Mention Italian wine, and most will think of a fruity Tuscan Chianti in a straw-wrapped flask sitting on a red-checkered tablecloth with accordion music playing in the background. And that shouldn’t come as much of surprise since Tuscan wines – dare I say Tuscany – has stolen Italy’s spotlight when it comes to food, drink and Italian countryside culture.
However, wine connoisseurs today know that for Italy’s finest wines, one needs to trek further north to the foothills of the Italian Alps known as Piemonte, where the terroir is so unique that few elsewhere in the world would ever attempt to grow its unique and luxurious grapes.
Piemonte’s most revered Nebbiolo grape has been around for centuries, but its most significant road to fame and deliciousness has actually happened in the past 30 years. The Nebbiolo grape is as ubiquitous to Piemonte as Pinot Noir is to Burgundy, but it hasn’t been easy to tame this thick-skinned, high tannin, late-harvesting grape. Until the advent of temperature-controlled barrels, winemakers had trouble softening those thick skins and strong tannins, especially when the aging process was started at the coldest time of the year that would stall fermentation. Often they wound up with wine that even after decades of aging still wouldn’t mellow. Today, Piemonte’s Nebbiolo, Barolo and Barbaresco wines are highly cherished. Interestingly, they come from different villages, but all from that same high-maintenance grape known as Nebbiolo. These are not wines for the weak-hearted. They are robust and with distinctive qualities, invoking some odd descriptors such as tar, licorice, leather and dried stone fruit. Complexity is undoubtedly Nebbiolo’s calling card, and these wines are considered to be among the very best in the world.
And while Burgundy, to which Piemonte is often compared, may be satisfied with having just two famous grape varietals, this region has several well-known wines to its name. Asti Spumante, a light, semisweet sparkling wine gained popularity in the ‘70s because of its clear and easy quaffability.
Gavi is a dry white varietal that many a wine lover has discovered upon tiring of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Italian wine doesn’t necessarily connote white wine beyond that of Pinot Grigio, so it is often a pleasant surprise to taste the crisp, dry Gavi that thrives in the cooler temps of northern Italy.
Other reds of note from this region include Barbera, which is considered the area’s day-to-day, table wine. In fact, this rustic wine is the most widely planted grape in the region.
A lesser-known red but that provides an instantly quaffable wine option is the Dolcetto, which is sometimes compared to Beaujolais because of its highly drinkable fruitiness. It makes an interesting contrast to Nebbiolo because it has little tannin, is much lighter and with very little acid.
While just a highlight of some of Piemonte’s greatest wine assets, wine lovers can enjoy a tasting at Hinsdale Wine Cellars Friday, 6-8 p.m., for some excellent representatives of this region from Sottimano winery.
– Ivy F. Kupec