The Wines of Piedmont Italy

Piedmont, located in northwest Italy, is the home of more DOCG wines than any other Italian region. (For explanation see my post on Italian Quality Standards, August 31, 2019.)  Among them are such well-known and respected names such as Barolo, Barbaresco, and Barbera d’Asti. Although famous for tannic and floral red wines made from the Nebbiolo grape, Piedmont’s greatest recent success has been sweet, white sparkling Moscato d’Asti.

Piedmont, which literally means ‘at the foot of the mountains’, is situated at the foot of the western Alps.  The mountains are credited for the region’s favorable climate.

Foreign winemaking technologies have been a great contributor to Piedmont being viticulturally advanced compared to other Italian regions. The region’s proximity to France also plays a part in this.

Piedmont has been referred to as the “Burgundy” of Italy, as a result of its many small-scale, family wineries and a focus on quality that has sometimes been known to border on obsession. What Burgundy does with Pinot Noir, Piedmont does with Nebbiolo, the grape that has made the largest contribution to the quality and reputation of Piedmont’s wine. Nebbiolo is the varietal used to produce four of Piedmont’s DOCGs – Barolo and Barbaresco (two of Italy’s finest reds), Gattinara and the red wine from Roero (minimum 95 percent Nebbiolo).

Wines produced from Nebbiolo grapes are known for their “tar and roses” bouquet, and the pronounced tannins that can make them undesired as a young wine but an excellent wine for cellaring. The grape is known as Spanna in the north and east of Piedmont, and is used in at least 10 local DOCs including Carema, Fara and Nebbiolo d’Alba.

Barbera, a dark-skinned variety, is Piedmont’s workhorse grape and the region’s most widely planted variety. It is long been used to make everyday wines under a number of DOC titles, but is now behind a growing number of superlative wines in a range of styles and approaches of oak maturation.

Piedmont’s best Barberas are sold under the Barbera del Monferrato, Barbera d’Asti or Barbera d’Alba titles. These are classically Italian in style: tangy, sour cherry-scented reds with good acidity and moderate complexity. Less astringently tannic than their Nebbiolo-based counterparts, Barbera wines are enjoyably drinkable within just a year or two of vintage, giving them a competitive edge in today’s fast-paced, impatient wine market.

Dolcetto is the third red grape of Piedmont. It has one DOCG (Dogliani), and several DOCs devoted exclusively to it; the top three being Dolcettos d’Alba, d’Acqui and di Ovada. Dolcetto is usually used to make dry red wines.

The Brachetto grape is used in the production of the sweet, sparkling reds of the Brachetto d’Acqui DOCG. So, too is Freisa, with its broad portfolio of sweet, dry, still and sparkling red wines made in Asti and Chieri.

Although Piedmont is known mainly as a red-wine region, it produces several well regarded white wine styles. The most prominent is Moscato d’Asti and to a lesser extent the Asti Spumante. Both of these are made from Moscato grapes grown around the town of Asti.  The former is sweeter, more lightly sparkling and generally of higher quality.

The Piedmont white of the connoisseur is made from the Cortese grape; a variety which struggles to produce wines of any aromatic complexity anywhere else.  It now faces serious competition from the aromatic Arneis varietal. Although not as prestigious, the Arneis is increasingly popular for its delicate, exotic perfume. A final white worthy of mention is Erbaluce, which has benefitted from the 300 percent increase in Piedmont’s white wine production over the past thirty or so years.

With more DOCGs and DOCs than any other Italian region, and about 40 percent of its wine produced at DOC/G level, Piedmont is challenged only by Veneto and Tuscany for the top spot among Italian wine regions. Overall, Barolo is my personal favourite Italian wine.  Though it tends to be sold at a higher price point than other types of Italian wine, I find that it is cost justified.

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French Versus Italian Wine

Italy and France are two of the world’s finest wine producing countries, for both quality and quantity.  Italy has made wines longer and is a larger producer of wine, but France is more renowned for its creation of premium wines.  So does one rein superior to the other?  I really don’t believe so but here are some of the facts to help you to decide for yourself.

Traditional Sparkling Wine

To begin the France Italy showdown are sparkling wines that are produced using the traditional method – Champagne versus Franciacorta.  Both wines utilize a second fermentation that occurs in the bottle.  It is the most labour intensive process that creates the most complex textured wines.

Champagne is considered the home of traditionally prepared sparkling wine and has the most stringent regulations for production.  These rules dictate both blending practices and aging requirements.

Franciacorta, though less famous than Champagne, uses the same type of grapes and may even have a longer aging process.  Given the warmer climate, the grapes are riper but do not have the same vibrancy as the French wine.  However, it is worth considering that a Franciacorta sparkler will have a more favourable price point than a similar one from Champagne.

Great-Value Sparkling Wine

Both France’s Crémant and Italy’s Prosecco share the versatility provided by the more expensive traditional sparkling wines but at a much gentler price. 

Crémant wines are produced using the traditional method but with less restrictions than Champagne.

Prosecco is produced using the Charmat method which conducts the second fermentation in a tank rather than in the bottle.  Some of the finer Proseccos are aged several years to create a more complex flavorful wine.

The price of both the French and Italian versions is comparable.

Notable Styles

France’s Châteauneuf-Du-Pape and Italy’s Amarone are premium wines from their respective regions and are considered to be among the finest wines in the world.  They are both full-bodied and smooth.

The wines from Châteauneuf-Du-Pape are a blend which has the Grenache grape as the principal grape.  The balance of the wine often consists of a combination of Mourvèdre, Counoise, Vaccarèse, and Muscardine. 

The region produces intense, powerful wines with great body.  Many of these offerings may be drunk when released or retained for quite a few years.

Italy’s Amarone wines are made from grapes from the most mature vines which are harvested late to ensure ripeness.  The grapes are then dried on racks or hooks for about 120 days in order to obtain a higher concentration of sugar and flavour.  During this process 30% to 40% of the grapes’ weight is lost which is part of the reason for this wine selling at a higher price.

Though the cost of both of these wines can run over $100, the average price is in the $50 range.  Whether one wine is preferred over the other will depend on your personal taste.

Challenging Grapes

France’s gentle flavoured Pinot Noir and Italy’s bold Nebbiolo grape share two things in common; they are both very difficult grapes to grow; and they are among the most sought after grapes in the world.

The majority of France’s Pinot Noir grapes are grown in Burgundy.

The Italian Nebbiolo grape is grown exclusively in Piedmont and is used in the creation of Barolo wine.

The two types of wine, apart from both being red, are vastly different in intensity, richness, and flavour.  It would not be fair to try and compare or rate one against the other.  They each stand on their own merits.

Notable Regions

The most recognized wine region within each country is France’s Bordeaux and Italy’s Tuscany.  These regions are home to some of the world’s most expensive sought after wines.  However, they also offer an enticing array of wines at a wide range of price points.

The wines of Bordeaux consist of a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The region is divided into 2 sectors – the left bank and the right bank – by the Dordogne, Garonne and Gironde rivers.  The left bank wines will contain a higher concentration of Cabernet Sauvignon while the right bank wines contain a greater proportion of Merlot.

The wines of Bordeaux have extraordinary consistency of balance and structure, irrelevant of the price point.

The signature grape of Tuscany is the Sangiovese, which is the basis of 3 of Italy’s most famous wines, Chianti, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Brunello.  There are also other wines consisting of a combination of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

There are a great variety of styles , flavours, techniques and price points, all containing the definitive Tuscan identity.

There is no winner or loser in this comparison.  It comes down to a matter of personal taste.

The White Pinot

France’s Pinot Gris and Italy’s Pinot Grigio are the same grape but are produced in different styles.  The Pinot Gris is produced in the Alsace region of France whereas Pinot Grigio is associated with northern Italy.

Pinot Gris is produced in a range of styles ranging from dry to sweet.  They contain a distinct richness, weight, spiciness, and complexity that is said not to exist in the Italian version.  The French version of the grape has more potential for aging as well.

The Italian Pinot Grigio is light and zesty and makes a great sipping wine.  It is said to have subtle floral and fruit aromas and flavours.

Aromatic Whites

Aromatic whites are typically those wines producing the aroma of flowers and herbs.  Such wines are normally not aged in oak barrels.

France’s Sauvignon Blanc is the noted white wine grape of Bordeaux and the Loire.  It is renowned for the hint of lime, green apple, peach and tropical fruit, as well as its herb and grassy notes.

Italy’s Vermentino wine is light and refreshing.  It is also complex and layered displaying fruit tones, mineral and herbal notes.

As I stated earlier, I don’t believe there is a winner or a loser.  Both countries provide their own uniqueness and distinct flavours through their wine offerings.  There are no comparisons for a French Bordeaux or Châteauneuf-Du-Pape but the same can be said for an Italian Borolo or Chianti.  Whether a French wine is preferred over an Italian wine or vice versa is a matter of personal taste.

To simply say that one country is superior to the other and ignore the offerings of the other would be a travesty.  Such a person would be denying her/himself the opportunity to indulge in some great tasting wines.

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The Wines of Italy

Italy governs its wine industry in a similar manner as the French by using an appellation system of wine categorization.  There are 21 regions that contain a rather large number of red and white varietals.  Many of these grapes, such as Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, Merlot, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, and Syrah, are common throughout many parts of the new and the old world. 

Other varietals such as, Barbera, Corvina, Molinara, Nebbiolo, Rondinella, Sangiovese, and Trebbiano, are more exclusive to Italy.  It is these grapes that give Italian wines their distinguished flavour.

Italian Whites

Italian white wines come in varieties that run from sparkling and sweet to smooth and fruity to crisp and dry. The following variety of whites will generally be found at your local wine merchant:

Asti is a sparkling wine made from Moscato grapes in Piedmont.  It is a sweet wine and low in alcohol, with fruity and floral flavors.

Frascati is composed mainly from Trebbiano grapes. It is generally dry or slightly off-dry, light-bodied, and un-oaked.

Gavi is made from Cortesa grapes which create this dry, medium-bodied wine from Piedmont. It is generally un-oaked or slightly oaked.

Orvieto is generally a medium-bodied wine made mainly from Grechetto grapes in the Umbria region. It is dry, and crisp, with fruit undertones.

Pinot Grigio is a light-bodied, dry, crisp wine that contains no oak.  It is made from Pinot Gris grapes.

Soave is produced in the Veneto region.  This wine mainly consists of Garganega grapes, which give it a dry, crisp, un-oaked, and light- or medium-bodied flavour.

Verdicchio is a dry, medium-bodied, crisp white wine. It is made from Verdicchio grapes in the Marche region.

Italian Reds

As with the whites, the reds come in a variety of styles.

Amarone is a full-bodied wine produced from partially-dried Corvina grapes.   It is a dry and firm wine but does have a hint of sweetness.  It is best paired with rich, savoury foods or flavourful cheeses.

Barbaresco is similar to Barolo (described below), as it is produced from the same Nebbiolo grapes.  However, it is generally a little lighter in body and a little less expensive. This wine is one that can usually be laid down for some time.  It is best from between 8 and 15 years of age.

Barbera is mainly produced in the Piedmont region. It is characteristically dry, light- or medium-bodied, and has an intense berry flavor, lots of acidity, and but little tannin.

Barolo is one of my personal favourites.  It is dry and full-bodied.  Barolo is produced from Nebbiolo grapes in Piedmont and contains complex aromas and flavours. It is a wine that improves with age and is best enjoyed at 10 to 20 years of age, depending on the producer.

Brunello di Montalcino is a full-bodied, intense, concentrated wine produced from Sangiovese grapes from Tuscany. Dry and quite tannic, it is best enjoyed when it’s at least 15 years old.

Chianti is a very dry, medium-bodied, moderately tannic wine that is created mainly from Sangiovese grapes from Tuscany. “Chianti Classico” is often the best.  Wines labeled “riserva”, and more expensive wines, are generally more concentrated and can be aged for a period of time.

Lambrusco is most commonly a sweet, fizzy wine.  It is made from Lambrusco grapes usually from the Emilia-Romagna region.  These wines are also available in both dry and sparkling styles.

Montepulciano d’Abruzzo is generally a medium-bodied wine but there are some lighter variations.  It is a very easy-drinking wine that is produced in the Abruzzo region.

Salice Salentino is a dry, full-bodied wine produced from Negroamaro grapes in part of the Puglia region. Generally it has intense aromas and flavors of ripe, plummy, baked fruit, and rich, dense texture. It is best paired with robust foods so as not to over-power the meal.

Valpolicella is a medium-bodied wine created mainly from Corvina grapes in the Valpolicella area of the Veneto region.  It is dry, lean, and only moderately tannic, with more or less intense cherry aromas and flavors. Some versions, such as single-vineyard wines, are particularly good.

Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is medium-bodied, dry, and lean, with red cherry flavor, similar to Chianti but slightly fuller.  It is produced from Sangiovese grapes in Montepulciano, in the Tuscany region.

If you are not familiar with Italian wines there are a number that I would recommend trying.  If you like white wine, Pinot Grigio and Verdicchio are worth a taste.  From a red perspective, I suggest both Chianti and Valpolicella.  There is a good selection of both available in a moderate price range.  However, if you are willing to spend a little more, Barbaresco and Barolo are well worth the investment.

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Italy’s Quality Standards

Similar to Canada, France and Germany, Italy has developed its own safeguards where grape growers and producers must adhere to strict regulations in order to be certified.  The laws also govern things like the type of grapes used, the alcohol content, and how long the wine is aged.

Italian certification falls into three categories of decreasing strictness: DOCG, DOC, and IGT.

Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) wines contain the DOCG letters on the label.  For the consumer this means that the producer followed the strictest regulations possible to make that wine. The wine is tested by a committee that then authenticates the geographic location and the quality of the wine. There are currently only a handful of Italian wines that qualify for DOCG status.  DOCG wines are easy to identify as they contain a numbered government seal attached to the neck of the bottle.

Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC) wines are much more commonly found. The rules governing quality and authenticity are still very strict, but not quite as stringent as those containing the DOCG insignia. For instance, the geographic zone might be a little bigger or the rules about what kind of grapes might be a little more relaxed.  The letters DOC will be found on the label, similar to DOCG.

The final quality designation is Indicazione Geografica Tipica (IGT).   This category was created after the DOC and DOCG designations in order to accommodate growers who couldn’t meet all the DOC or DOCG requirements but were still producing good quality wines. 

The following will help provide an understanding of the information commonly found on an Italian wine label.

  • Abboccato = Slightly sweet
  • Amabile = Medium sweet
  • Amarone = Dry red wine made from dried grapes
  • Azienda/Tenuta/Podere = Estate
  • Bianco = White
  • Cantina = Winery
  • Cantina sociale = Co-operative winery
  • Chiaretto = Pale red or dark rosé
  • Classico = Denotes the traditional, theoretically superior, vineyard area within a DOC/DOCG zone
  • Dolce = Sweet
  • Frizzante = Slightly sparkling
  • Imbottigliato all’origine = Estate bottled
  • Metodo Classico = Sparkling wine made by the classic Champagne method
  • Novello = Describes light, fruity wines intended for early consumption rather than cellaring
  • Passito = Generic term for wine made from dried grapes (usually sweet but occasionally dry)
  • Recioto = Sweet red or white wine made from dried grapes (a form of passito)
  • Ripasso = Full-bodied, powerful wine style made by re-fermenting wine with amarone grape skins
  • Riserva = Denotes extended aging (in cask, then bottle) before the wine is sent to market
  • Rosato = Rosé
  • Rosso = Red
  • Secco = Dry
  • Spumante = Sparkling
  • Superiore = Wines with greater concentration and higher alcoholic strength
  • Vendemmia = Vintage
  • Vigneto = Vineyard
  • Vin Santo = A dessert wine style originally from Tuscany, generally made from air-dried grapes
  • Trebbiano = A name shared between many different Italian grape varieties, planted almost everywhere within Italy. It is dark gold or amber-coloured with high acidity and a rather neutral flavour profile

I myself have sampled quite a few Italian wines over the years and they have not all been DOCG or DOC.  I have found that IGT wines are often very similar in taste to their higher rated cousins.  In general, the quality standards are very good. 

With Italian wines I am more inclined to purchase what intrigues me and not pay so much attention to whether it contains a certain insignia.  It is also interesting to note that the price point of DOCG wines is often no higher than, and sometimes even less than DOC or IGT wines.

Sláinte mhaith