The exceptional food, the incredible wine and the rolling hills of Tuscany… the image that is often conjured up by someone talking about an Italian holiday.
Yet, it is Piemonte in the north of Italy, that fits that bill every bit as powerfully as Toscana. And in wine terms, I might say exceeds its southern brethren. As Sangiovese reigns in central Italy, it is Nebbiolo that is king in the North (and winter does properly come here!). Indeed, Barolo, its most famous incarnation, is referred to as the “wine of kings and king of wines”.
Nebbiolo produces wines of power, wines of grace and wines of contemplative complexity. They are often challenging because of the tannic structure that the grape gives, yet can give depth and an ethereal quality commonly only found in Pinot Noir. Pinotphiles often gravitate to Nebbiolo, it is said.
Barolo and smaller but no less relevant Barbaresco sit in the Langhe region, around the gastronomic centre of Alba (think white truffles, hazelnuts and 3-star Michelin dining) – Barolo to the south and south east and Barbaresco to the east and north east.
These folded hills are steeper and more dramatic than Tuscany and present a myriad of aspects, inclines, exposures and altitudes that create a mosaic of mesoclimates. Added to that a varying blend of more-or-less calcareous clays (giving more powerfully-tannic expressions) and sandy soils (giving more elegance) and the patchwork quilt of the Langhe produces a wide range of styles of Nebbiolo.
Oh, and there’s the obvious variation in winemaking. Since the advent of Angelo Gaja’s ‘modernising’ practices in the 1960s and 1970s, the region has been through tensions of traditional and modern. These days it seems to be in a post-modern age with a blend of practices that could be pointed at as traditional and modern. The pendulum seems to be coming back to a happy medium.
In particular, the length of post-fermentation maceration on Nebbiolo’s skins, to manage levels and texture of tannins (long 30+ days = ‘traditional’; short <20 days = ‘modern’), and the use of oak barrels (old, large 1,500-7,000L botti, often from Slavonian oak = ‘traditional’; new 225L barriques or larger 500L tonneaux = ‘modern’). ‘Modernists’ have also looked for later harvesting and ripeness. Either way, these dimensions add to the complexity of the region as well as its interest.
But Piemonte is bigger than just Barolo and Barbaresco, and bigger than just Nebbiolo.
First, there are the red varieties of Barbera and Dolcetto that make up the bulk of red wine production in the area. Plus there are whites (re)-emerging including Arneis, Erbaluce and the fascinating Nascetta, alongside the workhorse Cortese (AKA Gavi).
- Nebbiolo: everything high except colour! Its crisp acidity and powerful – but typically very fine-textured – tannins act as preservatives for wines that can age for decades. When the fruit is ripe and dense enough, often at 14-15% ABV, this can create incredible wines, particularly since Nebbiolo is also highly aromatic: floral rose, scented red cherry notes. But it also expresses a highly savoury side: tar, earth, smokiness or crushed rocks that make it a great food wine. Producers often describe 3 clones, but apparently the rare Nebbiolo Rosé is in fact a separate variety. Others are Miquet and Lampia
- Barbera: typically high acid and moderate, fine-textured tannin, with red cherry fruit and an affinity for newer oak flavours. At its finest in the Monferrato and Barbera d’Asti denominations, but Barbera d’Alba can also be very good
- Dolcetto: typically deep purple, moderate acid and high, grainy-textured – rustic – tannin, with blackberry fruit and a marked bitter-almond herbal note. Often planted on the windier tops of hills where Nebbiolo is less favoured. Tannin management is the key here to making an easier-drinking style
- Brachetto: relatively pale coloured, highly rose-scented variety with supple tannins. It is most recognised for its set of idiosyncratic, pale red, sparkling and fully sweet wines, with rose and musk notes. New styles include pale, fully-dry sparkling rosés and still, dry wines are also made
- Freisa: relatively pale coloured, floral, red variety with good acidity and moderate, though slightly rustic tannins. Normally making unoaked, easy-drinking wines in the Asti region
- Grignolino: somewhat deeper-coloured than Freisa, with firmer tannins that still have some rusticity of texture, this is also one of Asti’s specialities. It is starting to get some attention for more serious wines, with a producer association recently formed
- Ruchè: 100-odd Ha only planted of this fruity, supple-tannin variety with relatively soft tannins, that is best known in its own DOC, Ruchè del Castagnole Monferrato
- Moscato Bianco: as Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains is known here, this grape produces very distinctive, lightly sparkling, fully-sweet yet delicate, floral white wines in the form of Moscato d’Asti. Less sweet, but also less good, are the related Asti wines, and a handful of passito and still whites are also made
- Cortese (Gavi): typically neutral / low aromatic variety with high acidity and a mineral chalkiness. Lean citrus and apple character, with a notable apple-pip aromatic edge. Often high-volume, taking much of its character away, but can be interesting at its best. Most recognised from the Gavi village as Gavi di Gavi
- Arneis: semi-aromatic, crisp white variety with a delicate fennel-herb note to white stone fruit. At its best, can carry a stony mineral quality. The hills of Roero, to the north west of Alba are its heart
- Erbaluce: from the Alto Piemonte and interesting semi-aromatic, citrus flavoured white which is sometimes done in a passito style as well as its classical fresh, crisp style. Spiritual home is the Caluso region
- Nascetta: Langhe white variety being rediscovered by Barolo producers. Semi-aromatic, crisp white but with density of flavour that takes on a progressively waxy character. Citrus peel, some herbal notes and a nuttiness that could be fascinating as producers learn how to make the best of this once-forgotten variety. Its heart and permitted regional denomination is from the township of Novello: Nascetta del Comune di Novello
- Favorita: as white, Sardinian variety, Vermentino is known here, carrying the lemon rind, wax and herbal character of the variety, it also carries the stamp of Piemonte, with briskness of acidity and chalky texture
Then we need to consider the other regions of Piemonte. Around Alba, on the other side of the Tanaro river from the Langhe (including Barolo and Barbaresco) there are the hills of Roero.
To the south of Barolo is the Alta Langa, not to be confused with Alto Piemonte which is the zone 100-odd km north and north-west of Alba, in the Alpine foothills.
Alto Piemonte includes the long-established, but almost forgotten, Nebbiolo DOCG pair of Gattinara and Ghemme, facing each other on the opposite sides of the Sesia river, where Nebbiolo was once called Spanna. There is a plethora of others that also base themselves on Nebbiolo such as Carema, Boca, Bramaterra and Costa della Sesia.
- Barolo: the larger of the two “Bs” and the most internationally recognised expression of Nebbiolo, typically showing power. Altitudes up to 450m around La Morra. Barbera and Dolcetto (d’Alba) also widely grown
- Barbaresco: the smaller and often overlooked of the “Bs”, where Nebbiolo often finds a more elegant expression. Slightly lower in altitude and more influenced by the Tanaro river
- Roero: one the west side of the Tanaro river, to the north west of Alba, another section of rolling hills and small villages. It’s most distinctive feature is being home to the delicately aromatic Arneis
- Langhe: over-arching zone within which Barolo, Barbaresco and Roero sit, and which produces lesser examples of the same wines, often for earlier drinking, especially Langhe Nebbiolo. It also provides a DOC home for varieties not covered elsewhere, like Langhe Favorita
- Alta Langa: East and South of Barolo stretch the higher-altitude hills labelled Alta Langa. This cooler-climate zone is becoming recognised particularly for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir-based, traditional method sparkling wines, in the Champagne mould but with a Piemontese stamp. One to watch
- Asti and Monferrato: with its heart in the province of Asti, 50-odd km North and East of Alba are the overlapping regions of Asti and Monferrato, known for the production of powerful, weighty Barbera d’Asti. This diverse zone, spreading into Barbaresco, is also famed for delicate, lightly sparkling and sweet Moscato d’Asti (plus its lesser Asti cousins), and finally sweet, sparkling rose-scented red Brachetto d’Acqui from the East of the region
- Gattinara: a long-established DOCG (1990) for Nebbiolo, locally known as Spanna, grown on the main hillsides behind the small town of the same name. Just as Barolo and Barbaresco are the 2 neighbouring “Bs” of Nebbiolo, Gattinara is one of the 2 neighbouring “Gs” along with Ghemme situated around 50-60km north of Asti, on the way to Lake Maggiore. As the Oxford Companion to Wine notes, only 95Ha in 2011
- Ghemme: also a long-established Nebbiolo-based DOCG on the opposite, eastern side of the Sesia River, and about 10km from Gattinara. Again, small at barely 60Ha
- Alto Piemonte: beyond Gattinara and Ghemme, a series of small DOCs generally based on Nebbiolo, in the foothills of the Italian Alps, towards the Valle d’Aosta. These small DOCs include Carema, Boca and Bramaterra. Typically, as with Gattinara and Ghemme, these Nebbiolos have fresher acidity, and can have greater elegance and delicacy than Barolo in particular. Perhaps being rediscovered at the moment. Not to be confused with Alta Langa…