I realize it's a bit unorthodox to jump into Italian wine before even mentioning France, aka le mother ship, on this blog. I hope you're not turned off. Trust me, you will be well versed in French wine soon enough. I chose to start with Italy for no better reason than the fact that I LOVE Italian wine. More specifically, Northern Italian wines. Italy has held a special place in my heart since my semester abroad in Verona circa 2008 (seven years ago..yikes). Since then, my Italian wine knowledge has continued to grow and the more I learn about and taste it, the more I fall in love with it. Red, white, pink, orange, volcanic- I don't discriminate. During my time in Verona, we primarily consumed Valpolicella if drinking red wine, and Soave if drinking white. These are both wines produced in the Northeast part of Italy. More on those to come next week.
Today we are going to focus on the Piemonte region, or Northwest Italy. Piemonte means 'at the foot of the mountains.' In this case, it is at the foothills of the Alps, forming its border with Switzerland and France. Piemonte produces two of Italy's most well known wines, Barolo and Barbaresco. Both are made from the Nebbiolo grape and take their names from their villages. Most other wines made in the Piemonte region take their names from their grapes.
The Nebbiolo grape is certainly the finest red grape in Northern Italy. Second to Nebbiolo is Barbera, the most widely planted grape in Northwest Italy and my personal favorite for an affordable, easy drinking Italian red wine. Also accounting for much of the regions red wine production is the Dolcetto grape. Moving onto white wines, the top three white wine grapes grown in Piemonte are Moscato, Cortese and Arneis. Before we dive into these, I want to breakdown the Italian wine classifications for you.
There are four wine classifications in Italy. This system is modeled after the French AOC system and is simply a quality assurance label. DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) is the highest classification given to an Italian wine and guarantees quality and top tier production methods. DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) wines are much more common than DOCG wines. They still have strict production and zoning rules to abide by, however, there are hundreds of DOC wines in Italy while there are under 100 DOCG wines. IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) denotes a typical wine from a particular region. These wines are not super complex and most should be consumed young. Lastly, Vino da Tavola, is a table wine. This is the most basic level of Italian wine.
Alright, onto the good stuff:
1. Nebbiolo- As I mentioned above, Nebbiolo is the grape used to make Barolo and Barbaresco but is also fantastic produced outside of these villages. Both Barolo and Barbaresco are rich Italian red wines that are high in acidity and tannin and are meant to be aged. Barbaresco, however, is slightly less tannic and a bit more elegant than the bold and powerful Barolo. While Barbaresco's are considered to be one of the best wines in the world, they do not hold as high of a status as Barolo, also known as 'the King of Wines'. This could be attributed to the fact that Barolo is about 50 years older than Barbaresco. Barolo's also require more age than Barbaresco's and therefore take on more of the aged flavor characteristics such as tar and leather. As you've probably guessed, these two wines do not come cheap. A good quality young Barbaresco can be found for $30-$50 while a good quality young Barolo will be a bit more expensive. Both wines of course acquire more value with age. These are great wines to invest in or to give as a gift to your wine loving friends. They are also fun wedding gifts for someone to open on a certain anniversary in the future.
If you like the sound of these wines but aren't as concerned with the status name of the wine, take a look at Nebbiolo. Just to clarify again, we are talking about the same grape used to produce Barbaresco and Barolo, but made outside of those villages, therefore, don't have the name/status of those two wines. Often these wines are made by the same producers as Barbaresco or Barolo. These wines will carry similar characteristics, strong tannins, high acidity, etc, but are a bit more mellow. A great bottle of Nebbiolo can be found for $20-$30.
Pair these wines with a hard mature cheese such as parmesan, gouda or a mature cheddar. Beef tenderloin, braised lamb or anything with truffles would also be a great compliment. My general rule of thumb here is the higher the tannin, the richer the dish.
2. Barbera- Barbera's are high in acidity and taste of cherries and bright ripe fruits with a hint of spice and even smoke sometimes. They are very affordable- I've found decent bottles for as low as $8 but they will range up to around $30. These wines are approachable and are definitely a crowd pleaser. They are interesting wines consumed young but definitely become more complex with age.
If you need to purchase wine in bulk for a party, definitely consider Barbera if you're serving something on the heartier side. It pairs well with pizza and pasta. I would also pair this will braised pork or rabbit. It could even been a good accompaniment to osso buco.
3. Dolcetto- Dolcetto translates to the phrase 'little sweet one' but don't let this scare you as most Dolcetto wines are very dry. While it usually carries a similar price point to Barbera, Dolcetto wines are relatively low in acidity and typically meant to be consumed within the first two years of their release.
This would be a great wine to pair with semi soft to firm cheeses and could even stand up to a parmesan. It would also be a great accompaniment to prosciutto or other cured meats. Similar to Barbera, I would also serve this wine with pizza, pasta or even a burger.
4. Moscato- Moscato is Piedmonte's signature white grape used to produce Moscato d'Asti, a sweet frizzante dessert wine. It contains a considerably less amount of alcohol than any other wine (around 6%) and was originally made to be consumed during lunchtime so as not to slow you down...so very Italian :)
Fun fact- Moscato d'Asti sales have drastically increased in the past 4 years due to the fact that it is the new drink of choice amongst the hip hop culture. Apparently the managing director of the champagne house Louis Roederer (aka the producers of Cristal) gave a less than favorable response when asked if he thought hip hop's culture hurt the reputation of Cristal champagne. Since then, champagne's popularity in the hip hop world has plummeted. Don't worry Cristal- I'm still a big fan.
5. Cortese- This white grape is primarily used in the production of Gavi. Gavi is a medium bodied white wine with moderate acidity and tangy citrus flavors. If you are a Chablis or Pinot Grigio lover I would recommend trying Gavi. These wines are quite affordable ranging anywhere from $10-$25 for a good bottle.
Gavi and any wine made from the Cortese grape would pair well with grilled fish, lighter pasta dishes, risotto or grana padana cheese. This would also be a good wine to serve at a party or as an opener to a dinner party.
6. Arneis- Arneis is a white grape most commonly used in the wines of Roero DOCG. They were originally used in Nebbiolo wines to soften their harsh tannins but now are most commonly used on their own as a white wine. Arneis wines are medium to full bodied with medium acidity. They carry flavor characteristics of ripe pear, stone fruit, almond and even some grass. If you are a Sauvignon Blanc, Sancerre or White Bordeaux lover, I would recommend trying an Arneis wine.
I would pair this wine with oily fishes, cream based pastas, goat cheese, roasted chicken or pork.
That's a wrap on Piemonte! Stay tuned for Volume 2 of the Italian Series coming up next week! Feel free to write in with any questions. Happy tasting!