Discover Piedmont: A Heaven for Nebbiolo Enthusiasts

Piedmont vineyards are set against breathtaking landscapes at the foot of the western Alps

Piedmont is celebrated for its exceptional wines and the dominant Nebbiolo grape. Michèle Shah encourages wine travellers to visit the region

If you are a connoisseur of red wine and a true food aficionado, you’re going to find yourself in paradise when you visit Piedmont or Piedmont (pee-ay-MON-tay in Italian) — one of the highest quality wine producing regions in Italy. Famous, top-class wines such as Barolo and Barbaresco are produced here from 100% Nebbiolo — the noble grape of the area. The wines are known for their complexity, aging potential, and the influence of the unique microclimates in which the grapes are grown.

Piedmont’s unique geographical location in the northwestern part of Italy at the foot of the western Alps results in two key features that influence the region’s climate: the cool Alps and the balmy breezes from the Mediterranean Sea which contribute wide day-night temperature variation, known as diurnal range. Cold nights, foggy mornings and sunlit days make for good wine.

Piedmont and its winemaking history reaches far back to ancient Roman times. Historically characterized by feudalism, its noble families owned vast expanses of land, including vineyards. They often played a significant role in promoting winemaking and enhancing the reputation of Piedmontese wines. The elegant capital town of Turin, also known as Torino, plays an important role in the winemaking history of the region, particularly following the unification of Italy in 1861. King Victor Emmanuel II of the House of Savoy was enthroned as the King of Italy during this period. His affection for the Langhe region, coupled with his passion for hunting and fine wine, frequently led him to the royal lodge in Serralunga, now recognized as the Fontanafredda estate. It was here that King Victor, already married, met Rosa Vercellana, known as “La Bela Rosin” (beautiful Rose). Their secret love affair blossomed and when King Victor’s wife died from illness, he legitimized the affair by marrying Rosa and naming her Countess of Mirafiore and

Royal hunting lodge at the Fontanafredda estate

Fontanafredda, giving her the estate, acquired in 1858 in the village of Serralunga d’Alba. To this day, it stands as one of the most historically significant founding estates, contributing to the serious wine production of Barolo. It is a great starting place to discover the region.

The region’s vineyards are set against breathtaking landscapes. The combination of world-class wines, truffles, and culinary experiences, mingled with the region’s rich history, create a unique and memorable wine tourism experience. There is something reminiscent of Burgundy in the Langhe hills near Alba, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2014, where Barolo and Barbaresco are produced. The region is known for manicured vineyards fragmented into single-owner plots on every south-facing slope, trim villages where the lusty odour of fermenting grapes perfumes the autumn air and the self-assured way in which the vignaiolo or wine grower hands you a glass of his best.

Viticulture is most intense in the Langhe and Monferrato hills around Alba, Asti, and Alessandria, where thousands of growers work vineyards that are often little larger than a hectare. While in the past, grapes were sold to negotiants and larger cooperative wineries, today there is an explosion of small vignerons, new estates and exciting new labels emerging.

Classic Piedmontese wines are so distinctive that, often, they are not comprehended at a first encounter. Most of the region’s classified wines derive from native grapes and single varietals predominate, though not all carry varietal names. Nebbiolo, source of Barolo and Barbaresco, takes its name from ‘nebbia’, the Italian word for mist or fog. Being a lateripening grape, it is often harvested during early autumn fogs.

View over Barbaresco vineyards in the Langhe

Barolo DOCG and Barbaresco DOCG have undergone changes in style that have divided winemakers between the progressive set who have opted for short, hot macerations and brief spells in small new oak, and the traditionalists who macerate for weeks and then allow the wine to slumber for years in inert Slavonian barrels. The best modern interpretations of Barolo and Barbaresco maintain their ample dimensions, but are better balanced and more approachable than before. But even the traditionally-styled Barolo and Barbaresco have responded to modern know-how and are even more impressive now.

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The Piedmontse drink more red wine than white, and about half of the red is from the Barbera grape. The wine has plentiful fruit and acidity but lacks supporting tannin, a combination that gives wonderful vibrancy and lift when made from good quality grapes. Yet many producers seek to give additional balance and complexity to the wine through ageing in small, new oak casks, which can give a classy but indistinct style.

Top appellations include Barbera del Monferrato DOC, Barbera d’Asti DOCG, Barbera d’Alba DOCG and the more recent (2014) designated Barbera DOCG known as Nizza DOCG, which recognises the quality of specific ‘prized’ plots within the overall Barbera d’Asti DOCG region.

Barbera from Alba is rounder, producing wines of great structure with higher levels of alcohol. It adapts well to oak, which integrates and enhances its aromas. Barbera from Asti is better known for its higher acidity, also showing ageing potential, while the wine from the Monferrato area is characterised by a greater minerality and structure. The lively, fruity and uncomplicated but not simplistic nature of Dolcetto (the grape and the DOCG appellation), is a perfect accompaniment to a wide range of dishes and remains as popular as ever.

The wines from Grignolino, Freisa and Pelaverga are so unusual that they remain little more than local curiosities, but deserve greater attention. Pelaverga is a medium-bodied high acidity wine with floral and red fruit, spiced up with notes of white pepper, while Grignolino is a light, transparent rub- tinted wine, characterized by its high acidity and notes of rose hips, geraniums and sour cherries with a twist of spice. It can be very elegant.

A corner of the award-winning cellar of Michelin-starred restaurant, La Ciau del Tornavento in Langhe

Spumante sparkling wine is a global trend that is currently flying high and getting well-deserved attention. The sparkling wines from Piedmont offer a diverse range of styles, from sweet and aromatic to dry and complex. Among these, the low alcohol, slightly sweet, tank-fermented Asti Spumante DOCG tops all production in volume. Made from the Moscato Bianco grape, it is the world’s most popular sweet sparkling wine, yet it is often, unjustifiably, looked down upon by connoisseurs who prefer the gently bubbly, Moscato d’Asti DOCG.

A dryer sparkling style, the metodo classico Alta Langa DOCG stretches along the provinces of Cuneo, Asti and Alessandria. The Alta Langa Spumante is made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes which can be found in percentages varying between 90% and 100%. The remaining 10% may be made up of nonaromatic grapes from vines whose cultivation is authorized in Piedmont. It can be white, rosé, brut or pas dosé (0% sugar), the latter has become quite a popular trend, with ageing on the lees for at least 30 months.

Another derivation of sparkling wine can be found in the Nebbione metodo classico sparkling made from 100% Nebbiolo which is left on the lees for no less than 40 months. This is quite a niche product also because Nebbione is made with the cuttings of Barolo bunches, in particular the tips of the bunches.

The main production of still white wine in Piedmont is divided between Arneis from the Roero hills near Alba, and Cortese, at its best in Gavi, making increasingly stylish dry whites. Recent attention on reviving the very small indigenous production of white Nascetta, which had become almost forgotten and extinct, has been met with enthusiasm. And the varietal known as Timorasso from Tortona in southeast Piedmont is enjoying a new lease of life with international acclaim. The Timorasso variety was brought back by iconic producer Walter Massa who has given new fame to this grape and the area it grows in. Rosé wines and blends are also on the rise, responding to an increase in Piedmont’s growing summer wine tourism, blending into the autumn with Alba’s famous truffle market. Finally, in response to market request, or global warming, we are seeing an increase in the production of simpler, fresher styles of reds, be these young Nebbiolo wines or lighter styles of Barbera, or the lively, fruity uncomplicated nature of Dolcetto.