Journey to Piedmont: The Great Wines of Northwest Italy

The Wine Girl

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Barolo has earned its reputation as the king of Italian wine.  It is the most famous Italian wine and with this regal status, comes a hefty price tag.  Barolo has earned UNESCO World Heritage status. The great wines of Barolo in Italy’s Northwest Piedmont region, near the truffle town of Alba, are made from the Nebbiolo grape and can fetch prices in the hundreds.  Barolo wines are loved and collected across the globe for their bold, nuanced, complex, and contemplative fullness.

The wines have a minimum ageing requirement of three years, while Riserva wines are aged for at least five years, although many are held back for much longer.  The Cantinas age the wines for their customers, adding to costs and delaying return on their investment, adding to the final price of the bottle.

If you love this style but don’t want to spend the dough, explore Italy’s other expressions of the noble Nebbiolo grape at a fraction of the price. Three key regions producing outstanding examples of Nebbiolo are the Langhe, Barbaresco, and the sub-region of Gattinara.

Nebbiolo is a full-bodied red offering intense floral aromas of violet and rose.  Red fruit flavors of cherry, and earthy notes of forest floor, leather, and tobacco are prominent.  Like Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo is thin-skinned and thus particular about where it will successfully grow.  Late ripening and early flowering means that it struggles to fully ripen unless it is grown in the right terroir like the South facing slopes of the Langhe that get plenty of sunshine.  Harvest typically takes place in mid-to-late October.

The Langhe is a region that contains both Barolo and Barbaresco territories, but also includes declassified vineyard sites, meaning wines are not permitted to be labeled with the prestigious regions of Barolo or Barbaresco.  The wines of the Langhe are known for their delightfully low tannins, higher acidity, and fresher style.  They share some additional similarities with Pinot Noir, since they express softness and ease.  Most Langhe Nebbiolo are meant to be consumed in their youth and the prices are in the $20-$30 range.  Many Barolo producers make lighter Langhe labels from younger vines to showcase an easy drinking style.  These wines are a wonderful way to discover the iconic Barolo wineries without breaking the bank.

Barbaresco, north of Barolo and to the east of Alba, is considered the “queen of wines” as it is often described as having a more feminine, elegant style than its cousin, Barolo.  This is due to the shorter aging requirements, more nutrient soil types, and land topography.  These factors allow the wines of Barbaresco to express lighter and brighter flavors and textures than Barolo.  Although there are many exceptions to this rule with powerful Barbaresco expressions as well.

Gattinara, located in historic Alto Piemonte, about two hours north of Alba and much closer to the Alps, is also treasured for stunning examples of Nebbiolo.  While Gattinara does not have the same name recognition of Barolo, it delivers on quality and value for money.  The Gattinara DOCG is one of only two appellations with respected DOCG status in Alto Piemonte, the other being Ghemme.  Gattinara expressions of Nebbiolo tend to be more mineral, elegant, leaner, and approachable than Barolo or Barbaresco.  The microclimate is more extreme (cooler and drier) than the Langhe, with drastic day-to-night temperature swings, giving the grapes more acidity and less tannic structure.  The soils are more mineral-rich as well.  This terroir means that the delicate floral and earthy aromas appear earlier than in Barolo without the long cellaring times needed.  These wines are fantastic when consumed in their youth.

Piedmont Wines to Drink Now:

2016 Cascina Adelaide Langhe Nebbiolo $29.99
Ripe and lush fruit.  Medium ruby in color with aromas and flavors of raspberries, cherries, and peach.  Perfumed floral tones and rich, savory baking spice burst form the glass.  Accessible, fresh, and enticing, the soft tannins are balanced by lively acidity.

2015 Nervi Gattinara $52.99
Nervi is the oldest winery in Gattinara still making wine. Look for intense aromas of rose, strawberry, and tobacco. Fresh, vibrant fruit is balanced by the silky tannins. Pair with truffle risotto.

2012 Guido Porro Barolo $52.99
Guido Porro is the best Barolo producer you have never heard of.  Grapes come from vineyards on steep Serralunga d’Alba slopes. The wine is made in the old-fashioned way, fermenting with natural yeasts, a long maceration of juice on its skins for at least three weeks, and aging the wine for at least three years in Slavonian oak casks.  The wine drinks well in its youth and offers notes of black tea, balsamic, tart cherries, and tar.

Visit Elyse Genderson at Schneider’s (300 Mass Ave NE) to discover wines you’ll love.