Italian wine has adopted an unfortunate reputation as “classic,” which to many wine drinkers translates to boring and inaccessible. And while the Italians inarguably stand as one of the longest and largest producers of international quality wines, their potential to modernize and shake things up for millennial drinkers are finally beginning to surface among consumers. In the same way fashion, food, and music seem to be driven as much by fad as by the content of the product itself, so too do certain wines from certain regions fall in and out of trend. And luckily for us, Piedmont is coming back in style!
Covering the most northwesterly corner of Italy, Piedmont, or Piemonte in Italian, literally translates to “foot of the mountains,” as it sits nestled cool and self-contained in bosom of the French and Swiss Alps. Vintners of Piedmont are known for their serious, prudent, and diligent winemaking practices, which have solidified their #1 spot as the leading producer of DOC/DOCG wines (the highest quality ranking) in Italy for centuries. Identifying more with the French in terms of viticulture and style, Piedmont’s wines yield honest, site-specific wines that are made from a number of 100% single grape varieties cultivated almost exclusively within the region’s boarders. In a country where blended wines are the norm and mass, million case producers are common, most Piedmont wineries remain small, family run, own merely 5-25 acres on average.
Much like Burgundy the quality and subsequent prices of Piedmont wines vary vastly, from every day drinkers and extraordinary hidden values to high-end artisan bottles that will unlikely ever pass my lips.
But the beauty of Piedmont’s classic, true-to-their-heritage wines is that “down-home” is back in style. And not just with wine!
A trend that I’ve delightfully heard branded as the “Era of Trust Fund Hipsters,” has brought denim back into fashion and country cooking back to the table, but all with a progressive twist. So if rustic is stylish and bacon and brussels sprouts the new haut-cuisine, then Piedmont is what all the cool kids should be drinking. Hearty and down-home by nature, many Piedmont producers have taken technological and oenological leaps to make the monstrous, meant-to-age red wines from this region more affordable and enjoyable in youth. Because the only thing worse than a fad you can’t afford is one without immediate accessibility. Patience is not a virtue among trust fund hipsters.
Let’s take a look at some of Piedmont’s classics.
White wise, the local Cortese and Arneis grapes lead the way for Piedmont. The Cortese grape, which will almost always be labeled as Gavi, the village in which is made, is bone-dry and crisp, with citrus and mineral flavors that will satisfy committed Sauv Blanc drinkers. Its other local counterpart, one of my favorite Italian whites, is Arneis. Translating to “little rascal,” Arneis is tricky to cultivate because of its thick skins and naturally low acidity, but its lively aromatics and typically fleshier body make it a treat for white wine drinkers, from newbies to professionals.
Piedmont’s real glory, however, comes from its four primary indigenous reds: Dolcetto, Barbera, Barbaresco, and Barolo. From lightest and brightest to biggest and badass, each of these wines plays its own role at the Piedmont table. Dolcetto, a light, almost gulpable juicy wine, is inexpensive and perfect to chill, pop, and pour all on its own. Barbera, Piedmont’s best everyday food wine, is the region’s most planted grape variety. An exotic, Old World alternative to Pinot Noir, Barbera has enough elegance for a Milan runway, a sassy spice capable of catching closed-minded foreigners’ attention, and familiar red fruit flavors to appease any Pinot drinker. Disclaimer for Barbera: the acid can be bracingly high, so they’re best drunk with food (as are most Italian wines)!
The big boys, though, the wines definitive of Piedmont’s power and prestige as a top-tier winemaking region, are Barbaresco and Barolo. Both wines made 100% from the local Nebbiolo grape, these two fraternal twins are differentiated solely based on their adjacent hometowns of Barbaresco and Barolo. Known as the “Wine of Queens” and the “Wine of Kings,” respectively, both have been cherished by European aristocracy for centuries as some of the most dynamic, age worthy wines in the world. Deceivingly light in color with delicate red fruit and seductive floral aromatics, these wines pack enough tannic punch and rowdy leather/tar flavors to make espresso drinkers flinch. Though as the King and Queen titles indicate, Barbarescos promise a slightly more gentle experience – aged less, drunk earlier, priced lower, and polished with comparatively smoother edges. But this inherent dichotomy of a ball-buster behind a silk robe is exactly the elusive character complexity that keeps consumers hanging onto Italy by a Piedmontese thread.
A great Barolo is heart-warming and hand-slapping, austere and robust in the mouth but caressing and lingering in the mind. A passive aggressive siren capturing the hearts of both traditional and hip drinkers the world over.
Discover a few producers loved by Food & Wine Magazine.
As well as two I’ve singled out recently:
Elio Filippino, a second generation family of growers turned vintners, the Filippino’s export a very marginal amount of their production, which focuses on quality, value examples of traditional Piedmont varietals. Sourcing from 25 acres just outside of Alba, Filippino produces 13 different bottlings with the help of his mother, sister, and wife.
Elio Filippino Arneis 2012 – DOC Piemonte – $16
- Chalky limestone with fresh tropical fruit and peach flavors; round and fleshy in the mouth with a surprisingly sharp, flinty finish
- Young, cute, and flirtatious, but will cut you off without question if you try to go past second base
Elio Filippino Castiglione Falleto 2009 – DOCG Piemonte – $45
- Spectacular aromatics of sour cherry, rose petals, bitter chocolate and espresso; body is overall silky and bright for a Barolo with young, ambitious tannins that will settle down with a little decanting; a lovely, varietally correct and affordable introduction to Barolo
- Certainly the musical’s leading lady in high-school, though her beauty and grace may not be enough to sustain a Broadway career
Ceretto Wines, a third generation winery founded over eighty years ago by Bruno and Marcello Ceretto, known then as “The Barolo Brothers,” now own nearly 400 acres in the Piedmont region and dominate production with over 1 million bottles per year. Subsequently, Ceretto wines will be more widely distributed but higher in price.
- White peach, soft green apples, and limestone; flowy, full body with ripe warm fruit and zingy minerality and white pepper sass
- Innocent and pure, but down to dance dirty; “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.”
Ceretto Bricco Rocche Brunate Barolo 2008 – DOCG Piemonte – $100
- Poached black cherry, dark chocolate raspberry, dried roses, spicy orange zest, and thick, freshly laid
asphalt; epitome of Barolo’s “tar & roses” profile; all these flavors intertwine in a complex tug-of-war in the glass with long, sculpted tannins and a dark espresso finish
- As enchantingly manic as Jennifer Lawrence in the dysfunctional Silver Linings Playbook