This post is the second instalment of my exciting two-part guide to the wine regions, grapes and wines of Piemonte, with the focus on the Langhe, Roero and Monferrato, since that’s where I live. In this post, I am going to look at the principal wines of the Langhe, Roero and Monferrato. The partner post looking at the regions and grapes of Piemonte is here. And there is always the Wine page on the site with a much skimpier overview of everything: it’s worth checking out, though, as it has information about Byrne Vini – my winemaking project – and the wines I have available for you to buy!
PIEMONTESE WINE – The Wines Themselves
In Piemonte, as elsewhere, the classification system – not only in terms of quality (from a perceived or legal perspective) – revolves around where the wine is grown, with the regulations stemming from that. All manner of stipulations are made based on the traditional practices of the region.
In Piemonte, we label our wines, rather helpfully, by either the grape variety or the region or a combination of both – there is no fixed rule. As it is not immediately clear from the label whether a name refers to the region or the grape variety, I will identify them below.
In keeping with Italian wine law, Piemonte has table wines (now called Vino Rosso, Vino Rosato and Vino Bianco) D.O.C. wines and D.O.C.G. wines. There is a fourth category, I.G.T. (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) but Piemonte has foregone that, so we do not have any wines with that classification in Piemonte.
Legally speaking – and from the perspective of regulations, though not necessarily quality – the system has Table Wines (older examples may have Vino da Tavola on the label, rather than Vino Rosso) at the base, followed by I.G.T., then D.O.C. and finally D.O.C.G.
D.O.C. stands for Denominazione d’Origine Controllata, or Controlled Denomination of Origin. This means that the wines are subject to quite strict controls over what grapes can be used, in what proportions, where they are grown, how much wine you can make per unit land area, and possibly ageing requirements as well.
D.O.C.G. means Denominazione d’Origine Controllata e Garantita. In other words, Controlled and Guaranteed Denomination of Origin. Personally, I can’t see what the ‘control’ of the D.O.C. does if it offers no guarantee of anything, but there you go. I also don’t really see why two upper quality tiers are needed: France has a decent reputation for its top wines and they all fall under the A.O.C. or A.O.P. banner. I suppose you could argue that D.O.C. and D.O.C.G. are the equivalent of Premier Cru and Grand Cru in France, but the French terms refer to vineyards (except in the Champagne region, where they classify entire villages as Grand or Premier Cru, which is clearly a nonsense. And don’t get me started on their yields…) whereas in Piemonte, they are entire regions.
I have heard the theory put forward that the rules are more strict for D.O.C.G. wines than D.O.C. ones. Whilst this is superficially true – yields for Barbaresco are lower than for Langhe Nebbiolo, for example – in reality this is a bit of a red herring, since it is not possible to make a wine with the same name but a different status (D.O.C. or D.O.C.G.) depending upon which rules you followed.
More plausible is the argument that D.O.C.G. is reserved for the most typical or traditional wines of the area – so in Barolo, Barolo is a D.O.C.G., since this is the traditional wine of the region, while Barbera wines grown in the region are Barbera d’Alba D.O.C. In Diano d’Alba and Dogliani, where Dolcetto is the traditional wine, they have been elevated to D.O.C.G. while Nebbiolo based wines made there are Langhe Nebbiolo or Nebbiolo d’Alba – both D.O.C.s.
For more information about the regions and grapes, click here!
BAROLO & BARBARESCO – D.O.C.G. regions rather than grape varieties. I’m going to say it – these are the finest wines in Piemonte.
Barbaresco – 100% Nebbiolo grape, grown on predominantly south-facing slopes. The region is south of the river Tanaro in the communes of Barbaresco, Neive, Treiso and San Rocco Seno d’Elvio. Barbaresco village’s vineyards are the lowest (on average) and the closest to the river, which can have a surprising influence on the micro-climate here. Neive has slightly higher vineyards that tend to produce more perfumed wines with firmer tannins. Treiso has the highest vineyards of all, with a little more exposure and cooler nights. This leads to thicker skins and some extra structure. A slight maritime influence and lower elevation means harvest in Barbaresco is typically around 10 days earlier than in Barolo (again, this is an average – there are always some producers who pick earlier and some later).
There are around 200 winemakers who can produce Barbaresco and production is around 4.5 million bottles annually (another average…). The largest two producers of Barbaresco, Produttori del Barbaresco (500,000 bottles) and Gaja (300,000 bottles) produce almost 20% of the region’s total.
The regulations require a minimum of 12.5% alcohol and 26 months total ageing of which 9 months must be in wood – in truth, I don’t think anyone does just 9 months, and plenty of producers will do 2 years or more in wood. Similarly, Barbaresco under 13.5% alcohol is a rarity. Wines designated Riserva require 2 more years ageing, but there is no requirement for any extra time in wood. Interestingly – or perhaps not, unless you’re like I am – though time in wood is specified, the type and size of barrels are not: you can use 100 litre barrels or 1 million litre barrels if you like (and have enough wine for that – no-one does…). You can also use chestnut, acacia and cherry wood if you want to, since these were traditional once upon a time. No-one really uses anything except oak.
Characteristic aromas and flavours are roses/violets, cherries and other red fruits and berries, liquorice and tar. There is generally good acidity and plenty of tannin in young wines.
Single vineyard, or Cru, wines are now ubiquitous (called M.G.A.s here – Menzione Geografica Aggiuntiva) and Barbaresco has around 70 legally defined M.G.A.s, the name of which can appear on the label. This is similar in concept to the Cru system in Burgundy, but without the hierarchy of quality – there is no Grand Cru or Premier Cru vineyard classification in Barbaresco. Yet.
Barolo – No more than 10 miles away you encounter the splendour of the hillside villages of Barolo. Like Barbaresco the wines are made exclusively from Nebbiolo and are subject to similar rules but everything is more. A minimum of 18 months in wood and 38 months total ageing. The wines are usually offered in the 4th year following the vintage i.e. the 2008 was available in 2012. Riservas require 60 months ageing, and, as with Barbaresco, no extra time in wood is required. Again, barrel size and type of wood are not specified.
The vineyards are on average slightly higher in elevation than Barbaresco, resulting in a later harvest time (on average – always that caveat). Between the vineyards of Barolo and the river Tanaro there is a barrier of hills which separates the region from the influence of the river. Barolo and Barbaresco are close physically, but the topography and the relative proximity of the river mean that in any given year, the weather can be quite different in each region. Looking at the tower of Barbaresco from La Morra, it doesn’t seem possible that one region could have half as much rain as the other, and suffer no hail, while the other region had 3 hail storms in some places. And yet in 2014, that was exactly the case.
Barolo has perhaps 600 hundred producers, making around 13.5 million bottles annually. The largest 6 or 7 producers, such as Terre del Barolo, Fontanafredda, Batasiolo, Vite Colte, account for perhaps 6 million bottles.
Generally Barolos have more notable tannins in youth and are more muscular and longer-lived than their Barbaresco counterparts but Barbaresco tends to provide more elegance. There are 11 villages that can make Barolo: Barolo itself, Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga d’Alba, Cherasco, Diano d’Alba, Grinzane Cavour, La Morra, Monforte d’Alba, Novello, Roddi, Verduno. Usually harvested in October. Like Barbaresco, wines wholly from a specific Cru can show the name of the site on the label.
ROERO – D.O.C.G. region for both red and white wines.
If it just says Roero on the label, it’s red made from Nebbiolo, though the production rules are not quite clear whether that’s 100% or 95% minimum (I have seen both in the regulations…). The soils in the Roero tend to be sandier than in the Langhe, with the result that the wines have less structure. On average…Roero reds can be wonderful introductions to Nebbiolo, and the Riservas, especially, can be complex, perfumed wines capable of some ageing, and usually with a less ‘assertive’ price-tag than their Langhe counterparts.
If it says Roero Arneis, then it’s a white made from 100% Arneis grapes. About 6 million bottles of Arneis are produced annually. It tends to have a white-blossom and pear character, with a slightly almondy finish. Excellent with lighter, spring and summer dishes.
NEBBIOLO – Grape variety.
I’m putting this in since, though I have just detailed 3 Nebbiolo regions, the grape is used to make other wines such as Nebbiolo d’Alba D.O.C. (100% Nebbiolo, with at least 1 year in wood) and Langhe Nebbiolo D.O.C. (minimum 85% Nebbiolo, no wood-ageing required). These wines are usually made from younger vines and/or vineyards outside Barbaresco and Barolo, in a more approachable style. They offer an introduction to the grape and the region in much the same way as a Bourgogne Rouge might hint at the splendours of Gevrey-Chambertin. Usually they have bright red fruits and a fresh plate with perhaps a hint of wood ageing.
Also, this being Italy, where almost every region also has a ‘can be spumante’ clause in the rules, you can get Langhe Nebbiolo and Nebbiolo d’Alba made as fizz. Sparkling Nebbiolos can be terrific – it is our Pinot Noir, after all, and that does ok in bubbly wines (despite those yields I mentioned earlier) …
BARBERA – Grape variety. Barbera d’Asti and Nizza are both D.O.C.G.s. Barbera d’Alba and Piemonte Barbera are D.O.C.s. There are some others, too, which are usually D.O.C.s – though Barbera del Monferrato Superiore is a D.O.C.G.
Given its ubiquity in Piemonte, I’m not going to write every rule here. Suffice to say that this wine can be anything from a ‘novello’ style, fresh and fruity, released in November after the harvest, to a ‘Superiore’, which has spent at least 6 months in oak. A lot of Barbera in the Asti and Monferrato areas used to be frizzante – frothy – but that style is dying out now.
Barbera is almost the cheese to Nebbiolo’s chalk: it has plenty of colour, where Nebbiolo is much more pale (if you’ve had a Nebbiolo that has been inky-black, it’s been doped); it is very upfront-fruity, where Nebbiolo is all about the perfume and the ethereal; it has almost no tannins; it has a certain confidence in its acidity.
There are some very serious, age-worthy wines made from Barbera – considered a drink-it-young variety traditionally. Scarpa, a producer in Nizza Monferrato, in Barbera’s heartland, makes 2 different single-vineyard Barberas, both of which age 3 years in wood and 2 in bottle before release. (As an aside, their Ruchè – labelled Rouchet for legal reasons related to where it is grown – has me thinking that we might have to revise our opinion significantly upwards regarding the quality of this grape.) These wines can be terrific after 20 years, and remind me of old-school Rioja in the López de Heredia mould. Giacomo Bologna is on the flip-side, making barrique-aged wines in the ‘modern’ style: usually denser, darker, higher alcohol. Opposites, but just as good in a different idiom.
Nizza is a new-ish D.O.C.G. that might be considered a Barbera equivalent of ‘Classico’ in Chianti: smaller area, stricter rules.
DOLCETTO – Grape variety.
The name Dolcetto means the little sweet one. The wines are not usually sweet though – I have only ever seen 2 sweet Dolcetto wines (both rather good). The name either refers to the grape (as opposed to the wine) or the hills where it was traditionally grown, known in local dialect as Ducet, and mis-translated into Italian as Dolcetto. If it is the former, however, then it is because the Dolcetto grape falls between the chewy, high tannin Nebbiolo and the sharp acidity of Barbera – so it was the sweet spot of the three.
Dolcetto was traditionally the Langhe’s everyday drinking wine, on the table all day, more or less – though that is also dying out now, given that we no longer really drink wine either because the water is not healthy, or because we need the calories. Diano, Dogliani and Ovada have their own D.O.C.G.s for 100% Dolcetto wines (but beware, Dolcetto d’Ovada is a D.O.C., while Dolcetto d’Ovada Superiore – or simply Ovada – is a D.O.C.G. Keep it simple for the consumer…). Dolcetto d’Alba is a D.O.C.
Dolcetto has a purple-violet colour and a notable cherry aroma reminiscent of Beaujolais. The fruit is very cherry-red on the palate and there is usually some tannin and a slightly bitter finish to the wine. If I’m being opinionated – and I said I’d bung in my opinions earlier – Dolcetto is usually my 3rd choice of grape variety if I’m choosing a local red to have.
GAVI – D.O.C.G. region for white wine only.
On the route between Milan and the Ligurian Riviera, Gavi is picturesque, close to the Mediterranean, and makes some lovely wines from the Cortese grape. As a grape – and hence, as a wine – Cortese (which means courteous) is somewhat neutral: you would never mistake it for a Muscat or a Gewurztraminer, for example. It gives wines, usually fermented and aged in steel, with freshness and gentle aromas and flavours which make it an ideal match with all kinds of dishes while you’re outside, chatting with friends as you eat. There are, of course, very good examples made. But they don’t rival white Burgundy, for example, in the way that the great reds of Piemonte do with red Burgundy.
There is also very good Champagne-method sparkling wine made in Gavi.
ASTI & MOSCATO D’ASTI
This is Asti as a D.O.C.G. (meaning, in the eyes of Italian wine law, it is qualitatively the equal of Barolo) as distinct from d’Asti as a wine region, such as for Barbera as above. Apparently, in 2004, Asti was Italy’s largest appellation-controlled wine region – for the sweet, fizzy spumante wine, which had ‘spumante’ dropped from its name in a bid to improve the quality image of the wine. I would have thought improving the quality of the wine would be the way to go there, but what do I know? – in terms of production with approximately 88 million bottles produced. However, that other ubiquitous Italian pop, I mean sparkling wine, Prosecco, had a production of around 150 million bottles in 2008. In the space of 10 years, this had quadrupled to 600 million bottles in 2018. Insanity.
Anyway, I digress.
Asti D.O.C.G. is made from 100% Moscato Bianco grapes and is usually to be found with around 7-8% alcohol, notable sweetness and the fizz of Champagne, though not the quality (and I’ll stick by that – see above for reasoning). They recently introduced an Asti Secco, with around 12% alcohol and no sweetness. It’s different, I suppose…
Don’t bother with either and go straight for Moscato d’Asti D.O.C.G. instead. Again 100% Moscato Bianco, with lower alcohol – 5.5% is the maximum – and lower pressure (2.5 atmospheres). This is a different, albeit superficially similar, kettle of fish – Salmon instead of Salmon Trout. Get a good one (Moscato d’Asti that is) from a smaller producer and they’re great, with a zip of acidity to balance that sugar (like those classic German Rieslings). They are terrific with a full-English style breakfast. Or just out in the sun on a warm day.
LANGHE BIANCO, ROSATO & ROSSO – D.O.C.s
We now have three categories for wines that would have fallen outside the traditional boundaries and classifications of the area. A Langhe Bianco might come from a single grape variety that is or was not on the officially approved list to carry the grape name in addition to ‘Langhe’ on the label, or it may be a blend of different varieties. Ettore Germano, a producer in Serralunga d’Alba, makes both a Langhe Riesling that was once upon a time a Langhe Bianco and a Langhe Bianco that is a blend of Chardonnay and Riesling.
Langhe Rosato and Langhe Rosso follow much the same idea, for differently-coloured wines.
So that was a look just at the wines around Alba and Asti. Piemonte has many others, some made with the same varieties as those covered above, some with obscure local varieties, some with a combination of these and/or international varieties such as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and so on.
When we consider the range of regions, grape varieties and styles produced here, it really is mind-boggling: other than fortified wine, there is just about every type and style produced here.
Just one of the many reasons why I live in Piemonte. Wine may have been the reason I came, but I stay for so much more.
In the end, though, it always comes back to the wine…
And the best way to try these wines is to come to the region itself, of course!