Written By Sunny Brown
Regional Manager – Central US
DeGrazia Imports

(published in Elite Brands’ Fall 2020 Price Guide)

Piemonte is perhaps Italy’s most diverse and high-quality wine area. Situated in the northeast corner of the country, this fascinating landscape is surrounded by the Alps to the north and west and the Apennine mountains to the southeast (Piemonte means at the foot of the mountains). Due south is the Ligurian coast, and this mix of cold mountain air, warm ocean breezes and dynamic geologic activity has created a canvas of terroirs just perfect for fine wine.

Though only responsible for 5% of Italy’s wine production, due to the overall high quality Piemonte boasts 18% of her exports. Less than 5% of the region is officially flat, and the shifting soils and rolling hillsides combine with a hot growing season tempered by cool fall weather and cold, foggy winters. Even Piemonte’s most famous grape Nebbiolo most likely takes its name for the fog-like blooms on the skin of the fruit.

From bright and fragrant white wines to light and easy-drinking reds and finally to some of the most haunting and age-worthy wines ever made, Piemonte is a truly pure glimpse into a diverse world of exceptional quality. For centuries this area was a crossroads of different cultures, and today takes inspiration from France and Switzerland nearby. The complex soils, balanced growing season and terroir-specific wines are often compared to Burgundy, but with a heart that is all Italia. There is nothing else on earth quite like it.

PIEMONTE’S PAST
After Roman rule, Piemonte was successively conquered by the Burgundians, Moors and Franks before finally becoming part of the County of Savoy. It was during the Savoy rule for over 500 years that Turin eventually became the capital, and Piemonte known for the Kings of Italy. A springboard for Italian Unification in the 1800s, the region eventually fell under hard times during the World Wars of the 20th century.

Vines and wine have always been integral to the region. Nebbiolo has been known here since the 1200s but played little role prior to the 1800s when even then it was often sweet, light and fizzy. Barolo Vecchio was the dry version, named for the long aging that occurred in barrel. The formula was to grow as much fruit as possible, macerate for weeks or months, ferment warm, and then age in large casks. The resulting wines were dry, often oxidative, and tough, with fiery tannins and searing acidity. With age they would mellow, but this old method of production became the norm for decades, and the region’s fortunes faded after enduring WWI, WWII and the ravages of phylloxera. By the late 1970s Barolo grapes sold for the same amount as Dolcetto, chemicals of every kind were used in the vineyards, and many farmers were still struggling with the old methods left over from share-cropping days.

THE RENAISSANCE
In the early ‘80s a group of young and forward-thinking winemakers began to transform Piemonte into the gem that it is today. Much has been made about the changes that occurred in Piemonte cellars – a focus was placed on shorter fermentations and macerations; on clean winemaking environments, stainless steel and a more delicate touch at cooler temperatures; and on reductive fermentation and aging to promote fresh, fragrant and flavorful wines that were ready to drink early without the need of decades to soften the hard tannins of the past. These Modernistas as they were called made wine to be enjoyed young and to stand the test of time, sometimes with controversial results.

But the most dramatic change in style and substance was the farming. Chemicals and herbicide use were greatly reduced and brought with it a shift to organic farming. High yields were abandoned in favor of high-quality. The vines were treated as members of the family to be revered and loved instead of workhorses bent on small profits. Today the region is led by many a quality-minded vigneron- ambitious, family-run estates that make wine with care, precision and talent, and gladly match their wares against the world’s best to show what Piemonte can do.

THE ZONES AND WINES

Alto Piemonte
The furthest north of the Piemonte growing areas, this region is named for the high-elevation of its vineyards which sit at the foot of the Italian Alps, with 400-500m A.S.L. the norm. The soils here tend to run from iron-rich clay, gravel and volcanic elements around Ghemme and Boca to granitic, heavy, mineral and rock terraces in Lessona, Bramaterra and Gattinara. The cool climate here produces elegant and nervy wines both from traditional red varieties like Nebbiolo and Barbera to less-known versions like Uva Rara, Vespolina and Croatina. Erbaluce is also known for white wines. 150 years ago, A. Piemonte was the top producer of Nebbiolo, but was almost abandoned after WWII. Today excellent artisanal producers such as Tenuta Sella are reviving the region and the old vines that dot the steep, terraced hillsides

 

Asti
This central section to the east of Torino and north of the Tanaro river is more hills and plains, though the hills surrounding Moscato d’Asti are some of the area’s steepest. Varieties such as Barbera, Dolcetto, Malvasia, Freisa and Grignolino thrive in the volcanic tufo soils, and wines of all colors and sweetness levels are produced. Moscato is the most well-known, and in the right hands from limestone-heavy soils it can be light, refreshing and intensely mineral.

 

Alba / Langhe
The home to Barolo and Barbaresco, the “wine of kings and the king of wines” as they are described. But this area is known for incredible diversity and generally very high quality across a high range of grapes. Just NE (or left bank) of the Tanaro river is Roero, a region with centuries of wine production. The steep hills blend with sandy soils dotted with limestone and tufo and produce the local specialty the peach-scented Arneis, and also exceptional Nebbiolo (just called Roero) that can offer high quality and value. Diano d’Alba and Dogliani are some of the regions highest, rockiest and steepest vineyards and produce Italy’s finest Dolcetto, which in the right soils can be surprisingly complex, deep and age-worthy. Barbera d’Alba and Dolcetto d’Alba are the classification for those grapes grown within the Barolo / Barbaresco zones, and they can be lovely examples for young enjoyment or (especially with Barbera) serious, age- worthy wines of substance. Langhe Nebbiolo is the catchall appellation for Nebbiolo grown within the two B’s, but not classified as Barolo / Barbaresco, whereas Nebbiolo d’Alba is used for grapes grown outside of the higher quality DOCGs. Chardonnay, Favorita, Cortese and Riesling are used to make excellent white wines as well. The soils here range from calcareous clay to sand to marl and limestone, but it truly is some of the most diverse soils on earth.

 

Gavi
Located to the east of Barolo / Barbaresco, Gavi is a unique area with terroirs and soils that are influenced by oceans long past and also by the Mediterranean today. The native and most important grape here is Cortese, which can have high acidity, incredible minerality, a soft yet lingering mid-section and a long finish. The best versions are also very terroir-specific and can age well too. All wines labeled Gavi will be 100% Cortese, with Gavi di Gavi (or Commune di Gavi) considered the best

 

Barolo
Generally-speaking, the soils of Barolo are divided by a fault running NE to SW and dipping just to the right of the town of Barolo in the center. To the west are soils from the Tortonian age, with Blue-Gray marls mixed with sand, limestone, manganese and magnesium that include the towns of La Morra, Verduno and Barolo. These are often the most aromatic, silky, balanced and ready to drink when young though they can also age gracefully for years. To the east is Serravillian / Helvetian age soils, sandstone-based, chalky with limestone and marl, and in some cases heavy with iron. This more sturdy, heavy soil around the towns of Serralunga, Castiglione Falletto and Monforte can produce structured, powerful wines that often need time to mature, but can reward patience with masterpieces. In general, Nebbiolo here is some of the most haunting, graceful, terroir-specific and beautiful wines in Italy, and on earth.

 

MGAs
To harness the unique soils, the government created the Menzioni Geografiche Aggiuntive, or MGA, system. These 247 crus (181 in Barolo, 66 in Barbaresco), or individual parcels, represent singular areas or soils, and their names may be added to the Barolo or Barbaresco label to honor their special features. One of the truly great experiences in both communes is tasting the different crus side by side to experience the impact they have on the resulting wines.

 

Barbaresco
Barbaresco is divided into three communes, Nieve to the North and East, Barbaresco in the center, and Treiso to the south. Treiso is the highest in elevation and has more sand and thus often makes lighter wines that are elegant and perfume-driven. Barbaresco is the heart of the calcareous clay soils that drive the area. Generally slightly lower and warmer than Barolo, the wines here can still be every bit as powerful if sometimes a bit more finessed. Nieve is known for some of the most full bodied Barbarescos, rich in spice and seductive in nature. Though only 1/3 the size of Barolo (only 700ha) this region is every bit as nuanced in soils and wine styles, and like Barolo the quality is being driven by younger generations of highly-skilled and highly-dedicated family vignerons

Fratelli Revello Barolo

Appellation: Barolo DOCG
Zone: Annunziata District (La Morra – province of Cuneo)
Blend: 100% Nebbiolo

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Albino Rocca Barbaresco Ronchi

Appellation: Barbaresco DOCG
Zone: Barbaresco
Cru: Ronchi
Blend: 100% Nebbiolo

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Malabaila Roero Arneis

Appellation: Roero Arneis DOCG
Zone: Canale d’Alba (Cuneo)
Cru: Pradvaj
Blend: 100% Arneis

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Stefano Massone Gavi “Masera”

Appellation: Gavi DOCG
Zone: 6 municipalities of the Gavi DOCG
Blend: 100% Cortese

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Seghesio Barolo

Appellation: Barolo DOCG
Zone: Monforte d’Alba (province of Cuneo)
Blend: 100% Nebbiolo

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Moccagatta Barbaresco

Appellation: Barbaresco DOCG
Zone: Barbaresco
Cru: Bric Balin
Blend: 100% Nebbiolo

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