Tucked away in the Northwest corner of Italy lies one of the country’s greatest food and wine regions, Piedmont. Home to some of the world’s most illustrious and sought-after wines, here viticulture can be dated back for centuries with long established roots in wine making. The unique topography, climate and soils create a distinctive character within the wines, and demand for the region has never been higher.

Piedmont is nestled in the base of the Western Alps – the name Piedmont can literally be translated as ‘at the foot of the mountains’. The great mountain range encircles Piedmont on its Northern and Western sides, and has a significant impact on its climate and resulting wines. As well as the ice-cold influence from the Alps, the region also enjoys a warm Mediterranean climate and this huge diurnal range in temperature results in a morning fog that engulfs the region and slowly burns off throughout the day.

Nebbiolo, the grape of kings

The most planted red grapes of the region include Barbera and Dolcetta, but the most famous grape of all is Nebbiolo. Nebbiolo’s place in Piedmont can be traced back to around the twelfth century, thus the vines are fully adapted to the unique soils and climate of the area. As a late-harvest grape, Nebbiolo requires a lot of sunshine and warmth to fully ripen meaning that it is often grown on warmer, South-facing slopes to maximise its sun exposure. Despite its thin skins, small berries and post-vinified light ruby colour, the Nebbiolo grape is incredibly powerful, boasting big bold tannins with a perfumed nose.

Piedmont is best known for its two world-famous DOCGs, Barolo and the slightly smaller Barbaresco, situated to the South West and North East of the city of Alba respectively. Both regions are predominantly planted with Nebbiolo, however with different soils, terroir and aging requirements, they produce different style of wines. To understand the key differences between the two regions, one must first look to the soils. The soils of Barbaresco are sandier, lighter, and richer in nutrients, which results in more perfumed, ethereal wines. First established in 1894, Barbaresco began to produce wines in the style of Barolo and market themselves as an alternative, but in a more delicate and brighter style. After the Second World War, the great Gaja family began to re-focus and develop the Barbaresco name on the world fine wine stage, and in 1958 Produttori del Barbaresco helped to raise the quality level of Barbaresco to the high standards that we see today. Whilst most producers create a blend across the communes, single vineyard bottlings from Crus such as Rabaja and Montestefano are becoming increasingly common and commanding a premium on the fine wine market. The basic aging requirements to be labelled Barbaresco DOCG is two years in barrel, with an additional two years to be classified a Riserva.

The wine we know as Barolo today dates back to the mid nineteenth century and is named after the Marchesa of Barolo. Consisting of five major communes, La Morra and Barolo are best known for their calcareous-marl, softer, sandier soils that often result in aromatic, lighter and elegant wines. In contrast to this, the communes of Serralunga d’Alba, Monforte d’Alba, and Castiglione Falletto lie on older sandstone and limestone soils which create more structured and slow-aging wines that are a little more muscular in style. Inspired by the great Grand Crus of Burgundy in France, the top estates in Barolo pushed for the top vineyards to be recognised according to quality. Whilst there is not such a distinct classification between the communes as you see in Burgundy, there has become an increasing drive towards bottling and labelling single vineyards such as Bussia, Monprivato and Cannubi, each with their own distinct terroir and identity. The aging requirements of Barolo DOCG also differ to that of Barbaresco, largely due to the higher natural tannins of Barolo that require longer aging. The minimum age being three years in oak with an additional two years to be labelled a Riserva.

Traditionalist versus modernist

Historically Barolo has been an unapproachable wine in its youth, largely thanks to the natural tannins of the Nebbiolo grape but also in part due to the traditional winemaking techniques of the region. In the late 1970s, the region saw a movement of winemakers gather speed who were using new techniques in their wineries to create wines with more subtle tannins and could be approached much sooner than their traditional counterparts; enter the Modernists. In the cellars, the use of a shorter maceration period of just 5-6 days, paired with small oak barrique ageing, results in softer, more approachable tannins in the final wine. The traditionalists on the other hand, impose a much longer maceration period around 25 days, to maximise extraction from the Nebbiolo grape, alongside ageing in larger traditional barrels. By leaving Barolo with its own profile and limiting contact with oak, winemakers are able to highlight the unique characteristics from the soils of the region. Whether you are fond of traditionalist, modernist, or wines somewhere in between, the wines of Barolo indisputably stand amongst the finest wines in the world.

The dynamism of Piedmont

Outside of these two infamous DOCGs, the dynamic wines of Piedmont continue to flourish as popularity and demand grows. This can be seen in the stunning quality of Langhe Nebbiolo, Dolcetto d’Alba, Barbara d’Alba, particularly when produced by some of the region’s most revered producers at confoundingly affordable prices. The region Langhe Nebbiolo contains both Barolo and Barbaresco, but includes wines that are made from ‘declassified sites’ of Nebbiolo. Often endearingly referred to as a ‘baby barolo’, the wines of Langhe Nebbiolo can be more approachable than its big brother. With many of the top producers often declassifying their fruit and bottling as Langhe Nebbiolo, this is a great insiders tip for those after the style and quality of a Barolo, yet without the sometimes hefty price tag.

Popularity and demand for the wines of Piedmont has never been higher, and with phenomenal quality coming from the region it is easy to see why. With many of the top producers creating wines that are still relatively affordable, despite continuously impressive scores, this is a fascinating region to explore and familiarise yourself with the various styles available.

Explore Available Wines

2016 Azelia, Barolo, Margheria 6x75cl

£330/CaseDuty Status: In BondAvailability: Immediate

2016 Ceretto, Barolo, Prapo 6x75cl

£450/CaseDuty Status: In BondAvailability: Immediate

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