Sheltered by the Alps to the north and west, and by the Mediterranean Sea to the south, Italy's Piedmont region has a continental climate, with cold winters and very warm, dry summers, with frequent heavy fog in the autumn. A majority of the most renowned Piedmont wines come from the Alba area, in south-central Piedmont, and from the areas of Asti and Alessandria a bit farther north and east.
Piedmont is the ancestral home to the Nebbiolo grape, which is responsible for two of Italy's greatest red wines, Barolo and Barbaresco. The best Barolos and Barbarescos are made in limited quantities on a series of mostly south-facing ridges perched above the frequent October fog (nebbia) in the Langhe hills around Alba, Italy's white truffle capital. The far less expensive and more user-friendly reds Dolcetto and Barbera have attracted widespread interest in export markets over the past decade, due partly to the soaring prices of Barolo and Barbaresco. But the growing popularity of Piedmontese cuisine has also helped stimulate interest in these Piedmont wines. The natural acidity and taut structure of Piedmont wines provides a refreshing foil to the hearty meat dishes of the region, and their complex floral/earthy character works wonderfully with that other notable local product, the truffle.
For most of the past century, Barolo was an austere, powerful, and often rustic Piedmontese wine whose fierce tannins and pronounced acidity made it virtually unapproachable in the first decade of its life in bottle. But wines, like fashions, change with the times: today's Barolos and Barbarescos are coveted by mainstream wine lovers around the world. Two developments have accounted for this surge in popularity: a revolution in winemaking techniques that has produced Piedmont wines that are more accessible in their youth, and an exciting proliferation of vineyard-designated bottlings, which enables connoisseurs to compare Piedmont wines from different villages and sites the way Burgundy lovers can compare the wines of Chambolle-Musigny with those of Vosne-Romanee.
Barbaresco, located just north of Alba (Barolo is just to the southwest), is quite similar to Barolo in aromas and flavors, which can include cherry, plum, raspberry, licorice, truffle, mushroom, dried rose, road tar, leather, marzipan, underbrush, and menthol. Barbaresco is normally a somewhat more elegant wine with a bit less body and tannic grip, but the similarities between the wines far outweigh the differences. In fact, a Barbaresco may be as powerful as, and require more aging than, many new-wave examples of Barolo--and can be capable of 20 years or more of positive evolution in bottle.
Gavi, the most popular Piedmont white wine and the most widely distributed in the U.S., is made mostly or completely from the Cortese variety planted in the extreme south of Piedmont, in the province of Alessandria. Wines labeled Gavi di Gavi come from vineyards around the favored town of Gavi. The vast majority of these wines are simply very dry whites of modest concentration and complexity, crisp at their best but often lacking verve and grip, and best consumed young. Gavi tends to have a pale straw color; subtle if not somewhat neutral aromas of citrus fruits, apple, flowers, minerals, and honey; and high acidity. The best examples are fruity, balanced, and persistent--and excellent accompaniments to fish dishes.
Italy, like France, offers a world of wine styles within a single country: dry Italian white wines ranging from lively and minerally to powerful and full-bodied; cheap and cheerful Italian red wines in both a cooler, northern style and a richer, warmer southern style; structured, powerful reds capable of long aging in bottle; sparkling wines; sweet wines and dessert wines.
Most of Italy enjoys a relatively warm climate, and the southern portion of the country can be particularly hot in the summer months. However, Italy's Apennine mountain chain, which traverses the country from north to south, provides an almost infinite number of soil types and exposures, as well as favored hillside sites in virtually every region, where vines can be cultivated at higher, cooler altitudes. Mountainous terrain has also resulted in the segregation of many small wine regions, enabling dozens of indigenous grape varieties to survive in near isolation. Here, Italy markedly differs from most of the wine world, which is becoming increasingly international in nature.
But Italian wine, as most North Americans know it, is a fairly recent phenomenon. Prior to the 1950s, only a tiny proportion of Italy's wines were even bottled by the farmer who grew the grapes. Most Italian wine was consumed by the local market. The Italian government's DOC system (Denominazione di Origine Controllata), created in the 1960s, imposed more explicit standards and thereby improved Italian wine quality while at the same clarifying the labeling of wines and thus making it far easier for Italian producers to ship their wines abroad. (Today DOCG -- Controllata e Garantita -- is theoretically the highest level in the quality pyramid of Italian wine, with this special status more recently granted to such historically important Italian wine areas as Barolo, Barbaresco, Brunello di Montalcino and others: areas that had previously enjoyed DOC status for at least five years.)
Of course, some of the most innovative Italian wine makers quickly began to look for ways to escape the restrictions of this system. They believed that DOC laws actually prevented them from making the best possible wines -- for example, by proscribing the use of certain grape varieties or by requiring them to age their wines in wood barrels longer than they believed was beneficial in some years. Those with a more independent bent essentially opted out of the system, instead producing wines that were simply classified as Vini da Tavola (table wines) but that in a number of cases surpassed the "official" best Italian wines in quality and price. (A new law passed in 1992 created the IGT category, or Indicazione Geografica Tipica, for the innovative Vini da Tavola for which DOCs were not yet created.) These trailblazers have revolutionized Italian wine over a period in which French wines have merely "evolutionized."
Low in tannins, high in acidity, with rounded fruitiness
Piedmont may be famous for its Nebbiolo-based wines, Barolo and Barbaresco, but the inhabitants of this region in Northwest Italy don't drink these big, tannic wines on an everyday basis. When it comes to a weekday dinner's accompaniment, they usually turn to Barbera (when not drinking the other everyday wine of the region, Dolcetto.) With this in mind, it's no surprise that this fruity and acidic wine has a reputation for food friendliness that extends beyond Italy. Just like the Italians, we can't drink big wines every night either.
Barbera is certainly planted in greater volume in Piedmont than Nebbiolo. While the best hillside vineyards may be reserved for Nebbiolo, the adaptability of the Barbera grape encourages widespread cultivation. Even in a marginal harvest, Barbera vines can be relied upon for consistent quality and yields. Indeed, highly acclaimed Barolo and Barbaresco estates produce some of the most desired Barbera wines as well. Even if the grape doesn't have the same stellar reputation, it will still benefit from careful production techniques. Accordingly, we've been pleased by recent trends, which have producers cutting yields to increase concentration and making greater use of small French oak barrels. These two steps work in concert with each other; the wood, on its own, helps balance the acidity of the wine and contributes some tannic structure, but without increased concentration, the oak would overwhelm and dry out the fruit in the wine.
There are two primary DOCs in Piedmont, Barbera d'Alba and Barbera d'Asti. The wine of Asti tends to be fruitier, but less structured than the wine of Alba, and tends to see little oak treatment during vinification. Alba derives its fame from the Nebbiolo producers along the hillsides that surround the town. Barbera D'Alba reflects this proximity. Compared to Barbera d'Asti, Barbera D'Alba can be a more highly concentrated and structured wine. Thus it draws greater benefits from barrel treatment. We like the wines from Elio Altare, La Spinetta, and Vietti.
There is also a small amount of Barbera planted in California, but the demand remains somewhat limited. Here, look to wines from the Sierra Foothills, where the higher elevation and granitic soils seems to provide an appropriate growing location.
Again, the low tannins and high acidity of Barbera make it a flexible wine that goes well with multiple types of food. We especially like it paired with tomato dishes, like pizzas and pastas, as the acidity of the wine matches that of the tomatoes. Even richer meat dishes and hard cheeses will work well too.