Piemonte is arguably Italy’s finest wine region, vying with Tuscany for ultimate star status in terms of the pinnacle in quality wines from Italy. It produces some of the most sublime, exciting red wines in the world, let alone the country, with Barolo and Barbaresco at the fore. A large wine region, but not one of the largest producing areas, it has fewer large wineries, and a real heritage of family producers, who have a total focus on optimum quality in their wines. Piemonte has more DOCs and DOCGs ( the highest quality appellations in the country) , than any other wine producing region in Italy, with over 40% of its production, reaching this status, far higher than any other region.
The word ‘Piemonte’ means ‘foot of the hill’ , and the north of the region is nestled in the foothills of the Alps, whilst the southern part is close to the Mediterranean, and borders France. Whilst the main city of Piemonte is Turin, the heart of the wine district is focussed on the southern part of the region, with the towns of Alba and Asti at its centre.
Piemonte is world famous for its powerful, yet seductive reds made from the temperamental Nebbiolo grape. Barolo and Barbaresco are the best known, with some of the world’s finest producers in this region. But there is more – the elegant, refined Barbera grape produces stylish Barbera d’Asti, and the low tannin, joyously fruity Dolcetto is another star of the region. In addition Piemonte also produces a high quality white, in the form, of the increasingly popular Gavi. Finally, in total contrast, the region is the home of Asti Spumante and moscato d’Asti, both much maligned, sweet sparkling wines, which can have real effervescence and character.
It is an area of hot, humid summers, being a land-locked region, and cold, bitter winters, with seemingly permanent frosts and fogs. Close to the Po valley, is the area known as Italy’s ‘paddy fields’, where a high proportion of Italy’s famous risotto rice is grown.
The region divides into several key sub-regions; to the north, the Sesia valley, which used to be famous, but whose only claim to fame now are the wines of Gattinara. The Dora Baltea Valley is another lesser known region, where the Nebbiolo is grown on steep mountain terrain, close to the Aosta valley, but again, there are no real stars from this sub-region.
To find those, the journey needs to go south east, to the Monferrato hills and the town of Asti. In this area, the sweet sparkling wines of Asti and Moscato Spumante reign supreme, together with well structured, medium bodied, stylish reds from the Barbera grape. Together Moscato and Barbera account for over 80% of the production in this area, with Gavi, to the south east representing the only quality dry white in the area.
It’s to the very south west of the region that the real stars appear; in the hills of the Langhe and Roero , close to the town of Alba, the nebbiolo grape reigns supreme, and this is where the world famous vineyards of Barolo and Barbaresco are nestled. As well as having 2 of the best known Italian red wines on its doorstep, the area of Alba is almost world famous for its legendary white truffles, found in the woods around the town.
Styles of Wine Grown In Piemonte
Strong, intense, powerful reds, with firm tannins and long ageing potential are the region’s best known wines, but Piemonte produces a wide variety of other, quality, if less stellar wines. Because of the northerly climate the whites, be they dry or sweet, have a natural acidity and freshness. The reds benefit from the extremes in temperature and provide some of the most intense wine drinking experiences in the world.
Gavi – a white wine producing region in the south of Piemonte, with crisp, brightly flavoured dry whites, from the Cortese grape variety, which can vary from elegant and structured, to insipid and dull.
Moscato D’Asti and Asti Spumante – delightfully frothy, and sweet sparkling wines, made from the Moscato grape in vineyards surrounding the town of Asti. Much maligned over the years, these wines can be absolutely delicious, with a refreshing , grapey sweetness, and are often lower in alcohol. Moscato d’Asti tends to be sweeter , and lower in alcohol, as the fermentation is stopped, whereas Asti, whilst still sweet, is higher in alcohol content, and has more depth.
Barolo – arguably the king of all Italian red wines, but this depends very much on whether one is a Piemonte or Tuscan fan, as supporters of Tuscany’s Sangiovese would put top quality Chianti Classico on their wine summit. Produced in the Langhe Hills, in the south of the area, these world famous wines showcase the temperamental Nebbiolo grape at its sublime best. Individual, uncompromising, perfumed, dense, and with incredible power, these wines can hit heights rarely achieved by many wines. Bold, with high acidity levels, and strong tannins, then need time for the glorious fruit to be released. Unfortunately the quality levels between the obsessive top producers, and poor ones is widely inconsistent, and this, together with some poor vintages , has resulted in a flood of thin, acidic, overpriced Barolos on the market.
Barbaresco – lying less than 10 miles away from Barolo, the wines have a lot of similarities; however it lies in a flatter area than Barolo, south of the Tanaro river, whose maritime breezes, together with the slightly warmer weather, means that the Nebbiolo ripens a little earlier and the wines are therefore more approachable at an earlier age, and are slightly more elegant, and less intense. However the minimum ageing period is still 2 years, and the minimum alcohol 12.5%.
Barbera d’Asti/Barbera d’Alba - the Barbera grape is the most widely planted red grape in Piemonte, and is planted throughout the region, although the highest quality wines come from vineyards close to the towns of Asti and Alba in the Monferrato hills. It ripens earlier than the Nebbiolo and has slightly less natural tannin, therefore produces, full-bodied, stylish reds, with bright, cherry and blackberry fruit, with a savoury,herbaceous style, which are more approachable at an early age than Barolo and Barbaresco.
Dolcetto d’Alba/Dolcetto d’Asti – in total contrast to its illustrious neighbours, the Dolcetto grape is a juicy, fruity, far lower tannin red grape, which is producing some absolute stars in terms of wine. Lost in the shadows of Barolo and Barbaresco, it was ignored for a long time, but is now making a statement of its own, producing, delightfully rounded, silky, cherry scented wines, with real style, which are low in tannin, yet elegant and structured.
In addition to these main wines, Piemonte also produces a fruity, savoury red Roero d’Arneis, and the quirky, sweet, red version of Asti, the Brachetto.
Grapes, Wine Styles & Food Matching
Gavi – this dry, crisp white,with its aromas of baked apples, and hints of almonds, is great with traditional Piemontese dishes such as spring vegetable or seafood risotto, poached trout, spaghetti al vongole, and all manner of fish dishes, as well as delicate baked chicken and some soft cheeses.
Moscato d’Asti – this deliciously sweet , frothy white, is captivating, and needs to lose the negative image that many lay on these wines; sweet, yet tasting of freshly crushed grapes, and with a delightful vivacity and citrussy refreshing tang, these are great with a bowl of strawberries, or make an indulgent addition to a cream tea, or fruity desserts, especially with their lower alcohol levels.
Barolo – the king of Piemonte needs time and respect. The nebbiolo is a beautifully perfumed grape, with aromas of violets, and raspberries, but the wines are dense, big and powerful. Perfect with rich game dishes, top quality beef, lamb shanks and your best parmigiano.
Barbaresco – follows the same pattern as Barolo, and therefore similar dishes; pheasant, quail, venison and braised beef are all good.
Barbera d’Asti – These wines have elegance and structure, but lower tannins, and softer flavours. Great with wild mushroom risotto, roast pheasant, chicken casserole, and meaty pasta dishes.
Dolcetto – these delightful reds are perfect with slightly lighter red meats, and particularly good with gammon, charcuterie, salami and a good red for roast pork. They also work well with vegetarian dishes, chicken risotto , and frittata.