Grapes and wine-making were first introduced to this Northern Italian region by the Greeks, much like the rest of Italy, being cultivated and pressed afterwards by the Romans (whose love for wine was responsible for many advances in wine technology). Cultivation of vines and wine-making then has been consistently going on in this area since as far back as the 6th or 7th century B.C., surviving the years as well as the rise and fall of the Roman Empire and all the following invasions. This area was prevalent even in antiquity, and was documented as far back as 77 A.D. in the ancient encyclopedia Natural History by Pliny the Elder.
Today the area of Piedmont is one of Italy’s most prestigious wine regions, home to some wine giants like Barolo, Barbera, Barbaresco, and the sparkly Asti. Being at the foothills of the Alps, it gets quite a bit of fog in some areas, which is where the famed regional grape Nebbiolo gets its name (“nebbia”=fog). The Alps also act as a useful natural barrier against cold winds from the North yet allowing cooler breezes in to regulate hot summers. It’s got what is called a Continental climate, meaning the region has hot summers, cold winters, and balanced springs and falls. Its hills (about 30% of the region is hilly) enjoy a lot of sunshine throughout the whole year, which is important for grapes!
Piedmont has some 48,000 hectares under vine, producing about 3 million hectoliters (that’s 300 million liters) of wine annually. Having in the ballpark of 35,000 wineries, it’s no surprise that in terms of production Piedmont is one of Italy’s biggest wine-producing regions. About 84% of wine production falls into either the DOCG or DOC categories of wine (=higher quality and therefore strictly regulated wine designations). Piedmont actually has no wines to date falling under the IGT or Indicazione di Geografica Tipica appellation.
Being so close to France, there has historically been a lot of influence from French viticulture (especially the Burgundy region). In fact in the case of Barolo, a French wine-maker was called in to help improve on the wine, which prior to the mid-19th century was sweet and unimpressive. That said, the overwhelming majority of wines produced in Piedmont are made from indigenous grape varieties, though some international varieties are being experimented with (mainly Chardonnay and Viognier). At about 57%, the vast majority of plantings is credited to the Nebbiolo grape. Abroad you can see Piedmont’s star grape grown in smaller quantities, such as in the state of Virginia in the USA and Australia.
- Canavese– Turin, Carema, Caluso
- Colline Novarese– Novara
- Coste della Sesia– Vercelli
- Langhe– Alba, Roero
- Monferrato– Asti, Alessandria
Key Regional Grape Friends:
- Arneis (white), accounts for less than 2% of plantings in Piedmont
- Barbera (black), accounts for about 13% of plantings in Piedmont
- Brachetto (black)
- Cortese (white), accounts for about 4% of plantings in Piedmont
- Dolcetto (black), accounts for about 5% of plantings in Piedmont
- Erbaluce (white)
- Freisa (black)
- Grignolino (black)
- Malvasia Nera/Malvasia di Schierano/Malvasia di Casorzo (black)
- Moscato Bianco (white), accounts for about 7.5% of plantings in Piedmont
- Nebbiolo (black), accounts for about 57% of plantings in Piedmont
- Ruche’ (black)
- Timorasso (white)
- Vespolina (black)
The Better Known Wines:
- Barolo– this wine, of the namesake wine region in Piedmont, is referred to by some as one of the three “Killer B’s” of Italy. The Barolo wine zone produces some of the most expensive and most celebrated wines in all of Italy. Located in the Province of Cuneo, Barolo as a wine region has existed since the 1700s, when it was first mentioned by the name “Barol”. Until the mid-19th century Barolo wines were mostly unimpressive and sweet due to ineffective winery technologies and techniques and the cold harvest time weather. A French vintner from Burgundy was hired to make improvements, resulting in the Barolo being adopted as a favourite by nobility and eventually the Barolo we know now. Barolo wines are made entirely of the Nebbiolo grape. They are robust and deeply tannic reds, often having notes of tar or rose petals and eventually earthy and dark chocolate as descriptors. These wines, being required to age for anywhere from 38 to 62 months before release, are able to age for long periods of time- we’re talking 20+ years! Most bottles need as much as 10 years of bottle age before they are ‘settled’ (=tannins have softened and flavours have evolved) enough to enjoy! That makes this an investment not only on the wine-maker’s part, but also the wine-drinker’s who must put this bottle away and resist opening it too early! The modern wine enthusiast might not always have such patience however, which is leading to some changes in some parts of the Barolo industry. Different techniques are being experimented with (shorter fermentation times and use of new oak French barriques) in order to make a Barolo that can be drunk much earlier. There can be a good amount of variation between different bottles of Barolo even in the same vintage (=year) due to some variation among the 11 different sub-regions’ soils and climates.
- Barbaresco– Also made entirely of the Nebbiolo grape, these wines are comparable to Barolos. Located in the Langhe area, Barbaresco wines have been historically less known than their Barolo neighbors, until relatively recently (post-WW2 saw an increase in International popularity of these wines). The Barbaresco zone has little variation among its “comunes” (districts) in terms of soil types and climate, which means there is more consistency among different Barbaresco wineries/bottles each vintage versus Barolos. Barbaresco is warmer and drier which allows its Nebbiolo to ripen earlier, generally making less tannic and easier to approach wines as a result. Barbaresco wines tend to need at least 5 years after their vintage to settle (=soften) and mature before drinking. There is a requirement of 2 years ageing, with at least 1 year in oak, before release on the market. They are very tannic reds, and can easily age upwards of 20 years or more in the bottle. Typical tasting notes on younger Barbarescos include violets, roses, dried petals, fennel, cherry, and truffles. As it ages they tend to get more earthy notes like leather and tar. This, like its wine-brother Barolo, is another wine that requires some patience!
- Barbera- Barbera is a black grape variety, and its wines are named in a formula that is typical of some other Italian wines: Name of Grape + of + Name of City/Town. For example “Barbera d’Asti” meaning Barbera of the city/area Asti or “Barbera d’Alba” meaning Barbera of the city/area of Alba. This grape’s hometown in Piedmont is Monferrato, with some speculation that It may actually have originated in another Region entirely, Lombardy. There are both lighter more fruity versions of Barbera wines as well as ones aged in toasted oak that demand cellaring for awhile before drinking. Lighter Barbera wines often have notes of cherry, blueberry, raspberry and even vanilla when aged in oak. Blackberry, black or sour cherry, and plummy flavors tend to develop in wines with riper grapes and longer ageing. Overall, Barbera wines, when grown and vinified (=made into wine) with care, can offer less expensive and seriously good alternatives to their more prestigious and costly paesani (=fellow countrymen). Barbera is mostly grown in Italy but a very small amount is also grown in the USA, Brazil, Argentina, and Australia among others.
- Asti– Asti is an area known mostly for Moscato d’Asti or their bubbly Asti or Asti Spumante, made in its very own “Asti Method”. In 2004 the Asti reached #1 in terms of DOCG production for all of Italy. In any given vintage as much as 10 times more Asti is produced than their prestigious neighbor Barolo. Why? More likely than not because it’s much cheaper to produce and world-wide the market demand for bubbly is always high: people love sparkly wines, and whether it’s a wedding or a birthday, we celebrate many of life’s important occasions with them! The sparkling wine Asti, or “spumante”, is usually somewhat sweet due to the method of production- in the Asti method fermentation is interrupted, leaving residual sugar and making a bubbly that isn’t dry but semi-sweet instead. Moscato d’Asti wine is usually “frizzante”, meaning slightly sparkling. Both are made from the Moscato Bianco grape (also known as Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains), noted for being grapey, peachy, and floral. Moscato d’Asti wines tend to be either still or less bubbly and also drier with higher alcohol content. Asti wines are very versatile due to their sweetness and refreshing high acidity. They can be paired with a number of different foods, from fruit and dessert to spicy Asian foods and appetizers.
- Dolcetto– As you’ll see in the list of DOC and DOCG wines below, there are several Dolcetto-based wines, like Dolcetto di Diano d’Alba and Dolcetto d’Asti. Dolcetto is a black grape variety that is native to the Monferrato area of Piedmont, though it may actually have origins in France. Its name means “little sweet one”, which might be a reference to the fact the variety naturally is lower in acidity and hence might seem sweeter when eaten. This grape is much easier to grow than Nebbiolo and Barbera, and its wines are usually meant to be released and enjoyed young, making it an excellent grape for Piedmont Wine-makers to make quality but less expensive wines that don’t require years of ageing (and tying up money). Dolcetto wines are deeply colored but softer and fruity, but with surprisingly astringent tannins that wine-makers can fortunately easily soften during the vinification (=wine making) process. Typical tasting notes of a Dolcetto wine include black cherry, licorice, almond, walnut, and prunes. This same grape can be found in the nearby region of Lombardy under the name Ormeasco . Dolcetto is primarily grown in Italy but smaller amounts are also produced in the USA, New Zealand, and Australia.
- Gavi– Gavi is an area and town in the Southeast of the Piedmont region. Gavi wines are one of few celebrated white wines in the region, made from the native white variety Cortese. These wines are crisp, mineraly, flinty, and have a nose of floral and citrus fruits like lemon with an aftertaste of almonds (=almond is a very common aftertaste among Italian white wines). Gavi wines can also be sparkling, though it is more commonly a dry, lower alcohol white. Gavi is a popular wine buddy with seafood but pairs well with chicken and citrus-based sauces.
DOCG Wines of Piedmont to Date:
- Alta Langa
- Asti (Asti Sottozona Canelli, Asti Sottozona Santa Vittoria d’Alba, Asti Sottozona Strevi)
- Barbera d’Asti (subregions: Nizza, Tinella, Astiano
- Barbera del Monferrato Superiore
- Brachetto d’Acqui
- Dolcetto di Diano d’Alba
- Dolcetto di Ovada Superiore
- Erbaluce di Caluso
- Ruche’ di Castagnole Monferrato
DOC Wines of Piedmont to Date:
- Barbera d’Alba
- Barbera del Monferrato
- Cisterna d’Asti
- Colli Tortonesi
- Colline Novaresi
- Colline Saluzzesi
- Cortese dell’Alto Monferrato
- Coste della Sesia
- Dolcetto d’Acqui
- Dolcetto d’Alba
- Dolcetto di Asti
- Dolcetto di Ovada
- Freisa d’Asti
- Freisa di Chieri
- Grignolino d’Asti
- Grignolino del Monferrato Casalese
- Malvasia di Casorzo d’Asti
- Malvasia di Castelnuovo Don Bosco
- Nebbiolo d’Alba
- Rubino di Cantavenna
- Terre Alfieri
- Valli Ossolane
- Verduno Pelaverga