Piemonte (usually Piedmont in English) is one of the 20 regions of Italy. It is tucked into the North West corner of the country, with only Aosta Valley separating some of the region from the Alps. The region stretches 100 miles down from the Western lakes past Novara in the North, past Turin which is on the western edge, to Asti and Alba in the South and on to just 15 miles from the Ligurian coast, near Genoa. Its centre is Turin, and it fails (by only 300 square kilometres) to be the largest Italian region – being beaten to that title by Sicily. It is the sixth largest wine producing region (again Sicily is top), making 3.4 million hectolitres (over 450 million bottles) a year. 70% of Piemonte wine is red.

In Italy the top tier of the appellation system (the equivalent of AC in France) is split into DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) and the supreme category DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita).

Piemonte produces seven DOCGs wines – Asti, Barbaresco, Barolo, Brachetto d’Acqui or Acqui, Gavi or Cortese di Gavi, Gattinara and Ghemme – and 44 DOCs including three Barbera – (d’Alba, d’Asti and del Monferrato) – seven Dolcetto….. and many others.

Piemonte wine has the highest proportion in Italy of wines that are DOC or DOCG at 55.8%. The next highest region is the Veneto with 29%, but Veneto produces twice as much wine as Piemonte. So Piemonte has to be content again with second place in the table of quality wine production, with 250m bottles compared to the Veneto’s 262m.

Like every Italian region, Piemonte is split into Provinces – 7 in this case. Only two are really interesting from a wine point of view – those of Asti and Cuneo in the South East of the Region. Near the border of these provinces, but mainly in Cuneo are the Langhe Hills, centring on Alba – the area is the source of many great wines.

In Piemonte there are only six really significant grapes. First is Muscato, which makes light sparklers. Some are like the abominable synthetic Spumantes, but some traditionally fermented styles, more likely to be called “Muscato d’Asti”, are useful low alcohol picnic wines – and allegedly good with Christmas pud!

The other significant white grape is called Cortese, which makes Gavi, a distinctive white wine capable of a rich, dry, lemon and pear-like elegance.

However the great wines of Piemonte are red. There is the lesser seen, light but tannic Grignolo. Touted as a possible Italian Beaujolais, it’s never really justified that claim.

Two very good, but not quite great grapes, are Dolcetto and Barbera. The former is round and supple, a little Merlot-ish, while the latter is structured and capable of age with high acidity and a prune-y character – they can both produce notable wines, but Barbera reaches, in my view, greater heights. Barbera is sometimes blended with Nebbiolo.

Nebbiolo is one of the best candidates, many would say the best candidate, for top Italian grape and indeed top world red. The name refers to the fog that is common in the autumn in its Piemonte home. It is a thick-skinned variety, so the dampness doesn’t affect it, and it produces prodigious levels of tannin.

Although in many ways very different, it has some similarities with Pinot Noir. It is hard to handle, but can produce beguiling quality when right, and both can produce delightful, fragrant, velvety textured and complex examples. In the case of Nebbiolo wines, of course, this is wrapped in a powerful package, with acid and tannin that take time to come round. However the wait (and the price?) is arguably worth it.

There are several Denominazione in Piemonte for Nebbiolo. Only 5 or 6 are ever seen in the UK. The most famous, rightly so, is Barolo closely followed by Barbaresco. Cheaper wines from the wider areas are called “Nebbiolo de Langhe” or“Nebbiolo d’Alba”. Further North, nearly 100 miles, there are six Denominazione, of which Gattinara and Ghemme are of DOCG quality and are imported, the rest are small and esoteric, even in Italy.

Barolo is the heart of Nebbiolo production, and there is a central Village bearing that name. However there are 10 other villages that can put the name Barolo on their product. This group of villages is South-West of Alba, a town itself towards the South of the region. In fact they are on two distinct soil types here. To the East, around Monteforte the soil is sandstone and clay, and the wine concentrated and tough. Further West and North, around Barolo itself the soil is sandy marl. The wines are marginally softer and more elegant.

Slightly North East, the other side of Alba, on the town’s side of the river is the even more elegant Denominazione of Barbaresco. The wines from here are reputed to be more approachable, soft (relatively speaking) and “feminine”. Prices too are more reasonable with a few famous exceptions. The comparison is a bit like Right and Left Bank claret.

In the past Piemonte Nebbiolo had a reputation for long aging in old, big chestnut barrels. The wine was drunk old, sometimes oxidised, brown and with most fruit long departed. It was treated almost as a digestive after the meal. Even examples like this produced a fragrant, complex, beguiling experience.

More recently modern techniques have come to influence the wine, resulting, in a few cases, in an unrecognisable fruit-driven “big” wine. However most of the best growers combine the old traditions of production with modern “clean” techniques to produce a wine that has immense power, kept in check in a subtle elegant package.

The wine is sometimes said to recall Tar and Roses (not a rock band!) and indeed good examples do somehow combine big non-fruit flavours with subtle perfumes, fruit and complexity.                                        Let’s see….  [Tasting notes on the 6 Wines will be posted in 4 or 5 days]

Advertisements