About the region
Boasting the highest number of quality DOC and DOCG regions in the country, Piedmont was considered one of the most noble wine regions when the Romans still had an Empire. Two thousand years later, the finest aged Nebbiolo from Barolo and Barbaresco continue to make wine-lovers weep. Hugely tannic in youth with masses of acidity, bottle age provides ethereal reds with a haunting scent and countless layers of complexity.
Meaning foot of the mountains, Piedmont lives up to its name: surrounded on three sides by mountains and with the ski resorts of the Alps towering above the hillside vineyards, it’s cold in winter, but the summers are warm and dry with cool autumns in which the vineyards are often shrouded in mist.
Barolo and Barbaresco are situated either side of the town of Alba – Barbaresco directly to the northeast and Barolo to the southwest. Although there are more similarities than there are differences, understanding Barolo and Barbaresco is a lifetime’s work. Nebbiolo is very sensitive and offers as much site specificity as Pinot Noir in the Côte d’Or. The country’s Ministry of Agriculture recognised 170 vineyard areas in Barolo at the last count. Add hundreds of growers to the mix and it provides a complex and bewildering array of styles and quality.
The wines are typically pale ruby in colour with grippy tannins, high acidity and a flavour profile of red cherry, mulberry, camphor and rose petal. The grape’s almost transparent character – similar to Pinot Noir – produces many nuanced styles, flavours and aromas from the most delicate and floral to the most structured and mineral and everywhere in between. It is this complex variety within such a small region that makes the grape and the varying communes of Piedmont so interesting.
Barbaresco’s climate is more affected by the close proximity of the River Tanaro, making the climate warmer than Barolo, despite the vineyards being at roughly the same altitude between 200 and 450 metres above sea-level. The warmer climate sees a shorter ripening season in Barbaresco and therefore more consistency across vintages. Barolo’s slightly cooler micro-climate brings a longer ripening season and is therefore more sensitive to vintage variation. Typically, Barbaresco is described as producing a more “feminine” style of Nebbiolo, more elegant and aromatic, and historically more approachable in its youth.
Beyond Barolo and Barbaresco, there are a handful of other high-quality enclaves for Nebbiolo across Piedmont – including Valmaggiore (24km north of Barolo) and the cooler sites of Gattinara and Ghemme known as Alto Piedmont. The wines from the best producers of these less fashionable locales can offer amazing value: nowhere, however, can produce Nebbiolo with the level of complexity and age-worthiness of Barolo and Barbaresco.
Although Nebbiolo leads the pack, Piedmont is not planted to just one variety. Barbera (most notably from the two DOCGs of Barbera d’Asti and Barbera del Monferatto Superiore) is actually the most planted variety in the region and offers joyful, juicy fruit, low tannins and crunchy acidity. Other important white varieties of the region are Arneis grown in Roero and Moscato (the earlier ripening floral variety grown throughout Langhe) typically used to make lightly sparkling wines of Asti and Mocasto d’Asti.
Crisp Gavi, a white wine made from the otherwise unheralded Cortese grape, is also found here, alongside the Arneis grape (grown in Roero) and Mocato – typically used to make the sweet, sparkling and low-in-alcohol Moscato d’Asti.