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Italy’s Burgundy…?

It’s a long one this time, looking at whether Piemonte is really Italy’s Alsace, rather than Burgundy.

“Piemonte is Italy’s Burgundy” – just about every wine writer who has ever lived…

I have heard the idea that Piemonte is Italy’s Burgundy more times than I care to remember.  It is so commonplace that it is accepted as fact: one of the basic truths of the wine world.  I heard it so many times that I accepted it myself without question.

However, the more I reflected upon it, the more I began to wonder whether it was correct.

To begin with, we should be clear about what Burgundy and Piemonte mean, for there is a difference between the wines and the regions.  When discussing Burgundy in this context, what is usually meant does not include Chablis and certainly not Beaujolais.  In reality, it almost always means only the Côte d’Or – not the Maconnais or even the Côte Chalonnaise.

With Piemonte, there is even more conflation and compression.  For Piemonte, read the Langhe region around Alba: usually without the Roero, never mind the Monferrato, Gavi, Tortona or any of the fine wine regions north of Torino. And ‘the Langhe’ refers to Barolo and, sometimes, Barbaresco, as though the region makes no other wines.

What this means in practice is that we are essentially comparing the red wines of the Côte de Nuits (and probably Pommard) to Barolo (and possibly Barbaresco).  A cursory glance at the preceding paragraph, let alone a delve into relevant wine books, will tell you that this is a rather narrow reading of the regions.  We should consider them as a whole, even when discussing specific wines – these do not spring up out of nowhere, after all, with no connection to the rest of the region’s wines, history or culture.

Burgundy is more than the Côte de Nuits – and more than the Côte d’Or: for it has the aforementioned Maconnais and Chalonnaise, Chablis and Beaujolais.  It has Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Aligoté and Gamay as well as miniscule amounts of César, Melon, the Pinots Blanc and Gris, and Sacy.

Piemonte, of course, is a much larger designation than Burgundy, but even if we restrict ourselves to the Langhe (into which I will myself fold Roero) then concentrating on Barolo and Barbaresco negates so much else in a way that it does not for Burgundy.

The region may have around ten grape varieties, but only Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Gamay are important in terms of Burgundy’s production and reputation.  And that is if we choose to include Beaujolais in our definition of Burgundy. If we do not, then Burgundy is basically a two-grape region, one of which is white.  So, while I may be able to produce any number of different red wines in, say, Vosne-Romanée, I have one grape variety I can use.  Côte d’Or reds mean Pinot Noir.

In the Langhe, however, even while we may acknowledge that the greatest wines are from Nebbiolo, (almost) every Barolo, Barbaresco and Roero producer also makes red wines from Barbera and Dolcetto.  Quite often Friesa and Pelaverga crop up here and there, while there is also a little Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Syrah for red wines.  Whites are led by the local Arneis (which makes more wine than Barbaresco) Favorita, Rossese Bianco and Nascetta.  Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling are also grown.

So even the greatest Barolo and Barbaresco producers make reds from other varieties – Nebbiolo forms part of a family here in a way that Pinot Noir doesn’t in what I might term Burgundy Classico: Dijon to Beaune (or Mâcon at a push).  This is an important difference between Burgundy and the Langhe.


It is also an important similarity between the Langhe and Alsace.  Unlike Burgundy, where Pinot Noir is the range, Alsace’s producers make world-class wines from a range of different varieties.  The Pinot Gris Zellberg from Ostertag that I drank recently sticks in the mind, but Muscat, Pinot Blanc and Gewurztraminer are all important in both production and quality for Alsace.  And then there is the grape that stands clear above the others: Riesling, the white Nebbiolo.  While red wines are made in Alsace, around 90% of its production is white and its reputation rests on these wines (with the greatest of respect to its reds).

In the Langhe and Roero, red wines account for a large majority of production and are the rock upon which our reputation stands.  Where Alsace produces great wines from several different white varieties, the Langhe produces great reds from Dolcetto, Barbera and occasionally Friesa.  And then, unlike Burgundy, but very like Alsace, there is the grape that stands clear above the others: Nebbiolo, the black Riesling.

As mentioned, Burgundy has more than Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but when two wine enthusiasts discuss the glories of White Burgundy, they don’t mean Sauvignon de Saint Bris.  Nor do they mean Aligoté.  Similarly, the great reds of Burgundy mean Pinot Noir.  Chardonnay and Pinot Noir account not only for the reputation of Burgundy, but the vast majority of its plantings.

In ampelographic terms, the Langhe – as with Alsace – has not only more varieties than Burgundy, but a much more even split among the land planted to each.  And, again, as with Alsace, an almost total dominance of one colour over the other.  In Alsace, all the greatest wines are made from white grapes; in the Langhe, all are from black grapes.  Light and dark.

The multiplicity of varieties also offers something to the producers of both Alsace and the Langhe that, by definition, is denied to those in Burgundy: blending.  Red wines in the Langhe can be 100% Nebbiolo, 0% Nebbiolo or anything in between.  Barbera and Dolcetto are the most common alternatives to Nebbiolo, but there are also good and interesting wines being made from Freisa and Pelaverga as well as small amounts of those international suspects.

So we might compare the Langhe to other regions where blending of grape varieties is permitted – internationally, Rioja, the southern Rhône and Bordeaux spring to mind; in Italy, Chianti and Valpolicella, to name but two.  In these regions, blending of varieties is very much the norm.  While mono-varietal reds in these regions do exist, they tend to be the exceptions.  And the more we look at other regions that have multiple varieties of the same colour, the more we find it anomalous that these are not blended together, or at the very least that blending is common.

In the Langhe, while blends are indeed produced, the region is overwhelmingly mono-varietal.  In this respect, the wine culture of the Langhe is distinct from all these other famous wine regions, with the exception of Alsace.  Although it also has the possibility to blend varieties, Alsace makes wines that are almost all mono-varietal.  It is much closer to the model in the Langhe than to any of Burgundy, Rioja, Bordeaux, the southern Rhône, Chianti, Valpolicalla, Priorat or the Douro Valley, albeit with an inverted colour mix.

To my mind, the Langhe and Alsace appear as yin and yang.

Cru’s Control

Then we have the classification of vineyards and the culture and driving forces behind that.  The World Atlas of Wine says the following about Burgundy and Alsace:

Of the Côte d’Or, “Of all regions this is the one where wine quality has been studied the longest – certainly since the 12th century when Cistercian and Benedictine monks were already eager to distinguish one cru from another and explore their potential.”

On Alsace, it notes, “…the lack of a long-hatched hierarchy of the better and the best vineyards in the manner of the Côte d’Or.”  It does not say that the growers were ignorant of any differences in character or quality, just that there was not a hierarchy in the way there was in the Côte d’Or.

In Burgundy, when they demarcated the wines of the region, they codified a system whereby vineyard boundaries were not only defined, but the vineyard given a quality rating – to the extent that there are around 650 appellations in Burgundy based on both geography and quality.  The great advantage that Burgundy had was the church.  Specifically, the monks mentioned in the World Atlas of Wine.

Monasteries here, as elsewhere, had both acquired and been bequeathed land over many centuries – forest, arable and vineyard.  Wine, of course, plays a hugely important ceremonial and symbolic role in Catholicism, so monasteries naturally produced their own.  A lot of the monks would not have tilled the land, seeing themselves as more learned and cerebral individuals and leaving the manual labour to others.  And since the answer to the question, “What fun can a monk have?” was “none”, a fair few of them became interested in the fermented result of grape juice.

So, having vineyards to tend, wine to make, education and an organisational bent, the monks set about observing and noting – in addition to making – the wine.  They had the time, inclination and ability to keep records of where the grapes came from and on what date, into which vat they went, how long the fermentation lasted, what the end result was like and so on.  Some benefactors may have stipulated that the grapes from their vineyard were to be kept separate, with the wine used for a particular celebration, or sold and the proceeds donated to something (or used to boost the coffers and guarantee the benefactor passage to heaven).

In any case, over the years, as they became decades, and then centuries, the monks noticed patterns.  Each year, the grapes from a particular vineyard seemed to be better than those from the patches surrounding it: they looked healthier, or they were more ripe, for example.  Having the logistical capability and the interest to keep things separate, they could then follow the grapes to their logical conclusion: wine.  They then noted that the resulting wines differed, and that there was a corresponding relationship between the finished wines and the grapes that had made them.  Once they realised this, they would naturally have wanted to keep all the best grapes separate and demarcate the vineyards that produced them.

The upshot of that was that when the appellation rules were written for Burgundy, a clear hierarchy of quality had been the de facto order in the region for generations.  So it was a politically practicable proposition to establish legally recognised and codified strata of quality.  In any given village, if a grower who had an unexceptional vineyard tried to argue that it was Premier or Grand Cru quality when the classification was drawn up, they would have been laughed all the way to Lyon – there was 300 years of evidence (and maybe twice that) showing that the vineyard in question was no better than average.

Like Burgundy, Alsace has a tradition of lieux-dits, and growers and producers have long known which sites gave the best results.  But unlike Burgundy, Alsace did not codify these into law when the appellation was created.  It was only later, in 1983, that a Grand Cru category was officially instated (Schlossberg in Kientzheim was made a Grand Cru in 1975, but it was the only one at that time).  It was subsequently expanded in 1992 and 2007.  Many producers in Alsace, however, had already been labelling single-vineyard wines with the name of their plot on a particular hillside – a lieu-dit.  Often they continued to use this name even after the vineyard had been granted Grand Cru status.  This was perhaps for a number of reasons, but the nub of it was that if you wanted to write the Grand Cru name on the label, you couldn’t put any other vineyard name.  That is: if I want to label my wine Goldert Grand Cru, I cannot put the name of the lieu-dit (my little patch within Goldert) on the label as well – I have to choose one or the other.  Given that many producers had been using the lieu-dit name on their label for some time and had built a following for that wine (see Clos Ste Hune for details) they may have been reluctant to ditch it for the name of a Grand Cru that might be unfamiliar to consumers.  And some producers also considered that the Grand Crus as geographically defined were too large – that parts of a particular Grand Cru were not up to the standard of their plot.  They felt that even if the name of the Grand Cru became known, putting that name on their label might indicate that their wine was not as good as it really was.

In Alsace, they were not blind to the vineyard variations – much the reverse, especially given that with such diverse topography and soils, variations there most certainly were.  But Alsace did not have large landowners on the same scale as Burgundy – there were not the monasteries with dozens of different vineyards.

The World Atlas of Wine goes on to say of Alsace:

“Instead the modern wine industry developed through the enterprise of farmers…turned merchant and branding their own and their neighbours’ wines, distinguishing them only by their grapes.”

This particular paragraph about Alsace could have been written almost verbatim about the Langhe – though we may have put Barolo or Barbaresco on the label rather than grape varieties: often there were both.

In this respect, Alsace was more like the Langhe than it was like Burgundy: in the Langhe, long have we known that certain sites were better than others, with a premium paid for grapes from them, names accorded to them and a generally accepted, though not legally defined, boundary considered to exist.

But the Langhe had no great monasteries operating since the 12th century, no-one “eager to distinguish one cru from another and explore their potential.”  The great landowners here were the royal families, and the land in general in this part of the world was more something to have than to be exalted for its produce.  It was out-of-the-way, not part of a great crossroads like Burgundy was.  It was, until very recently (that is, within living memory) a poor region; Burgundy was the richest of the ancient duchies of France.

The vineyards of Barbaresco and Barolo were legally demarcated into crus only recently – from the 2007 and 2010 vintages respectively.  At least as far back as 1752, though, certain vineyards were understood to produce special grapes, as a Cannubi bottling from that year indicates.  However, its relevance in showing that cru bottlings were always part of the culture here as in Burgundy is negligible.  The phenomenon of single-vineyard wines is relatively recent in the Langhe: the first examples in modern times were from the 1961 vintage and I am not aware of a continuous tradition of cru bottlings between that 1752 Cannubi and the Montestefano Barbaresco and Bussia and Rocche di Castiglione Barolos from 1961.  We can talk about Giacomo Conterno’s Monfortino Barolo, since it pre-dates the 1961 wines, but even then, the first bottling was from either 1912 or 1920, and was possibly not a single vineyard wine.  It was only from the 1980s – coincidentally when the boom for Barolo and Barbaresco arrived – that the practice really took off.

But this does not mean that growers or producers did not know that certain sites were better than others.  The defining of the crus, known officially here as MGAs (Menzione Geografica Aggiuntiva) gives legal force to the production of single vineyard wines – the name used must be the officially-sanctioned one, and the grapes must come from within the defined boundary of that named vineyard.  However, here, as in Alsace, people had been bottling single vineyard wines (the equivalent of a lieu-dit) prior to the establishment of official crus.  They already labelled them with their own, often historical family name for their plot of land, or a nome di fantasia – a fantasy name.  As was the case with Alsace originally (i.e.: before the Grand Crus were introduced) there is not a classification of these MGAs into quality strata: they are a geographical indication only.  The MGAs are a very recent administrative and legal addition to the overall wine culture here – a culture that, like Alsace, included single-vineyard wines piecemeal, rather than through a structural framework as was the case in Burgundy.  Here in Piemonte the single vineyard wines cropped up and prospered for a number of reasons, some cultural, some no doubt political, and some economic.  But there was never an official pyramid of quality among these vineyards.  Put another way, the Langhe lacks ‘a long-hatched hierarchy of the better and the best vineyards in the manner of the Côte d’Or.’   The MGAs are an attempt to introduce a structure to this aspect of the developing wine scene and culture here, as were the Grand Crus in Alsace.  They are not a 6-century old infallible hierarchy of quality as they might be in Burgundy.

The matter of the multiplicity of grape varieties should be considered in this context as well as from a winemaking standpoint.  Once again, in Burgundy, if I have a grand cru vineyard, a premier cru vineyard a village vineyard and one just outside the village boundary, I nevertheless have 4 vineyards with Pinot Noir.

In Alsace, in my grand cru vineyard, I am permitted to plant Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris and Muscat if I want Grand Cru on the label.  But, unlike in Burgundy – unsurprisingly – in Alsace, these grand cru vineyards often have a combination of these varieties planted.  Indeed, in addition to this, some Grand Cru-classed vineyards also have non-Grand Cru varieties, such as the Auxerrois used for the Auxerrois ‘H’ by Josmeyer.  As Jean Meyer said, how do you know how good a variety can be unless you plant it in your best sites?

In Barolo and Barbaresco, it was always the way that your vineyard had more than one variety in it: Nebbiolo in the absolute best plot, Dolcetto and Barbera elsewhere.  In Verduno, Diego Morra has 1 ha of Pelaverga in Monvigliero – how do you know how good Pelaverga can be if you don’t put it in the best sites?

This may seem an academic and pedantic point, since I’m not allowed Cabernet Franc or Grenache, for example, in Clos de Vougeot.  But that is entirely the point here, however pedantic, for I think it goes to the heart of the wine culture of a region.  The culture in Burgundy does not have the element of co-planting different varieties in the same, even magnificent, vineyard in the way it does in the Langhe.  Or in Alsace.  And I would argue that having not only different varieties, but having them side-by-side in the same vineyards, produces a different growing and winemaking mentality and resultant culture: in Burgundy, because you have taken the variable of the grape variety out of the equation, terroir becomes not the main thing, but the only thing.  With the result that the winegrowing cultures in Alsace and the Langhe are closer to each other than they are between Alsace and Burgundy or Burgundy and the Langhe.

Comparing the red wines produced from Dijon to Beaune with those from the 15 villages able to produce either Barolo or Barbaresco has much validity – in terms of the wines themselves, and the nature of the vineyard holdings and producers.  But any discussion of the two regions never stops at Pinot Noir & Nebbiolo.

The assertion that Piemonte is Italy’s Burgundy is always underlined by drawing attention not only to the fact that both regions make single-variety reds with the emphasis on the ethereal, aromatic complexity and a feeling for the earth where they were born.  It is also emphasised that both regions are based on small, family-owned estates where the owner very often also drives the tractor in the scattered plots and then makes the wine themselves.

As soon as we invoke the ‘small, family-run estates, scattered plots, owner also the grower and winemaker’ comparisons, though, we have opened the argument up well beyond the narrow confines of Pinot Noir- and Nebbiolo-based wines.  We are now talking about the whole culture of the region, where the wines fit within their respective wine cultures and maybe even the geography and topography of each.

If we look beyond simply the colour of the wine, and consider the overall region and its culture and winemaking traditions, Alsace appears to mirror the Langhe in more ways than Burgundy does, from it’s more humble, farming beginnings, through the dominance of one colour over another to the multiplicity of grapes.

It is the yang to our yin.

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