The Wines of Piedmont
Written by Tynan Szvetecz
Filed Under: Italian Wine
Overview of Piedmont Wines
Some grapes are well-traveled. Over thousands of years, varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and even the fussy Pinot Noir have garnered their sea legs, making their way around the globe like intrepid explorers looking for new lands to discover and new styles to embrace. And then there are the grapes that, over the same period of time, have become so intertwined with the land and people that grow them that they are all but impossible to cultivate with success anywhere else. Such are the varietals of Piedmont, home of Italy's greatest wines.
Piedmont is an isolated area. It is remote, braced by the Alps to the North and the Apennines to the south. As is typical of any sort of geographic isolation, the result has been the preservation of a rich local culture that embraces distinctive cuisine and, of course, distinctive wine. The mild autumns in the foothills of the mountainous regions allow for the late harvest of the Nebbiolo grape that is so crucial to producing the world class wines Piedmont is renowned for.
Piedmont's most notorious grape varieties are Nebbiolo, Barbera, Dolcetto, Moscato and Cortese. They are distributed between Piedmont's two major wine growing areas: Alba to the southwest and Asti to the southeast. They both share the foothills of the Apennines.
The Asti region in Piedmont has garnered most of its fame from the Italian sparkling wine Asti. This distinctive wine is made from Moscato and is sweet and rich with floral and peach aromas. The Italian tendency to create high acid wines helps offset the sweetness, creating the balance needed to produce such a stunning wine.
Moscato d'Asti is the non-sparkling version of Asti. There is also a red Barbera d'Asti that is lighter and leaner than its Alba Barbera cousin.
The majority of Piedmont wine is produced in Alba, including Barolo, one of the greatest wines in the world. Barolo is made from 100% Nebbiolo and is named after the town that is the epicenter of its production. It is renowned for a fierce tannin and acidity that is austere when drinking early but ages to absolute perfection over a decade or more. Indeed, Barolo must be aged for three years at the vineyard before it can even be released. Expect flavors and aromas of ripe strawberries, tar, mint, licorice, tobacco, chocolate and truffles.
Modern vs. Traditional Barolo
In a world where 95% of wine is enjoyed right away, it is no surprise that in recent years a movement has started to produce Barolo that can be enjoyed younger. This has given the Alba region cause to make a distinction between Traditional Barolo and Modern Barolo:
Traditional Barolo - In this tradition, grape skins are soaked for twenty days both during and after fermentation. This technique highlights the tannin in the wine that makes it austere in its youth but able to evolve so elegantly over time. The wine is also aged in old oak barrels, allowing the acidity and tannin to show through more aggressively.
Modern Barolo - To help the wine be more drinkable younger, the fermentation period and the wood-aging period is shorter. New oak barrels are used to add a vanilla and oakiness to the wine that helps counter-balance its natural tendency to be heavy on tannin and acidity.
The Barbaresco district makes wines similar to Barolo (it's only 10 miles away), with 100% Nebbiolo. Barbaresco wines tend to have slightly less body (12.5% compared to 13%), need less aging before release and are more elegant and accessible in their youth.
Alba Barbera & Dolcetto
Barbera and Dolcetto are the other major wines of the Alba region. Barbera has lots of wonderful, deep color and acidity but light tannin. This makes the wine dark in color but crisp and refreshing. True to the Italian style, it pairs wonderfully with food and can be enjoyed young.
Dolcetto has less acid than Barbera but has more tannin and tends to have a bit more spice.
Piedmont can be one of the most pleasurable places in Italy to visit, lacking in the tourist attractions of areas like Tuscany but overflowing with a local culture and tradition that is infectious. Barolo is a staple for anyone building a cellar, and nothing beats a Barbera during the warm summer months. The wines of the region have been perfected over more than three thousand years, and their elegance, distinctiveness and personality make them a must to enjoy on a regular basis.