You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Northwest Italy - Winegrowing Areas of Piemonte

DK PublishingDK Publishing 2/07/2014 DKBooks
Photo: Hilltop village of Castiglione Falletto in Barolo, the Langhe © Provided by DKBooks Hilltop village of Castiglione Falletto in Barolo, the Langhe

Barolo from Domenico Clerico

Photo: Harvesting Nebbiolo grapes © Provided by DKBooks Harvesting Nebbiolo grapes

Vineyards around Casorzo in the Monferrato hills, Asti

Photo: Barolo from Domenico Clerico © Provided by DKBooks Barolo from Domenico Clerico

Sparkling wine from Asti

Photo: Barbaresco vineyards above the Tanaro Valley © Provided by DKBooks Barbaresco vineyards above the Tanaro Valley

Hilltop village of Castiglione Falletto in Barolo, the Langhe

Photo: Vineyards around Casorzo in the Monferrato hills, Asti © Provided by DKBooks Vineyards around Casorzo in the Monferrato hills, Asti

Harvesting Nebbiolo grapes

Barbaresco vineyards above the Tanaro Valley

Winegrowing Areas of Piemonte

soil type: morainic with gravel or stone outcrops (north); limestone (Langhe); limestone, loam, clay (Asti); limestone with alluvial gravel or iron-rich marl (east)
red grape variety: Nebbiolo, Dolcetto, Barbera, Freisa, Grignolino, Brachetto, Croatina (Bonarda)
white grape variety: Erbaluce, Moscato, Cortese, Arneis, Timorasso
wine styles: red, white, sparkling, dessert

Piemonte is home to the pre-eminent DOCGs of Barolo and Barbaresco. Together they represent some of Italy’s—and the world’s—finest wines. The region’s reputation is ineluctably tied to its grape, Nebbiolo, but it also offers the wine lover much more than just the produce of its two most famous sons. Vineyards cover every inch of Piemonte, which is made up of a complicated series of interlocking DOCs. They break down into five key areas: Asti, Alba, the northern and eastern DOCs, and the Langhe—the heart of winegrowing in Piemonte.


The Langhe

The Langhe terroir is at the heart of northern Italy’s finest red wines. The combination of climate, grape, and soil is every bit as potent as in Bordeaux or Burgundy, and the wines’ balance and longevity are also a match. The Langhe, from the Latin for ‘tongue’, comprises the system of steep, narrow hills extending north from the Alpi Liguri, bounded to the west and north by the Tanaro River, and to the east by the Bormida River. Crucially, it drains to the north, preserving steep, south-facing slopes, and boasts a mix of soils not found elsewhere. The summits of the Langhe hills have a limestone content unrivaled in northern Italy; sandstone dominates the middle slopes while the valley bottoms are predominantly clay. These three soil types broadly correspond to the three key grape varieties planted in the Langhe: Nebbiolo, Barbera, and Dolcetto. Nebbiolo is the slowest to ripen and the finest quality. This grape takes pride of place on the top of steep south- or east-facing slopes and produces the area’s star DOCG wines Barolo and Barbaresco. Barbera claims the middle ground, while Dolcetto is on the north- or west-facing slopes or the heavier, alluvial soils on the valley floor. These two grapes make the wines of Asti and Alba important subregions in their own right, as well as the wines of Dogliani DOCG. The Langhe DOC itself is a catch-all for the many good wines produced outside the famous DOCG areas.

Harvest dates are proof of the influence of the sea on the Langhe climate; Barbaresco is typically a week earlier than Barolo, despite being farther north. Cooler sea air, particularly at night, stabilizes acidity levels, which would otherwise drop during the sweltering summer. Rainfall is a major concern. The wettest months are May and September, critical times for flowering and harvesting; and hail, encouraged by hot, dry weather, can wreak havoc. Despite Nebbiolo’s robust constitution, vintage variation can be significant.


The classic wines of the Langhe

Although there is much more to the Langhe than Barolo and Barbaresco, it is these two wines that have drawn the world’s attention to the misty hillsides of this corner of Piemonte. The cantankerous Nebbiolo grape ripens to perfection here, making wines that no cellar is complete without. Although Barbera and Dolcetto, too, must be counted as modern classics .


Barolo

Barolo is a graceful, sumptuous expression of the winemaker’s art, and the Nebbiolo grape is key. When young, the daunting mass of tannins and acidity renders the wine impenetrable and aloof, although its perfume is already sublime. Violet, red currant, and licorice aromas are prominent; it is intense and yet imprecise, hinting at impending greatness rather than characterized by a single element. With age (at least a decade for even the more modest wines) the bouquet develops an eloquence that is lacking in its youth—floral notes are joined by peppery tones, the fruit moves from red to black, and a licorice tinge joins the tobacco, leather, and tar flavors. Nebbiolo’s firm acidity comes into its own with extended aging; it provides focus while the tannin’s rough edges gently soften. The best wines will easily last 20 years, perhaps more, but older examples in peak condition are few and far between. Relatively recent changes in vinification have established a new quality benchmark, and current examples are unquestionably the finest the region has ever made. The Barolo DOCG, in the west of the Langhe, comprises the five communes of La Morra, Barolo, Monforte d’Alba, Serralunga d’Alba, and Castiglione Falletto, and includes the vineyards of Cannubi, Brunate, La Serra, Monprivato, and Bussia.


Barbaresco

Also made from Nebbiolo, Barbaresco, in the center of the Langhe region, has a reputation as Barolo’s “sister.” However, although the wines from top producers are every bit as concentrated, structured, and impressive as Barolo, subtle differences do exist. The tannins are softer, the fruit is more red than black, and these wines evolve more quickly than Barolo. Admittedly, these factors are influenced as much by the winemaker as they are by the terroir. There are three communes within Barbaresco DOCG—Neive, Treiso, and Barbaresco itself—and production, at an average of three million bottles per year, is one third that of Barolo.


Dogliani

Dogliani DOCG is immediately south of Barolo. Dolcetto is planted on limestone summits here, and the wines produced are powerful and aromatic. Exceptional examples of Dolcetto, they are testimony to the strength of the Langhe terroir.


Asti

Surrounded by hills covered with vines, the medieval city of Asti has been at the center of Piemontese viticulture for centuries, and winemakers have exploited its natural potential to the fullest. It has, however, acquired a bewildering array of DOCs. Much of the confusion arises from the multiplicity of varieties grown in this small area: Asti is home to five permitted grapes, with Barbera and Moscato taking the lead roles.

The geography of the hills surrounding Asti plays a critical role in defining the DOC structure. To the north of the city, running in a broad band between the rivers Po and Tanaro, lie the Monferrato hills. This is Barbera country, and there is a separate DOC, Barbera del Monferrato, to recognize the grape’s particular affinity for the clay and loam soils. Other grapes grown in this region, including Freisa, Dolcetto, and Cortese, must settle for the catch-all Monferrato DOC, to which the name of the grape may be appended. South of Monferrato and the Tanaro River and southeast of Asti lies Barbera d’Asti DOC. This district is essentially an extension of Barbaresco, although the soil here contains more clay and less limestone and is therefore unsuitable for Nebbiolo. Fortunately, Barbera excels in these heavier soils. Barbera d’Asti DOC, with the subzones of Nizza and Tinella, reveals the grape’s finest moment, and Barbera grown here has an unrivaled richness and texture. Alcohol levels of up to 15 percent are balanced by masses of black fruit and Barbera’s telltale gaminess. Older vintages suggest flawless balance and reflect the grape’s oft-overlooked capacity for aging.

Bordering Barbera d’Asti are the twin DOCGs of Asti and Moscato d’Asti, both reserved for sweet, sparkling wines made by the Asti method. These overlapping DOCGs account for an astonishing 65 million bottles of sparkling white wine per year. Asti is a wine of noble pedigree sullied by generations of shoddy vinification and overproduction. At its best it is unashamedly grapey and light in alcohol. As a rule, Moscato d’Asti tends to be lighter, finer, and more artisan than Asti. The neighboring Brachetto d’Acqui DOCG produces a gloriously sweet, frothy red dessert wine which is redolent of strawberries.

Between Asti and Gavi are two DOCs dedicated exclusively to Dolcetto: Dolcetto d’Acqui and Dolcetto di Ovada, which produce fresh and uncomplicated versions that champion Dolcetto’s sweet black fruit and youthful charms.

To the southwest of Asti, the DOC of Roero is restricted to two main varieties, Nebbiolo and Arneis, although there are also significant plantings of Barbera in these sandy soils. Nebbiolo here is a great-value alternative to its neighbors Barolo and Barbaresco. Arneis, on the other hand, is pleasantly oily with aromas of quince. Finally, there are a number of DOCs that do not have a strong regional connection and are simply labeled after the variety from which they are made. These are scattered across numerous communes around Asti and include a trio of light reds designed for early consumption: Freisa d’Asti, Dolcetto d’Asti, and Grignolino d’Asti. At their best they show a marked red fruit intensity allied to a refreshing fizz.


The Asti method

Asti was the world’s first sweet sparkling wine, and represented the height of technical sophistication when it was first made more than a century ago. It is produced by the Asti method, in which grape-must ferments in sealed tanks until it reaches between five and seven percent alcohol. By this stage the wine is fully sparkling, yet still contains significant amounts of unfermented sugar. It is then filtered under pressure to prevent further fermentation. Both Moscato d’Asti and Asti are designed for immediate consumption; the aim is to preserve as much freshness as possible.


Alba

Alba’s docs mirror the pattern found in Asti and extend over many communes around the town. Alba’s varietal DOCs such as Dolcetto d’Alba and Barbera d’Alba produce superb wines which, when made by the top growers, represent exceptional value. There is also Nebbiolo d’Alba, a DOC of declining importance, even though its wines are of good quality and modestly priced.


The north

Piemonte’s northern winegrowing districts are little appreciated. North of Turin, Carema DOC is on the border with Valle d’Aosta, and the area’s steep terraces produce Nebbiolo with a rare purity of flavor. Just to the south, where the gradients are more amenable, the DOC of Erbaluce di Caluso yields both dry and sweet wines from the grape of the same name. The dry version, faintly aromatic and with a fresh bite of acidity, is pleasant enough. The sweet Caluso Passito, however, ranks as one of Italy’s foremost dessert wines. Made from grapes dried in the passito style, it combines the natural acidity of Erbaluce with a gloriously oxidized nose of mar malade and honey. It is rarely encountered outside the DOC.

East of Caluso unfolds a succession of near-derelict DOCs planted on the south-facing slopes of the Po Valley. These are ideally suited to viticulture, and Nebbiolo, known locally as Spanna, has no trouble reaching maturity here. In the late 1960s, as Barolo and Barbaresco began their meteoric rise, Ghemme and Gattinara were similarly upgraded to DOCG status, but today they, and other local DOCs, are virtually unknown. Ghemme, Gattinara, Boca, Bramaterra, and Lessona all look to Nebbiolo for inspiration, and sell their wines at prices that seem increasingly modest.


The east

The eastern part of piemonte is home to one of Italy’s handful of still, white DOCGs, Gavi. Rarely seen outside this DOCG, the local grape Cortese has an obvious affinity for the alluvial soil with its occasional outcroppings of iron-rich veins. The Gavi vineyards are sited north of Genoa, and the maritime influence preserves vital acidity. Gavi’s lofty reputation perhaps surpasses the uncomplicated charms of its wines: inevitably light and fresh, Gavi allies a firm mineral backbone to a citrus character.

Sandwiched between Gavi and the Oltrepò Pavese, and sadly overlooked as a result, are the unassuming hills of the Colli Tortonesi DOC. Thanks to the unstinting efforts of a new generation of producers, this is one of the north’s up-and-coming areas. Barbera lies at the heart of the DOC’s reds, while the whites rely on both Cortese and local hero Timorasso. There is a cool elegance to all the wines; the reds are polished while the whites have all the class of Gavi at a fraction of the cost.


Traditional versus modern?

Piemonte’s distinguished history of quality wine production includes a number of traditions. The debate focuses on two issues: maceration and maturation. In years gone by the grapes, riddled by viruses, had difficulty ripening. The unripe grapes were subjected to a long maceration in an attempt to extract some color from the pale skins, but this had the unwanted side effect of extracting tannins, too. Faced with a surfeit of tannins the producers matured the wine for several years in oak. In great vintages the result was a wine of ample structure balanced by sufficient fruit, but in the majority of cases the wines were unbalanced. Recent viticultural advances now ensure that the grapes ripen fully, and maceration and maturation times are being reduced. This has resulted in fruitier, less tannic wines that are more approachable in their youth; but traditionalists argue that the pendulum has swung too far and that great wines may now lose the uncompromising character that initially won them hard-fought recognition.

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon