Piedmont, in northwestern Italy, is home to some truly remarkable red wines. The Langhe hills are its heart; the city of Alba is its enological epicenter. Although Piedmont is nearly as famous for its truffles as for its wines, two of its reds, Barolo and Barbaresco, rank among the world's most sought after bottles. Both wines are made from Nebbiolo, the region's star grape. Yet, as with all divas, Nebbiolo can be quite temperamental--low yielding and late ripening, often requiring long aging to tame its fierce tannins.
Barolo and Barbaresco are made in different microclimates, each of which has its own distinct terrain and soil, or, as the French (and even the Italians) say, terroir. Barolo comes from five major communes southwest of Alba, where the hills are, for the most part, higher and steeper than those of Barbaresco, a smaller region northeast of the city. Barbaresco's climate is warmer and drier than Barolo's, so its grapes ripen earlier and generally result in a more accessible, less tannic wine. Barolo's grapes generally ripen later and producea wine with a bigger structure and tannins that are more difficult to tone down, requiring patience on the part of both the vintner (who must age the wine for two years in wood and one year in bottle) and the buyer.
Growers in Piedmont also widely plant two other, less important grapes, Barbera and Dolcetto, in vineyards not suitable for Nebbiolo. This has resulted, until recently, in some pretty indifferent wines. But now winemakers in both the Alba and Asti areas have recognized Barbera's and Dolcetto's potential and have lowered their yields and increased their wines' concentration, all to improve quality.