The foggy hills of Piedmont

March 2021

Piedmont – Piemonte in Italian, Piémont in French – means ‘foot of the mountain’. This hilly Italian province borders France, but for almost a millennium both sides of that border were part of the medieval kingdom of Savoy. Today, the French side is dominated by the oh-so-trendy beaches of Provence surrounding Nice, Cannes and the casinos of Monte Carlo. On the Italian side lie the sleepy, foggy Langhe hills, an idyllic, rustic, rural region that makes arguably Italy’s finest wines. As autumn and the grape harvest approach, fog inexorably rolls in, shrouding the vineyards in misty haze.

Like most of Italy, this region makes a wide range of wines at all quality levels, both red and white, from a great diversity of grapes. Wine is central to the culture and gastronomy of the region. All of Italy is, of course, famous for its great cuisine which has swept the world. But even within Italy, la cucina piemontese is renowned. This is where the elusive white truffle grows, where butter supplants olive oil in the kitchen, where risotto is as essential as pasta, and fine wine is an integral part of fine cooking.

Probably Piedmont’s best-known wine is Asti Spumante, the sweet, white, foaming bubbly that is a staple of wedding receptions. Certainly it is value priced and almost too easy to enjoy. Moscato d’Asti is the same sweet wine but without all the bubbles.

While red wines predominate here, as they do across Italy, Piedmont also produces some of Italy’s top whites. Roero Arneis, made from an indigenous grape not seen elsewhere, is a bright, brilliantly aromatic white wine you can be proud to serve as a luncheon or patio wine. It may never challenge Bourgogne blanc as your go-to all occasion wine. But remember, the great joy of wine is its variety and diversity, and this one merits an entry in your journal. The other very fine white occasionally found on LCBO shelves is Gavi, made from the Cortese grape. This wine may be labelled Gavi, or Cortese di Gavi, or Gavi di Gavi, or even Principessa di Gavi – the more elaborate detail, the finer the pedigree.

The most popular red wine coming out of Piedmont today is made with Barbera grapes, and marketed under that name. Personally, Barbera has never been my favourite wine; while modestly priced,

I find it too high in acidity, too low in tannin, and too grapey in flavour. Somehow, that has not stopped it from becoming extremely popular; that shows, I suppose, just how personal taste in wine can be. Because of its low tannin, it requires no long ageing; because of its acidity it cuts nicely through fatty flavours, making it a first choice for barbecued spare ribs and similar fare. Better producers will always show its place of origin, so look for Barbera d’Alba (best of the bunch) Barbera d’Asti, Barbera del Monferato. As it has grown in popularity, some brands now include additional letters of pedigree, so expect to pay more for Barbera Superiore, and even more for the seldom seen locality descriptors Nizza, Boschi, or Blinc.

But Piedmont’s real fame rests on a unique, great red grape that takes its name from the region’s defining characteristic: the fog at harvest time.

The Italian word for fog is nebbia, thus this great grape is named Nebbiolo. Grown all across Piedmont and into the neighbouring provinces of Lombardy and Val d’Aosta, but nowhere else, Nebbiolo is a grape that can rival the great Pinot Noir of Burgundy – that makes it worthy of an article all on its own.

© Paul Inksetter 2021

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