be in oak.
The Barolo zone can be loosely divided into two valleys. The Serralunga Valley includes the communes of Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga d'Alba, and Monforte d'Alba. With soils high in sand, limestone and minerals, Barolo from Serralunga tend to be austere and powerful and require significant aging to develop desired tertiary aromas and flavors. The Central Valley includes the communes of Barolo and La Morra. With soils higher in clay content than Serralunga, this region tends to produce wines that are more perfumed and velvety in texture.
Additionally, Barolo from La Morra are typically less tannic and full bodied than those from Serralunga and will generally be approachable at a much younger age.
Inspired by the prestige of the Grand Cru vineyards in Burgundy, Barolo producers have attempted to define the best vineyards for producing wine. Although not officially recognized by Italian law, the practice has become common place with many producers noting the vineyard source prominently on their bottles. This has led to vineyards being designated as "Crus" and wines with these designations are regarded as being the most prestigious and collectible. This chart shows some of the most prominent "Crus" along with the Commune in which they are located.
"Cru" Vineyards in Barolo
Barolo is a powerful, full bodied wine capable of long ageing. Generally speaking, its primary characteristics will be flavors and aromas of cherry, flowers, spices, tar, minerals, anise, smoked meats, licorice, leather, coffee, truffles, mushrooms, earth and tobacco. When properly cellared, Barolo can age for decades and the longer it evolves the more complex the flavors and aroma become. Barolo is not cheap. Not by any means. Over the last few years, prices have eased and you can likely find quality Barolo for around $40, but most go up quickly from there and I would submit that the average price is $50-$75. Below is a list of quality Barolo producers, which is surely not exhaustive. By highlighting the word, I’m drawing attention to the pure composition of the wine. Stylistic preferences aside, and there could be many, these producers endeavor to produce the best wines possible and employ only the best farming, vineyard and cellar techniques that conventional wisdom dictates in order to release a premium product.
Having covered Barolo, the next logical step is its sibling, Barbaresco. As previously stated, Barbaresco, like Barolo, is a town located in the Langhe hills of Piedmont. By law, the wines must be made from 100% Nebbiolo grapes. So you are asking, what then is the difference?
Despite being produced in neighboring areas less than 10 miles from each other, the wines of Barbaresco do have some distinct differences when compared to Barolo. Like that prime rule about real estate, location is everything. The Barbaresco zone is a bit further south than the Barolo zone. As such, it receives slightly more maritime influence which allows the Nebbiolo grapes to ripen earlier than they do in Barolo. This directly affects that tannic structure of the wine, meaning that Barbaresco can become approachable and enjoyable with much less cellaring as compared to Barolo. Flavor and aromatic profiles are broadly similar; however, the distinction lies in the body of the wine. I often tell people to think of it this way:
Barolo = King
Barbaresco is more subtle, more elegant, and more feminine. It's medium to full bodied, whereas Barolo is always full bodied. This is not to say that Barbaresco is not a substantial wine. It is! Many times I have just as easily uttered this:
Barbaresco hits you in the head like a 2x4
They are both excellent wines and they both have places in my cellar. Below, is a listing of quality Barbaresco producers, given that the Barbaresco zone is smaller, so too is the list. However, like the Barolo list, the same caveats apply and some of the names will be repeated. Where there are differences that typically means that the producer in question only owns vineyards in one of the zones.
The next wine we will cover is Barbera, perhaps along with Dolcetto, considered to be the workhorse of daily wine consumption in Piemonte. Let's face it, even the Piemontese realize that Barolo and Barbaresco are for the finest meals and the special occasions. They cellar those wines. But Barbera is consumed daily and is very food friendly.
Barbera is made principally in and around two towns: Alba and Asti. Therefore, the wines will typically be labeled Barbera d'Alba or Barbera d'Asti. In this case, the grape name is on the label in addition to the commune where the grapes were grown.
Barbera tends to be a medium bodied wine with engaging flavors and aromas of berries, red licorice, fennel, flowers and spices. Typically Barbera is consumed within a year or two of vintage. Its freshness is part of its charm and you won’t see it cellared nor are you likely to see older vintages for retail sale. The grape and the resulting wines possess a high natural acidity which lends itself to easy pairing with a wide range of foods especially tomato based sauces and even butter and cream based sauces that are ubiquitous in Piemonte. Barbera can be austere - it's not the type of wine to drink alone or with a wedge of cheese. It is most comfortable on the dinner table. All that being said, you are probably thinking – what are the differences between the two wines? Well, there are two primary differences between Barbera d'Alba and Barbera d'Asti:
1) Barbera d'Alba displays a bit more body. There are more producers making it, therefore production and availability are slightly higher. I also find these wines to be slightly more complex than its Asti counterpart.
2) Barbera d'Asti is a bit lighter in body, and typically displays higher acidity. I have always preferred Alba Barbera simply because the wines possess a bit more character and heft.
The discussion of producers is essentially a fait accompli. Most good Barolo and Barbaresco producers will produce a Barbera. The best Barbera examples will come from the producers already cited above; so you can make buying decisions based on those lists.
The "little sweet one" as the name implies, except, in perhaps a deliberate ploy to confuse, the wines are never sweet. Conventional wisdom indicates that the name refers not to the taste of the wine, but to a term of endearment; ala "sweetheart" and indeed, I love Dolcetto.
Like Barbera, Dolcetto is grown all over Piedmont, but most Dolcetto hails from Alba and Asti, though there is a third that comes from an area near Dogliani. The name of the grape is on the label in addition to the commune where the grapes were grown.
Dolcetto is a favorite of mine. It is an easy drinking wine, meant to be consumed young, when its flavors are vibrant, fresh and almost juicy. Dolcetto will be purple in color and displays aromas and flavors of berries, plums, violets, smoke and spice. Most examples are medium bodied and although lower in acid than Barbera, the wines pair very well with food.
The best producers of Dolcetto are those producing quality Barolo and Barbaresco. However, favorites of mine are: Sandrone, Clerico, and E. Pira all of whom make a Dolcetto d'Alba. At TuscanVines, courtesy of Eataly, I recently reviewed a charming example of a current Dolcetto d'Dogliani called San Romano. If you wish, you may read that review here as Eataly will willingly ship wines: San Romano at Eataly.
To this point, we have discussed vino rosso. But what about white wines you say? Yes, Piedmont is also known for its whites, though admittedly, they are not wines that hold the stature of the aforementioned reds.
Cortese di Gavi
These are wines made from the Cortese grape and hail from in and around the northern town of Gavi, which lies in the center of the production zone. Wines may be labeled Cortese, Gavi di Gavi, or simply Gavi, but the bottled product is the same. Unfortunately quality varies greatly and there are many mass produced poor examples. A handful of Barolo producers make Gavi, and two other reliable producers are Michele Chiarlo and Banfi's Principessa Gavi.
The wines are typically straightforward with no aging before release and crisp flavors and aromas of flinty minerals, citrus, apple and pear.
I had to include this. This is a white that hails from the Roero hills and is derived 100% from the Arneis grape. This wine will not be easy to find, but it is worth the search and the price - for a bottle will cost about $25-$30. Far and away the best producer is Bruno Giacosa and Ceretto makes an excellent example as well. Arneis wines are floral, spicy, perfumed, almondy, and citrusy. In short, complex and delicious. Do search this out.
Finally, I'll close with Moscato d'Asti. Hopefully by now (wink) you can tell that this wine is made from the Moscato grape, and hails from vineyards in and around the town of Asti! What makes this wine special is that it is vinified to be slightly sweet, and it's also what the Italians call "frizzante." Frizzante means slightly sparkling, though I would defy the average taster to note the distinction upon tasting. Moscato d'Asti is typically served as an aperitif or as a dessert wine. It's light, crisp and refreshing and clocks in at only 5% alcohol in most cases. Michele Chiarlo's "Nivole" is widely available, affordable and delicious.
Under the "thinking outside the box" category, I implore you to try this on your deck or patio one lazy summer morning. Fluffy scrambled eggs, shaved truffles, and a glass of Moscato d'Asti. Yes, for breakfast! This pairing is, well, ethereal. Naturally in Piemonte they're making it with real white truffles, so do your best. High quality white truffle oil can suffice in a pinch.
So that's my primer for Piedmont. I'm sure I have left something out that will be important to someone, but if I don't stop writing now, my hands may cramp in this position.
Tuscan Vines: dedicated to enhancing the wonderful culture of wine, food, and the Italian lifestyle.
www.winespectator.com: Wine Spectator Magazine
www.chianticlassico.com: Chianti Classico Wine (ask for their free map of the Chianti region)
www.italianwinereview.com: Italian Wine Review
Discuss this article: this article first appeared on our forums and was subsequently converted to this format.
© John M. Fodera, 2012
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