Piemont – Beyond Nebbiolo
There is no disputing the reign of Barolo and Barbaresco as the king and queen of Piedmont. They have captured the imagination, palate, and emotions of wine lovers everywhere. Both are comprised entirely from the noble, aromatic, alluring, and often fiercely tannic Nebbiolo grape.
But many people believe that Piedmont’s wine royalty starts and ends with Nebbiolo. Such is a mistake that would only serve to deprive one’s palate of the wonderful variety of bottles that this wine-and-food-centric region has to offer. From the grapey and soft Dolcetto to the multi-faceted Barbera to the light, flavourful and slightly fizzy Moscato, the wines of Piedmont are as diverse as the region’s cuisine (not a coincidence).The concentration of Piedmont’s vineyards is quite remarkable, sharing the regional complexity of Burgundy — many small vineyards, scattered like a patchwork quilt. The region boasts more DOC zones than any other Italian region, and the subtle diversity of terroir must be tasted to be fully appreciated. Many oenophiles are obsessed by Barolo and Barbaresco, but an exploration of the varietals that follow (which is far from an all-inclusive list) will undoubtedly result in a lifelong love affair with the entire region.
Elegant and perfumy, Arneis is mostly grown in the hills of southern Piedmont between the DOCG zones of Barolo and Barbaresco. Arneis can produce excellent white wines with lovely soft peach, apple, and pear characteristics. Arneis was almost extinct, but has seen a resurgence in the past twenty years. It was originally planted not for its wine, but as a softener for Nebbiolo in Barolo, and to attract insects away from the more valuable Nebbiolo grapes. Top producers include Ceretto (their Blange is the benchmark) and Fontanabianca.
Cortese di Gavi
Cortese is a white grape that has been grown since the 18th century. Grown mostly in southeastern Piedmont where it is hot enough to allow the early ripening character of this grape to develop. Cortese is best known for its DOC wine, Gavi or Cortese di Gavi, which tends to be light and refreshing with a chalky minerality. Producers to look for are Michele Chiarlo, Pio Cesare, and Villa Sparina.
Moscato comes in so many forms throughout Italy and may be the most misunderstood of grape varietals because of the mass of uninteresting, cloyingly sweet wines it is used to produce. But in the hands of a loving winemaker, this seemingly unserious grape has the ability to create immensely flavourful and pleasurable wines. The grape is made into full-fledged sparklings, slightly frizzante, and everything in between. But it is the low alcohol frizzante versions, with a light body but unsuspectingly intense peach and apricot flavours with a natural fruit sweetness and cleansing acidity that people should seek out. A default dessert wine, it will pair well with everything from fruit to cakes and torts to cream-based desserts to chocolate. The best producers are Ceretto, Gallo Mauro, and Michele Chiarlo.
Dolcetto is generally overshadowed by the better-known Nebbiolo and Barbera. It’s also not as well known to consumers, perhaps because of its name, which when translated means “little sweet one.” But it is a dry wine. It takes its name from the sweet taste of the grapes on the vine, which also tend to be low in acidity. Dolcetto generally has an intense and deep ruby red colour. It also tends to be quite perfumy with a freshness in aromas – floral, fresh crushed berries, violets, and, roses. Look for Dolcetto, as its approachability has caused an increase in its popularity. Superior producers include Fontanabianca, Brero, Ceretto, Nada, Abbona, and Sandrone.
The most widely planted grape in Piedmont and produced in a huge range of different styles. It is the most versatile of Piedmont’s major red grapes in terms of its ability to grow in a wide range of conditions. Barbera tends to show bright cherry, low tannin, and high acidity, but the range of styles can vary to rich, robust and rustic depending on where it is grown and how it is vinified. Giacomo Bologna was among the first to age Barbera in small French barriques resulting in an uncommon richness and structure. Used mainly as a filler in the past, winemakers have discovered Barbera’s ability to create dense, intensely flavoured wines. The styles are as varied as the planting, but look for Bricco dei Guazzi, Gallo Mauro, Giacomo Bologna, Pio Cesare, Aldo Conterno, Villa Sparina, Cabutto, and Scrimaglio (to name just a few).
Only grown around the tiny town of Verduno, I’ve only tasted the wine of one producer, Alessandro Brero, but it was good enough to make a significant impression. On the vine it has crisp berries that are actually quite tasty. The wine tends to be deceptively light, but it is actually quite full-bodied with penetrating flavours, spicy and aromatic. Locals believe that this excellent food-pairing wine possesses aphrodisiacal properties – reason enough to give it a try.