Dip your toes or dive in head first to the world of Italian wines this summer. The Weekapaug Inn Sommelier breaks down the different grapes, growing regions and flavors of some of the most notable treasures of Italia.
Piedmont (Piemonte) or “foot of the mountains” sits at the southern base of the Alps, bordered by the countries of France and Switzerland, and surrounded by the other Italian wine regions of Emilia-Romagna, Lombardia, Valle d’Aosta, and Liguria. Here, the food is land focused, and accented by cheese, butter, and the famous white truffles of Alba instead of the olive oil and tomato flavors found further south.
You may have the universe if i may have Italy.
The undisputed grape at the center of the Piedmontese stage is Nebbiolo; this is the grape of the famous Barolo and Barbaresco, and frequently grown throughout other areas of the Langhe region of Piedmont and a few select other DOC’s. Named for the fog seen in the valleys, it is the last grape in the area to ripen and is harvested late October through early November. Nebbiolo is highly tannic as a varietal, and is often improved with considerable time spent aging in both oak (both old and new depending on the style of the winemaker, and often very controversial within the producer’s community!) and bottle. Common synonyms for Nebbiolo include Chiavennasca (Lombardy) and Spanna (Gattinara and Ghemme, also DOCG appellations). The wines of Barbaresco, in comparison to the wines of Barolo, are noted by their finesse and elegance with a subtle increase in approachability in their youth. For this reason, Barbaresco is often thought of as the “Queen” of northern Italian wine, with Barolo considered to be “King.”
The “workhorse” grape of Piedmont is Barbera, a grape known for its naturally high acidity and low tannin. Barbera ripens earlier than Nebbiolo and takes less time to mature, leading it to be the wine that is consumed while the Piedmontese wait for the Nebbiolo wines to mature. Important regions producing Barbera include Asti and the hills of Monferrato (each a DOCG) and the village of Alba (still at DOC status). Barbera is Piedmont’s most planted varietal and it composes more than 50% of the region’s DOC level wine.
The last of the “big three” red grapes of Piedmont, Dolcetto, literally translates to “little sweet one.” Dolcetto is the earliest ripening of the three, and is often the first of the wines consumed out of the Piedmontese cellar. In contrast to Barbera, Dolcetto has slightly more body and tannic structure and less acidity than the former grape. I like to pair Dolcetto with cured meats and cheeses; it’s a great party wine!
Other red varietals of somewhat lesser international significance, but that are still very interesting and food friendly, include grapes such as Grignolino, Ruche (Ruske), Freisa, Bonarda, and Pelaverga. These grapes are light bodied, best consumed fresh, aromatic and lively. They are consumed locally in Piedmont and rarely seen on the export market, but when they are available, they make for very interesting alternatives to New World styled wines. Served with a light chill, they are excellent summer reds!
In terms of white varietals, Piedmont is dominated by three: Moscato, Arneis, and Cortese. The first, Moscato (Bianco) creates a delicate and subtly sweet sparkling wine often enjoyed at the end of the meal with simple desserts (and very amenable to fresh fruit). Moscato’s spiritual home is Asti, and the Asti DOCG (formerly Asti Spumante before 1993) produces more DOCG level wine than any other DOCG in Italy. Moscato d’Asti is usually of slightly greater quality and produced from riper grapes; it is also produced more with frizzante pressure as opposed to spumante, meaning slightly sparkling as opposed to fully sparkling or the level of carbonation often found in the wines of Champagne.
Arneis is the still, fresh and floral white of the Roero DOCG; it is great with salads, simple pasta dishes, and both cooked and raw shellfish. The vineyards of Roero are just to the north of the communes of Barolo and Barbaresco. Often times, producers of these two great reds also produce Arneis as their white wines. Cortese is the grape of Gavi, and Gavi is located in the southern area of Piedmont known as Alessandria. These wines are a little more austere and mineral driven compared to Arneis in the north, and often carry a little more body and weight with them.
Whether it’s for collecting and storing in your cellar, or for entertaining with an exciting value, Piedmont offers something for everyone. Look for wines from the 2010 vintage in Barolo and Barbaresco, arguably one of the best vintages in the area within the last 20 years. They will last and develop for a lengthy time in your cellar. As for barbeque season this year, bring a magnum of Dolcetto or Barbera to your gathering…your hosts are guaranteed to thank you!
Eager to learn and taste more? Come join us in The Restaurant for dinner (or lunch) and explore the many pairing possibilities that Italian Wines have to offer. Cheers!