The premier wine region of Italy is the pinnacle of both innovation and tradition.
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.
Piedmont is a region in the midst of much change. Many of its winemakers are exploring new techniques, while others continue on the more traditional path. But thanks to a string of great vintage years, all are turning out exceptional wines. In short, there is much to look forward to from the Langhe hills.
THE NEW, REFINED BARBERAS
Although rustic Barbera was grown nearly everywhere in Piedmont, it never got much respect. Until, that is, the late Giacomo Bologna of Braida in Asti made wine from old-vine Barberas and aged them in barriques. This gave his Barberas more body and richness, removed the rough edges and added appealing notes of vanilla. Bologna's first wine was the now famous Bricco dell'Uccellone in 1982, followed by Bricco della Bigotta in 1985. Bologna's widow, Anna, enologist daughter Raffaella and agronomist son Giuseppe are driven by the same fervor. Says Raffaella, "We're grafted to his vision. We believe in Barbera." They've purchased and planted new vineyards, including one with Pinot Noir to make Il Bacialé (or The Matchmaker), a marriage of Barbera and Pinot Noir. The rest of the region has finally begun to catch up, with scores of other producers giving their Barberas similar treatment. Look for more barrique-aged Barberas from the Alba region, and lustier wines from the locale of Asti, especially the following: Coppo Barbera d'Asti Camp du Rouss, Il Mongetto Barbera d'Asti Vigneto Guera and Villa Giada Barbera d'Asti Bricco Dani.
Traditional producers in Piedmont speak the dialect of the region. That is, they still adhere to old-style winemaking methods, though they might blend these with new techniques, such as temperature-controlled fermentation. Traditional producers tend to age their wines in large oak casks (rather than the more modern French barriques), sometimes, depending on the quality of the vintage, for longer than is required by law.
Aldo Vajra is one such traditionalist; he makes a beautiful regular Barolo as well as single-vineyard Barolos, such as Bricco delle Viole, and the lovely Dolcetto d'Alba Coste & Fossati. His winery brochure once contained a packet of earth for each wine, and Vajra also contends that "Color is a component, not an end." Indeed, the terroir of the vineyards might explain why Vajra's wines tend to be an old-fashioned garnet hue rather than a modern ruby. Vajra defends his approach, saying, "Like a diamond, each terrain has its own facets, each producer has his own sensibility, resulting in a wide variety of wines made with the same grapes." Sometimes, Vajra notes, this is hard to detect in some of the newer-style wines. He can't resist adding, "Traditional wines are more elegant, with more delicate perfumes, leaner, somewhat difficult, but offering more pleasure at the table." Traditionalists, he adds, make wines to drink, not to serve as "wallpaper."
Other notable traditionalists include Bruno Giacosa, who makes an outstanding regular Barbaresco and three single-vineyard Barbarescos: Asili, Gallina di Neive and Santo Stefano di Neive. Giacomo Conterno produces a first-rate single-vineyard Barolo, Cascina Francia, as well as great Dolcetto and Barbera d'Alba. Aldo Conterno turns out notable Barolos, such as his Barolo Cicala, as well as fine Barbera and Dolcetto d'Alba and the Langhe Nebbiolo Il Favot. Luciano Sandrone and Produttori del Barbaresco are labels also worth seeking out.
Piedmont's so-called progressive winemakers create wines that speak many languages--in other words, that are more international in style, softer, ready to be consumed earlier than Piedmont's traditional wines. Progressive vintners accomplish this by aging their wines in both large woodencasks and small oak barriques and blending them for a result that is generally more supple and that has more fruit and softer tannins.
Piedmont's first progressive winemaker, and its first truly international star, was Angelo Gaja. Gaja began experimenting with barriques as early as 1969, planted the first nonnative Cabernet grape in 1978 and created Piedmont's first high-tech cellar the same year. Gaja emphasized single-vineyard Barbarescos, although he recently made headlines when he announced that he was dropping the DOCG classification for the single-vineyard wines: Barbaresco Sorì San Lorenzo, Sorì Tilden, Costa Russi, Barolo Sperss and Conteisa. They will no longer be identified as Barbaresco, but as Langhe Nebbiolo. Gaja says he is doing this because vineyard designations caused people to regard his nondesignated Barbaresco as "simple."
Other progressive Piedmontese winemakers include the dynamic Ceretto brothers (marketer Bruno and winemaker Marcello), whose Barbaresco Bricco Asili, Barolo Bricco Rocche and Barbera d'Alba Piana are refined examples of internationally styled wines. There are also Vietti's Barbaresco Masseria, Barolo Lazzarito and reserve Villero, as well as the notable Barbera d'Alba Scarrone. Elio Altare's Barolo and single-vineyard Vigneto Arborina and Brunate, and Langhe Rosso Larigi are always of note, as are La Spinetta's Barbaresco and the Barolos of Clerico and Ratti.