Jeroboams Education is a new series on our blog providing you with the lowdown on the most iconic wine producing regions of the world. Led by our super buying team, Peter Mitchell MW and Maggie MacPherson will introduce you to the key facts and a little history of all the regions you recognise but perhaps don’t know too well. To help really further your education, why not drink along? Browse our Piedmont selection.
This is possibly the most stunningly beautiful wine region in Europe and certainly one of the best to visit and although it was at the forefront of the Italian industrial revolution and the main driver towards unification, in many ways Piedmont (Piemonte in Italian) feels less ‘Italian’ than many regions further south. Formerly part of the Francophone Kingdom of Savoy, neighbour to the Duchy of Burgundy, comparisons are regularly made with Burgundy and they are not without merit. Both regions produce superlative, age worthy and unique red wines from single varieties and from highly defined vineyards, both have a strong food culture and in both regions the owner of a property is very likely to be seen working in the vineyards themselves, rather than in a suit in a boardroom.
‘International’ varieties, whilst present, have never really caught on here as Piedmont has its own world class varieties and in Nebbiolo, one of the greatest varieties of all. The region was almost exclusively a red wine area, with the exception of the Moscatos from Asti, until the late 20th century, when Gavi became a more significant player and Arneis and Favorita began to be planted in more commercial quantities. Although white grape plantings are growing, it is still the reds that are by far the more important. Piedmont is the only Italian region without IGTs, a misguided attempt to portray all of its wine as of higher quality. The catch all Piemonte DOC is therefore of limited value as a guarantor of style or quality, with the (relatively) smaller DOCs of Langhe and Monferrato are only a little more useful.
Piedmont has long been a prosperous region and historically looked as much towards France as the rest of Italy. Partially annexed by Savoy in the 11th century, by the 16th century the Duchy of Savoy, an important power at the time, had moved its seat to Turin. In the 18th century Sardinia was added and Turin became the Capital of the Kingdom of Sardinia. The French briefly controlled the area at the turn of the 19th century, before the Kingdom was restored. Piedmont was the driving force behind the reunification of Italy in 1859-1861 and the house of Savoy became the Kings of all Italy, with Turin the national capital, before it moved to Florence, then Rome.
Piedmont was also the driving force of the Italian industrial revolution and it remains an important centre of Italian industry (it is the home of FIAT and Ferrero) and has a GDP per capita well above the European average.
The close connection with Burgundy through Savoy left its imprint on wine style and production in Piedmont, with the majority of wines being single varietal and its most prestigious DOCGs of Barolo and Barbaresco are organised as a tapestry of named single sites under multiple ownership of varying terroirs and repute. This is also (like Burgundy) an area of small family owned and run estates – domaines seems more appropriate – unlike Bordeaux and to an extent Tuscany, where corporate and outside investment has poured in. Whilst it may not make the wine better per se, this feeling of artisanal continuity adds to the allure of these great wines. Although the region has a long history of wine production dating back centuries, most of its wines were unheard of outside of the region – except by a few knowledgeable collectors – until the late 20th century. The one exception to this being the spumante wines of Asti which were already popular in the USA by the 1950s and shortly thereafter in the UK. The last 20 years has seen a growing interest in the wines, especially those of Barolo and Barbaresco, which are now being made in a more approachable style and for the moment, are exceptional value in terms of the world’s great wines.
There are plantings of several ‘international’ varieties, notably Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, but none of these is especially significant. Piedmont’s strength is a large palette of fine indigenous varieties.
Barbera (31% of the vineyard area)
A productive and relatively late ripening variety, the grapes are quite deep coloured and retain high levels of acidity even when fully ripe. More than 60% of Italy’s Barbera is grown in Piedmont and it is widespread throughout the vineyard area. Historically it was not taken that seriously and many of the wines were thin and unpleasantly tart – still the case for some cheaper examples as the DOC regulations allow for excessive yields – however over the last 30 years an increasing number of producers have started to realise its full potential, cutting yields, planting it in better sites and ageing it in oak barriques. The most expensive (and generally the best) examples tend to be labelled Barbera d’Alba which encompasses the vineyard areas of Barolo, Barbaresco and Roero (although Barbera rarely gets the prime locations in these areas); however many producers of Barbera d’Asti, the other premium region, contend their wines are better as Nebbiolo is not planted in their area so the best sites are given over to Barbera. Barbera d’Asti covers a much larger geographic area, with the section to the south of Asti producing the best results.
Barbera produces a wine of deep ruby colour, with pure and sweet cherry flavours with moderate tannins and juicy fresh acidity. There is a softness to it, although when heavily cropped it can become hard and sour. When aged in (often new) French oak, it has a somewhat different character, losing some of its vibrancy and replacing it with more tannic structure, spice notes and darker fruit flavours. This is, at least in part, because wines destined for oak tend to be from riper grapes that are more heavily extracted. Top Barbera Superiore can be a world class wine and rewards 5-7 years of bottle ageing.
Moscato Bianco/Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains (22% of the vineyard area)
An early budding and moderately early ripening variety that is quite disease prone. It needs to be pruned short for quality. Muscat is one of the varieties with the oldest known existence, although its exact origins are unclear. The oldest documented mention is in 1304 in Italy, however it is believed to have been brought to Italy in antiquity by the Greeks and spread throughout Europe under the Romans. DNA profiling has not found its parents, however there are strong relationships with many ancient Greek varieties. Although grown throughout Italy, Piedmont is home to the vast majority of it, in the province of Alessandiria where it makes Asti and Moscato d’Asti.
Dolcetto (13% of the vineyard area)
Early ripening, which allows it to be planted in cooler higher vineyard sites, it is susceptible to fungal diseases so needs drier conditions. The grapes are very dark coloured, with low tannins and moderate acidity, its name translating as ‘little sweet’ in reference to its succulent berries. It has been grown in Piedmont since at least 1593, however its parentage is unknown. Other than scattered (and very limited) plantings in California, Australia and New Zealand, along with a few vines in Liguria, Lombardy and Umbria, Dolcetto is only grown in Piedmont.
Whilst still widely grown in the region, the vast majority is found in Alba (where the best examples come from) and in the south of Asti north of the town of Acqui Terme. It tends to be planted in cooler sites as it ripens quite easily. There are two main DOCs, Dolcetto d’Alba, Dolcetto d’Asti and two DOCGs (which in true Italian style are not necessarily better quality) – Dogliani (which is just to the south of Barolo) and Dolcetto Diano d’Alba, which occupies the land between Barolo and Barbaresco.
As the name implies it has very sweet fruit and moderate acidity (although the wine itself is always dry). Very deep in colour, with a vibrant purple rim in the glass, the best have a blackberry, liquorice and almond flavour and are quite soft and lightly spicy. It is a naturally tannic variety, so to get the best of it, gentle extraction and short warm fermentations are in order. Many wines, especially in cooler vintages, can have a hint of bitterness on the finish from not fully ripe tannins. 2015, 2016 and 2018 were notable for the great quality of Dolcetto.
Nebbiolo (12% of the vineyard area)
Early budding but very late ripening (it has one of the longest growing seasons of any variety), it is naturally vigorous and is most successful on calcareous soils, preferably with some clay, although it can also produce very good wines on sandier soils. It has very dark skins, relatively large berries and a high level of phenolics. Because of its early budding it needs to be planted where spring frost is unlikely, but it also needs to be where autumn warmth and sunshine will be present to allow full ripeness. A truly ancient variety that is documented in Piedmont as far back as the 13th century, its parentage is unknown, perhaps because its ancestors are long extinct. The name derives from the Italian Nebbia, meaning fog, probably a reference to the thick greyish bloom that covers the berries as they near ripeness. Perhaps because of its great age, Nebbiolo has gone through many mutations and there are a large number of different clones, the most widespread being Nebbiolo Lampia.
Ninety percent of Nebbiolo is grown in the province of Cuneo, which encompasses Roero, Barolo and Barbaresco, Nebbiolo d’Alba and the Langhe DOC. The remainder is mostly grown in the north of the province in Carema (under the synonym Picutener), Gattinara (where it is called Spanna) and its neighbouring DOCs. In all of these northern outposts a small amount of Bonarda and Vespolina grapes are permitted, so true single varietals here are rare.
Nebbiolo wines are generally quite pale ruby in colour when young, taking on mature hues of garnet and orange early in life, often appearing older than it is. Like Pinot Noir it is an exceptional vehicle for expressing nuances in terroir, so generalisations are just that – each vineyard will give its own character to a wine. Its greatest calling card is perhaps its perfume. Powerful and haunting, good Nebbiolo is intensely aromatic, with notes of dark fruits, rose petal, forest floor and an autumnal quality, some note as truffle.
Cortese (7% of the vineyard area)
Disease resistant and high yielding, the grapes have good acidity but only moderate flavour. It has been present in Piedmont since at least the 17th century, but its origins are unknown. It is cultivated in Asti (under the Monferrato DOC) and Alessandria in Colli Tortonesi but the majority is in Gavi, where it reaches its best.
It is a relatively neutral variety originally grown to supply the fish restaurants of Liguria, at its best it has a light citrus and greengage note and a mineral character. Refreshing and unassertive, it develops notes of Almond with a little age. In theory, the wines of Gavi di Gavi are superior and carry a higher price. With sufficiently low yields it can have an otherwise unseen textural element, but it rarely makes a wine of great distinction and is generally overpriced,
Freisa (3% of the vineyard area)
This variety is robust and high yielding with high levels of colour and polyphenols. It is an ancient and important Piedmontese variety that has a parent-offspring relationship with Nebbiolo and may be related to Viognier. In the 16th century wine made from Freisa sold for twice the price of any other. Whilst still important locally, it is not commonly seen on export markets. Grown widely in Piedmont (the only other minor plantings are in Lombardy and the Veneto), the most important region is Asti, although it is also found in Cuneo, Turin and in the sub Alpine regions of the north. Made in a variety of styles, most share a pale colour with wild strawberry and raspberry flavours, surprisingly high acidity and tannins and a slight bitterness on the finish. The most common DOC, Freisa d’Asti, can come as dry, off-dry or sweet, still, frizzante or spumante.
The most common style, popular locally but little travelled, is just off dry and lightly sparkling from a second fermentation. The best wines made from the varietal are probably made by Vajra and are perfumed and dry.
Arneis (3% of the vineyard area)
Vigorous and moderately late ripening, it is naturally low yielding and susceptible to disease. In addition to being difficult to grow, it is also tricky to vinify. Native to Roero, the earliest mention of it may be as far back as the 15th century under its Latin name. Although known also locally as Nebbiolo Bianco, it is unrelated to Nebbiolo. It may have acquired this synonym as it was historically co-planted and vinified with Nebbiolo to soften the wine.
It had almost disappeared by the 1970’s (only Vietti and Bruno Giacosa made examples) however it has made a remarkable comeback since the 1980s and nearly 1,000 hectares are now planted. Nearly all Arneis is found in the DOC of Roero and to a far lesser extent Langhe. Tiny amounts are grown in Liguria, Sardinia, the USA, New Zealand and Australia. Generally unoaked, it can be quite full bodied with only moderate acidity. As a result, some examples can taste very rich. It has flavours of ripe pear and sometimes honey and apricot. More and more producers are experimenting with extended skin contact and there are now a few Arneis ‘orange’ wines available. Some passito and spumante wines are also made.
Grignolino (3% of the vineyard area)
This moderately late ripener was once grown throughout Piedmont, but is now mostly confined to Monferrato around Asti and Alexandria. It produces a light red cherry flavoured wine, with herbal notes and zippy acidity. On occasion the tannins can be surprisingly high, although they are designed for early drinking.
Brachetto (3% of the vineyard area)
This variety is claimed to have been cultivated here since Roman times and is now mostly found around Acquia Terme to the south of Asti. Whilst a small amount is made as a dry still red, the majority comes as Brachetto d’Acqui DOCG, a low alcohol, lightly sparkling and sweetish red, which is mostly consumed locally.
Erbaluce (1% of the vineyard area)
Most commonly found in Erbaluce di Caluso, the variety is also authorised in several other DOCs. In Caluso it can be either a light, slightly tart white, not dissimilar at its best to Favorita, a long bottle aged traditional method sparkling of some distinction or, perhaps most interestingly, a passito wine aged 4 years in barrel before release.
Favorita/Vermentino (less than 1% of the vineyard area)
Early budding so sensitive to spring frost. Moderately vigorous and susceptible to downy mildew, its origins are unknown, though some hypothesis state that it was a Spanish variety introduced to Sardinia and then spread throughout Italy, however there is no evidence to support this. The first documented existence of the grape is in Piedmont in the late 17th century, where it was grown as a table grape. Favorita is still listed by the Italian authorities as a distinct variety, despite DNA analysis proving it is Vermentino. The majority of Favorita is grown in Roero where it thrives on the sandy soils and in the hills of the Langhe to the south of Barolo. Plantings have decreased as it is replaced by more fashionable Arneis in Roero and Chardonnay in the Langhe. The wines are generally quite aromatic, with citrussy and mineral character. Moderate in alcohol and with good balancing acidity.
Other Piedmont Rarities
Nascetta was Virtually extinct in 1994 only one producer, Cogno, was making Nascetta from a 2 hectare vineyard in Novello in Barolo. There are now a handful of producers in Novello and Monforte with around 20 hectares between them in 2010. It has been included in the Langhe DOC and plantings are expected to be much higher at the next vine census in 2020 as it has great potential making tightly structured wines with flavours of acacia, exotic fruits, citrus and herbs with fine acidity. Nascetta has shown affinity with oak and takes on honeyed notes with age.
Pelaverga Piccolo had all but disappeared by the 1970s with just a few vines left in the hands of one producer in Verduno. Originally thought to be the same as the wider spread Pelaverga, a table grape also used for wine production near Turin, it was proved by DNA analysis to be completely different. The quality of the wine made from it interested other growers in Verduno and cuttings were propagated. There are now 11 producers with 26 hectares between them.
Verduno Pelaverga was granted DOC status in 1995 and just 12,000 cases are made annually by 11 producers. Relatively pale in colour, the wine has a pronounced strawberry and raspberry flavour with notes of spice, especially white pepper on the finish, fresh acidity and gentle tannins. It is designed to be drunk young.
Rossesse di Monforte is an incredibly rare speciality of the village of Monforte, there are less than 10 hectares planted. Rescued from extinction by Giovanni Manzone from old vines in his family plot, a few other producers in the village have obtained cuttings. Rossesse di Monforte is perfumed yet fresh, with apricot and white peach flavours, an affinity to oak and fine structure. It is no to be confused with various other grapes called Rossese.
Timorasso was once the most prized variety of Alessandria, but after phylloxera it was replaced with the more productive but far inferior Cortese. From 6 hectares in 2000 there are now perhaps 60 hectares mostly in the Tortona region. It is permitted as part of a blend with Cortese in the Colli Tortonesi DOC or as a varietal wine. Whilst few single varietals are made, it is a grape of the highest quality, giving wines full of citrus, honey, spice and nuts, with a creamy texture and delicate minerality.
Vespolina is planted in Lombardy and in Piedmont almost exclusively around Gattinara and Bramaterra, where it makes up a small part of blends with its relative Nebbiolo. Rarely seen as a varietal wine, it is said to be spicy, fruity and tannic.
Climate, Geology and Topography
Piedmont (literally at the foot of the mountains), is encircled on three sides by the Alps and the Apennines, providing a dramatic backdrop and dictating the climate. The majority of the province is taken up by the vast and largely flat Po valley – an important agricultural area. The heart of the area used for wine production is on the gently rolling Monferrato hills to the east and south of Turin, although wine is also produced in the far north, notably in Carema and Gattinara. The vineyards in Monferrato are planted between 150m and 400m on hillsides (only 5% of the region’s vineyard area is classified as flat), to maximise ripening. The warmest sites have historically been saved for the late ripening Nebbiolo, the least favoured for Moscato. Every slope seems to face a different direction and this creates a near infinite range of microclimates adding to the diversity and fascination of the greatest wines.
Although on the same latitude as Bordeaux, the climate of Piedmont is very different. The surrounding mountains act as a rain shadow and the annual average is around 700mm (three quarters of Bordeaux and 10% less than Burgundy), with rainfall during the harvest month also lower than most other classic wine regions of Europe.
The climate is far more continental than the proximity to the Mediterranean would suggest, with very cold and often foggy winters which can be very wet, cool bright springs where frost is a risk, hot dry summers and mild mostly dry autumns with mist filling the valleys a regular occurrence. This mist regularly blankets Asti and Alba in the Tannaro valley and means that low lying vineyards are not practical. The soils of Piedmont are typically a blend of calcareous marl, sedimentary clay, sandstone and sand. Barolo has higher proportions of clay than Barbaresco, whilst Roero on the north bank of the Tannaro river has high proportions of sand. Gavi’s soils are rich in Limestone.
Traditionally Nebbiolo was fermented quite warm and heavily extracted before long ageing in large old oak, with other wines usually bottled early. Much has changed over the past 30 years, with improved vinification techniques producing wines that are more approachable in youth and the introduction of smaller French oak barrels to compliment the traditional Slavonian botte. Barbera, once seen as cheap quaffing wine is now being made with more diligence, often aged in French barrel and now producing wines of real substance and power. Whites from Cortese, Favorita and Arneis are mostly cool fermented and matured in inert vessel, whilst Chardonnay and Nascetta will often see some barrel maturation. The Moscatos from around Asti are sparkling wines with low alcohol and notable residual sugar.
The Sub-regions of Piedmont
The DOC and DOCGs of Piedmont
There are 45 DOCs and 17 DOCGs in Piedmont, many of which are of little importance away from the local market. A large number of these are the name of the grape variety followed by a geographical designator and are covered under the grape varieties section. The key regions are covered in detail below, but others of relative significance include Langhe DOC which covers Barolo, Barbaresco, Roero and their hinterland and which is used for varietal wines not covered by other Denominaziones. Monferrato is another large DOC allowing blending across Asti and the surrounding areas. Few really distinguished wines carry this DOC, but it is a good source of everyday Barbera. Alta Langha DOC was created in 2002 for the increasing quantity of traditional method sparkling wine from the Monferrato hills.
To the north of Turin lie the vineyards of Alto Piemonte, a historic region that is newly fashionable. Wines are supremely elegant Nebbiolo dominant blends and the best of these are from the 90 hectares of the Gattinara DOCG, along with Bramaterra, Ghemme and Lessona. Tiny Carema, with just 18 hectares at the base of the Aosta Valley also makes fine light and fragrant Nebbiolo.
Key info: Vineyard area: 1,928 Ha; Varieties permitted: Nebbiolo; Production in cases (2018): 972,000.
Home of the greatest expressions of Nebbiolo, one of the world’s great grapes and Italy’s finest wine producing region, Barolo can also rightly be counted amongst the greatest wine producing regions in the world. Barolo has much in common with Burgundy, a patchwork of vineyards with nuanced terroirs and multiple ownership, many small producers of varying ability and a grape variety that expresses these differences beautifully.
There are now over 1,900 hectares of vineyards given over to Barolo (a 50% increase on the area in 1990) and concern has been raised about the suitability of some of the sites that have been replanted to Nebbiolo, however above the basic merchant bottlings for supermarkets, the quality level is generally very high and on average you get more bad bottles of red burgundy.
Barolo as a name first appeared in the early 19th century and the area was associated with the Royal family of the time. It has always been based around the five townships of Barolo, La Morra, Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga d’Alba and Monforte d’Alba. In 1909 parts of Verduno and Novello were added and this became the definitive zone in 1934.
For the DOCG, yields are a maximum of 56 Hl/Ha and wine must be aged a minimum of 38 months before release (with at least 18 in barrel)
Whilst all Barolo is to a degree powerful, acidic and tannic, there are great variations across the zone and even from vineyard to vineyard, as soils vary enormously, as does the topography.
All Barolo shares powerful tannins, a dense texture, high acidity and high alcohol. Despite Nebbiolo being a very dark skinned variety, the wines are never deep in colour and tend to show aged signs of garnet very early in life, although in recent years this has become les apparent. The wines show complex aromas of rose petal, tar, liquorice, cherry, plum and hints of truffle.
The most basic style generalisation can be made based on the two main soil types that exist, conveniently separated by the river running from Barolo towards the Tannaro at Alba. To the east in Verduno, Barolo and La Morra, the soils are compact calcareous marls, relatively fertile and producing wines that are fruitier, more aromatic and softer and mature (relatively) more quickly. La Morra is the largest of the historic communes and produces the most seductive and softest wines of the region. Barolo (the second smallest) makes wines that are a touch more tannic and weightier, whilst still having some softness to the tannins. To the west, the soils are looser, less fertile and sandstone based and the wines of Serralunga and (especially) Monforte are much more intense and structured and can take much longer to mature. Serralunga is the second largest commune and for many has the best blend of power, approachability and aromatics, in part owing to the warmth that rises from the valley floor here. Monforte, just smaller than Serralunga makes the longest lived and most powerful wines of the region. It also provides the best panoramic view of the Barolo area! Wines from these soils also tend to have higher alcohols. Castiglione Falletto is the smallest of the main communes and sits on a spur between the two valleys and has more mixed soil types giving wines between the two other styles, being quite rich and powerful, but with finesse. Either the best of both worlds or falling between two stools. Add to this is the influence of individual vineyard microclimate and that of the grower and the region begins to become Burgundian in its potential complexity.
Traditionally, growers made a single Barolo and all of it was made in a similar way – heavily extracted with a long period on the skins, often as much as 2 months, followed by long ageing in old large casks. Whilst romantics call this the ‘traditional approach’, it did not produce better wines than the approach used by most now. It was born of necessity as the fruit was generally underripe, long maceration was needed to extract fruit and then long ageing to try and soften the tannins, mostly through mild oxidation. In the 1980s a group of producers – so called ‘modernists’ – began making wine with more international appeal by harvesting lower yielding fully ripe fruit, using roto fermenters to get colour and flavour with less tannin and ageing the wines for less time in wood, frequently using smaller barrels and even new oak. These wines turned out not to age that well and new oak obliterated the haunting perfume that is Nebbiolo’s strongest asset, but the open-minded changes in approach bought about much needed modernisation across the region and now the most common way to make wine involves harvesting riper, lower yielding fruit, long, but not excessive macerations with very careful tannin management and ageing in mostly older wood with small amounts of new barrique.
Another development from the 1980s was the rise of single vineyard bottlings. Whilst there is still no official classification, growers had long been aware that certain vineyards yielded far better wines and merchants paid a handsome premium for wines from these sites and so as estate bottling grew, many realised they could maximise their profits and prestige by offering their finest vineyard wines as single bottlings.
As there was no official list, anarchy reigned and eventually the authorities produced a list of 166 officially recognised vineyard names (but with no ranking), although this was not without controversy as the communes were allowed to submit their own lists and some, most notably Monforte, chose to incorporate large tracts of vineyard into their most famous names, thus Bussia ended up as an enormous cru of varying quality. However, for the most part the listing has merit and whilst there is no official ‘classification’, there are certain sites all would recognise as the premium ones.
A list of the finest Crus (think Grand Cru Burgundy) would generally include;
La Morra – Rocche dell’Annunziata, Cerequio
Barolo – Cannubi, Sarmazza, Brunate
Castiglione – Rocche di Castiglione, Villero, Monprivato
Monforte – Bussia (in part!), Ginestra
Serralunga -Francia, Falletto, Vigna Rionda
And those perhaps one step down (analogous to Burgundy 1er cru)
Verduno – Monvigliero
La Morra – Bricco Manzoni, Conca, Giachini, La Serra
Barolo – Le Coste, Ravero, Sarmassa, Vignane
Castiglione – Bricco Roche, Mariondino, Villero
Monforte – Bussia (part), Castelletto, Le Coste, Mosconi, Ravera, Romirasco
Serralunga – Cerretta, Lazzarito, Ornato, San Rocco
Novello – Ravera
Key info: Vineyard area: 578 Ha; Varieties permitted: Nebbiolo; Production in cases (2018): 320,000.
Less than half of the area of neighbouring Barolo, with around 700 hectares of Nebbiolo, Barbaresco as a rule is a bit less powerful and structured and was historically seen as a lesser wine for it. Anjelo Gaja changed that to some degree, with shameless self-promotion backed up by some very good wines, which now arguably sell for more than they are worth. Whilst he helped raise the profile of Barbaresco, it was far more about Gaja than the DOCG and other wines from here still tend to be notably cheaper than those of Barolo.
The DOCG is based around the communes of Treiso (the coolest and highest altitude), Barbaresco itself and Nieve, which actually has more Dolcetto, Barbera and Moscato planted than Nebbiolo.
Barbaresco certainly lacks the sheer power of the greatest Barolos, but in a world lacking patience, this is not necessarily a bad thing, as the wines have the haunting perfumes of Nebbiolo, fine acidity and tannins that are that bit softer and more approachable. They are certainly no less complex or fine than Barolo, but are released at a younger age and reach maturity sooner, with most at their best between 5 and 10 years of age.
Historically most of the wine was sold to merchants, with a few notable exceptions like the peerless Giacosa, or went to the excellent cooperative, the Produttori del Barbaresco. There are now more grower bottlings, generally from named single vineyard sites, but still you are more likely to see Barbaresco as a merchant bottled blend.
Most of the DOCG is situated at a slightly lower altitude than Barolo, is closer to the warming influence of the Tannaro river and is on soils similar to La Morra although slightly sandier, so harvest here is up to 2 weeks earlier than Barolo and the resultant wines less dense. This accounts for the shorter cask ageing periods employed here, as otherwise winemaking is similar to that in Barolo.
Notable Vineyard Names include; Albesani, Asili, Bricco de Nieve, Curra, Gallina, Montefico, Montestefano, Pajorè, Rombone, Roncaglie (Sori Tildin), Secondine (Sori San Lorenzo)
Key info: Vineyard area: 814 Ha; Varieties permitted: For red, Nebbiolo (min. 95%), OANRG (max. 5%); For white, Arneis (min. 95%), OANWG (max. 5%); Spumante, Nerello Mascalese (min. 60%), OAG (max. 40%); Production in cases (2018): 568,000.
In today’s market, Roero should be far more appreciated, as it shares much of the complexity and aromatic individuality of Nebbiolos from Barolo and Barbaresco, but owing to its sandy soils, it has far less tannin and bite, so matures much younger. The region is also relatively small in terms of wine production, having only 195 hectares dedicated to Nebbiolo (just over 10% of that in Barolo). Situated to the north of Alba, the soils and micro climate here are also perfectly adapted to growing Favorita, newly fashionable Arneis and Barbera d’Alba, which tends to be in quite a juicy style here.
As the wines (generally) have less structure the minimum ageing times for the DOCG are not as long as Barolo, being 20 months, with a minimum of 6 in barrel or 32 months with 6 in barrel for Riserva wines.
Key info: Vineyard area: 1,253 Ha; Varieties permitted: Cortese; Production in cases (2018): 1 million.
Situated to the south of Alesandria on limestone soils, Gavi is made up of 11 communes (all of which have a theoretical right to have their name on the label if the wine comes solely from that commune). The majority of wines are blended across the region, although Gavi itself is the most famous commune and Gavi del Commune di Gavi carries a (sometimes) deserved premium. In the latter half of the 20th century, pushed on by the La Scolca estate, Gavi was one of the few whites of renown from Italy but excessively high permitted yields meant much of it was flavourless and anodyne (and a fair amount still is). Demand has shrunk slowly over recent years, as has the vineyard area and producers have branched out beyond the basic unoaked still version into sparkling wines (both charmat and traditional method) and some experimentation with barrique ageing.
Asti DOCG/Moscato d’Asti
Key info: Vineyard area: 7,394 Ha; Varieties permitted: Muscat blanc à Petits Grains; Production in cases (2018): 7.3 million.
The province of Asti is home to many good reds made from Freisa, Dolcetto and Barbera, but the Asti DOCG is reserved for sparkling wines made from Moscato bianco. With nearly 4,000 small scale growers, production and bottling is dominated by merchants. The wines are made from ripe grapes with the fermentation stopped to retain residual sugar. The wines can be Charmat or (rarely) traditional method (the latter of which must spend at least 9 months on the lees and will be stated on the label). It is a wine of moderate alcohol and (since 2017) of varying sweetness. Traditional method wines must be 6-8% abv and will have around 70 g/l of residual sugar. Basic Asti will either be the newly created Asti Secco (up to 17 g/l) or Asti Dolce (70 g/l or more) and is between 6-11% abv. When well made, the wines will have a pleasant fruitiness to them and can be charming. The best sites and grapes are reserved for Moscato d’Asti, which makes up about 35% of production. This is only frizzante, at a maximum of 2.5 atmospheres of pressure and has sweetness levels ranging from 80 g/l up to 130 g/l. Alcohol must be between 4.5% and 6.5%. Moscato d’Asti is generally of very high quality and is refreshing and not heavy, despite its sweetness, with spicy apricot notes. Sales, especially in the USA, have been growing in recent years, helped by several rappers eulogising the wine.
Total wine production has averaged 27 million cases over the past 5 years, about 5% of the Italian total, however as the only region with no IGTs, Piedmont is the second largest producer of DOC/DOCG wine with 25.6 million cases, being nearly 10% of the national total. Red wine production accounts for 63% of the total and exports amounted to nearly €1 billion in 2019, with the USA the biggest market. The last few decades have seen an increasing number of wines made and bottled at estates rather than at merchant bottlers, which has coincided with an increase in overall quality and exports.
Barbaresco and Barolo Vintages
1971: One of the greatest vintages – some say the best since the war. Rare but still superlative.
1974: Very good vintage with heavily structured wines for keeping.
1978: Another top year, but more tannic than the ‘71s, they are still very structured.
1979: Good wines but early maturing and now mostly past it.
1982: Ripe and rich vintage that has stayed the course.
1985: Very good year, at the time much heralded but some were a bit dilute and not all have aged gracefully.
1986: – Small vintage, but some very good wines made. Fading now.
1988: A full bodied and softer vintage drinking well now.
1989: Top class vintage of great balance. Ready but will keep long term.
1990: Powerful and rich vintage. Ready but with years ahead.
1991: Lighter vintage that was ready young. The best are hanging on but none will still improve.
1992: Decent and no more. Most were drunk young.
1993: Autumn rain dashed a promising year. Dilute and hardened with age.
1994: Autumn rain but less damaging than in ‘93. A passable vintage which should have been drunk by now.
1995: Deep coloured wines of great extract but without the complexity of 89/90. Ready but will keep further.
1996: Great vintage with fine acidities. Only just reaching their peak, will keep.
1997: Opulent wines with acid quite low and in some cases out of balance. Can be superb.
1998: A more classic vintage with high quality wines for long ageing.
1999: Another rich vintage with sweet fruits and softer acids. Drinking well now.
2000: An excellent vintage with power & grace. Tannic and made for long ageing. Most barely ready now.
2001: A very good vintage lacking the structure of 2000. Drinking perfectly now, not for long term ageing.
2002: Poor. What charm they had has long faded.
2003: Many wines tasted raisined from the extreme heat. Few had good balance. As ever there are exceptions, mostly from very old vines that weathered the heat but they are rare.
2004: Good to very good vintage. Will benefit from a few more years in bottle.
2005: Good vintage of fruitier wines for younger consumption. Ready now and some fading.
2006: Potentially very good vintage with quite high acidity making them for the long haul.
2007: Ripe and polished, but small yields. Structured but with some opulence. Could turn out great.
2008: Austere with high tannins and acid, but also ripe fruit flavours. Still too young, they have potential.
2009: Extremes of weather led to an uneven year. Some excellent wines, some very tough. Choose with care.
2010: Outstanding with great balance of tannin, acid and fruit. Unusually forward, these will age beautifully.
2011: Hot year. The wines have full tannins and often very high alcohols. Whilst some are very good, there is an inherent lack of balance in many. Good not great.
2012: A fresher and lighter vintage showing more charm young. There is good structure and these will age over the medium term well.
2013: First class, the wines have it all. Power, balance and fine tannins. Not hard in their youth, these will reward 20 years in bottle.
2014: Much better than elsewhere in Italy, this is still a lighter vintage of wines for young drinking. The best managed their extraction well and have produced seductive, supple wines.
2015: An exceptional year, with wines showing all the hallmarks of greatness. Top year for Barbera and Dolcetto also.
2016: Growers who thought 2015 was near perfect then got 2016 which many feel is. With the opulence of the 2015s, but finer acid and tannins these could turn out legendary. A brilliant year for Dolcetto and Arneis and a fine one for Barbera also.
2017: A dry year with a hot summer. Signs are it will be a decent but not great vintage. Small volumes.
2018: Very good whites made and the Nebbiolos look promising.