If there is a wine region that defines the word eclectic, it is Italy’s Piedmont. With no fewer than 58 different appellations, Piedmont produces the most diverse menu of wines than any other wine growing region in the country, and enjoys a well-deserved reputation for creating some of Italy’s finest. In fact, Piedmont holds the distinction of producing the greatest number of DOP-designated wines in Italy. Known for its complex signature reds,of the northwest including Barolo and Barbaresco, it is equally respected for its brighter Barbera wines and sparkling Moscato d’Asti, proving its unparalleled variety of impressive offerings.
Piedmont, which took its name from the Italian “Piemonte,” meaning “the foot of the mountain” is located in Italy’s northwestern corner, cushioned at the foothills
of the northwest Alps. Bordering France to the west and Switzerland to the north, cold winters and warm, dry summers characterize the region, as its proximity to the Alps prevents extreme rains. Adding to the rocky terrain are the Apennines to the south, with the Po Valley occupying much of the area to the east, leaving only 30% of Piedmont suitable for plantings. Still, the region enjoys slopes on three sides, creating an ideal environment to the south for growing their indigenous red Nebbiolo and Barbera varietals, with more fragile grapes such as Dolcetto and Moscato thriving in cooler climes.
Like most of Italy’s wine growing regions, Piedmont’s early influencers include the ancient Etruscans, Greeks and eventually, Romans, whose empire cultivated the area most assertively. Piemonte wines enjoyed a widespread reputation as far back as the 14th century as evidenced by the works of Pietro de Crescentius, one of Italy’s most renowned agricultural writers at the time. The first to document the region’s practice of forcing more concentrated grapes by extending their stems (these same grapes were ideal for sweet wines), he also showcased Piedmont’s innovations regarding trellising, an early viticulture contribution of the Romans. Piedmont later played a significant role in the 19th century’s unification of Italy, as the region entered a war with neighboring Austria in response to harsh taxation on its exported wines. Inspired by many winemaker-patriots, the conflict was one of the earliest steps towards Italy’s national consolidation known as the Risorgimento.
Although many different cultures have contributed to Italy’s history, it is France whose influence has been the greatest on its winemaking. For a variety of reasons, Piedmont is often referred to as the Burgundy of Italy: it not only shares Burgundy’s emphasis on smaller, family-owned estates and minimal varietal blending, but it also has one specific grape which plays the largest part in its winemaking reputation. For France, it is the temperamental Pinot Noir, while for Piedmont, it is the equally persnickety Nebbiolo, named for the nebbia, or fog, that promotes its growth.
The Nebbiolo grape is at the core of Piedmont’s most desirable, elegant and globally competitive wines, including four of the region’s DOP-designated wines: Barolo and Barbaresco, two of Italy’s most revered reds, as well as Gattinara and Roero, with Roero requiring a minimum of 95% Nebbiolo. Piedmont’s Nebbiolo-forward red wines are respected for their disarming fruitiness and dominant tannins (making them ideal investments), and their polished complexity has earned them the distinction of having a signature profile often referred to as “tar and roses.”
Less aggressively tannic, Piedmont’s red Barbera varietal accounts for the majority of the region’s vineyards. Long considered the region’s most industrious grape due to its volume, it is also the most ubiquitous, and found in Piedmont’s weekday table wines to its top-tier market leaders. Among the best of the elite wines are Barbera del Monferrato, Barbera d’Asti and Barbera d’Alba. Pleasantly acidic with a more fruit-forward profile, these tangy wines are lighter and more readily consumable than the classic Nebbiolo-based reds. Their early accessibility has made them a popular choice among the modern oenophile.
Piedmont’s third red varietal, which is at the core of many of the region’s dry reds, is Dolcetto. The grape, whose name ironically means “little sweet one,” is known for wines with a slightly bitter finish, with prominent flavors of cherry, licorice and additional dark stone fruits. Similar to Barbera-based wines, Dolcetto wines tend to be less tannic, nicely acidic and consumable much earlier than the powerhouse Barolos. At times presenting a pleasantly bright profile yet gently spicy undertones, these wines have often been compared to France’s Beaujolais offerings for their less intense complexity. Among the most popular are Dolcetto di Dogliani Superiore, Dolcetto di Ovada Superiore, and Dolcetto di Diano d’Alba.
In tandem with notable reds, Piedmont is also home to several globally respected white wines, both still and sparkling. The highest name recognition definitely goes to the sparkling Moscato d’Asti, with Asti Spumante following closely behind. Both are made from the Moscato Bianco, or White Muscato, an ancient grape famous for its rose and orange notes. Moscato d’Asti is considered of higher quality, with a sweeter, more delicate “frizzante” profile as opposed to the more assertive effervescence of a spumante; however, both are wonderful alternatives for those who don’t respond well to brut Champagne. Piedmont’s most dominant still white wine is Cortese di Gavi, or Gavi, made from the indigenous Cortese grape grown in the restricted Province of Alessandria near the Ligurian border. Dry, crisp and citrus-forward, Gavi is also characterized by pleasant acidity and touches of minerality similar to the wines of Chablis. While long considered the ultimate representation of an Italian white, Gavi has recently experienced considerable competition from Roero’s fragrant Arneis-based wines. Aptly named (Arneis means “little rascal”), this floral varietal carries a lovely pear and apricot flavor profile, setting the stage for equally romantic, delicate and vibrant offerings.
While Piedmont certainly knows its strengths – Barolo in particular – it has become a bit more daring in its wine production, thus keeping the region at the apex of Italy’s winemaking reputation.