The wines of Piedmont, Italy, seem to embody fall to me. There’s the famed Nebbiolo grape with aromas and flavors of dried fruit and earth. There’s the Barbera grape that while usually boasting less structure than Nebbiolo can still have this savory, meatiness, to it. All the reds elicit my cravings for hearty stews! Then there are the lesser known whites -- all mineral driven and perfect for pairing with your first roast chicken of the season!
But like all the truly great wine regions there’s a lot to unpack, and higher prices at the top levels can make even a casual tasting tour of the region seem a bit daunting. Let’s change that!
Starting off general...the Piedmont is located in northwestern Italy, bordering France. (Click here for a great map on the Wine Folly blog.)
“Piedmont” literally means “the foot of the mountain”, and it is appropriately named as this region is surrounded on 3 sides by the Apennines and the Alps. (Also, 73% of the Piedmont is covered in hills or mountains!)
The Po River runs through the middle of the region, and most grape growing occurs south of this fertile valley in the provinces of Asti, Alessandria, and Cuneo. Here, in the Monferrato and Langhe hills we find a continental climate and generally dry conditions as those larger mountains provide protection from storms. (What us wine nerds call “rain shadow effect”!)
Many of the current conditions that yield amazing wines actually stem from ancient history. Let’s go way way back: about 35 million years ago this area was a basin of deep water. About 5 million years ago there was significant seismic activity that pushed the land upwards creating the Langhe Hills. Since then there has been significant erosion, particularly caused by the Tanaro River changing course (about 60,000 years ago.)
What does all that mean in plain terms? The former ocean bed gave us the bedrock of limestone that contributes to supremely elegant wines. The seismic activity and erosion brought this limestone closer to the surface!
Now bringing us to current times...the star grape of the Piedmont is Nebbiolo, and the most outstanding areas for its production are the DOCGs (aka subregions) of Barolo and Barbaresco. Nebbiolo is known for creating powerful, long-lived wines because of its tannic nature. Generally, Barolo is regarded as producing more masculine wines; while Barbaresco creates a more feminine counterpart. However, exceptions can be found!
Common flavors associated with Nebbiolo are red fruit, savory herbs, dried roses, and tobacco, backed up by high acidity and tannins. Wines made from Nebbiolo typically show medium concentration of color leaning towards an orange hue even in their youth.
The subregions of Barolo and Barbaresco definitely produce wine meant for the long haul (only improving with age), and consequently they will demand a bit more from your pocketbook (starting at $40 and going on up into the $100s). Thankfully, you can also find Nebbiolo from the broader Langhe region that is more affordable and quite delicious in its youth. For these general appellation Langhe Nebbiolos you can expect to spend $20 to $30.
The two other major red grapes of the Piedmont are Barbera and Dolcetto. Barbera is known for being lower in tannin, high in acidity, and much more approachable in youth. Dolcetto is known for being higher in tannin but lower in acidity and can also be quite delicious in its youth.
Other lesser known indigenous grapes of Piedmont include Brachetto, Grignolino, Ruchè, Croatina, Vespolina, Freisa, and Pelaverga for reds.
And Timorasso, Arneis, and Erbaluce for whites! All of these (including the aforementioned Barbera & Dolcetto) should be available at relatively reasonable price points (think $20-$30).
The Piedmont can seriously be explored at all price points! So plan a trip to your local wine shop and create your own tasting tour of this remarkable region.
Some of my favorite producers:
Angelo Negro (Arneis, Nebbiolo, Brachetto)
Castello di Verduno (Barbaresco, Barolo, Pelaverga)
Cavallotto (Barolo & Dolcetto)
Ettore Germano (Barolo & Chardonnay!)
Ezio Poggio (Timorasso)
La Miraja (Grignolino & Ruche)
Luigi Giordano (Barbaresco & Rosso)
Giacomo Oddero (Barolo & Barbera)
Produttori del Barbaresco (Barbaresco!)
Scarpa (Barolo & Barbera)
Vietti (Barolo, Arneis, Barbera)
Walter Massa (Timorasso & Barbera)
P.P.S. There are of course MANY more producers (some of which can be quite rare), but the above list represents a variety of price points and wines that can usually be found in most medium to large cities!
P.S. I have actually already written individual profiles on the native Piedmont grapes of Pelaverga and Arneis. Check out those blogs by clicking here: