Of all wine regions of the world, Piemonte has won my heart for its sheer joie de vivre. And the use of French is not too undiplomatically inappropriate here, for this region is only just over the Alps from France and the local dialect is perfectly comprehensible to a French speaker. I have to admit that Piemonte has also stolen my stomach. I know of no other part of the world where every café and restaurant in the smallest village, no matter how unprepossessing, seems able and willing to serve course after course of stunningly fresh, stylishly but minimally prepared food. The raw meat-based antipasti, the risotti, the tartufi...but I must stop. This is supposed to be about wine.
The scenery is stunning, too, especially in autumn at the height of the white truffle season when each patch of vines turns a different shade of pink, orange, brown, purple and green. Whenever the fog, or nebbia, clears, the tightly folded Langhe hills which expose the Barolo and Barbaresco vineyards, Piemonte's most famous, are dwarfed by the snow-covered Alps to the north and west. Most of Piemonte's excitingly varied wine is produced in conditions of enviable beauty and gastronomic luxury. Do these people pay tax?
Unusually for Italy, Piemonte is a wine region to which grape varieties are the key. The region's great, intense, subtly perfumed, alcoholic, long-lived, occasionally unbearably tannic red wines owe everything to the finicky, local speciality, the late-ripening Nebbiolo vine (supposedly named after the fog). Yet enormous quantities of much juicier lively Barbera and softly mouth-filling Dolcetto are also grown, as well as some local rarities such as strawberry-flavoured Brachetto, curiously sweet and sparkling Freisa, light and tangy Grignolino and historically interesting Ruché or Rouchet.
Piemonte is also home to a variety of local white grape specialities, which to my palate share delicacy, dryness and an aroma that often reminds me of ripe pears. Cortese is the grape of the most respected white, Gavi; the perfumed Arneis has been very fashionable as Roero Arneis while Favorita (the local form of Rolle or Vermentino) is also grown in Roero just north of Barolo and Barbaresco country, which is also famous for its Nebbiolo. Erbaluce makes small quantities of sweet white wine but the most prolific white grape of Piemonte is Muscat, which is responsible for oceans of Asti and various other featherlight, grapey Moscatos, many of which are spumante. For many years it was fashionable to be rather snooty about this style of wine but as usual every action is followed by a reaction. Some of the finest palates in the wine business are now great fans of the best examples of the smartest category, Moscato d’Asti. These wines have the great virtue of being extremely light, less than 6% alcohol, refreshingly frizzante and fruitily sweet – which makes them a good choice for serving with dessert after a heavy meal.
Many of these wines are labelled varietally, as in Nebbiolo d’Alba, Barbera d'Asti and Dolcetto di Diano d’Alba. Langhe, Roero and Dogliani are other important DOCs and DOCGs. One of these wines labelled Nebbiolo can offer some of Piemonte's dark, satanic majesty in a bottle at a fraction of the cost of a great Barolo or Barbaresco, although so can some of the best Barbera. Barbera is grown in great quantity all over the region and used to be regarded as the light, tart, quaffing wine to be drunk as young as possible. However, its fortunes have changed entirely with the widespread adoption of small French oak barrels for maturing the produce of low-yielding Barbera vines. Taking the lead from the late Giacomo Bologna’s prototype oaked Barbera, Bricco dell’Uccellone, hundreds of producers have now made changes to their Barbera production in both vineyard and cellar. These are serious wines designed for ageing.
Although the historical essence of Piedmontese wine was as single, 100% varietals, an increasing number of producers now experiment with blends: Nebbiolo blended with Barbera, Merlot, Cabernet or even Syrah.
Piemonte's most friendly wine is Dolcetto, which should burst with fruit while being impressively deep-coloured and, often, quite alcoholic. Dolcetto is particularly useful for growers because, unlike ultra-fussy, late-ripening Nebbiolo, it will ripen even on less favoured sites, even north-facing ones. Dolcetto is so-called (‘little sweet one’) because, being so much lower in acidity than Barbera, it really does taste sweet in comparison. And, unlike most Piedmontese reds, it is designed to be drunk within the first three to five years of its life. Many of the best examples are labelled Dolcetto d’Alba, with Dolcetto di Ovada and Dolcetto di Dogliani DOCGs providing some of the best-value choices on Piedmontese wine lists.
More and more producers are beginning to look at the wider world of wine (for reasons I don’t entirely understand; if I made wine here I’d be an incorrigible introspective). The result is that many of them have planted little plots of ‘international’ varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon; some Chardonnay which can be transformed into very elegant wine, thanks to barrel fermentation; some Sauvignon Blanc; and even some Riesling and Viognier. If the Piedmontese are importing grape invaders, it’s no wonder the rest of the world is.
It is beyond question, however, that Piemonte's greatest wines are Barolo and, generally very slightly lighter and earlier maturing, Barbaresco. These are two of the wine world's pinnacles but, as Aldo Conterno placidly observes, they are not easy to understand and, since they are made in small quantities, that matters little.
The Langhe hills around the town of Alba with their different altitudes and expositions are Italy's answer to the Côte d'Or, and different vineyards can, similarly, produce quite different wines, which is why there are so many single-vineyard bottlings. Notable producers abound and include Elio Altare, Azelia, Giacomo Bologna, Ceretto, Domenico Clerico, Giacomo Conterno, Bruno Giacosa, Elio Grasso, Marchesi di Gresy, Giuseppe Mascarello e Figli, Prunotto, Ratti, Vajra, Vietti and Roberto Voerzio.
Barolo, conventionally known as Italy’s ‘wine of kings and king of wines’, is particularly rich in different wine characters, created by the turn of a hillside, a seam of sandstone or marl. It is majestic in every sense, the most concentrated expression of the Nebbiolo grape which has needed coaxing and a fine autumn to ripen properly. But there are huge and demonstrable differences between different parts of the 11 communes that make up the Barolo DOCG. Wines made from grapes grown in the western villages of La Morra and the village of Barolo itself tend to be a little lighter and more open than those made in Castiglione Falletto, Monforte d’Alba and Serralunga d’Alba to the east and north.
Barbaresco, another DOCG, has more in common with the lighter wines of Barolo, with its rather fewer vineyards planted on generally warmer, lower land which means that both grapes and wines mature slightly earlier – though this can mean waiting only 10 years rather than 20. These wines are not for the impatient, and it is a tribute to the intrinsic excitement of these anachronistic wines that they are held in such high esteem even in this impatient age of the fast forward button. The man who can take considerable credit for this is the most famous inhabitant of Barbaresco, Angelo Gaja, as talented a showman as winemaker. Gaja’s were the first internationally-marketed – at sky high prices – single-vineyard wines from either Barolo or Barbaresco. Today, there are hundreds of such wines from each area, many carrying the words Sorì or Bricco (local dialect for specific sites) on the label. And Gaja himself has now expanded not just into Barolo but also Montalcino and the Maremma in Tuscany.
Wines were traditionally, as throughout Italy, matured in large, old Slovenian oak oval casks, but the importation of French barriques in the 1970s and 1980s caused a stir and some revision of wine styles, making some of them more open and less distinctive (or, to put it another way, earlier maturing and less cussed). Much has been made of the modernists v. traditionalists debate in the Langhe, but in truth the wines have in general gently evolved so that none of Nebbiolo’s extraordinarily haunting resonances, reminiscent of violets, tar, truffles and sometimes roses, is lost, but these relatively expensive wines are approachable after a decade or so in bottle – and sometimes even earlier.
Factors other than imported small French barrels dragged these wines into the 20th and then 21st century; producers today use a mixture of barriques and larger-sized oak containers. It was only relatively recently that Langhe winemakers graduated from being peasant growers selling grapes or their own distinctly rustic wines to large merchant bottlers to becoming sophisticated winemakers with their own labels. They have now learnt to control fermentations, particularly the temperature of them, so that they extract just the best bits of the grape, not fiercely astringent tannins.
Another reason why the character of Barolo and Barbaresco has changed recently is climatic. Global warming seems to have targeted this part of the world in particular, delivering a consecutive run of great vintages in which even the late-ripening Nebbiolo managed to reach full and glorious maturity – and even occasionally overripeness – throughout the second half of the 1990s and the 2000s.
Even the colour of the wines seems to have changed. Traditionally Barolo and Barbaresco were not notably deep-coloured and often had an orange tinge at only a few years old. Today the wines are in general much deeper-coloured and more likely to be crimson than orange. This may be partly because of the evolution in winemaking and partly because, like Pinot Noir in Burgundy, the Nebbiolo grape mutates easily and has been adapting itself to local conditions. But there is many a whisper that these deeper colours owe much to a judicious slug of Barbera or even Cabernet or Merlot – even if Barolo and Barbaresco have officially been meant to be 100% Nebbiolo.
There are dozens of inspired producers in these two small wine zones. My favourites include Elio Altare, Ascheri, Domenico Clerico, Aldo Conterno, Giacomo Conterno, Conterno-Fantino, Fontanafredda, Angelo Gaja, Bruno Giacosa, Elio Grasso, Marchese di Gresy, Giuseppe Mascarello e Figli, Parusso, Pira, Prunotto, Ratti, Bruno Rocca, Sandrone, Vajra, Vietti and Roberto Voerzio.
Another group of slightly earthier, lighter-bodied Nebbiolo wines is made in communities around the town of Gattinara in subalpine hills almost due north of Alba where Nebbiolo is known as Spanna: Gattinara, Ghemme, Boca, Lessona, Bramaterra, Sizzano, Fara and, right on the border with Valle d’Aosta, Carema. These wines are still likely to have an orange rim but can often provide a much better value Nebbiolo experience than the world-famous greats of the Langhe.