Piemonte is universally considered one of the greatest of Italian wine regions. The Barbareschi of Angelo Gaja or Bruno Giacosa, the Baroli of Bruno Giacosa, the Conterno family and Bartolo Mascarello (among others) have long been praised as world class wines. Gavi survived an era when rich buttery chardonnays were all the rage and like it or not, Asti Spumante is the world’s most imitated dessert wine. This however leaves so much unsaid of the panoply of other wines offered by a region that features one of the most varied terrains in Italy.
Piedmont is surrounded to the north, south and west by the ranges of the Alps. The Alps, Monte Viso to be precise, is the original source of the Po River, which runs across the region through what was once marshland until the Cistercian monks developed the cultivation of rice at the Lucedio monastery outside of Vercelli. This expanse creates a very hot and humid climate in summertime along the Po River that is in sharp contrast to the cooler climes found in the hills and mountains. It is around the fringes between these two climates that the good wine is grown.
Last month we discussed Carema and Caluso and the excellent wines grown by the border to the Val d’Aosta. Moving eastward one finds the town of Novara among the flatlands, but Novara lends its name to the hills just to the north, the Colli Novaresi, where the wine towns of Gattinara, Ghemme, Fara, Sizzano, Boca, Bramaterra and Lessona all are found. Nebbiolo is the focus in this neck of the woods, though Vespolina, Uva Rara (Bonarda) and some other local grapes still work their way into the vineyards. The soil here is higher in crystalline mineral that the Sesia River has washed down from the Monte Rosa glacier to the north and the wines reflect this. Look for Antoniolo, Petterino, Anzivino, Dessilani in Gattinara. Ioppa and Cantalupo are both excellent producers of Ghemme, and Dessilani’s Fara, the Caramino Riserva is a long-time favorite of ours. Of the other towns very little makes it over here with the exception of the much-anticipated debut of a new property of Paolo de Marchi of the Isole e Olena winery in Toscana. He grew up in Lessona and has been developing vineyards there with the able assistance of his son Luca. His first release should be out soon.
Following the border to Lombardia south we come to Casale Monferrato and the Monferrato hills, where Barbera is the work horse for red wines and Cortese for whites, though this is an area where there is a lot of experimentation with other varietal as well. When I look for a versatile wine, Barbera is almost always the first that comes to mind. With its vibrant acidity and subtly soft tannins, it cuts through rich dishes, stands up to the acidity of a tomato sauce, and doesn’t clash with spicy food.
Asti is the main town in these hills and one of the most important wine towns in Piedmont. The wine produced here is much-maligned thanks to cheap imitationsfrom California and elsewhere. Spumante, which merely means sparkling is the name used by the cheap stuff while the real deal has dropped that word and now calls itself simply Asti. There are few wines better for a cake celebration. The Moscato grape is used for Asti, but a less sparkling frizzante (lightly sparkling) version, Moscato d’Asti, has become very popular in the last ten years.
Following the Tànaro River south from Asti, we come to Alba which is flanked by the king and queen, Barolo and Barbaresco, a discussion to be held another time. We are now in the Langhe hills, which are not as open and rolling as the Monferrato hills. Flanking the Barolo and Barbaresco regions are Acqui, where the Brachetto grape makes a light, sweet and fizzy wine, the red counterpart to the Moscato d’Asti. Look for that of the Braida winery. Dogliani and Ovada are more famous for their Dolcetto wines, which seem juicier and slightly less astringent than the Dolcetto from Alba. Abbona, San Romano, Pecchenino and Chionetto are all worth searching out.
We are now in the foothills to the Ligurian Alps. To the west we come to Roero, home to the best expression of the white Arneis varietal and reds made from Nebbiolo that in some instances can match the intensity of their more famous neighbors. To the east we come into the Gavi region with its intense limestone soil in which the Cortese grape finds its greatest expression yielding crisp and minerally whites. Picollo is a small family-run winery that we have been hot on recently, as well as Valditerra and Villa Sparina.
Finding these wines in stores can be a bit challenging at times. But these are the days of the Olympics, when one rises to meet the challenge, defy the odds and attain his goal. In the Olympic spirit, then, good hunting!
For wine lovers, Piedmont is to Italy what Burgundy is to France-a place where every vineyard is charted and graded based on its relationship to the sun; a place where the farmer/winemaker is still very much in evidence; a place where the food and wine is infused with the scent of the earth. Headlining the incredible array of Piedmont wines are the ethereal reds of Barolo and Barbaresco, which in great vintages are quite simply some of the most best, longest-lived red wines in the world. But Piedmont is not limited to Barolo and Barbaresco-in fact, it may be Italy’s most “complete” wine region, boasting such a dazzling array of grape varieties and wine styles that it would take a website unto itself to do justice to them all. Here are two Piedmontese favorites that represent the “new generation” in Piedmont winemaking, fusing time-honored tradition with modern-day technique.
Gavi di Gavi
“Etichetta Gialla,” Villa Sparina 2000
The Gavi DOCG zone, located in the southeastern-most corner of Piedmont, is well-known, at least in name, to American wine drinkers. But well-respected? Most people think of Gavi as a light, simple white for sipping with seafood or prosciutto-and that’s about it. Is “Gavi” a grape? Where’s Gavi from? Even some longtime Gavi drinkers might be hard-pressed to say. Well, first of all, Gavi is a place-the grape in the wine is cortese, which is characterized by an appley perfume and a chalky texture on the palate. This Gavi, from the increasingly popular Villa Sparina estate, tacks on a little more ripeness and heft to the traditionally lean Gavi frame. Fruity and fragrant, it certainly shines with fish but might well be used with even heartier foods.
“Segreto,” Cascina Ebreo 1998
Because Barolo and Barbaresco can be a little earthy and tannic for some consumers, many producers throughout the Piedmont region are making blended wines in a more plush, soft, super-concentrated “international” style. This wine is one of the better examples around of this new generation of “super-Piemonte” reds: A blend of nebbiolo (the base grape of Barolo & Barbaresco) and barbera, “Segreto” is a dense and inky red that won’t settle for anything less than a rich braised shortrib or a well-marbled steak. A powerhouse wine from an up-and-coming producer! Look for it on our list this month.