Lesson 14 – Northwest Italy

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Sommelier School

Lesson 14 – Northwest Italy


OK, so now that we’ve established some general terms and information about Italy, It’s time to get more specific. This week we start with Northwest Italy. This is the region that includes the Piemonte (Piedmont) region. There are a few other areas here, but Piemonte is the best known. I will focus on the most important this week and at least mention the others.

Piemonte means “foot-hills” in Italian. And this area is at the foot of the Alps. Nestled between the Alps to the North and the Ligurian Sea to the South. The main areas of importance here are Piedmont itself, Lombardy, Liguria, and Valle d’Aosta.  For our purposes, however, we will only concentrate on Piemonte.

Northwest Italy does have quite a bit of differences within it as far as climate, elevation, soil, etc. However a few commonalities exist. First, the climate can be quite hot in the summer. Winters are especially severe. Hail is a big concern during the harvest as was responsible for one of their worst vintages in  recent history in 2002. Second, the soil overall is a calcareous marl. Within this sand and clay may be evident.

Being that this area stretches from the Alps to the sea, all sorts of elevations are present. Some vineyards are as high as 4,265ft in the Valle d’Aosta. Much of the Piemonte area is in the 400-1200ft range. And, of course, elevations are lower as you get nearer to the sea.

Let’s talk about the big dog, Piemonte. This part of Italy encompasses many DOCs and DOCGs. It can be confusing to sort out all of them on a map as many seem to overlap the other. There are 45 DOCs alone here and 12 DOCGs. Below is a list of some of them

  • DOCG Barolo
  • DOCG Barbaresco
  • DOC Barbera d’Alba
  • DOC Barbera d’Asti
  • DOC Dolcetto d’Alba
  • DOC Dolcetto d’Asti
  • DOC Dolcetto di Diano d’Alba
  • DOCG Dolcetto de Dogliani
  • DOC Grignolino d’Asti
  • DOC Grignolino del Monferrato Casalese
  • DOC Nebbiolo d’Alba
  • DOCG Roero
  • DOCG Roero Arneis
  • DOCG Asti
  • DOCG Moscato d’Asti
  • DOC Nebbiolo d’Alba
  • DOC Langhe
  • DOCG Brachetto d’Acqui
  • DOCG Gattinara
  • DOCG Ghemme

Of these DOCs and DOCGs the most well known are Barolo and Barbaresco. After that Asti, Moscato d’Asti, Alba, and the Dolcettos are the next best known.

Let’s tackle Barolo and Barbaresco. Both areas use the Nebbiolo varietal that is native to Italy. This grape seems to have gotten its name from the word nebbia which means fog in the Piemonte dialect. This fog occurs during the harvest which is typically in October. Both DOCGs also have a minimum of 12.5% alcohol. For Barolo the wine must be aged for at least 3 years, 2 in wood. For Barbaresco it is two years, one in wood. Riserva for each DOCG has a different regulation for aging. Barolo is 5 years while Barbaresco is 4.

Even though Barolo and Barbaresco are about 10 miles from each other, they produce different enough styles of wine. Barolo is considered one of Italy’s greatest wines. Big, bold, and tannic, wines from this area need time to mature and soften. 

Traditionally winemakers here would store their wines in oak casks and only bottle as they sold the wine. This resulted in wines that were not consistent in quality within a vintage. However, it also allows the wine to continue to mature before being bottled. In addition to this, many winemakers would have extended periods of maceration (remember that’s when the skins stay in contact with the juice). They also would allow fermentation to last a long time.

Then in the 1980s a group of winemakers decided to follow the worldwide trends of more approachable wines that were more fruit-forward and not so tannic. This resulted in two different styles. These “new style” wines have shorter periods of maceration, fermentation, and aging. They are also bottled at the same time after fermentation rather than “as needed.”

Either way, Barolo wines have the ability to last 20 years or more. And most should be drank at least 5-8 years after the vintage. These are also fairly expensive wines. Bottle prices of $40-100 are not uncommon, so you probably won’t see any on 1337 Wine TV anytime soon.

Barbaresco however tends to be a more approachable wine. The Nebbiolo grape tends to ripen a little bit sooner. This means there is less time needed for maceration and fermentation in general. The tannins in Barbaresco wines soften much sooner than Barolos so they can be drank earlier. This also means that they won’t age as long as a Barolo, but they can still age up to 20 years. Barbaresco also produces less than 40% of the output of Barolo. Even so, these wines are no slouches and also command prices of $40-100 or more.

Let’s move on to Asti. For many years, Asti was associated with Asti Spumante. That sparkling wine from Italy we all have seen at low prices. The name has been associated with cheap (in both price and quality) wines over the years. Because of this, the official DOCG is just Asti now. Remember that spumante is Italian for sparkling wine.

In this area, you have several DOCs and DOCGs that have Asti as part of their name. From Barbera (not to be confused with Barbaresco), to Nebbiolo, to Moscato, to Dolcetto, etc. And each of the ones I just named are the actual grape varietals used. For the regular Asti DOCG, the Moscato Bianco varietal is used. Asti should be a sweet sparkling wine rather than the dry style of Champagne. They also use a method called cuve close for the second fermentation. This is done in large tanks rather than the bottle.

Another well known wine from this area is the DOCG Moscato d’Asti. This also uses the Moscato Bianco varietal. These wine are sweet too. However, they are not spumante; rather they are still, frizzante, or frizzantino with the last two meaning different levels of fizz. Frizzantino is very lightly “fizzy.” These wines also typically have a lower alcohol level than Asti. They are normally in the range of 5.5-8% whereas Asti is normally 7.5-9%. They are also usually sweeter wines.

OK, so on to some more stuff within Piemonte. Besides the Nebbiolo and Moscato Bianco varietals, there are a few others to become familiar with:

  • Barbera
  • Dolcetto
  • Arneis

There are some others, but I will just cover these three.

Barbera is a widely grown grape throughout the region. Accounting for almost half of the plantings in Piemonte. Since it is a somewhat “mass-grown” varietal, it doesn’t enjoy the same kind of status symbol as Nebbiolo. However, wines made from this varietal, especially in the Barbera d’Alba DOCG are of excellent quality. Barbera d’Asti DOCG wines are also excellent and more widely available as they produce more than those of Alba.

Dolcetto is a wine that has a somewhat deceptive name. While the grape itself does match the name for being sweet, the wines are typically dry. In fact, it’s most similar to Beaujolais even though it’s a bit more tannic and drier. Like mentioned about, there are a few areas that make Dolcetto like Dolcetto d’Alba DOC, Dolcetto de Dogliani DOCG, etc. If it hasn’t been apparent by now, there are varietal appellations at work here. Once the name of a district has been added, they are elevated to a DOC or DOCG to indicate that they are coming from a specific region and better quality. At least in theory.

Arneis is a fairly forgotten white varietal that was almost extinct. I mention it for mostly historical reason. It was a widely used grape to blend with Nebbiolo to help soften Barolos. Over time it was phased out in favor of 100% Nebbiolo wines. In the early 1970s it was resurrected as a white wine. It is grown in the Roero area and has a DOC status.

Another white you may encounter is Gavi or Cortese di Gavi DOCG. This is made from the Cortese varietal found in the Gavi area. Gavi is in the southeastern part of the Piemonte region about 50 miles southeast of Asti by car. These wines are known for their dryness and acidity.

Lastly we’ll cover Gattinara and Ghemme. These are two areas across the Sesia River in the Northeastern part of Piemonte. These wines are both made from the Nebbiolo varietal. Both are also allowed to have up to 10% Bonarda (another Italian red varietal found in Piemonte), and up to 4% Vespolina (yet another Piemonte red varietal). Between the two, Gattinara is considered the better of the two.

OK, that’s going to wrap it up for this week. The main things to take away from here are remembering Barolo and Barbaresco being the top wines in the Piemonte area. And that they are made with the Nebbiolo varietal. Also remember the wines of Asti, and wines made from Barbera and Dolcetto. These are what you will most likely encounter. Knowing the rest if icing on the cake!

Thanks again for watching another week. Hopefully I’ll get this back on track to be out on Thursday night or Friday mornings. I’m still getting used to my new schedule and coordinating it with my responsibilities to all of you and 1337 Wine. Next will be Northeast Italy!

Mark V. Fusco

Aspiring Sommelier in Training


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