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The Indispensable Guide to Piemonte and its Wines

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Vineyards in Piemonte, Aurelio Candido CC Vineyards in Piemonte, Aurelio Candido CC

Piemonte is one of Italy’s most famous wine making regions. Its prestigious, elegant wines are known all over the world. But diving into the deep end with hundreds of native grapes, wine denominations, and crus can be a little bit daunting for a newcomer. This is your indispensable guide to Piemonte.


An Ancient History

The region’s history goes back to a time before the Ancient Romans ruled, when Celtic tribes populated the hills. Castles, fortresses, walls, and ruins seem like a natural part of the landscape, and Piemonte’s wine heritage is as rich as its ancient history. Winemaking has been recorded in writing for centuries; kings, nobles, politicians, and notable generals have all requested their favorite Piemontese wines to be imported, stored in private cellars, or served at important feasts.

1300: Novarese noble Pietro Azario affirmed that Boca has been producing great wines “since ancient times” (note that he said this in the 1300s)

1431: the “Nebiolium” vine is officially recorded in the Statutes of La Morra, one of today’s renowned Barolo-producing areas

1530: Pope Paul III Farnese calles Erbaluce di Caluso passito “perfect”

1835: King Carlo Alberto of the noble Savoy family was so enamored with “nebbiolino” that he bought vineyards in the Langhe and Roero to make his own wine in the cellars of the villa in Pollenzo

 

Major Wines and Grapes

The principle red wines of Piemonte are Barolo, Barbaresco, Barbera, and Dolcetto, while the major whites are Moscato d’Asti, Asti Spumante, and Arneis. Its most important grapes are the red Barbera, Nebbiolo, and Dolcetto; and the white Arneis and aromatic Moscato.

Barbera is the most widely cultivated grape and top-consumed wine. Nebbiolo, on the other hand, is the “noble grape” of the land, making Piemonte’s most treasured, complex, elegant, and age-able wines: Barolo and Barbaresco.

Major cultivated grape varieties of PiemonteData from www.inumeridelvino.it

 

While Barolo and Barbaresco are the bucket list wines on everyone’s list, Barbera is poured much more often. It is versatile, laid-back, satisfyingly robust, pairs with just about anything, and – not to be discounted – inexpensive. But this doesn’t mean you can’t find some top-notch Barberas.

Wines from the Langhe and RoeroPhoto from Caterina Chimenti, CC

 

Beyond the Big Names

Italy is known for its thousand-plus native grape varieties, and Piemonte is no exception. Many varieties have been known for centuries and are just now experiencing renewed interest. Some names you may come across are Verduno di Pelaverga, Grignolino, Ruché, Freisa, and Nascetta. Others, like Neretto d’Ala and Gamba di Pernice, are gems that you will only find within Piemonte, and possibly only in the town that they’re produced – don’t pass up the chance to try these rare wines.

Not only is Piemonte home to an astounding array of native grapes, but its soils grow excellent international varieties, too. Pinot Nero, Sauvignon, Riesling, and Chardonnay all grow well in this region, and are made into regional DOC wines like Piemonte DOC and Langhe DOC. The sparkling Alta Langa metodo classico (Charmat method, the same used to make Champagne) is made in the upper-east section of the Langhe from Pinot Nero and Chardonnay.

Major wines of Piemonte

 

Geography and Climate

The territory of a wine is of course integral to its identity, and the landscape of Piemonte is not an exception. The region sits at the base of the Alps in northern Italy ("Piemonte," or piedi monte, means “at the foot of the mountain”) and borders France and Switzerland, and its southern border is defined by the Apennines mountains. The River Po cuts through the region, forming the Po Valley, which extends 400 miles to the east and empties into the Adriatic Sea. The Alps create a shadow effect over the region, and as a result, Piemonte has a continental winter climate and less rainfall than Bordeaux, which is similar in latitude, and hot, sometimes muggy summers.

The variation of rolling, vineyard-covered hills in the south, steep foothills in the north, and the flat plains to the east produces a startling array of wines. The Nebbiolo grape alone makes 14 different DOC or DOCG certified wines, and the differences between one tiny town and the next are astounding.

Get to know more about the wines and grapes of Piemonte:

A Mini-Guide to the Many Wines of Nebbiolo 
A Mini-Guide to Dolcetto, from Diano to Dogliani 
A Mini-Guide to Barbera Wines 
Alpine Wines: The Canavese Area 
Alpine Wines: Turin Hills, Susa Valley, and Pinerolese

An ephemeral yet inescapable part of the territory is the autumn and winter fog. Early in the morning until the sun burns it away, a thick fog or nebbia hangs over the vineyards, creating the perfect humid environment for grapes. In fact, "nebbiolo" can be translated as "little fog."

Misty morning in PiemontePhoto from Luca Grieco, CC

Piemontese vineyards are characterized by their size: most wineries are small plots of land owned by families that have lived here and made wine for generations. It creates a beautiful patchwork panorama, especially in the Langhe, Roero, and Monferrato wine zones.

 

Wine Zones

Speaking of wine zones, Piemonte has ten of them: delineated areas where wine is produced and can be certified as a DOC or DOCG (like French appellations – Denomination of Controlled Origins and Denomination of Controlled Origins Guaranteed). Piemonte is also Italy’s region where the most DOC and DOCG wines are produced. The lower certification, IGT, doesn’t exist in Piemonte.

The top-producing wine zones are in the Langhe, Roero, and Monferrato in central and southern Piemonte. You may have heard of them: in 2014, the Langhe-Roero and Monferrato countryside was included as a UNESCO World Heritage site. In fact, the province of Cuneo in the Langhe alone is cultivated with over one-third of all of Piemonte’s vineyards, much of which is Barbera. Also in the Langhe are the two famous zones of Barolo and Barbaresco, where Nebbiolo is grown to make the wines of the same name. Barbera and Arneis – specifically in the Roero – are widely grown in the Monferrato and Roero.

The wine zone Asti and Moscato is another major player. It’s here that Italy’s “spumante capital” resides, the city of Canelli. Main wines produced are the Charmat method Asti DOCG, the popular, sweet Moscato d’Asti, Dolcetto and, you guessed it, Barbera.

In decades past, the Torinese and Alto Piemonte zones were Piemonte’s winemaking powerhouses, but economic troubles during WWII left many vineyards to grow back into forests. A growing interest in producers and consumers, especially with Nebbiolo wines from the northeast Alto Piemonte zone, make this a Piemonte zone to watch in the future. And the Torinese not only has some spectacular terraced vineyards, but an important white grape is grown here: Erbaluce, which makes Erbaluce di Caluso.

Finally, there are Gavi and Tortonese in the southeast, where elegant, white Gavi is produced from the Cortese grape; and Acquese and Ovadese bordering it to the west, whose hills produce nuanced Dolcetto and sparkling, sweet, rosy-red Brachetto d’Acqui.

Maps of wine zones of Piemonte

 

Beyond Wine

Even the Piemontese don’t live on their fine wines alone. The region’s cuisine is famously elegant, flavorful, and rich, and the dishes have evolved with the wines over hundreds of years to create food and wine matches made in heaven.

• Agnolotti del plin is a fresh-egg pasta filled with meat – a dainty ravioli – enjoyed all over Piemonte. In Ovada, they love to douse agnolotti in brodo (in broth) with Dolcetto straight from the carafe.

• Bagna cauda, whose name means “hot bath” in Piemontese, is a super-savory veggie dip that keeps warm over a candle flame. It is made from olive oil, garlic, anchovies, and sometimes butter or cream, so it pairs well with high-acidity wines that cut through the fat like Barbera or Dolcetto.

• Tajarin is another fresh pasta made with an exaggerated number of egg yolks for a fine flavor and silky texture (you’ll find menus with tajarin 30 tuorli, or 30 yolks). Topped with butter, sage, and parmigiano, it pairs beautifully with elegant Barbaresco.

• Fritto misto piemontese is a platter of mixed fried foods, from meat and polenta to veggies and fruit. Often eaten as an appetizer, it's also hearty enough to constitute the entire meal. For these tasty fried morsels, you'll want a wine sharp with acidity to cut through the fat: Dolcetto, or also Freisa.

• Bollito misto piemontese, on the other hand, is a platter of mixed boiled meats, simmered on the stove for half a day and served tender and hot. The fine, red Grignolino pairs well with this, as does Barbera. 

• The aromatic white truffles of the Langhe autumn months cannot find a more worthy suitor than Barolo.

• Finally, for dessert, sweet Moscato d’Asti is perfect with the crumbly torta alla nocciola, or hazelnut cake.

Barolo, agnolotti del plin, bagna cauda, and white truffle of AlbaPhotos from: Diana Zahuranec (Barolo), Blue moon in her eyes CC (agnolotti) CC (white truffle), « R☼Wεnα » CC (bagna cauda)

In Italy every region, and sometimes even single towns, produce a unique amaro, or herbal liqueur. Barolo Chinato is a spiced Barolo wine that falls under this category. It is not quite like mulled wine, nor is it as heavy as port or as sweet as passito, but is delicate and balanced. It is perhaps the only wine that truly pairs perfectly with chocolate. Piemonte is known for its bitter-sweet San Simone (with a secret recipe, of course). Alpine amari are common, and have a stronger herbal flavor, higher alcohol content, and are bitterer.

Vermouth may not seem like an Italian drink (or name!), but this aromatized wine was created in Turin in the late 1700s. Originally used for medicinal purposes, it became popular with the royal court in Turin who consumed it as an aperitif. A century later, bartenders discovered its use for cocktails, particularly the Martini, which skyrocketed in fame with several notable figures: Ernest Hemingway, Humphrey Bogart and, of course, James Bond.

 

The Piemontese Way of Life

The Piemontese tend to be rather quiet and closed upon the first meeting, but they are very generous and open up once you get to know them. And this opening up will usually happen over a plate of food and a bottle of wine. They love their own cuisine and are rightfully proud of their region’s wine. A native of a winemaking town might be more loyal to the local grape than to his country. In general in Italy, wine is enjoyed with food, and it is common to see people on their lunch break with a glass of wine in hand. No need for a special occasion; wine is simply a way of life.

CheersPhoto from Jakob Montrasio, CC

With the turning of the seasons, the Piemontese respect their age-old traditions in the form of feste and sagre, or festivals, from January to December. The time-honored cycle of events includes the all-important grape harvest, or vendemmia, from September to October. Every town celebrates with its own festa del vino. After vendemmia, expect a line of Feste del Tartufo, or truffle festivals, which your nose will recognize a mile away. The most famous one is the International Alba White Truffle Fair.

As the months grow colder, bagna cauda and bollito misto take center stage at town-wide feasts. The dreary winter months at the beginning of the year are brightened with Carnevale, one of the most famous of which is the Battle of the Oranges in Ivrea. Then, in the spring, the singing tradition of Cantè Jeuv is heard throughout the vineyards and hills. Wine tasting events are held all year in Piemonte, but they really get their steam in the springtime, including Nebbiolo Prima, Vinum, and others. And in the summertime, every town enjoys its own program of festivities in celebration of their towns' patron saints, accompanied with much dancing, feasting, and drinking wine.

See our regularly updated Events page for upcoming food & wine festivals and wine tastings


Sources:

Wine Acts: La Produzione di Vino Italiano. www.wineacts.it/produzione-italia
List of Italian DOC and DOCG wines on Wikipedia
www.viniastimonferrato.it
www.altalangadocg.com
www.turin.climatemps.com
www.agenziadipollenzo.com
www.lamorra.org


Cover photo by aurelio candido, CC 

Last modified onThursday, 29 January 2015 11:42
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