Piedmont Wine Region Guide
Discover Piedmont: Italy's Hidden Gem for Wine Lovers and Culture Enthusiasts
Last updated: November 25, 2023
Described as the “new Tuscany” by well-traveled sybarites, Piedmont offers a myriad of indigenous grape varieties and regional appellations, most famously Barolo and Barbaresco. Yet this is merely the beginning: one of Italy’s finest dry whites, Cortese di Gavi, is made in this dramatic landscape, not to mention Barbera d’Asti, Moscato d’Asti, Dolcetto and the esoteric Arneis. The magic happens close to the French border in northwestern Italy – Piedmont translates as “at the foot of the mountains.” Indeed, its vineyards are shadowed by the spectacular Alps, which almost encircle this undulating region, providing ample winter skiing and snowboarding opportunities. Meanwhile, the area’s capital, Turin, is a historic city rich in diversions; many of Italy’s best restaurants – and wine bars – are found here. No one could accuse Piedmont of lacking viticultural, gastronomic, or cultural excitement. See for yourself.
Winemaking and regional classifications
Piedmont can boast two of Italy’s most famous fine wine regions: Barolo and Barbaresco. All would agree that the dazzling Nebbiolo grape reaches an apogee here (both appellations insist upon 100% Nebbiolo reds with no exceptions) and that no other Italian grape can rival its depth, elegance, and structure. These venerable wine zones take their names from villages on the right bank of the Tanaro – Barolo and Barbaresco, located southwest and east of Alba, respectively. Winemaking in this corner of Piedmont is typically very artisan and boutique; production is microscopic, especially for the top wines, and most wineries are family-owned. They continue to produce hauntingly beautiful expressions of the Nebbiolo grape, many of which will improve in bottle for decades.
However, Barolo and Barbaresco do not monopolize premium Nebbiolo wines. Some very impressive Nebbiolo d’Alba, Langhe Nebbiolo, and red Roero are being made in 2023, representing exceptional value for money. Awarded DOCG status in 2004, Roero is made in the hills northwest of Alba on the sandy soils of the Tanaro’s left bank; local expressions lack the intensity and structure of Barolo. However, they are celebrated for their supple tannins and perfume. Likewise, Roero Arneis (an indigenous white grape) is winning over pundits for its fresh acidity and crisp citrus fruit.
The DOC Langhe is another source of good-value red and white wine. The area under vine extends south of Alba. It is planted to a broad palate of Italian and French grapes, including Brachetto, Barbera, Cortese, Chardonnay, and Uva Rara – an appropriately named local variety. In poor years, wines made in Barolo and Barbaresco may be declassified to DOC Langhe, a decision Gaja took in the 20th century. The far larger production zone of Monferrato DOC surrounds the city of Asti in all directions. It produces some very drinkable and inexpensive Nebbiolo wines.
Of course, Piedmont is also home to many other native grape varietals, such as Dolcetto and Barbera. The latter has become the region’s second-most fashionable grape, occasionally aged in French barrique to beef up the tannins and inflate the price tag. At its best, Barbera d’Alba and Barbera d’Asti are big, bold reds with supple tannins and a seductive mid-palate of cherry, damson, and chocolate. There is also much to enjoy in the sappy, juicy fruit of a fine Dolcetto; this versatile grape can ripen in the coolest, highest terroirs of Piedmont. The best wines tend to be made in Alba, Diano d’Alba, Dogliani, and Ovada. Another local curiosity is Grignolino, a light-to-medium-bodied red that is delightfully fresh on the palate. Like Dolcetto and Barbera, it is best enjoyed young.
Indeed, Piedmont is adept at marketing both the ‘serious’ – single-vineyard Barolos that sell for big bucks – and the frivolous. Moscato d’Asti falls into the latter category – it has the distinct merit of low alcohol and a very attractive floral bouquet. Believe it or not, it works very well with Christmas pudding! Meanwhile, the thirst for saline dry whites has propelled the Gavi region to enormous global success. Light-skinned Cortese grapes are grown south of Alessandria to produce an aromatic and racy style that competes with Arneis for Piedmont’s finest white title. We should also mention a whole host of unknown local specialties: Erbaluce di Caluso, Brachetto d’Acqui, and Malvasia di Casorzo d’Asti. You’ll either love or loathe them, but their authenticity cannot be questioned.
Geography and terroir
Piedmont is situated in the northwestern corner of Italy, with Switzerland to the north, France just west, and the beautiful Mediterranean coastline of Liguria, a little more than 90 minutes by car. It is undoubtedly one of Italy’s most beautiful wine regions: in the fall, thick fog hovers on the brightly colored hills (the red and orange vines actually ‘glow’ with the reflection of the Alps), and you can just make out the castle tops and pretty villages on the horizon.
It is also a region of steep inclines and rolling hills; less than 5% of Piedmontese vineyards are planted on flat terrain. Every climat (vineyard site) faces a slightly different direction and is governed by a somewhat different aspect and elevation. This enables various styles to be produced in the region and encourages endless terroir classification and delineation debates! The climate, too, is highly conducive to quality wine growing: a warm growing season followed by a misty fall and a cold, often foggy winter. Most vineyards are located southeast of Turin, centered upon the Langhe and Monferrato hills. However, there is an additional small subregion to the northeast of the province’s capital, flanking the beautiful shores of Lake Maggiore. As elsewhere, hitherto underperforming appellations are constantly improving, mindful of the shrinking consumer tolerance for lackluster wine.
Yet Piedmont is not a democracy. The finest sites in the Langhe hills are always reserved for Nebbiolo, a late-ripening grape that needs plenty of sunshine and heat to achieve full physiological ripeness. Besides, Nebbiolo wines command a higher price in primary and secondary markets, hence the understandable favoritism. It thrives on the right bank of the River Tanaro, cultivated on a mixture of calcareous soils, sandstone, and sand. Meanwhile, the vineyards of Gavi are rich in limestone, while the left bank of the Tanaro is renowned for its warm, sandy terroir. Due to the significant variances in altitude, a broad range of mesoclimates are found in Piedmont, with cooler sites reserved for Barbera, Dolcetto, Moscato and Cortese.
Italian varieties dominate this proud region, although international grapes like Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot are making headway here. Indeed, the DOC Langhe permits the inclusion of Chardonnay in white blends. The Piedmont DOC is even more liberal: single-varietal Pinot Noir wines can be marketed under the designation rules. But, from the perspective of critics and collectors, these are bit players in a rich playground of indigenous grapes and original flavors.
Piedmont offers an unrivaled selection of indigenous grape varieties and unique terroirs. In the best vintages, there is a vivacity, raciness, and originality to Piedmont’s output that cannot be replicated. Moreover, Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon have a (relatively) minor role to play here. Piedmont’s diverse and inimitable flavors are primarily its own – a cause for jubilation in an increasingly homogenized world.
Yet the region’s greatest strength can also be a liability: so many names, appellations, and terroirs seemingly designed to baffle us. As a worst-case scenario, Piedmont’s wine culture can become an impenetrable cloud of confusion. So, we’ve taken up the challenge of providing a succinct guide to the most frequently asked questions without sacrificing any of the nuance.
Naturally, collectors always want the lowdown on Barolo and Barbaresco – what, when, and why? Remember that the grape variety is seldom mentioned on the label. However, you can be assured that you’re drinking a 100% Nebiolo red. Modern styles, exemplified by Ceretto and Gaja, can be enjoyed a few years after release due to their softer tannins and upfront fruit. However, if you prefer the authentic brilliance of traditional Nebbiolo winemaking – Giacomo Conterno, Fontanafredda, and Bruno Giacosa are classic examples – then you should tuck your prized bottles away for at least ten years. The reason? If you’re interested in tasting these wines at their best, you must be patient; young Nebbiolo, which has been macerated for weeks, is stuffed full of raw tannin. Thus, all you will get is a closed, astringent mouthful of what could be, with fruit in short supply.
On the plus side, however, these legendary names are made to last, developing so much depth and so many dimensions after 10-15 years in bottle. And, compared to the top Grand Crus of Burgundy, prices are not totally ludicrous, and the supply is a bit more generous. Is that enough to tempt you across? How about the fact that many of the sensual qualities inherent to a great Pinot Noir can be experienced in Piedmont for less; Nebbiolo also offers a transparency of flavor, supreme elegance and truffle-rich complexity in its dotage.
“Over the last five years, as the availability of red Burgundy has diminished and prices have risen, the wine trade and connoisseurs have found much to love in Barolo – excitement, quality, and value. We saw a tremendous increase in demand for Prunotto Barolo Bussia, and a great interest in their Barolo Cerretta 2017,” observed Emanuele Baldi, brand manager for Prunotto. “There are a whole host of producers putting out great wines that for my money absolutely slay Premier Cru Burgundy. I continue to be surprised at what a $50 bottle of Barolo can deliver in comparison to a $150 bottle of Burgundy,” added US-based sommelier Matt Cirne. The experts have spoken.
But it is also worth remembering that Piedmont offers a wealth of food-friendly wines that can titillate as much as any Barolo. Albugnano, Roero, DOC Langhe, Monferrato, and the nascent DOCG Terre Alfieri are excellent alternatives to the most famous appellations – some producers blend Nebbiolo with Barbera, and why not? Incidentally, both Barbera and Dolcetto are becoming very trendy, even though they bear little resemblance to Nebbiolo – the reason, perhaps, why they have become so popular. Indeed, not everyone likes the tannin and astringency of this potentially difficult grape! In Alessandria, look for the superlative whites of Cortese di Gavi to accompany your shellfish platter; many wineries use lees-aging and barrique to add texture and depth to this underrated style. A little bit of knowledge, as they say, goes a long way.
Piedmont is often called the “Burgundy of Italy,” justly celebrated for its superlative wines and outstanding gastronomy. It has long attracted gourmet travelers and wine enthusiasts to its fog-covered hills, particularly during truffle season (October to January) when the legendary white fungi of Alba can sell for thousands of euros a kilo! Alba also holds the annual Truffle festival (which attracts chefs from all over the world), and Asti holds the medieval “Palio” festival, a lively event. Therefore, it’s no surprise that the Slow Food movement (now an international phenomenon) began here and that Piedmontese pasta, risotto, and game are among the finest in Europe. But, for our money, nothing comes close to the taste experience of homemade white truffle and parmesan tagliatelle: simple yet utterly divine.
A Guide to the Gastronomy and Cuisine for Piedmont: Read more
Piedmont was inhabited by Celtic-Ligurian tribes in the ancient era, most notably the Taurini and Salassi tribes. They built several important settlements in the pre-Roman period, including the once splendid city of Taurisia. However, during the Second Punic War between the forces of Carthage and Rome, Taurisia was destroyed by the forces of Hannibal as his army (riding on elephants!) crossed the Alps. To add insult to injury, the Romans conquered the region in 220 BC, establishing the colonies of Augusta Taurinorum and Eporedia. Meanwhile, the Western empire expanded rapidly, swallowing up Western European, African, and northern England cultures. Rome intended to propagate the vine in its newly acquired territories, planting vineyards in the hills of Piedmont – and, indeed, across the Mediterranean.
After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, however, viticulture became a minor priority. In the aftermath, many civilizations, including the Burgundians, Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Vandals, and the Lombards, wanted to assert their authority over Rome’s lost paradise. The latter managed to subjugate most (but not all) of the Italian Peninsula in the 6th century. Yet rising tensions between the Lombards and the Catholic establishment led to their downfall; the Papacy forged an alliance with the Franks in the 700s, laying the foundations for the creation of the Holy Roman Empire. Charlemagne’s well-equipped armies soon pushed the Lombards out of Italy, and their erstwhile kingdom became part of the Frankish Empire. Nevertheless, the Magyars, Saracens, and Moors launched invasions in the 10th century but were defeated by the Frankish knights.
By the Middle Ages, Piedmont was part of the County of Savoy; certain areas, such as Asti and Alessandria, kept their independence through a mixture of bribes and subtle bargaining. Meanwhile, winegrowing has reached its zenith in the region: documentation found at the castle of Rivoli made early references to the Nebbiolo grape in the 1200s, as did a book of statutes (located in the village of La Morra) dating back to 1431. The Savoys annexed Sardinia in 1720, and the Duke of Savoy was granted that year the lofty title of King of Sardinia. Indeed, the Kingdom of Sardinia was a powerful entity in European politics until Napoleon Bonaparte occupied the island in 1798. Turin was subsequently controlled by Austria and Russia before the House of Savoy reclaimed their lost city in 1814.
Yet Austria retained enormous power and influence in northern Italy until the Risorgimento (resurgence) in 1861, spearheaded by Victor Emmanuel II and Camillo Benso. They helped to forge a unified Italian state, becoming King and Prime Minister, respectively. Camillo Benso was also highly instrumental in transforming Piedmont’s wine industry during the 19th century, inviting French experts to the vineyards of Barolo and Barbaresco. Improving viticultural and winemaking techniques across the region, men like Louis Oudart turned Piedmont into an export powerhouse. Meanwhile, Turin became a major center of industrial activity in the 20th century, responsible for the birth of the car brand Fiat and the world-renowned Juventus football club.
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