Profiling Piedmont: An Italian Wine Guide

11/26/2018

Exploring Piedmont

 

In Italy, Piedmont may not be the most prolific winegrowing region, but it has certainly set a high bar in terms of quality. More than 50 percent of the land in Piedmont is dedicated Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) vineyards, ensuring the native vinos are exceptionally made. And of course, the local cuisine is one-of-a-kind. It is, without question, a perfect destination for lovers of Italian food and wine.

The Region and The Land

Italy’s mountainous Piedmont region is well suited for Italian winemakers. The area, which borders France and Switzerland, has a mix of warm weather coming from the Mediterranean and occasionally frigid cold air from the Alps. The climate is cooler than most of Italy and snow is not uncommon in the winter.

Piedmont’s diurnal temperature variation, the range between the highest and lowest temperatures that occurs in one day, is something to brag about in the wine industry. It’s warm during the day and chilly at night which brings the fog in the early morning.

That means that the grapes get exposed to warm sun during the day, increasing the sugar production while it ripens, and when the temperature drops at night, the natural acidity in the grapes gets balanced out to preserve them.

Furthermore, vineyards dedicated to their prized Nebbiolo grape are planted on the south facing hillsides to soak up the sun and take full advantage of the climate and terroir. Barbera, Dolcetto and other grapes are planted on the north facing slopes.

“The foothills and slopes with less generous soils are perfect for viticulture,” said Christopher Rowell, Breakthru Beverage Illinois’ Wine Educator. “The grapevine doesn’t need a lot.”

Both the food and the wine in Piedmont mimic the terroir.

“The cuisine lends itself to the land: buttery, creamy dishes with earthy flavors and, of course, the famed white truffle,” Rowell said. “It’s more land than sea in Piedmont, and the wine follows the same earthy path.”

As the saying goes, what grows together goes together.

The Grapes and The Wines They Make

The terroir tells the story of the wine. “No vintage is the same,” Rowell explained. “Where Mother Nature meets the land, that’s their story.”

It ultimately dictates what consumers see in the glass. The next chapter is the grapes.

Let’s start with the three principal grapes for both red and white and their characteristics:

Red Grape

Barbera

  • Most widely planted grape in the region
  • Known for high acid, low tannins
  • Floral and fruity: mulberry, cherry, cinnamon, clove and oak spice, varying between tart and sweet
  • Meant to be consumed young

Dolcetto

  • “Little sweet one” in Italian
  • Less acidity, fuller in body and higher tannins than Barbera
  • Bitter undercurrent and balsamic notes are common
  • Aged briefly, best sold while new and vibrant

Nebbiolo

  • Fog in Italian is “nebbia;” named after the cool morning fog in the region during harvest time
  • Grape is only grown in northwest Italy
  • Light in color, orange-tinged even in youth and devoid of the sweetness of oak
  • Cherry, leather, anise
  • Growing season is long with a late October, even November harvest

Rowell describes the Nebbiolo with a certain mysteriousness about it. 

“The aromatic depth is what makes this grape so interesting,” he said. “The sip you get in the beginning is not what you get at the end. Nebbiolo is my spirit grape. It unveils itself in ways you’d never imagine in a wine. I liken it to people at a party, where you find the loud, boisterous person at a party – that’s  not the Nebbiolo. The Nebbiolo is subdued, has something to say and you’ll want to listen.”

The Nebbiolo can be a very deceiving grape. It’s not as dark as one thinks for something that has the ability to age so long. Nebbiolos, like the land, are very earthy, with notes of tar and roses. 

“Try them with the right kind of cuisine and it will blow you away,” Rowell said.


White Grape

Arneis

  • Means “little rascal” in Piedmontese
  • Difficult to grow (hence the name)
  • Almost went extinct, originally used in Barolo wine before it was 100% Nebbiolo; available acreage was lost out until the 1970s where local producers revived it
  • Subtle, medium-bodied, crisp, herbal and almond-tinged
  • Apricot and tangerine aroma

Cortese

  • Crisp with flavors of lime, gala apples, honeydew melons
  • Scents of wet stones or minerals, green grass, almonds
  • High acidity, able to retain freshness

Moscato Bianco

  • Low acidity
  • Floral aroma with Meyer lemon, mandarin orange and honeysuckle flavors
  • Very versatile grape

While Piedmont is less known for their white wines, it is home of Asti, the sparkling white wine. “White wines are sometimes overshadowed by the reds coming out of Piedmont, but they’re still incredible wines,” Rowell said. Much of wines coming out of Piedmont are indeed reds.

Around 65 percent of red wines are produced, while 35 percent are white. The most popular wines coming out of Piedmont include Barolo and Barbaresco.


Piedmont Wine Styles

Red Wines 

Barolo

  • Made with 100% Nebbiolo
  • DOCG classification; must be aged for a minimum 38 months, 18 months in wood
  • Dubbed “King of Italian Wines”
  • Flavor: raspberry, licorice, roses, cocoa, anise

Barbaresco

  • Must be aged for a minimum of two years, at least one year in oak
  • DOCG classification
  • Dubbed “Queen of Italian Wines”
  • Flavor: cherries, rose petals, truffles

White Wines 

Asti

  • Low alcohol sparkling wine
  • DOCG classification; must be aged for a minimum 38 months, 18 months in wood
  • Flavor: fruity but not too sweet

Gavi

  • Dry with moderate acidity
  • Made exclusively with Cortese grape; a DOCG wine
  • Flavor: lemony citrus, almond, green apples, crisp pears

Arneis

  • Moderately dry
  • Highly aromatic with aromas of apricots, pears and almonds
  • Flavor: pear, hazelnut, honey

The Classifications

In 1963, Italy created laws to recognize the quality and authenticity of the wines it was producing. This system mimics the French appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC), meaning protected designation of origin. The French AOC goes beyond wine and certifies cheese, meats, spirits, butters and other agricultural products.

Italy’s laws include where grapes could be grown, the types of grapes used, length of time a wine is aged and alcohol content.

Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG)

  • Translation: controlled and guaranteed designation of origin
  • Wine that is guaranteed to follow the strictest rules
  • Strictest regulations: yields are lower, wine must pass analysis from government-licensed committee before being bottled
  • Currently around 70 DOCG wines
  • Piedmont: 17 DOCG wines

Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC)

  • Translation: controlled designation of origin
  • Have specific, well-defined regions
  • Quality tends to be higher than IGT wines
  • Currently more than 300 DOC wines
  • Piedmont: 40 DOC wines; most DOCs of any region

Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT)

  • Translation: geographical indication
  • More modern, less restricted in what they can do
  • Created for producers who couldn’t meet the aforementioned standards but were still creating great wines
  • Piedmont does not produce any IGT wines 
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