Piedmont | A Region of Diverse Terroirs and Varietals
Located in the far north-west of Italy, just across the Alps from the Provence wine-growing region of France, Piedmont (Piemonte in Italian) is home to more DOCG's and DOC's than any other region in Italy. Moreover, an impressive 40% of all Piedmont wines are at DOCG or DOC level. This area is perhaps most famous for the production of complex and tannic Nebbiolo red wines of prestigious appellations, including Barolo and Barbaresco. However, Piedmont's incredible diversity of microclimates and soil variations is clearly reflected in the dizzying array of wine styles, produced from both native and international varietals.
The Revolutionary History of Piedmont Wine
Just as in most of the rest of Italy, the Ancient Greeks and, subsequently, Romans were the first to cultivate grape vines in the region of Piedmont. The first written record of wines specifically from this region is from 14th century, when an Italian agricultural writer by the name of Pietro de Crescentius wrote about a "Greek style" of wine produced by twisting the stems of grape clusters and allowing the fruit to hang on longer in order to dry out. In the 17th century, the court jeweller of Charles Emmanuel I, Duke of Savoy, became famous for his Chiaretto, a pale red wine made exclusively from Nebbiolo. In the 19th century, the winemaking industry of Piedmont became a crucial player in the early sparks of revolution against the Austrian Empire, which would eventually lead to the Risorgimento. Some of the most notable figures of this time - such as Camillo Benso and Giuseppe Garibaldi - owned vineyards in the region and grew weary of the high taxes imposed on the export of Piedmontese wines to areas of northern Italy (Veneto, Emilia and Lombardy) that were also controlled by the Austrians at the time. Notably, Camillo Benso later served as first prime minister of Piedmont-Sardinia during the Italian unification, and contributed significantly to the development of the region's wines by introducing French viticultural practices. Because of close proximity to France, Piedmont has adopted several techniques from French winemakers, particularly those of Burgundy.
The Piedmont region sits at the foot of the Western Alps, a location from which the region gets its name ("the foot of the mountains"). This area is bordered by the Alps to the North and a range of coastal hills called the Apennines in the South. Although Piedmont and Bordeaux are very close to one another in latitude, only the summer temperatures are similar because of fundamental differences in geography. The temperature variation between the ice-capped Alps and the warm, breezy Mediterranean creates a morning fog in the autumn months, which clears out gradually throughout the day. This fog, called "nebbia" in Italian, is said to be the source of the name for the region's most famous grape varietal, Nebbiolo. Chilly, foggy autumn days follow hot, dry summers in Piedmont. Winters are cold, often very harsh. The variation of climate between seasons, combined with the area's signature soils (calcareous marl and sandstone) create an ideal environment for the cultivation of both indigenous and international grape varietals.
The Piedmont region is famous for the wide variety of soil types, microclimates and altitudes at which vines grow. This diversity in terroir leads to a dizzying array of styles. In fact, Piedmont is often compared to Burgundy because of the large number of small-scale, family-run wineries producing excellent single-vineyard wines in low quantities with an almost obsessive focus on quality. And if Piedmont is Italy's Burgundy, the Langhe Hills crisscrossing the region form Piedmont's Cote d'Or. It is here that Piedmont most famed appellations - Barolo, Barbaresco - are located.
A Region Diverse in Red Grape Varietals
Although Nebbiolo is not the most planted grape varietal in Piedmont, it is undoubtedly the most quintessential Piedmontese grape, and the one that most contributed to the quality of the region's best known wines. In fact, Nebbiolo is the dominant grape variety in five of Piedmont's DOCG's and several DOC's. This late-ripening grape is usually harvested under foggy, wintry conditions. The varietal is known for its strong tannins, high level of acidity and signature aromas of tar, violets and truffles. Nebbiolo wines achieve their greatest expression in powerful and intense Barolo and more elegant and fragrant Barbaresco. These wines boast fabulous cellaring potential, developing a beautiful orange colour as they age.
The dark-skinned Barbera is the most planted varietal in the Piedmont, historically used for everyday wines but lately achieving a much high quality. Some of the best of the region's Barbera wines are sold under the titles of Barbera d'Alba, Barbera d'Asti and Barbera del Monferrato. Unlike most Nebbiolo wines, Barbera can be enjoyed just a year or two after the vintage. They are characterised by sour cherry aromas, nice acidity and less tannins than Nebbiolo.
Several of Piedmont's DOC's are devoted exclusively to the production of Dolcetto, whose name literally translates to "sweet little one." This name no doubt comes from the "friendly" nature of these wines, which tend to burst with fruit, while also offering low acidity and a gently bitter finish. This varietal initially gained popularity because of its sturdy and late-ripening characteristics. It is now being used to create outstanding wines, especially in the vineyards of DOCG Dolcetto di Dogliani.
Other red varietals of Piedmont include the strawberry-flavoured Brachetto (used to produce a the sweet, semi-sparkling frizzante red wine Brachetto d'Acqui) and Freisa (used to make sweet, dry, still and sparkling reds in Asti and Chieri).
The Great Success of Piedmont Whites
While Piedmont has largely been known for its signature red wines, one of the region's most recent success stories has to do with its whites, particularly the Moscato d'Asti. This semi-sweet, lightly-sparkling frizzante is produced from Moscato grapes grown near the town of Asti. These wines are known for their floral aromas and notes of stone fruit, including apricots and white peaches. Moscato grapes are also used to produce the lesser known Asti Spumante, a dryer sparkling wine with a bolder effervescence.
Made exclusively from white grapes of the Cortese varietal are the wines of the Gavi DOCG. These white wines, known as some of the best in the region, are characterised by their floral bouquet with notes of white flowers, green apple and lemon. They tend to pair fantastically with fresh seafood.
Other white wines of note include the aromatic Arneis from Roero and the relatively obscure, sweet Erbaluce. Lately, some international varieties have also found a home in the vineyards of Piedmont, among them Viognier and the universally ubiquitous Chardonnay.