Nearly everyone has heard of Tuscany and its most famous wine, Chianti. However, many people on this side of the Atlantic Ocean have never heard of Piedmont, another region of Italy, or even the fine wines its produces like Barolo, Barbaresco and Barbera, writes Journal journalist Alan Markoff.
Situated in the northwest corner of Italy, Piedmont – known as Piemonte by Italians – borders France and Switzerland. As the etymology of its name suggests, Piedmont lies mostly in the foothills of the Alps, giving it the hilly terrain typical of wine-growing regions across the globe.
Although the climate in the alpine areas of Piedmont is cold, the lowlands area offer warm and dry summers followed by cool autumns that bring fog – perfect for producing great wine grapes.
Piedmont produces red, white and sparkling wines, one of the latter of which is probably its best known wine. Asti, or Asti Spumante as was once known, is exported all over the globe. But Piedmont also produces some of Italy’s finest red wines.
Of Italy’s 45 DOCG wines, 12 are produced in Piedmont. More known for its red wines, Piedmont also produces dry white wines, including the light and summery Arneis; the very dry and acidic Gavi; and a fresh and fruity Chardonnay sometimes known as Langhe Bianco.
Two of Piedmont’s white wines, Asti and its sibling, Moscato d’Asti, dominate its overall production in white wine. While Asti is the semi-sweet, sparkling version of the white wine made from the Muscat grape, Moscato is a low-alcohol, lightly sparkling – or frizzante – wine made from the same grape.
Barolo, Barbaresco and Barbera lead Piedmont’s red wine production and Dolcetto, Roero and Nebbiolo are other wines produced in the region. But the big ‘Bs’ are the most known and the most likely to find their way to restaurants and homes outside of Italy.
After sweet and inexpensive Asti, the most famous wine produced in Piedmont, Barolo, is anything but inexpensive and anything but sweet.
Known in the region as the wine of kings and the king of wines, Barolo does not refer to a type of grape, but rather a relatively small growing region a short distance southwest of the town of Alba.
It is a powerful wine with an intense bouquet, strong flavours and good structure that will allow for many years of aging.
Barolo, one of 10 DOCG wines produced in Piedmont, is made entirely from grape called Nebbiolo, which means ‘little fog’ in the local dialect. It is considered a noble wine, with a history going back some 200 years.
Because the Nebbiolo grape is thick-skinned, Barolo has a lot of tannins, so much so that in years past, the wine required 10 years or more of aging just for the tannins to soften enough to drink. However, the Barolos of today are fermented differently, allowing them to become approachable at a much younger age. Still, DOCG regulations require the wine be aged at least three years before release, two of which must be in oak barrels.
The DOCG regulations also require Barolo to have certain characteristics of colour. When young, Barolo should be garnet red with orange reflections, which gives way to its celebrated brick red colour as it ages.
Barolos of today are also subjected to a secondary – or malolactic – fermentation, which helps lessen the wine’s acidity and tartness.
But even with softer tannins and lessened acidity, Barolos can be quite harsh for the uninitiated, and some say it takes a lot of tasting for the wine to be fully understood. Even with age, Barolo remains powerful, and is sometimes referred to as an iron fist in a velvet glove.
Most of the good Barolo producers use a method called green harvesting, which involves pruning unripe grapes from the vines during the summer so that all the intensity of the flavours are concentrated in the remaining grapes.
While this improves quality, it also reduces production and increases the price of Barolo. Only about 11.5 million bottles of Barolo were produced in 2008, another reason, given the worldwide demand, of its higher price.
In addition, the better Barolos need at least 10 to 15 years of aging, so the expense of cellaring also adds to the cost of a great bottle of Barolo.
Another powerful wine made from the Nebbiolo grape is Barbaresco, named for the region centred around a town of the same name.
Known as the queen of Italian wines, Barbaresco is favoured to King Barolo by some people because it is softer and more approachable. Barbaresco is also elegant, even if it is still considered a ‘big’ wine.
Only a few kilometres separates the Barolo and Barbaresco regions and the two wines are made with the same type of grapes and almost identical methods.
What differentiates the two are the terroirs – the characteristics of climate and land – in which the grapes are grown. Italians strongly believe you cannot separate the wine from the land, and Nebbiolo is a type of grape that clearly expresses its terroir.
This is one of the reasons that the DOCG mandates Barolo wine can only be produced in the official defined Barolo region and Barbaresco can only be produced in the defined Barbaresco region. Wines produced from Nebbiolo grapes outside of these two areas are simply called Nebbiolo, usually preceded or followed by the area they are produced, such as Nebbiolo d’Alba or Langhe Nebbiolo.
Subtle differences in soil and climate make Barbaresco’s tannins a little less harsh than Barolo, especially when the wine is young. This is one reason DOCG rules only require Barbaresco to age for one year in oak barrels and two years total – compared of Barolo’s three years – before release. That said, Barbaresco is best aged at least five years before drinking, and preferably seven or eight years.
The Barbaresco production region, which is situated north and east of the town of Alba, is considerably smaller than Barolo. As a result, only about four million bottles of Barbaresco are produced each year (4.45 million bottles in 2008), making the wine difficult to find overseas. On the whole, however, Barbaresco is generally less expensive than Barolo and much easier to drink at a younger age than its more masculine counterpart.
Perhaps no wine of Italy shows as much promise for the future as Barbera. Made from the vigorous Barbera grape, the wine has even more history than Barolo and Barbaresco, dating back as far as the 13th century.
In more recent times, however, Barbera slipped in its popularity. Partially because it is so vigorous, some growers in the past did not try to control the harvest yield amounts, leading to inferior grapes and resulting in inferior wines.
Inexpensive and plentiful, Barbera became the quaff of the masses and some of it was of extremely low quality. Then there was so-called methanol scandal of 1986, in which some Barbera producers added poisonous methanol to the wine to increase the alcohol content, causing either death or blindness in more than 30 people.
Afterwards there was an initiative to increase the quality of Barbera, especially in Piedmont, through improved techniques in the vineyard and in the cellars.
However, in regions outside of Piedmont in Italy, Barbera grapes are still used as a component in mass-produced table wines.
Medium-bodied and without the harsh tannins of the wines produced by Nebbiolo, Barbera has a high acidity that allows it to pair with many foods.
Barbera d’Asti, Barbera d’Alba and Barbera d’Monferrato have all attained DOC designations, and the wine is becoming increasingly better.
More and more wineries in Piedmont are starting to pay attention to Barbera production, even some like Vietti and La Spinetta that could be using their precious vineyard space to grow Nebbiollo for Barolo.
With a growing region far exceeding that of Barolo and Barbaresco combined, Barbera production has the potential to become one of the largest in Italy, and one that could meet a growing international demand for good quality, drinkable young wines.