The name Piemonte derives from Medieval Latin ad pedem montium, meaning “at the foot of the mountains.” The reference is to the region’s location at the foot of the Alps. Located in northwest Italy, Piemonte borders both Switzerland and France. In addition to Italian, over a million people in the region speak Piedmontese, a romance language with similarities to both Italian and French. Piemonte produces a greater number of DOCG and DOC wines than any other wine region in Italy. It has no IGT classification. Piemonte has a continental climate, but one in which summer rainfall is limited because the Alps act as a rain shadow. Piemonte is characteristically hilly (less than 5% of its vineyards are classified as “flat”). The Alps and the river Po combine to create the characteristic fog, which often blankets the region.
Img197 Caption: “A Piemontese vineyard in Monferrato shrouded in fog. Photo by Elliot Essman.”
The fog gives us the name for Piemonte’s greatest grape (perhaps Italy’s greatest), the red Nebbiolo (nebbia means fog in Piemontese). Nebbiolo produces lightly colored red wines that are highly tannic when young. The wines often see long aging, which turns them brick orange at the rim of the glass. They have high acidity. With proper aging, Nebbiolo wines take on aromas and flavors of violets, tar, wild herbs, cherries, raspberries, roses, truffles, tobacco, and prunes. The grape does not travel well, despite some efforts to give it a second home in California
Img037 Caption “Red dots indicate Piemonte’s Nebbiolo denominations.”
Except for the Nebbiolo d’Alba denomination, which has the grape + place configuration, all the Nebbiolo denominations in Piemonte have names that refer to places only. The most famous, and expensive, are Barolo and Barbaresco in the south. These are 100% Nebbiolo, and require patient aging to ease their tannins to smoothness. Barbaresco, the junior partner, is the more accessible. The broader Langhe Nebbiolo DOC encompasses both the Barolo and Barbaresco areas, and allows up to 15% blending of local varieties like Barbera and Dolcetto, for a less expensive, earlier drinking wine. Further north, two popular Nebbiolo denominations known for less expensive wines are Ghemme DOCG (requiring a minimum of 75% Nebbiolo) and Gattinara DOCG (90% Nebbiolo). Other Nebbiolo denominations in Piemonte include Carema, Fara, Boca, Sizzano, and Roero,
The red grape Barbera accounts for considerably more production than Nebbiolo, for a very different type of wine. Barbera produces medium-bodied, fruity wines, deeply colored, high in acidity, and characteristically low in tannin. The grape’s four major Piemonte denominations include
- Barbera d’Asti DOCG: Minimum 90% Barbera, with Freisa, Grignolino or Dolcetto. Rich, full-bodied, and age-worthy.
- Barbera d’Alba DOC: Minimum 85% Barbera, the rest may be Nebbiolo from the Langhe. Best aged several years in bottle, to integrate, oak, tannins and acidity.
- Barbera del Monferrato DOC: Minimum 85% Barbera, with Freisa, Grignolino or Dolcetto. Deep ruby, aromas of ripe plum and cherries, with black pepper. More aromatic and less robust than Asti or Alba
- Nizza DOCG: 100% Barbera, a new DOCG that used to be a sub-zone of Barbera d’Asti (and considered its finest expression).
Img039: Caption: “Red dots on the map indicate Barbera denominations in its home region of Italian Piemonte.”
Dolcetto is Piemonte’s third major red grape. Although the name means “little sweetie,” Dolcetto wines are dry, with a pleasantly bitter edge. Dolcetto denominations include Dolcetto d’Asti, Dolcetto d’Alba, Dolcetto di Diano Alba, Dolcetto di Dogliani, Dolcetto di Ovada and Dolcetto d’Acqui.
Other reds include Brachetto, the base for sweet sparkling red wines from Brachetto d’Acqui DOCG, a grape normally vinified as a single varietal. Freisa is a workhorse grape that supports dry, sweet, still and sparkling wines (and is a blending grape in several of the Barberas). Freisa has two DOCs: Freisa d’Asti and Freisa di Chieri. The Piemontese native Grignolino produces light colored red wines and rosés with bold fruit aromas that have strong acidity and pushy tannins. Grignolino d’Asti DOC and Grignolino Monferrato Casale DOC are the two local denominations. An even less well known local grape, produced nowhere else on the planet, is the fruity and spicy Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato, which has its own DOCG northeast of Asti.
Img198 Caption: “Piemontese Winemaker Dante Garrone produces Barbera, Grignolino, and Ruchè. Photo by Elliot Essman.”
Piemonte is not red only. Gavi DOCG is the world class still white wine of Piemonte, made from the Cortese grape in the region’s southeast, flinty, minerally, crisp and bone dry. The obscure local grape Erbaluce of Erbaluce di Caluso DOCG is used for a sweet wine made from dried grapes and an aromatic still white. In addition to its red Nebbiolo, Roero produces a crisp, dry white wine from the Arneis grape
Piemonte also produces two extremely popular sparkling wines from Moscato grapes grown around Asti. Moscato d’Asti DOCG is the sweeter of the two, more serious, and only lightly sparkling. Asti Spumante DOCG (now called just Asti) is fully effervescent and has more alcohol.