Piedmont wine boasts some of the finest and most expensive wines in the world. The Piedmont wine region is located in the rolling hills of the Italian countryside, just south of the Alps and the city of Turin.
Piedmont, which translates to ‘foot of the mountain’, is an absolute must-visit wine destination for any oenophile. Stunning scenery, rich culture, mouth-watering culinary treats and of course, delicious wines. This article can take you through the Piedmont wine regions and the grapes found within them, as well as the history, culture and food behind this region.
If you’re a fan of Italian wine, or you’re simply trying to broaden you wine horizons, be sure to read below!
The History of the Piedmont Wine Region
The Piedmont Wine region is markedly characterised by winemakers who focus on hard-work and diligence. While the geographical proximity to the Tuscan wine region is clear, in fact the stylistic approach of the producers of Piedmont wine is more akin to the French region of Burgundy.
The focus is on single varietal wines from small vineyards. Barolo, Gavi, Dolcetto and Barbera are all examples of Piedmontese wines which only use one grape variety. This is in stark contrast to the always blended Chianti to the South. Then, Piedmont vineyards tend to be around 3 to 5 acres. This is tiny when compared broadly to France, where the vineyards average out at around 26 acres.
This could point to the Piedmont wine region being a pokey, small area. However, it is actually the largest Italian wine region in terms of surface area. Yet, most of this area is inhospitable for grape growing due to the steepness of the hills and low temperatures which can be exacerbated by altitude. As an example, the Piedmont wine region of Barolo finds the majority of the plantings at altitudes between 400 and 800 metres above sea level.
It is for this reason that vineyards occupy small pockets throughout this sprawling rural area. So, the volume of wine produced is relatively low when compared to the rest of Italy. However, the quality is where Piedmont wine excels. In Italy, 15% of all DOC wines come from Piedmont, with 84% of all Piedmont wines holding either the DOC or DOCG level, (MacNeil 333).
Of these, the most esteemed lie to the Southern and Eastern portions of the Piedmont wine region. They’re warmer than the Alpine influenced areas to the North and the West. In particular, the hilly ranges of Langhe & Monferrato are key. They lie next to the towns of Alba, (which is sandwiched by the villages of Barolo and Barbaresco), Asti, Alma and Alessandria.
Key Piedmont Wine Regions
Already some names will have started appearing that are sure to be familiar to any wine lover, such as Barolo, Barbaresco and Asti. Indeed, you can find outstanding Piedmont wine of all varieties. Red, white and sparkling – they’ve got it all. So, let’s take a look at the vino which makes Piedmont wine so desirable.
Red Wines of Piedmont
Barolo And Barbaresco
It’s impossible to discuss Piedmont wine, without mentioning Barolo. Rather tellingly, Barolo is often dubbed the ‘King of Wine’. An opinion undoubtedly shared by a number of people across the world. Held in nearly the same regard is Barbaresco.
Both these wines come from Nebbiolo. Part of the desire and high price points come from how specialised this region is in harnessing this Nebbiolo grape. While Nebbiolo only represents 8% of all plantings in Piedmont, nowhere in the world has more plantings and nowhere comes close to replicating the success of the Piedmont style of Nebbiolo.
Barolo and Barbaresco exhibit many of the same characteristics that the best of Bordeaux do. Deeply structured and sought after with the potential to age in cellars for years and years. Until the 1990s, most winemakers advised waiting 15 to 20 years before even attempting to drink one of their wines. Now, practices have evolved. The wines are softer and approachable even in their youth.
A key word which encapsulates the key characteristics of these wines is ‘powerful’. Tannic and acidic, with strong black fruit flavours. They’re intense, firm, almost black in colour and are intended for rich meaty and earthy indulgences, (MacNeil Pg.332). However, both these wines, (but Barolo especially), have gone through a modernisation.
Until the 1980s Barolo and Barbaresco were too fierce. If drunk young, near unbearably strong tannins would leave the tongue shrivelled. A combination of high tannins and late-ripening due to cold growing conditions contributed to this.
Indeed these very factors also contributed to these great Piedmont wines beginning to fall out of popularity. Modern tastes favoured accessible wines, which can be drunk young, when they were purchased. Thankfully, modern winemaking technology that began in the 1980s brought these wines back to the forefront of the wine world. They still possessed the power that these Piedmont wines were known for, but this was alongside a suppleness.
Temperature controls went a long way into aiding this. The warmer environment helped to avoid the particularly astringent tannins that Nebbiolo wines typically exhibited. Alongside temperature controls, new ageing techniques were implemented. Ageing in small French barrels and bottle ageing both became regular practices. This helped to avoid excessive oxidation that occurred previously, when ageing in large oak barrels.
By the 1990s, a new and modern Nebbiolo was born. It retains the history that makes this wine so esteemed while adapting it to today’s palates.
While they’ve been adapted to be enjoyed younger. Younger is relative. Barolo can now be seen as approachable earlier, but this likely takes the shape of 5 years, rather than 25. Some younger Barolos will still be harsh and tannic while only 1 or 2 years into ageing. They can also still age for a great amount of time. The best Barolo will continue to develop and shine over a number of years.
This is shown by the fact that even today regulations stipulate Barolo and Barbaresco must be aged for a great deal of time. Barolo requires 38 months of ageing, 18 of which take place in oak. Barbaresco requires 26 months, 9 of which take place in oak, (MacNeil Pg.338).
If you’re looking for more on this topic, a film was made on this very subject. ‘Barolo Boys‘ looks at the explosion of Barolo wine around this time and the intense debate between who did it best, the traditionalists or the modernists. You’re sure to get testimony from eccentric winemakers who take their craft intensely seriously, all set among the stunning Piedmont countryside.
Dolcetto and Barbera
If Barolo and Barbaresco are your ‘specific special occasion wines’, then Barbera and Dolcetto are the wines that Piedmontese would drink every night with dinner. Indeed, Barbera is the most widely planted grape in the Piedmont wine region.
Sp, Barbera and Dolcetto can be thought of as the everyday drinkers in Piedmont wine. Barolo and Barbaresco are too strong and brooding to be sipped on during a lunch with friends. This has given these other red grapes a chance to find a home.
Barbera doesn’t possess the same tannic power of Barolo, while it retains a good degree of acidity. This keeps it light and makes it a wine which can be paired with a great number of dishes. Then, Dolcetto, (‘little sweet’), has a spicy, mineral edge to it, with comparatively low levels of acid and tannin. In many respects, it’s even lighter than Barbera.
It’s worth noting that more serious structured examples of both these wines can be found. The towns of Alba, Asti and Alma are all known for producing high-quality wines from these grape varieties. You’ll be able to spot these easily. As some examples, these wines will be dubbed ‘Barbera d’Alma’ or ‘Dolcetto d’Alba’.
However, the preference for Nebbiolo in Piedmont has had a direct effect on the quality of the Barbera and Dolcetto wines. Producers stretched yields to ensure they could pump out high quantities of these wines. They also traditionally planted these grapes on less advantageous sites, saving the best for Nebbiolo. Though, times are changing. In recent years, winemakers have given better treatment to these ‘lesser’ grapes. It can actually be seen as a testament to the inherent quality of these wines, that in spite of this lesser treatment good wines were consistently produced.
White Wines of Piedmont
Gavi and Arneis
While it is undeniable that red holds the focus in Piedmont wine, you’d be a fool to overlook Piedmont white wine! You can find a scattering of smaller indigenous grapes and international varieties, but two stand alone. They are Gavi and Arneis.
Gavi has the highest reputation globally. Made from Cortese grapes, which many believe are varieties native to Piedmont, it makes for a bone dry, light and citrus heavy wine, with a crispy, mineral finish. Be sure to keep an eye out for Gavi di Gavi. This is a separate DOCG and means the grapes were grown within the town of Gavi itself. If you find one of these, you’re likely onto a winner.
Now, onto Arneis which translates to ‘rascal’. Arneis is a Piedmont wine that has gone in and out of fashion, but it has seen an increase in plantings since the 1980s and can be regularly found on wine lists today. In terms of taste, it is again dry, but has a reasonably full body. It also tends to display riper fruit notes, such as golden pears and apricots.
Both these white wines are planted along the Ligurian coasts. Their popularity is actually inextricably linked to the coastline, not due solely to topography, but that they’re the perfect companions to seafood. Try out some Ligurian seafood specialities alongside a cold glass of Gavi or Arneis and you won’t be disappointed.
Sparkling Wines of Piedmont
In terms of sparkling Piedmont wine, it’s all about Asti. Asti doesn’t get the same attention as Prosecco, but we think it’s a crying shame. It really represents a unique offering in the zone of widely available sparkling wine. Low alcohol, (generally around 7-9% ABV), often with a big kick of residual sugar. Nothing scratches the Asti itch, like Asti itself.
Dating back to around 1870, it is produced from Moscato grapes, primarily Moscato Canelli with Muscat Blancs à Petits Grains being used for Moscato d’Asti. The latter is an even lower alcohol version, which often comes as a frizzante and a regular cork. These Piedmont wines are staples of a Piedmontese household on Christmas morning.
With the classic Asti sparkling wine, you can expect intense floral notes and ripe, almost dessert-like fruit flavours. This doesn’t come through in an artificial fizzy drink like sweetness, but rather rich and ripe fruit. They tend to be frothy in the mouth, with notes of chilled sweet peaches and flowers in a glass.
Asti is produced from the Charmat, or ‘Tank’, Method. Grape must is put in large, chilled stainless steel vat, (which are kept at near freezing temperatures), to prevent fermentation. Then, it is fermented in batches preserving fruity, floral notes in huge pressurised and sealed inert tanks. When it reaches the desired ABV, it is once again chilled, before going through a centrifuge and finally being bottled – where it is immediately shipped.
This alludes to one of the key aspects of Asti. It is definitely intended to be drunk young and fresh. Often no vintage date is included in Asti, as it is always intended for immediate consumption so there should be any need for it. Don’t stick a bottle of Asti in the cellar, crack it open with some friends and enjoy this delicious nectar.
The Food of Piedmont
How can we talk about anything Italian, without discussing the food? Piedmont wines frequently lend themselves to gastronomy. So, it should be no surprise that the food found in Piedmont is really of the highest quality. However, there are aspects of Piedmont gastronomy that are unique to the world of Italian food and also lesser known in the UK. The majority of Italian immigration comes from the south, so the foods of northern Italy aren’t as well known as those from the south, (and their anglicised/americanised versions).
There is also a clear French influence in Piedmont food. Although, many Italians would likely take umbrage with that statement. Yet, there’s a historical case to be made for it. The French influence is due to its inclusion in the Kingdom of Savoy, which Turin became the capital of in the 17th century. This shows in the frequent use of butter, cream and eggs. The proximity to the alps and the cold shadow it brings also explains the desire for the fatty bits and warming red wines, (Barolo anyone?).
It’s also notably more carnivorous than a number of places in Italy. Big generous hunks of meat regularly find their way onto Piedmontese plates. These can included beef, lamb or veal.
Yet, in terms of food, perhaps the thing that Piedmont is most well known for are white truffles. The white truffles of Piedmont are some of the most sought after bits of grub you can find, with an average price of over £2000 a kilogram, (MacNeil Pg.340). They’re so desired that you can find black markets for these earthy goods.
Truffles, truffle oil, or other such variants can be a trendy thing to stick on top of some chips and double the price, but genuine authentic Piedmont white truffles are purported to offer something more than your average food. A substance found in them is found in male armpit sweat and female urine. While that in no way sounds like an appealing term for food, it speaks to the fact that truffles appeal goes beyond simply your palate and actually takes hold of your mind. This substance appeals to a primal element of our senses.
To dig up these high-price morsels, special truffle hunting pigs or dogs are brought out under cover of darkness to keep the truffle locations secret. The harvesting or hunting of these truffles tends to coincide with the new harvest of grapes. So, at a certain, magical time of year the streets will be filled with fresh truffles and the best of the new Piedmont wines. Uncork a fresh Barbera and grate some white truffle over some risotto. Yes, please!
Thirst for knowledge still not quenched? Want to learn about another great Italian wine region? Be sure to check out our other blog posts on Italian wine regions. We have full guides for the following regions:
MacNeil, Karen. The Wine Bible. 2nd ed., Workman Publishing, 2015.
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