Wine region: Piemonte
Piedmont, Italy’s westernmost region with borders on Switzerland and France, is hemmed in by the Alps and the Apennines, which explain why its name means foot of the mountain. Though it ranks only seventh among the regions in total production, Piedmont is considered a giant of Italian wine in every other way.
Piedmont has the most DOC-DOCG zones with 50 (nine DOCG & forty-one DOCs) and stands proud as the region with the largest percentage of its wines officially classified. It has no IGT. For craftsmanship, respect for tradition and devotion to native vines in their historical habitats, the Piedmontese have no rivals in Italy.
The climate is rigid by Italian standards, with distinct changes of season. Winters are cold with plenty of snow. Summers are for the most part hot and dry. Spring and fall are temperate to cool with fog normal at harvest time. A majority of the region’s vineyards are located in the Langhe and Monferrato hills, which are connected to the Apennines in the southeast. But several wines of significance are also grown along the foothills of the Alps to the north between Lake Maggiore and Valle d’Aosta.
The focal point of premium production is the town of Alba on the Tanaro River. In the nearby Langhe hills, Barolo (“king of wines and wine of kings”) is produced at the rate of about 6 million bottles a year and Barbaresco, which many experts rate its equal, rarely reaches 2.5 million bottles. Both come from Nebbiolo, which gives them the powerful structure that makes them capable of improving for many years from such fine vintages as 2000, 1999, 1998, 1997, 1996, 1990, 1989, 1985 and 1982.
The traditional Barolo and Barbaresco were admired almost as cult wines, though often criticized as too elaborate for modern palates. But the combination of favorable vintages and perfection of techniques among winemakers, many of them young, seems to be changing the old-fashioned image. Barolo and Barbaresco have retained their ample dimensions while becoming better balanced and more approachable than before.
The Alba area is renowned for its smooth, supple Dolcetto under several appellations, and for first-rate Nebbiolo and white Arneis from the Roero hills. But the most dramatic progress in the Alba and Asti areas has come with the ubiquitous Barbera, which, after ages of being considered a workhorse variety, has rapidly taken on aristocratic airs.
Certain aged Barberas have emerged to stand comparison with fine Nebbiolo reds. Piedmontese drink more red wine than white, and about half of the red is Barbera, which can also be attractive in youthfully fruity and bubbly versions. Three other red wines that have recovered after decades of decline are the crimson Grignolino, the often fizzy Freisa and the buoyantly sweet and bubbly Brachetto from Acqui.
In the other major area of Nebbiolo production, the hills to the north, modern styles are emerging in such reds as Carema, Lessona, Sizzano, Fara and the long vaunted Gattinara, which along with neighbouring Ghemme has been granted DOCG. Piedmont is a leading producer of sparkling wines. Foremost among them is Asti, the world’s most popular sweet bubbly wine. The market for this fragrant white is actually larger abroad than in Italy. In fact, worldwide demand is so great that a shortage of Moscato di Canelli grapes has developed.
Piedmont is also a major producer of dry sparkling wines by both the classical and charmat methods, though many of the Chardonnay and Pinot grapes used for them originate outside the region, mainly in neighboring Oltrepò Pavese in Lombardy or in Trentino-Alto Adige.
Among still whites, Gavi shows a crisp yet elegant style that explains why admirers consider it one of the best with seafood and why it was recently promoted to DOCG. Smoothly fruity Arneis continues to gain ground in Roero, where the light, zesty Favorita is also emerging. Some predict a revival of the ancient white Erbaluce di Caluso from near Turin.
Although Piedmontese growers were among the first to experiment with such foreign varieties as Cabernet and the Pinots early in the19th century, those vines had largely faded from favour. Just recently, though, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Bianco and Nero and, especially, Chardonnay have shown promise. The regional Piemonte DOC applies in part to sparkling wines from Chardonnay, Pinots and other varieties. Still, as admirers have noted, even wines from international varieties bear a stamp that is unmistakably Piedmontese.
Barbaresco is one of the great wines of Piedmont and should be drunk with all due respect. It is a wine of extremely ancient origin and was mentioned by Livy in his monumental History of Rome. According to an old tradition, the Gauls were attracted to Italy and descended into the peninsula because of the goodness of the wine of Barbaritium, from which the word “Barbariscum” and later Barbaresco were derived. However, some experts argue that the wine derived its name from the barbarian hordes that raided extensively in Italy before and after the fall of Rome.
Long ago, Barbaresco was called Nebbiolo or Barolo and those who vinified it added Moscatello and Passeretta grapes, which gave the wine a sweetish flavour and made it effervescent. Barbaresco, the aristocratic red wine we know today, was mentioned in 1799, when Austrian General Melas requested “Nebbiolo di Barbaresco” to celebrate in worthy fashion his victory over the French.
It was only toward the middle of the 19th century, however, that production was begun of a dry type of wine, which brought out all of Barbaresco’s extraordinary qualities. Professor Domizio Cavazza, a noted enologist, introduced new vinification techniques and, in 1894, founded a cooperative winery exclusively dedicated to the production of Barbaresco. The enologist, comparing it with the greatest French wines, described Barbaresco as “fine, soft and generous.”
Barolo began acquiring its royal standing as early as the Middle Ages and its reputation steadily grew in succeeding periods. It was customary for sovereigns, as well as many nobles, to enrich their tables with classic Bordelais or Burgundian bottles of the wine. It is reported that Barolo was often found on the table of Louis XIV, while other admirers of the wine included King Charles Albert, the Marquises of Saluzzo and of Monferrato and Maria Cristina of Savoy.
Many other illustrious figures in history also contributed to the growth of the wine’s reputation, chief among whom was Count Camillo Benso di Cavour. Cavour used to give dinners at which the wine was featured. He took a personal role in the making of the wine at his estate at Grinzane and the results he obtained were outstanding. In a short time, he became a highly expert grower and the Barolo of his vineyards was fully competitive with the finest French wines.
Pontiffs were also enchanted by the wine. At the beginning of the 19th century, Pius VII exclaimed, after having tasted an excellent Barolo: “Ah, La Morra! A beautiful sky and good wine!’’ Afterward, he ensured that the wine was always available at his court and he drank it frequently.
Because of the absolute excellence of the quality of Barolo, there has never been any dearth of poets and writers to render homage to the wine.
These two great wines would happily accompany any of one of the myriad of superb dishes from Piedmont such as Hare in Salmi, Lombard style, Faraona al Cartoccio, Brasato al Barolo, Wild Duck with Pappardelle and Picciono Ripieno (stuffed squab).
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