Piemonte, tucked into the northwest corner of Italy, is a stunningly beautiful place. During the growing season one cannot help but notice that vines are almost everywhere, particularly in the heart of the region in the Roero, Langhe and Monferatto hills. In the fall, during truffle season, the patchwork of red and gold hues from the changing leaves on the vines will leave you breathless. In winter, the hills are often covered with blankets of snow. This is wine country. To be more precise, this is red wine country.
The powerful Nebbiolo based wines shine here and take the spotlight. Barolo and Barbaresco are the king and queen of Piemonte wines respectively but wines made from Barbera and Dolcetto are also highly regarded. The whites, although also well-regarded, are not nearly as popular outside of the region as they should be. Although it’s winter time and the temperature is not screaming white, I thought a primer on these very good wines was overdue. So, here are some grapes and the wines made from them that you should seek out now and when the weather starts to turn a bit warmer. But first a bit of history.
Piemonte played a key role in the unification of Italy in the 19th century. It was also where the nation’s industrial revolution took place which shaped the new nation’s economy. The region is the second largest behind Sicily and the largest producer of fine wines in the country. It is also home to some of the best cuisine and ingredients, such as white truffles, in a country that is known for its exceptional food. To say Piemonte is important to the wines, economy and culture of Italy is an understatement.
The region has been inhabited since around 1,000 BC by several tribes who settled here. Wine has been produced here since that time. It was the Etruscans who helped the locals with grape growing and winemaking as they did throughout central and northern Italy. This proud band of people stood in strong opposition against the might of the Romans until they finally capitulated in about 100 BC.
Fast-forward to the 18th century when the House of Savoy acquired all of modern-day Piemonte and set the groundwork for the unification of Italy. The House of Savoy set up shop not in France but in Torino, Italy. Eventually it would acquire the island of Sardegna and become the Kingdom of Sardegna, one of the most powerful in all of Italy. Piemonte then became the central region in the unification movement. In 1861 most of the independent entities of the peninsula were united as the Kingdom of Italy.
Piemonte’s vineyards cover about 110,000 acres. There are almost two dozen grape varieties planted that are unique to the region. The 42 DOC/G’s of the region ranks it as #1 in that category in terms of the number of appellations and the quantity of wine produced at this highest level. In fact, all of Piemonte’s vineyards, except a scant 10%, fall under the DOC/G category. This is the only region in Italy to hold this distinction.
No other region can challenge Piemonte for fine wine production. The region has the lowest average yields each year. All of the vineyards are planted on superior hillside locations and there are many single-vineyard wines produced within each appellation. Piemonte wins more wine awards than other region each year. Piemonte is the King of Italian Wine. And reds get the vast majority of the respect.
But there are some unique, fantastic whites produced here as well. I’ve picked 5 grapes and the wines made from them that you should try.
This is the most widely planted white grape and second overall, behind Barbera, in Piemonte. Most of these are used for the sparkling wines of Asti: Asti Spumante and Moscato d’Asti. These are both DOCG wines that share the same geographic boundaries. They are different in style though. This is the largest DOCG in terms of production in the region. Together they account for over 100 million bottles per year.
Asti Spumanti is a fully sparkling, slightly sweet wine produced from the Moscato grape exclusively. It was created in the 19th century by Carlo Gancia. Gancia had grown up in the region and traveled to Champagne where he learned the technique of traditionally made sparkling wines. He brought his knowledge back to Piemonte and made a sparkling wine using the traditional method like in Champagne. But Gancia’s wine was sweet. It was a big hit.
Eventually, an easier way of making wine sparkle was introduced called the Martinotti method. This involved making the wine sparkle in a tank instead of the bottle it was going to be served from as in Champagne. This, known as the Tank Method, was much easier and less labor intensive. Gancia adopted this method which better preserved the fruit of the Moscato grape. The wine has been recognized by the Italian government as Asti Spumante since the 1930’s.
Asti Spumanti is a fully sparkling wine that has a finer mousse (bubbles) than one might imagine from a Tank Method wine. Aromas are pronounced with the telltale grapey notes along with white flowers, orange zest, acacia, stone fruit and rose petals. The acidity is usually moderate as is the alcohol which rarely exceeds 9 or 10%. You can find a good Asti Spumante for around $10.
Moscato d’Asti is also produced from Moscato exclusively but it is a decidedly sweeter version with less sparkle. These wines are frizzante, meaning slightly sparkling. These are perfect wines to pair with desserts due to the high residual sugar. The wines are usually around 5% alcohol and must have the vintage on the label. Due to the low amount of carbonation these wines have a traditional cork unlike the mushroom cork and cage that Asti Spumante has. The aromas are more pronounced. There is much less Moscato d’Asti made and the producers are smaller often making red and white wines from other grapes as well.
This is an ancient, native grape grown in northern Piemonte near the border with Valle d’Aosta around the town of Caluso. The wines made from it vary in style from bone-dry to ultra-sweet and even sparkling. The reason for the variety is due to its’ thick skins and high natural acidity. Both are required for wines made in the appassimento method. This involves picking ripe grapes and then drying them on mats to concentrate the sugars. Thick skins are beneficial as they are less likely to be affected by rot. The high acidity keeps the sugar in the wine from tasting too cloying or thick.
The wine made from Erbaluce is called Erbaluce di Caluso or Caluso DOCG. All of the styles are permitted under the regulations. It is up to the producer to decide what style he or she wants to make. It is possible and often common for a producer to make dry, sweet and sparkling. The still, dry style is becoming more popular. The dry wines hint of apple, white flowers and citrus. The sweet versions will have more stone fruit, honey and spice. These are not easy to find but well worth the effort. One of the best producers is Liugi Ferrando.
Arneis in the local dialect refers to a difficult personality. It fits as the grape is difficult to grow with its’ naturally low acidity and inclination to become overripe if harvested too late. It is also prone to mildew, has low yields and oxidizes rather easily. For these reasons the grape, and its’ wines, fell out of fashion in the mid-twentieth century. If it were not for two producers, Giacosa and Vietti, the grape may have remained in obscurity and disappeared altogether.
These and other growers found that the chalky, sandy soils of its’ home, the Roero hills, added structure and acidity to the wines. Now, there are several outstanding producers of Roero Arneis DOCG including Giacosa, Vietti, Ceretto and Malvira to name just a few. The wines are on the fuller side with aromas of nuts, peaches, apricot, honey, ripe red apple, pear and orange blossom. There is also an excellent sparkling wine made under the Roero DOCG if you can find it.
The Crotese grape with its’ restrained character has been documented as far back as 1659. In 1870 it was noted that the grape was widely planted in the Alessandria province of southeastern Piemonte. The grape was particularly valued for its’ resistance to disease and its’ ability to deliver large crops while producing quality wines. It is still considered a vigorous variety and yields must be curtailed to tame the naturally high acidity. Ripe fruit from lower yields produces wines with ripe apple, pear and citrus with refreshing acidity.
Although Cortese is grown outside of Piemonte in Lombardia and the Veneto it performs best around the town of Gavi in southeastern Piemonte. Wine has been made in Gavi since at least 972 AD. The wines gained popularity in the 1960’s and 70’s in Italy and abroad.
The Gavi DOCG encompasses 11 communes. The wines must be made exclusively from Cortese grown on hillside vineyards. In cooler years when the grapes don’t ripen fully the wines can be rather austere. Ripe grapes from low yields have good body with plenty of acidity and minerality. Producers can also make a sparkling version. If all the grapes come from one of 18 communes and hamlets the producer may label the wine with the name of the commune as in Gavi del Comune di Gavi is the grapes are all from the commune of Gavi.
Timorasso is an ancient variety that was once widely planted in Piemonte and Liguria. Its’ home is in the hills of Tortona in southeastern Piemonte. The grape fell out of favor after the arrival of phylloxera when it was not re-planted in favor of other grapes that were easier to grow and more commercially viable. If it were not for the efforts of one man, Walter Massa, the grape would have disappeared forever. Today there are several producers producing excellent wines from this high-quality grape.
The wines made from Timorasso, labeled under the Colli Tortonesi DOC, are some of the most exciting wines coming out of Piemonte today, red or white. I love them. They are high in acidity with good body. The aromatics are intense with floral and citrus notes along with apple, pear and a tinge of honey. The palate is on the full side but the acid keeps everything fresh. Although there is not a lot of oak being used on the wines they have a beautiful texture and creaminess that comes solely from the grape. Most of these retail in the mid to high twenties but they are worth it. Look for the wine of Walter Massa and La Colombera.
I hope you can find these in your local retail shop or a restaurant as they are well worth the hunt.