Piedmont - Other

Of all wine regions of the world, Piemonte has won my heart for its sheer joie de vivre. And the use of French is not too undiplomatically inappropriate here, for this region is only just over the Alps from France and the local dialect is perfectly comprehensible to a French speaker. I have to admit that Piemonte has also stolen my stomach. I know of no other part of the world where every café and restaurant in the smallest village, no matter how unprepossessing, seems able and willing to serve course after course of stunningly fresh, stylishly but minimally prepared food. The raw meat-based antipasti, the risotti, the tartufi...but I must stop. This is supposed to be about wine.

The scenery is stunning, too, especially in autumn at the height of the white truffle season when each patch of vines turns a different shade of pink, orange, brown, purple and green. Whenever the fog, or nebbia, clears, the tightly folded Langhe hills which expose the Barolo and Barbaresco vineyards, Piemonte's most famous, are dwarfed by the snow-covered Alps to the north and west. Most of Piemonte's excitingly varied wine is produced in conditions of enviable beauty and gastronomic luxury. Do these people pay tax?

Unusually for Italy, Piemonte is a wine region to which grape varieties are the key. The region's great, intense, subtly perfumed, alcoholic, long-lived, occasionally unbearably tannic red wines owe everything to the finicky, local speciality, the late-ripening Nebbiolo vine (supposedly named after the fog). Yet enormous quantities of much juicier lively Barbera and softly mouth-filling Dolcetto are also grown, as well as some local rarities such as strawberry-flavoured Brachetto, curiously sweet and sparkling Freisa, light and tangy Grignolino and historically interesting Ruché or Rouchet.

Piemonte is also home to a variety of local white grape specialities, which to my palate share delicacy, dryness and an aroma that often reminds me of ripe pears. Cortese is the grape of the most respected white, Gavi; the perfumed Arneis has been very fashionable as Roero Arneis while Favorita (the local form of Rolle or Vermentino) is also grown in Roero just north of Barolo and Barbaresco country, which is also famous for its Nebbiolo. Erbaluce makes small quantities of sweet white wine but the most prolific white grape of Piemonte is Muscat, which is responsible for oceans of Asti and various other featherlight, grapey Moscatos, many of which are spumante. For many years it was fashionable to be rather snooty about this style of wine but as usual every action is followed by a reaction. Some of the finest palates in the wine business are now great fans of the best examples of the smartest category, Moscato d’Asti. These wines have the great virtue of being extremely light, less than 6% alcohol, refreshingly frizzante and fruitily sweet – which makes them a good choice for serving with dessert after a heavy meal.

Many of these wines are labelled varietally, as in Nebbiolo d’Alba, Barbera d'Asti and Dolcetto di Diano d’Alba. Langhe, Roero and Dogliani are other important DOCs and DOCGs. One of these wines labelled Nebbiolo can offer some of Piemonte's dark, satanic majesty in a bottle at a fraction of the cost of a great Barolo or Barbaresco, although so can some of the best Barbera. Barbera is grown in great quantity all over the region and used to be regarded as the light, tart, quaffing wine to be drunk as young as possible. However, its fortunes have changed entirely with the widespread adoption of small French oak barrels for maturing the produce of low-yielding Barbera vines. Taking the lead from the late Giacomo Bologna’s prototype oaked Barbera, Bricco dell’Uccellone, hundreds of producers have now made changes to their Barbera production in both vineyard and cellar. These are serious wines designed for ageing.

Another group of slightly earthier, lighter-bodied Nebbiolo wines is made in communities around the town of Gattinara in subalpine hills almost due north of Alba where Nebbiolo is known as Spanna: Gattinara, Ghemme, Boca, Lessona, Bramaterra, Sizzano, Fara and, right on the border with Valle d’Aosta, Carema. These wines are still likely to have an orange rim but can often provide a much better value Nebbiolo experience than the world-famous greats of the Langhe.