Wines in Italy, Piedmonte

One of three main Italian winemaking regions, Piedmonte lies at the confluence of the Tanaro and Borbera rivers, 45km (28 mi) southeast of Turin in northwest Italy. Moderately remote in this crowded modern world, it's braced by the Alps to the north and the Apennines to the south.

The Piedmonte wine region

Bordered by the French and Swiss Alps, Piedmonte is far from the Mediterranean that produces such fine wines. Yet, here the hot summer climate encourages Nebbiolo, a late ripener that ages wonderfully, producing wine high in tannin, with perfect acidity and aromas of rose, mint and licorice. Spicy fruit flavors of cherries with hints of violets show the reason Italy vies with France for the top wine producer in Europe.

The Piedmonte region divides into two major areas, Alba in the southwest, home to Barbera, Barbaresco and Dolcetto, and Asti to the southeast.

Piedmonte is also home to the traditional Barolo, where skins are soaked for twenty days both during and after fermentation. This helps highlight tannins in the wine that lending it an austere quality in its youth, but also able to evolve over time.

Aging, usually for a minimum of four years, is carried out in traditional old oak barrels, allowing the acidity and tannin to show through more aggressively. The robust red Barolo improves with aging, in a technique that goes back centuries. Nearby Barbera has a beautiful deep color and acidity, but is lighter in tannins.

Barbera should not be confused with the Barbaresco, similar to Barolo only 10 miles distant. The latter are made with 100 percent Nebbiolo and have a slightly lower alcohol content and require less aging.

But youth has come to the area in another way too. Newer winemaking techniques use new oak barrels used to add a hint of vanilla to counter-balance a natural tendency toward tannin and acidity.

Dolcetto, the other major wine of the Alba region has less acid than Barbera, but more tannins and a bit more spice.

Asti, by contrast to these reds, produces excellent, light sparkling whites made from the Moscato, rich in floral and peach aromas. Ironically, the wine named Moscati d'Asti is a non-sparkling version.

All these wines have been perfected over a period of three thousand years, centuries longer than the oldest French wines. Considering Italy's small size, at three-quarters the area of California, its production of 8 billion bottles per year is even more astounding. Though only seventh in production, Piedmonte stands first in quality.

Much of the great red of Piedmonte forms an upper price barrier for many, with bottles going for $60 or more. But there are still good Piedmonte products to be found for less.