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."
Multiple styles: dry and aromatic, light and sparkling, and rich and sweet
Asparagus and artichokes
One of the more versatile white wine grapes, Muscat is grown around the world for use in use in light and dry wines, low-alcohol sparkling wines, and sweet, late-harvest wines. Its proliferation around the world (and especially around the Mediterranean) leads us to conclude that Muscat was one of the first domesticated grapes. Indeed, scientists from the University of Pennsylvania have analyzed pots excavated from King Midas's burial mound to conclude that Muscat was a major component of the alcoholic beverage served at his funeral feast.
Even if Muscat is cultivated across the Mediterranean basin and in some New World locales, we find that the best dry expressions of the wine come from Alsace. When vinified dry, to eliminate all residual sugars, Muscat makes a pungently aromatic wine that can handle the two wine killers, asparagus and artichokes. Gewürztraminer may be Alsace's standard-bearer with regard to intensely aromatic wines, but Muscat is no wimp, even if it is a little tamer and more refined. Expect to find notes of ripe peach and apricot, flowers, and fresh herbs. We like wines from Domaine Barmes Buecher and Domaine Ernest Burn.
Many may remember the ubiquitous advertisements for Asti Spumante, the sweet sparkling wine from Piedmont in Italy. This wine is also made from Muscat grapes. We prefer its cousin, Moscato d'Asti, which is bottled within months of the harvest at an even lower alcohol level- sometimes below five percent. This light, sweet, bubbly wine shows exuberant flavors of peach, apricot and pear, and is an outstanding apertif. Its low alcohol is also refreshing at the end of a meal, paired with fresh fruit desserts. Look for wines from Saracco and La Spinetta.
Muscat also makes traditionally-styled, carbonation-free sweet wines in many parts of the world. Some of these are consumed almost entirely within the country of origin, while others do make it onto the international market. Australia has a long history of fortified wine production, especially in the Rutherglen region of northeast Victoria. Here, old stocks of Muscat are blended to produce a non-vintage fortified wine that is typically between 18 and 20 percent alcohol. These bottlings are marked by flavors of caramel, toffee, and exotic spices. Try wines from R. L. Buller and Sons as well as Chambers Rosewood.