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."
Big, bold, tannic red wines
Grilled meats and stews; dry, aged cheeses
Nebbiolo based wines made outside the Langhe hills are often lost in the commotion over Barolo and Barbaresco. The provinces of Vercelli and Novarra in the northern reaches of the Piedmont area are home to wines like Carema, Ghemme, and Gattinara. The latter two wines are mostly Nebbiolo, which as traditionally been blended with small percentages of other grapes native to this cool, mountainous region. (Nebbiolo is generally called Spanna in Ghemme and Gattinara). Gattinara in particular has a long history of producing high-quality Nebbiolo wines. The wines here tend to be lighter and more graceful than their cousins to the south, though seldom displaying the complexity or concentration of flavor achieved in the Langhe. But fans of traditional Piedmont wines that are free of modern artifice and new oak notes will find plenty of interest in these often gripping and very food-friendly wines. Note that vintages here to not exactly track those of the Langhe. In a hot summer like 2003, when Nebbiolo in Barolo and Barbaresco often lost some of its verve and spine as acidity levels plunged, many vineyards in the hillier northern reaches of Northwest Italy achieved near-perfect ripeness, providing fuller wines than usual without loss of balance or backbone.
Relatively unknown to North Americans are the wines of Valtellina, in the far north of Lombardy, at the foot of the Alps near the Swiss border. These steeply sloped, terraced vineyards were originally home to a host of indigenous varieties but today the wines made here are almost universally based on Nebbiolo (called Chiavennasca here). As might be expected from a relatively cool area, the wines are brighter and more vivacious than their Piedmont counterparts, with less weight and alcoholic richness. Sfursat is a wine made in Valtellina from dried Nebbiolo grapes, a la Amarone.
Of course, some of the best Nebbiolo's come from the Alba area. These Nebbiolo wines may be partly or entirely declassified Barolo and Barbaresco (i.e., juice from young vines or lots that are not up to the producer's standards for its flagship bottlings), or they may come from vineyards outside the closely delimited Barolo and Barbaresco zones. In either case, those Nebbiolo wines are bottled and released much earlier and are suitable for drinking young. Consistently good and often surprisingly affordable Nebbiolo's come from producers like Elio Altare, Aldo Conterno, Paolo Conterno, Bruno Giacosa, Elio Grasso, Prunotto and Produttori del Barbaresco, just to name a few.