Northwestern Italy

  • One of the most important wine regions in Italy and the world is Piemonte. This region is home to a varied and characterful assortment of wines. Located in the northwestern portion of Italy, Piemonte borders on France and Switzerland, with the main portion extending southeast of the city of Torino, or Turin. Piemonte is broken up into several areas. The Langhe is the general area in the southwest of the Piemonte, lieing mostly to the south of the River Tanaro, but in some places crosses both sides. While Alba is the Langhe's main town, Barolo is the jewel of this area. Other districts within the Piemonte are the Roero, located to the north of the river Tanaro, and Asti, which is further along the river to the northeast.

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  • The climate is influenced both by the Alps to the north and west, which protect it from cold, and the sea to the south, which exerts a moderating influence. There is a big swing in temperature between the fairly hot summers and cold winters. Fog is one of the hallmarks of the climate, indeed, the word Nebbiolo is believed to be derived from "nebbia," the Italian word for fog or mist, and hail is frequent.

    Barolo and Barbaresco are towns that have given their names to the finest wines of the area, produced from the Nebbiolo grape. Most of the other wines of Piemonte are labeled with the name of the grape and a geographic zone.

    Soils are varied throughout the region. The best areas have clay over limestone with a high proportion of stones and gravel. This produces the richest, most tannic and long-lived wines. By contrast, areas such as Roero that produce lighter, early-maturing wines have sandier soils.

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  • Barolo
    In the town of Barolo, 3,000 acres are planted on slopes at up to 650 meters elevation. To put the region in perspective, the entire Barolo DOCG produces less wine than Pauillac in Bordeaux. The southern facing slopes of these hills provide the perfect conditions for Nebbiolo, among the last grapes to ripen. Barolos were traditionally blended from wine from different areas, although many producers today tend to put their finest grapes into what are called "cru" Barolos, produced only from one vineyard.

    Subregions of Barolo
    Barolo is located southwest of the town of Alba, and is divided into three subregions each of which has a very distinct character. Received wisdom is that the Barolos of La Morra are the softest because the soils of La Morra are calcareous marl, similar to those of Barbaresco. The most well known cru from this area is Brunate, which is shared with Barolo. Due south of La Morra is the town of Barolo, with its famous cru Cannubi. The wines of Barolo proper are often the most aromatic, due to the sandiness of the soils in the area. Northeast of the town of Barolo is Castiglione Falletto, whose soils are a mix of marl, limestone, sandstone and sand, and which provide wines that are seen as a balance of the other three. Further east, the hills of Serralunga produce more structured wines, in part because the soil has more sandstone and is less fertile. The fact that the soil has a higher iron content is also thought to contribute to the tannic character of these wines. Examples of famous crus in Serralunga include Prapò and Ornato.

    Traditional Barolo Styles
    Traditionally, Barolo was a wine fermented in large wooden vats without the benefit of temperature control, which would sometimes lead to wines that were marked by volatile acidity. After fermentation, the wines often macerated on the skins up to two months to extract huge amounts of tannins and as much color as possible from the thin-skinned Nebbiolo grape. Aging in large upright wooden casks, called botti, frequently exposed the wines to oxidation. This not only reduced the primary fruit components of the wine, it also often exposed the wines to contamination from Brettanomyces, which in turn infected the old botti.

    Modern Barolo
    Beginning in the 1960s, a new crop of Barolo producers began to change this traditional system of production by introducing modern equipment and aging their wines in small French oak barrels. This provided wines with a greater "fruit forward" character. At the same time, picking times in the vineyard were extended as long as possible to ensure that the firm, structured tannins with which Nebbiolo is endowed were as silky and finely textured as possible. These techniques combine the best of traditional Barolo with modern technology and methods.

    International Style
    Still more modern producers have shortened maceration times and begun to use techniques such as a cold maceration prior to fermentation to extract phenolics as gently as possible. It is not uncommon to also see the use of techniques such as must concentration by reverse osmosis and aging with the benefit of micro-oxidation that help give a bigger, softer wine with more extract but less tannic structure.

    Other techniques used to make a more fruit-driven Barolo include the use of rotofermenters to reduce fermentation times and a reduction in aging, which legally must be three years, with at least one in wood. There are also producers who blend other grapes, such as Cabernet, into their Barolo to give it deeper color, in spite of the fact that this is strictly illegal. This modern style of Barolo bears little resemblance to what was sold in the past.

    Barbaresco and its Crus
    Barbaresco is located northeast of the town of Alba, and it is a much smaller DOCG than Barolo; about one third the size, with 1,200 acres planted. There are three communes within this area; Barbaresco, Neive and Treiso.

    Among these three communes, certain crus are recognized. Some of the most well known are in the commune of Barbaresco itself, such as Asili, Faset, Rabajà, and Sorì Tildin. Treiso includes other well-known crus, such as Bernadot and Casot and the top wine of Neive is Santo Stefano di Neive.

    Barbaresco styles
    Although like Barolo, the wines are made from 100% Nebbiolo, in style they are somewhat more feminine and less structured. Nebbiolo usually ripens more quickly in Barbaresco than in Barolo because the lower elevations and warmer soils advance ripening. In addition, by law the wines are allowed to have less alcohol and less aging, i.e. 21 months, with 9 in oak. A contrast of styles similar to what is found in Barolo is also prevalent in Barbaresco.

    Other Nebbiolo-based wines
    Nebbiolo is also produced in many other areas of Piemonte. North of the Tanaro River, the wine is called Roero Nebbiolo, while Nebbiolo d'Alba is the same area as this plus the part on the other side of the river between Barolo and Barbaresco.

    Roughly north of Asti lie the areas of Carema, Gattinara and Ghemme where Nebbiolo (called Spanna here) is produced, and often blended with local grapes such as Bonarda, Vespolina and Croatina.

    After Nebbiolo, Barbera is considered the second most important red wine of Piemonte. This grape produces a deeply colored, high acid wine that is produced throughout the area, with the finest sites in Monferrato and Asti. Throughout, the name of the region is added to that of the grape, thus with Barbera d'Asti, del Monferrato, d'Alba, et cetera.

    Dolcetto produces a deeply colored wine that can be structured, but is usually produced with fairly soft tannins. The best region is Alba, with some very good producers also in Dogliani and Diano d'Alba among other sub-regions.

    Other Piemontese reds
    Piemonte also produces wine from a number of less well-known grape varieties such as Freisa and Brachetto (still and sparkling), Malvasia Nera, Grignolino, Pelaverga, Rouchet (Ruche), Bonarda (Uva Rara), Croatina (sometimes called Bonarda), and Vespolina.

    There is no shortage of white varieties in Piemonte. The grape with the most acreage under vine is Moscato. This is a very aromatic grape with a flowery, grapey nose used to make a variety of different styles. The most common form for the grape to take is the sparkling Asti, formerly called Asti Spumante. The riper, more distinctive wine is Moscato d'Asti, a wine with less sparkle but more character than Asti.

    Gavi and Cortese
    Among the other white wines of Piemonte, Gavi is also quite well known. It is produced from the Cortese grape in the southeast corner of Piemonte.

    Arneis is an ancient Piemontese variety that is once again growing in popularity. Although it was once used as a blending grape with Nebbiolo, it is now enjoyed on its own. It is produced on both banks of the Tanaro as either Roero Arneis or Langhe Arneis.

    Other White Varieties
    Other grapes include Erbaluce for sweet passito styles and table wine and Favorita.

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  • Lombardy to the east is home to relatively high quality but little known sparkling wines from the same grapes as the Champagne region. It also produces Nebbiolo in the Valtellina regions, where the subdivision Inferno is the best known. Other wines include a small amount made from Marzemino.

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  • Val d’Aosta is becoming fashionable, both for international varieties such as Chardonnay and Syrah, as well as for its indigenous varieties such as the black grapes Petit Rouge, Fumin and Vien de Nus, as well as the white Blanc de Morgex.

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  • Liguria is not well known for wine production, although the tourist trade along the Italian Riviera has helped to popularize Vermentino and Cinque Terre, made from Pigato, a relative of Vermentino, and the local varieties Albarola and Bosco. Other curiosities include Lumassina and Bianchetta for the whites, and Rossese and Pollera among the reds.

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  • Geographically, Emilia-Romagna is a large and heterogeneous region that stretches from the Adriatic to Piemonte almost to the Mediterranean. It is unfortunately best known to our consumers for Lambrusco, although not all Lambrusco is of indifferent quality; some is quite delicious. The more serious subregions include Lambrusco di Sorbara, Lambrusco Grasparossa di Castelvetro and Lambrusco Salamino di Santa Croce.

    Two other important grapes in the region are a clone of Sangiovese called Sangiovese di Romagna and Albana, the first white wine to be granted DOCG status in Italy, although most examples that we see are of relatively little interest.

    Other grapes include some Malvasia and local specialties such as Ancellotta, Pignoletto, Bosco Elicepo and Barbarossa, as well as transplants from other parts of Italy, such as the Bonarda and Barbera of Piemonte and Bombino Bianco, thought to be a clone of Trebbiano.

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