Situated in the northwestern corner of Italy, Piedmont is known for its classy, sophisticated wines that really level up to be some of the best wines found anywhere in the world. The rolling vineyards are home to some heavy hitter reds, like Barolo and Barbaresco, along with a handful of other gems that express the regional terroir beautifully.
Piedmont Wine Region Geography & Terroir
Not only is Piedmont one of Italy's most important wine regions, it's also one of the largest. With over 110,000 acres (44,500 hectares) planted in vines, it is the country's seventh largest wine-producing region. Encapsulated by mountains on three sides, the Piemontese foothills roll into the base of the Alps and the Apennines. The mountains create a slight rain shadow effect and provide some protection for the vines. On the southern side, the region extends close to the Ligurian sea. Influenced by both the mountains and the Mediterranean, there can be substantial diurnal temperature swings in the vineyards.
The undulating hills offer a variety of elevations sites from 490-1,970 feet (150-600 meters), with the higher sites and south-facing slopes having more exposure to sunshine. Summers are warm, offering perfect ripening conditions, while the autumn and winter typically bring cool, damp weather with a distinct misty fog (nebbia) that lingers in the vineyards until late morning. The infamous fog helps to extend the ripening season for particular varietals like nebbiolo and allows the grapes to retain good acidity. Much of the region is known for its calcareous clay soils that give the wines there undeniable structure and complexity.
The Grapes of Piedmont
The landscape is dominated by some heavy-hitter red varietals and famed whites. Sprinkled in between these predominant plantings, there are a handful of lesser-known varieties.
Red Grape Varietals
There are three red varietals that dominate the vineyards in Piedmont. The king of red grapes in the region is undoubtedly nebbiolo. While a little particular, if grown in the right micro-climate, it produces an aromatic, acid-driven wine with grippy tannins and exceptional aging potential. It expresses notes of red cherry, violet, rose, mushroom, leather, and spice. If nebbiolo is the region's austere, mature grape, then barbera is its workhorse. Planted throughout the rolling hills, barbera retains good acidity, red fruits, and a compelling drinkability. The juxtaposition between bright fruit and rustic elegance reflects the landscape quite well. Dolcetto is an earlier-ripening red varietal that produces a more approachable, soft, and fruity red wine. With a profile of juicy cherry, black fruits, violet, almond, and licorice, it's a great representation of the what the region has to offer at a significantly more affordable price point.
Lesser-known varietals include brachetto, a lighter red with a profile of sweet, ripe strawberry sometimes made in a sparkling style, and freisa, another light-bodied sparkling red with bright cherry and strawberry notes. The old and now up-and-coming pelaverga grape is full of brilliant cherry and raspberry and leans glou-glou, while vespolina has a unique profile of bright fruit and spice matched by firm tannins.
White Grape Varietals
Moscato is best known around Asti and produces an aromatic wine with hints of rose and mandarin orange. It's made in two different styles, both with residual sugar but varying effervescence. Cortese is more commonly known by the name of town where it comes from, Gavi. The grape produces the region's most commonly found still white wine. Dry and light in body with fruit and floral characteristics of apple, peach, lemon and ethereal white blossom, it is balanced by good acidity and minerality. The lesser-planted arneis is grown in Roero and produces an uncomplicated wine with notes of white peach, green apple, and citrus.
Within Piedmont, there are two designated tiers of appellations, DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) and DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita). A wine with DOC status is the second highest tier in the country, and it indicates excellent quality. Translating to "designation of controlled origin", there is a governing body that recognizes each individual DOC and dictates the permitted grape varieties, maximum harvest yields, and aging requirements for each. There are 42 DOCs in Piedmont.
DOCG wines indicate the highest-quality wine. These wines are held to even higher standards and must be in accordance with the rules for each individual DOCG, as well as go through extensive quality control testing. Piedmont has a proportionally large number of DOCGs at 17. The first DOCG wines in the country were Barolo and Barbaresco, which each produce exquisite expressions of the nebbiolo grape.
The Langhe DOC
The Langhe DOC is one of the most famous appellations in the country. The long, narrow sub-region encompasses the hills to the south and east of the Tanaro River. With a history of winemaking dating back to Roman times, the appellation is a culturally rich area, now designated a UNESCO World Heritage site for its living representation of viticulture and winemaking traditions. The region has a particularly conducive micro-climate for grape growing, producing bold fruit with high acidity and grippy tannins that are best aged.
This small DOCG encompasses the town of Barolo along with a few other villages. The vineyards on the steep, south-facing slopes are between 980-1,640 feet (300-500 meters), making it perfect conditions to slowly ripen nebbiolo. This environment helps the grapes retain high levels of acidity and tannins and develop aromatic profiles of sour cherry, herbs, and dried flowers. The wines must be made with 100% nebbiolo grapes but may be sourced from a handful of villages within the designated area. With a minimum age requirement of three years, 18 months of which must be in oak, the tannins are granted the time to soften. Nearly all Barolo DOCG wines are intended for further bottle aging, where they truly develop into something special with tertiary aromas and notes of truffle, leather, and tar.
Barbaresco DOCG is often thought of as a little cousin to Barolo DOCG. The slightly smaller appellation is also known for producing excellent expressions of nebbiolo on south-facing slopes, though at lower elevations. Vineyard sites sit around 650-1,300 feet (200-400 meters). Barbaresco wines have a minimum aging requirement of two years, with nine months in oak. They tend to be slightly fruiter, with less delicate aromatics than Barolo. They also benefit from further bottle aging and are more than capable of being exceptionally complex wines.
Barbera d'Asti DOCG
Near the towns of Asti and Alba, barbera is the most commonly planted grape. Barbera d'Asti DOCG is of particular high quality, producing wines with rich aromas of red cherry, plum, and black pepper. They retain a similar high acidity, but the grapes have naturally lower tannins than nebbiolo. The more approachable, less austere barbera can be made in a youthful, fruity style without oak, or they can be barrel aged to take on a spicy characteristic.
Dolcetto d'Alba DOC
Dolcetto is the region's third most popular red grape varietal, and Dolcetto d'Alba DOC is most often the finest representation of the grape. With a deep purple hue, the wines often have aromas of rich black plum, red cherry, and dried herbs. With medium acidity and medium tannins, these wines can be enjoyed young, though the best examples will benefit from aging, developing more complexity.
When it comes to white wines, Gavi DOCG is an important appellation. Situated in the southeastern part of Piedmont, the grapes are planted on higher slopes that get cool sea breezes and create a long, slow ripening season. This allows the white grape, cortese, to retain good acidity with aromas of citrus, green apple, and pear. The wines are light bodied with an added complexity from additional lees contact.
Moscato d'Asti DOCG
When it comes to sparkling wines from the region, the appellation Moscato d'Asti is well-known for its low-alcohol, fizzy, sweet wines made from muscat grapes. The limestone and sandstone soils in and around the town of Asti influence the vines to create a delicately fruity wine made in a pleasantly light, effervescent style intended to be served as a dessert wine.
Italy's Stunning Northwest Corner
With the heady reds of Barolo and Barbaresco putting Piedmont on the map and the other approachable varieties filling in the gaps, the region boasts a rich portfolio of wines for all different occasions. If you are looking to get to know some of Italy's defining wines, Piedmont is a great place to start.