Why learn about Piedmont?
Piedmont vs. Piemonte
If you want to speak as the Italians do, say “Piemonte” (pee-ay-MON-tay).
If you’re trying to get a deeper understanding of Italian wine, Piedmont is one of the most useful wine regions to get to know. One reason for this is that Piedmont introduces us to a completely new set of wine grapes to taste and understand. It’s also one of the two most famous regions in Italy for wine (the other is Tuscany). Piedmont is in the Po River Valley and it’s home to ⅓ of the population of Italy.
When people think of Piedmont, they imagine Barolo and Barbaresco, two famous areas producing age-worthy Nebbiolo wines. In truth, Barolo and Barbaresco only account for 3% of Piedmont’s production, there’s quite a bit more to uncover. So let’s get started with Piedmont wine.
Piedmont Wine Guide
Monferrato in the Apennines with the Alps in the distance. photo by Stefano Pertusati
Piedmont is cupped by the Alps to the North and it looks like something out of a scene in Game of Thrones. To the South you’ll find the Apennines – less stunning – which are more like a set lumpy hills. Despite their modest stature, the slopes heading towards the Apennines is where you’ll find the quality wine production in Piedmont.
Why is wine better from the hills in Piedmont? There are two major features affecting the weather in Piedmont: the ice cold Alps and the warm Mediterranean. The tug-of-war (a.k.a. Diurnal) temperature variation makes the whole area fill up with fog in the morning that slowly burns off during the day. This means the land higher up on the hills gets more sun. More sun = happy grapes = good wine. There are good wines to be found north of the Apennines in the foothills of the Alps. But since this area (around Gattinara) is much cooler, expect much lighter tasting, higher acidity wines.
Let’s take a look at the wines of Piedmont:
If you want to experience the diversity of Piedmont wine try these:
Piedmont Wine Region Map
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Red Wines of Piedmont
While the production of Nebbiolo wine is less than Barbera, it’s considered the greatest wine from Piedmont. Nebbiolo is a high tannin grape with red cherry, tar and rose flavors with clay-like terroir. When you taste a Nebbiolo wine, you can feel the grippy tannin towards the front of your mouth. At its best, a Piedmont Nebbiolo wine is enjoyed around the 10-15 year mark and has subtle notes of spice, rose, cherry and fig. There are many subregions in Piedmont that make Nebbiolo wine and thus there are a few stylistic differences to understand.
The Nebbiolo grape alone makes up 13 DOC or DOCG certified wines, and the differences between one tiny town and the next are astounding.
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Barolo DOCG >$60
Barolo is located southwest of the city of Alba in the Apennines. The only vineyards with Barolo DOCG status are on the southern facing hills. While the color of the wine is a pale brick red, it has a bold mouth feel with rigid tannin and slightly higher alcohol content (13% minimum). The wines of Barolo are aged for at least 18 months in barrel and are released after a total of 3+ years.
- Tip Riserva level Barolo are aged for a minimum of 5 years.
- Tip Vigna on a label indicates a single vineyard wine.
- Tip The older the better; look for Barolo of 10+ years.
There are eleven different communes of Barolo with two different main taste styles (based on the soil type: limestone vs. sandstone). The 2 communes to remember that are lighter in style are La Morra and Barolo with limestone-based soils. The communes of Serralunga d’Alba, Monforte d’Alba, and Castiglione Falletto are usually bolder with sandstone soils.
Barbaresco DOCG >$40
Barbaresco is located northeast of the city of Alba in the Apennines. Just like in Barolo, Barbaresco awards DOCG status to vineyards on the best south-facing slopes.
Barbaresco vs. Barolo There are two main differences. The soils in Barbaresco are mostly limestone-based soils, which means less tannin (like La Morra and Barolo communes above). The climate has less of a diurnal shift which produces grapes that ripen sooner but have thinner skins. This means Barbaresco tend to have less tannin, color, and phenolics (a.k.a. aroma compounds). Thus, Barbaresco wines are usually lighter tasting and less tannic than Barolo.
Ultimately Barbaresco is more approachable to most drinkers.
Other Nebbiolo Wines >$20
Barolo and Barberesco are not the only Nebbiolo wines available! You can find excellent Nebbiolo-based wines from all around Piedmont and for usually much less. Look for Langhe Nebbiolo; it’s a region that contains both Barolo and Barbaresco, but includes wines made from ‘declassified’ sites. They are lighter and less tannic, with similarities to Pinot Noir. The following sub-regions also produce Nebbiolo, typically in this lighter style:
Albugnano, Carema, Fara*, Ghemme*, Gattinara*, Langhe Nebbiolo, Lessona*, Nebbiolo d’Alba, Roero Rosso, Sizzano*
*Nebbiolo is known as Spanna in these areas
Barbera is the most planted red grape variety in Piedmont and it’s a little less finicky than Nebbiolo. Barbera wines from Piedmont are dark in color and taste of black cherry, anise, and dried herbs.
Many Piemontese will assert their favorite wine is Barolo, but Barbera (both d’Asti and d’Alba) is the wine that most often fills their glasses. It is versatile, laid-back, satisfyingly robust, pairs with just about anything – and less expensive.
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Just like with Nebbiolo, there are some clues to finding good Barbera wines. First, there are only 2 DOCGs for Barbera: Barbera d’Asti and Barbera del Monferrato Superiore. The DOCG wines have more regulations ‘Superiore’ labeled wines which include longer aging and a higher minimum alcohol content.
Dolcetto is a bit of a misnomer because the word means ‘little sweet one’: Dolcetto is neither sweet nor ‘little’. The wines made with Dolcetto are very dark in color with flavors of blackberry, licorice and tar. The wines are not known to age well because they have low acidity but offer plenty of mouth-drying tannin. Many producers in Piedmont are starting to make Dolcetto in a fruit-forward style, attempting to dial back some of the tannin and reveal loads of dark fruit, similar to Merlot.
Tip: ‘Vigna’ for Dolcetto, usually means that the wine is aged about 20 months.
There are 3 DOCGs that make quality Dolcetto wine: Dogliani, Dolcetto di Ovada Superiore and Dolcetto di Diano d’Alba. Just like with Barbera, pay attention to the words ‘Superiore’. Most of the ‘Superiore’ level Dolcetto wines have 13% alcohol and also have been aged longer which helps smooth out the tannins.
Other Piedmont Red Wines
The three varieties above make up the majority of the red wines of Piedmont, but there are other more esoteric red varieties! Here’s a short list with a very basic description of what they’re like:
- Brachetto a deliciously sweet-and-floral light red wine tasting of strawberries, available in a bubbly style called Brachetto d’Acqui
- Freisa a delicately flavored light-colored wine with spicy, cherry, strawberry notes. Often made in a sparkling style (such as Freisa di Chieri)
- Bonarda (a.k.a. Uva Rara, Croatina) a darker ruby-colored wine with bold fruit flavors and tannin, commonly used for blending.
- Quagliano A very rare grape variety with strawberry and violet aromas made in a sweet style and a bubbly version called Quagliano Spumante.
- Grignolino Higher tannin wine with strawberry flavors. A US producer exists! Check out Heitz Cellars
- Pelaverga Cherries, raspberries and fruity light red wine that’s sometimes a bit bubbly. Could be compared to Schiava or Gamay
- Vespolina Fruity, spicy and tannic often blended with Nebbiolo in regions like Gattinara.
- Malvasia di Schierano A highly musky aromatic slightly sweet sparkling wine
- Ruché A very unique wine from the Ruché di Castagnole Monferrato DOCG that often exhibits roses, pepper, black cherries, and cinnamon with moderately high tannin.
White Wines of Piedmont
Most people don’t realize that Moscato d’Asti comes from the same region as Barolo. Moscato Bianco is a very ancient grape with intense aromatics of roses, mandarin orange, cotton candy and lychee. There are two main styles found in Piedmont:
- Asti Spumante A fully bubbly sparkling (‘Spumante’) wine that’s sweet with about 9% alcohol.
- Moscato d’Asti A barely bubbly (‘Frizzante’) wine that’s very sweet with about 5% alcohol.
Perhaps more famous than the variety name of Cortese is the wine called ‘Gavi’ which is the name of the town in the southeast part of Piedmont. Gavi wines are made in a dry style and are known for their lemon-like citrus flavors and tingly acidity. Cortese has the same mouth-zapping refreshing quality as some Pinot Grigio and Chablis wines.
The white wine of Roero DOCG, Arneis is a medium-bodied wine that often has bitter almond notes on the finish. The wines are fresh and grassy and somewhat similar to the Sauvignon Blanc in white Bordeaux.
Other Piedmont White Wines
There are other more esoteric white varieties in Piedmont. Here’s a short list with a very basic description of what they’re like:
- Erbaluce A brightly acidic wine with high aromatics of spicy herbs.
- Favorita A dry white with a bitter note on the finish
Piedmont Wine and Food Pairings
We asked Wine Guide and Translator Diana Zahuranec to help us understand what it’s actually like to live in Piedmont. Naturally, she brought out the local cuisine as one of the not-to-miss items of how Piemontese experience their wines. Below you’ll find some regional food pairings suggestions:
Tajarin –the epicly eggy pasta that’s well suited for Barbaresco wine– can be found at Eataly (NYC). source
The traditional cuisine of Piemonte is known for being elegant, flavorful, and rich. In eastern Piemonte, filled fresh-egg pasta known as plin is popularly doused with Dolcetto wine straight from the carafe. Bagna cauda is a savory, hot dip for raw and cooked vegetables made from olive oil, garlic, and anchovies and pairs well with acidic wines that won’t be overpowered such as Barbera or Grignolino. Tajarin is another egg-based fresh pasta, often made with an exaggerated amount of egg yolk (such as 30 tuorli –30 yolks–) and finished with butter, sage, and parmigiano. This pasta pairs beautifully with an elegant Barbaresco or Nebbiolo wine. Expensive, aromatic truffles in the fall are a match made in heaven when served with Barolo.
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Cultural perspective on Piedmont from Diana Z. who tours people with winepassitaly.it
Silvana Lilli, F. et all. The List of DOC and DOCG Wines . Siena: Enoteca Italiana, 2004. Print
Robinson, Jancis. Jancis Robinson’s Guide to Wine Grapes . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. Print
Robinson, Jancis et all. Wine Grapes . New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2012. Print
Consorzio Asti DOCG
Guild of Sommeliers guildsomm.com