In 2012, I had the great fortune of making a trip to the Piemonte region (or Piedmont as it is more commonly known here in the US) of Italy with my wife. Piemonte is known most for its red wine, primarily Barolo and Barbaresco (two of the villages of the region). They also make a good amount of wine from barbera and the plebeian dolcetto as well as two white wines, arneis and Gavi. Other main crops of the region include hazelnuts, used to make Nutella, and the rare and spectacular truffle. While many people first think of Tuscany when they think Italian wine (Chianti, brunello, Super Tuscan, etc.), Piemonte actually produces more DOC and DOCG wine--that is, more wine that meets the government standards of quality wine. This also means that Piemonte is most likely a much more traditional and old-fashioned wine region. And that is exactly the sense I got while there.
My wife and I flew into the Milan airport and rented a car so that we could drive to Piemonte. We approached the region from the northeast and it was incredible how different the wine producing area, which is primarily the Langhe, is from the rest of Piemonte. As we came out of the city of Alba driving south, we were all of a sudden surrounded by rolling hills covered in vineyards. Piemonte literally means "foot of the mountains" and there was no shortage. The region is just to the south and east of the Alps and is also north of the Apennines, a coastal range that runs down the length of Italy. That leaves just one northeastern corridor for weather to really affect the area. Because of the mountain ranges, there is no ocean breeze even though the southern reaches of the Langhe are only 25 miles from the coast. That means that the only temperature moderating influence is the Tanaro River, which, when we were there was extremely low, almost to the point of being dry.
The most widely planted grape in Piemonte is barbera, but the most celebrated is nebbiolo. Nebbiolo most likely gets its name from the Italian word for fog, "nebbia," due to the fact that it is often foggy during harvest time in autumn. Nebbiolo is the sole grape used in Piemonte's two best wines, Barolo and Barbaresco. These two wines, named for the towns where the grapes are grown, are big, powerful wines that are meant to last several years, often even decades. Barolo is historically seen as the better of the two, though Barbaresco can give it a run for its money. While Barbaresco is grown on the hillsides surrounding the town proper, Barolo encompasses a larger region that is comprised of primarily three hills running parallel to each other from southwest to northeast: Serralunga d'Alba on the east, Castiglione Falletto in the middle, and La Morra on the west. Arguably the best vineyards are located on slopes that face south or southeast because of the prolonged sun exposure they receive. Wines from these vineyards can rival the greatest Burgundies and rightfully so. The vineyards are parceled very similarly; that is, many producers can make wine from one vineyard. Some of the more well known vineyards are those such as Brunate, Ginestra, Bricco Rocche, Cannubi, and Fiasc. These names appear on wines made from those vineyards letting you know that they are of the highest quality (and most likely highest price as well). But should you get the chance to try them, you won't be disappointed. Most Barolos and Barbarescos don't get too out of control as far as price is concerned, however, hovering in the $50 to $100 range, with exceptions on either end of course.
While we were there, my wife and I visited eight of the region's top quality producers, and as such only scratched the surface of all the spectacular wine that is made there. We also found many amazing restaurants that showcased something else the region is known for, it's rich and hearty meat and pasta dishes that are full of butter, cream and oil and oh so good. For the duration of the week, we made the quaint apartments owned by Fratelli Revello our home base and couldn't have been happier. The apartments were nicely furnished and were centrally located in the region, just below the town of La Morra with spectacular views across the valley. If we go back, we will certainly look to stay there a second time around.
Stay tuned for more entries about the wineries we visited while in Piemonte.