Piedmont in Italy really lives up to its name. Literally translated as “the foot of the mountain”, this region in Italy is one of the country’s finest jewels. At least in winemaking terms that is – it is home to many of the country’s finest (ergo, most investable) wines.
It is a land of mountains – bordered by Switzerland and France, it is surrounded on three sides by the Alps, and is home to the highest peaks and largest glaciers in Italy. Unsurprisingly then for a region that is landlocked (the southernmost part of the region is still an hour as the crow flies from the sea) that there is a huge focus on food and wine here. It is virtually impossible to eat and drink badly here. Go into any bar, caffè or restaurant and you’ll undoubtedly be served a delicious glass of Barbera or even Nebbiolo, alongside locally sourced antipasti (charcuterie plays a heavy part here) and melt-in-the-mouth pasta.
But this is a post about wine, not food. So what can this region teach the savvy wine investor about Italian wines?
(If you are interested in learning about all the wine regions of Italy, please read our detailed blog post here).
Piedmont Red Wine
Once the ugly duckling of Piemonte wines, Barbera has risen like a phoenix from the ashes over the past 20 years. Its inferior reputation as being a vino di tavola – table wine – came mainly from a lack of education and awareness surrounding the grape’s idiosyncrasies. Once producers had understood that Barolo needs to be grown on sites that work with it rather than against it – ie sites that are not too cool or too poorly exposed – and that it should be pruned more carefully than others, then the upturn in the grapes fortune’s began. Additionally, producers realised that by ageing the wine in oak barrels added a bit of oomph to the flavour. The new era of Barbera was upon us.
Oh Nebbiolo, how we love you so. Full bodied, lightly coloured, hard to find, made for ageing. You are the Italian wine investor’s dream. Uniquely delicious, you burst with flavour (red fruits, tobacco, rose, violet, and secondary flavours of prunes, truffle and leather). But the real reason why we love you so very much is your phenomenal ageing ability. Great Nebbiolos are capable of ageing up to 40 years if correctly cellared. Good vintages for Nebbiolo are 1995-2001 but the sub-region’s climate means that it is at the mercy of the weather. In 2002 the region suffered terrible hailstorms and constant, all but destroying the crops.
Our Vindome tip for investors who are considering adding Nebbiolo to their portfolio is Contantino-Fantino. A relatively recent newcomer to the Italian fine wine scene, the estate was founded in 1982 by Claudio Conterno and Guido Fantino. Conterno Fantino has embraced contemporary winemaking methods, ageing their Barolo in French oak barriques and using a shorter maceration and fermentation of the grapes. Claudio is very highly regarded among those in the know – he is president of Cuneo’s branch of the CIA (Confederazione Italiana Agricoltori) and considered as one of the most modernist producers of Barolo. Expect outstanding wines from this producer, particularly from the low-yielding south-facing slopes. You heard it first on Vindome.
Called the ‘little sweet one’, because of its naturally low acidity, Dolcetto is rich, round, soft and fruity. It pairs ideally with pizza and pasta (well, what did you expect?), and is a joy on the palette. The grape tends to be considered a bit of a poor relation to Piedmont’s other red wine grapes – Barolo and Nebbiolo – but don’t let that fool you. From a producers point of view it’s a great grape to grow as, while not as lucrative as Nebbiolo, it is certainly not as fickle either. What’s more, it ripens early (contrary to Nebbiolo’s tardiness) and is extremely adaptable. Very little Dolcetto is found outside of Italy, but some is beginning to be found in both North and South America.
Grignolino is a wine for those in the know. Insiders call this a baby Nebbiolo and it’s easy to see why: light in body and colour, it has bright aromas of rose, sage, and white peppercorn. You’ll also note wild strawberry and dark, sour cherry. It’s one of Italy’s most historic wines, dating all the way back to the 13th century. Fast forward to the 20th century and the wine fell out of flavour in the 1970s, when sweeter wines such as Dolcetto were all the rage. Nebbolio and Barbera also gained popularity, so by 2000, Grignolino was all but extinct. Like most things however, people’s wine tastes have trends, and those looking for a clean, fresh piemonte red wine began moving back to Grignolino. The wines are still rare, but definitely worth exploring.
Piedmont White Wine
Moscato Bianco (still)
If the name sounds familiar, that’s because it is the synonym for the French Muscat grape. Moscato – or Moscato Giallo to give it its full name – is best suited to sweet wines, mainly because of its overtones of orange blossom, peach and nectarine. Because of the low alcohol (the ABV hovers somewhere between 5-7%, contrary to most red wines which are typically between 13-15%), it pairs very well with desserts and starters. It’s also an ideal lunchtime wine. Because of its lightness and sweetness, it has become a cultural phenomenon over the past couple of years, particularly with modern drinkers (investable Moscatos are not on our radar yet). Expect to see more of this wine in the future.
Grown almost exclusively in Piemont, this grape bursts with crisp, fruity notes from top to toe. It’s a heritage grape, having been grown in the south-east of the region since the 17th century. It has long been considered as Piedmont’s best white variety and is often credited as introducing the world to Italian white wine. The grapes grow extremely well in Gavi’s warm climate, but struggle to ripen anywhere further north. Those that do rise to the challenge of growing Cortese outside of Gavi are often confronted with a highly acidic wine, which, while not ideal for drinking on its own, can be a good addition when blending (or making sparkling wine).
Another stalwart Piemonte wine that has been rescued from the verge of extinction. First documented in the region in the 15th century, the wine was tremendously popular in the 19th century. However, as producers began moving to 100% Nebbiolo varietal, Arneis all but disappeared. By 1960just a few hectares of Arneis were under vine – today that figure stands at over 600 (or 1500 acres). The wine is floral scented and delicate, which belies its full body. The flavours are particularly generous too – typically of pear and apricot rounded out with a creamy hint of hazelnut. Arneis was a great grape in the past and can and will be again. Although not there yet, we predict great things are coming!
Piedmont Sparkling Wine
No one could mention Piemonte wines without at least a brief nod at their sparkling wines. The most famous is undeniably Asti Spumante but Moscato (see above) comes a close second. Both white wines are made from 100% Moscato grapes, and produced in the Monferrato wine zone in eastern Piemonte – but the differences end there. Asti Spumante is made using the Charmat-Martinotti and is far more of a celebration wine than Moscato. It is only made by a few wineries, and even then in a small number. Asti is classed as DOCG, the top ranking, which ensures the highest winemaking quality in Italy (it’s also a UNESCO World Heritage site.)
Moscato d’Asti a vino frizzante, or fizzy wine. It’s a very flavourful wine (think fruity with peach, honey and pineapple notes). The naturally low alcohol level – between 4.5% and 6.5% make it an ideal lunchtime or aperitivo wine. It’s made from better quality grapes than its Spumante cousin and naturally is a DOCG. Moscato d’ASTI isn’t as fully sparkling, and it teases with a gentle frothiness, rather than full on bubbles. Most small wineries in Piemonte make a few bottles of Moscato d’Asti.
If you want to be proficient in Italian wine continue reading our guide on wine flavors.