Piemonte, or Piedmont in English, is a picturesque northwestern wine region home to soft rolling hills, egg-rich pasta, white truffles, and the famous Barolo and Barbaresco wines - among the many others. Piedmont, according to many, is Italy's closest rival to Burgundy, a region which it resembles in regards to winemaking, vine tending traditions, and quality of the wines made.
The name Piemonte translates to “foot of the mountains”, proving true to its geographical topography. Piemonte is a subalpine region surrounded by mountains on three sides. The Alps are situated in both the north and west while the Apennines are located in the south. The Po River (Italy’s longest river) flows through the center of Piemonte cultivating fertile agricultural land.
Piemonte borders France and Switzerland, and the Italian regions of Valle d’Aosta, Lombardia, Emilia-Romagna, and Liguria. France has greatly impacted the region’s viticultural history and technology, along with its food and language. Not only Piemonte shares its border with France, but it used to be part of Savoie. It was common for an upper-middle-class family to speak French at home, and in some areas of Piedmont French still is the main language.
There are 8 administrative provinces in Piedmonte: Alessandria, Asti, Biella, Cuneo, Novara, Turin (capital), Verbano-Cusio-Ossola, and Vercelli. Turin is a marvelous city, quite distinct from other Italian cities for its unique Mittel European architecture and its heritage as Italy's former capital city.
THE TERROIR OF PIEMONTE
Piemonte is home to more DOC and DOCG wines than any other Italian region and is often referred to as the “Burgundy” of Italy. The region’s notable winemakers are passionate about quality-driven wines derived from smaller-scale family-owned wineries. Wine production is an ancient tradition in Piemonte, dating back thousands of years.
The famous Alps and Apennine mountains that once protected the region from invaders (first the Romans, then the French), prove to be a worthy ally when shielding the mountainside vineyards from harsh winds. The best vineyards are planted on the top of southern-facing hillsides, which in Piedmontese dialects is called bricco - a term often used on wine labels.
The warm daytime sun helps to increase the grapes sugar content, while the chilly nights help balance the acidity of the grapes. The snowy alps and hot Mediterranean climates cause diurnal temperature variations, which results in fog thanks to Piedmonte’s valley and mountains. Not by chance, Nebbiolo attained its name from the Italian word nebbia, which means “fog”, but also refers to the pruina (hoarfrost) visible on Nebbiolo berries. Winters are very cold and foggy, but Piemonte is protected from excessive rainfall by the rain shadow effect from the Alps.
Piemonte is divided into five main winemaking zones: Canavese, Colline Novaresi, Coste della Sesia, Langhe, and Monferrato. The soil types within these zones range from white-yellow marl, calcium-rich clay, sand, calcareous stone, and limestone.
THE WHITE WINES OF PIEMONTE
Moscato Bianco - this is a white muscat grape grown in the area of Asti, which is known for producing the popular Moscato d’Asti DOCG and Asti Spumante. Moscato d’Asti is a semi-sparkling slightly sweet white wine. Muscat grapes in Asti are typically used to produce sparkling wines with the Charmat method (second fermentation in a vat). The wine has aromas of peaches and orange blossoms, with a sweet, acidic, and sparkling finish on the palate.
Cortese - white grape variety that grows in the area of Piedmont around the city of Gavi - the best wine made from Cortese being not by chance called Gavi di Gavi (Gavi from Gavi). Cortese wines are crisp with bright acidity, and aromas of lime. On the palate, flavors include honeydew, apple, and peach.
Arneis - white grape varietal indigenous to Piedmont used to make several wines under the Roero DOCG appellation. The wines made from Arneis are mineral and delicate and some of the most sought after white wines in the region.
Erbaluce - white grape varietal indigenous to Piedmont used to make a wine called Erbaluce di Caluso DOCG, which can be dry, passito, or spumante. Very difficult to find outside of Northern Italy.
THE RED WINES OF PIEMONTE
Nebbiolo - Piemonte’s “star” red grape varietal is known for its longevity, structure, remarkable age-worthiness, bone dry, and tenacious tannins. Wines made from Nebbiolo grown in Piemonte, display characteristics notes of tar, roses, truffle, and sour cherries. Nebbiolo is used to make several wines, each one with its personality. Let's have a look at some of them:
Barolo - one of the oldest Italian appellations, Barolo DOCG, Barolo is made near the Tanaro River in the Langhe hills, just a few miles away from where Barbaresco grapes are grown. The differences between Barolo and Barbaresco are mostly due to the different soils on which Nebbiolo grapes are grown. There is a bit more limestone in Barolo, therefore vines grow on lower-pH soils, producing grapes with higher acidity. Acidity and the distinctively high tannic structure of Barolo both contribute to its age-worthiness. According to the appellation rules, Barolo DOCG requires 3 years of aging in wood barrels time before release. Barolo's most common olfactory notes are tar, violets, roses, perfume, and wild cherries.
Barbaresco - this is a softer and more gentle wine if compared to Barolo DOCG. Barolo and Barbaresco are both made from Nebbiolo grapes but the former is called "the king" while the latter "the queen" for their different character. Barbaresco DOCG, similar to Barolo DOCG, is a denomination within the broader Langhe hills sub-region. The soils, rich in lime and clay, contain more nutrients than Barolo's soils, resulting in lower tannin content in a Barbaresco wine. Barbaresco requires 2 years of aging in wooden casks before release. Barbaresco tends to be brighter than Barolo, generally more austere and harder to approach. Barbaresco displays notes of carnation flowers, violets, and raspberries, with an earthy palate.
- Barbera - a fruity red grape varietal that is also Piemonte’s most planted grape. Barbera produces wines that are lighter-bodied than Nebbiolo and less complex - although not simple. For example, Barbera wines from Nizza DOCG are beautifully layered and age-worthy. Barbera has very faint tannins, is highly acidic, and tastes of black and red fruits. Barbera grape thrives when planted on calcareous and clay soils. There are several kinds of Barbera grapes, depending on where they are grown. Alba, Asti, and Monferrato are the most famous, with corresponding DOC or DOCG wine appellations - Barbera d’Alba, Barbera del Monferrato, Barbera d’Asti, Nizza.
Dolcetto - red grape varietal which name means “little sweet one”. Dolcetto is a low-acid, low-tannins grape used to make every-day drinking medium to full-bodied fruity wines. Dolcetto thrives when planted on soils that are rich in limestone and clay, typically on hills closer to the mountains. Dolcetto is found in the Langhe area and the province of Cuneo. Dolcetto di Dogliani, Dolcetto di Ovada, and Dolcetto di Diano d’Alba are the three Dolcetto-based DOCG appellations.
THE CUISINE OF PIEMONTE
Piemonte’s exceptional oenological contributions are not the only thing the region is known for. Gastronomy plays a major role in Piedmont's history and it's the by-product of two seemingly distant traditions. On one hand, we have the haute cuisine enjoyed at the court of House of Savoia, on the other, we have simple dishes part of Piedmont's farming tradition. This unlikely marriage is made possible by Piemonte's unique agricultural landscape. Symbol of this uniqueness, the famous for its decadent and treasured white truffles of Alba.
Bagna Cauda means “warm sauce” in Piemontese dialect. It is a deliciously comforting sauce made with anchovies, garlic, olive oil, walnuts, butter, and cream. Bagna cauda is the king of Piedmont’s sauces and is typically served casually, in the middle of the table as a dipping sauce for bread and vegetables.
Stuffed pasta is an important part of gastronomy in Northern Italy and Piemonte is no exception. Ubiquitous to the region is a dish called Agnolotti, a type of stuffed pasta similar to ravioli but smaller in size. The dough of Agnolotti is made with eggs, flour, and water; its' then shaped and stuffed with roasted meat. Barbera and Dolcetto are excellent pairings with Agnolotti.
Brasato al Barolo is a traditional treasure to Piemontese locals. It’s a long, slow-braised stew, cooked with Barolo wine which infuses into the meat. Brasato al Barolo is usually served with polenta and consumed during special occasions. Pairing Brasato al Barolo with Barolo seems to be an obvious choice, but it could also be paired with Barbaresco or other structured red wines, even better if aged for several years.Locally made chocolate candies called Gianduiotto is what most people eat to finish off a hearty meat-based meal - perhaps accompanied by some grappa or some other digestive. Gianduiotto was invented in Turin in 1865 and is now enjoyed all over Italy. Gianduiotto is made with sugar, cocoa, hazelnut, and cocoa butter.