As the main variety used for the simplest mass produced wine in Italy and also the leading character in the biggest wine scandal in Italy, if not the world, Barbera and it's DOC wines (Barbera d'Alba, Barbera d'Asti and Barbera del Monferrato) have always enjoyed a somewhat dubious reputation.
During the 1980's a group of Pienontese growers, formed around Giacomo Bologna and Angelo Gaja, decided that quality is far more important than quantity. Gaja and Bologna where so heavily influenced by what they saw on their travels to France, they decided to overhaul their own wine production, vineyard techniques and cellar techniques to bring their wines into the more quality focused modern age. Barbera wines were traditionally thin and acidic, Gaja and Bologna decided to reduce the acidity of their wines and began storing them for longer periods of time and in small oak barrels to enrich their bouquet and improve their complexity. They decided to reduce the harvest which they hoped would result in a stronger, more complex and concentrated wine. The resulting vintages saw an increase in quality, Gaja and Bologna aimed for a stronger more fresh, aromatic wine to compete with the worlds top quality modern wines.
Today Barbera can be seen as a single-varietal wine or blended with other grape varieties, Nebbiolo, Cabernet Sauvignon and the ever difficult Pinot Noir, are all very well suited and produce some amazing wines. The finest examples of Barbera's DOC wines are Barbera d'Alba, Barbera d'Asti, Langhe and Piemonte.
Dolcetto's career has been just as illustrious as that of its sister Barbera, in Italian all grape varieties are feminine. Despite the suggestion of it's name Dolcetto wines are not sweet, in reality they are beautifully dry with rich berry fruit and cherry flavours. In southern Piedmont, around Langhe and the hills of Cuneo, Dolcetto is considered an everyday wine, but Dolcetto at it's best in so much more than that, it can have a wonderful complex bouquet of spicy pepper and deep black cherries, despite Dolcetto's heightened alcohol content it's mellow fruity taste is never heavy.
There are three more red grape varieties worth mentioning from this region, Grignolino, Freisa and Bracchetto.
The wines made from Grignolino are much less recognised than those of Barbera and Dolcetto, but in the hands of a good winemaker can produce some extremely wonderful wines, but unfortunately this is very rare. Grignolino at it's best has a bouquet of roses and deep red berry fruits, wines made from Grignolino are often much lighter and fruitier than those made from Dolcetto and Barbera, but unfortunately such stunning wines are now few and far between.
Freisa is a very old, traditional grape variety, native to the Piedmont region. Wines produced from Freisa are produced in a variety of styles, they are mainly made slightly sparkling but can be rather sweet. Over the last ten years a handful of committed winegrowers have produced some full-bodied and very complex wines from Freisa and as a result this old variety is making somewhat of a comeback.
Brachetto wines have a similar reputation to the wines made from Freisa. Brachetto wines at their best have a bouquet of light strawberry, cherry, sometimes almost floral but with little body compared with wines from Freisa and Grignolino.
Sweet and Sparkling
The main white grape variety in Piedmont is used for a sparkling wine not a still. Muscatel or Moscato, or to be more precise Moscato di Canelli must never be confused with other native Italian varieties with similar names, Moscato di Alessandria, Moscato Giallo and Moscato Rosa are varieties all related to Moscato di Canelli but produce very different wines, these varieties are some of the oldest in Italy, if not the world.
Wines made from Moscato di Canelli are produced allover Piedmont, but mainly in the provinces of Asti, Alessandria and Cuneo, generally all go the generic name Asti, which was formally known as Asti Spumante, but the name Asti Spumante conjures up images of an insipid, characterless wine produce in the 1970s and 1980s.
There are actually two varieties of this wine , Moscato d'Asti and Asti, both wines are light, sweet and sparkling, both relatively low in alcohol but made from two very different methods of production. In the case of the more traditional Moscato d'Asti, fermentation is interrupted several times during it's production by filtering and then fermentation being started again until the correct balance between natural sweetness and carbonic acid gas which will create the sparkle. By contrast, Asti is mass produced in large metal fermentation tanks, and becomes sparkling through regular secondary fermentation similar to that of Champagne and Cava. Asti contains much more carbonic acid and is much more sparkling the Moscato d'Asti.
Wine growing in Asti is mainly run by the growers, but production is mainly carried out in huge factories in the town of Canelli. Asti's success is mainly in export, Germany alone is responsible for purchasing half of Asti's total production. However, in the last few years, Asti has seen a significant decrease in sales, this maybe due to the consumers desire for quality and improved wine knowledge, even Asti's DOCG label has done very little to revive it to it's previous success.
At it's best Moscato d'Asti and Asti are light, fresh and slightly fruity, are , when chilled an ideal summer drink, they can also be used to accompany fresh fruit desserts or light, sweet cakes and pastries.
Other White Varieties
As for other notable white varieties in Piedmont, varieties such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc have recently seen great success in the region, but the more traditional native varieties of Arneis and Cortese are still the most popular. In the hills next to Langhe, in the province of Roero, is the DOC area of Ersterer which for a while was well on it's way to becoming fashionable, unfortunately small quantities and as a result exorbitant pricing saw an end to any dreams of global recognition.
Cortese grapes these days are mainly used to make the DOC wine Gavi, probably the most popular Piedmont wine. Gavi wines are mellow with neutral aroma, but a good accompaniment to starters and vegetables.
Other traditional varieties grown in Piedmont have little more than regional significance, some have made an appearance outside Piedmont but never for long or with any great success. Varieties such as Favorita, Bornada, Erbaluce, Ruche, Pelverga and Timorasso all have great regional importance and are all very capable of making wines of exceptional quality, unfortunately these wines are all to rare.
A Brief Regional Overview
The king of wines is made from the Nebbiolo grapes grown on the southeast slopes overlooking the town of Alba. The three valleys, which run through the Langa hills produce Barolo with different characteristics. The area of La Morza produces mellow, slightly fruity wines, but the areas of Serralunga and Castiglione produce the more characteristic Barolo with deep fruit flavour and pronounced tannins. Barolo today is made in such a way they are drinkable when young and the harsh tannins associated with old style Barolo wines which were once a deterrent for many people against Barolo wines. Mature Barolo has a complex bouquet with detectable hints of tealeaves, tobacco, truffles and often leather. Their full, strong taste and velvet, mellow rounded structure make them a perfect match with rich foods.
Vino di Tavola
There are a number of producers that sell their former Vini da Tavola under the labels of Piemonte and Langhe, but there are still some excellent table wines which resulted from the quality revolution in the 1980s. Vino di Tavola are often blended wines blending varieties such as Nebbiolo and Barbera, Barbera and Cabernet Sauvignon or Nebbiolo and Merlot to name but a few. Usually these wines are strong-flavoured, elegant wines which match perfectly well with spicy meat dishes.
These Nebbiolo wines from the slopes to the north of Alba, were produced up until the 1960s under the name of their neighbour Barolo, was often overlooked due to a lack of interest in quality on behalf of the areas producers. Barbaresco often semed thinner, weaker, more feminine in character than Barolo. Recently, however, as with many other Italian wine regions producers have made marked improvements and decide to take the route of quality wine production rather than quantity. Barbaresco wines are wonderful with age and when fully mature show a beautifully harmonised bouquet with a medium body and complex flavour.
The hills around Barolo and Barbaresco, around the village of Alba, grow grapes for the tannin-rich, strong wines of Barbera d'Alba. These wines which display an intense deep red cherry colour, fruity bouquet and rounded full body, make this wine the ideal accompaniment to wholesome pasta dishes. Unfortunately, most producers prefer to make the higher-priced Barolo and Barberesco wines, so the quality of Barbera d'Alba can occasionally leave a lot to be desired, but good examples can be found and when they are can be some of the best wines produced in the region.
Moscato d'Asti is a beautifully fruity elegant version of the famous Asti wine, formerly known as Asti Spumante. Asti has a rich, fruity bouquet with aromas or pears, apple and sometimes more tropical fruit,. Moscato d'Asti's slight, but not aggressive sparkle make it a great accompaniment to fruit desserts or better still when chilled a great wine for a hot summer afternoon in the garden with friends.
This once over produced, thin, acidic wine has, over the last 20 years, blossomed into possibly almost the best of the two Barbera labels. Unlike the Langhe region, where the best slopes are only planted with the Nebbiolo variety, the province of Asti plant their Barbera on these premium slopes and is treated as the best red variety. Barbera d'Asti unfortunately doesn't age well and is best consumed while young, however, when blended with other varieties can produce wonderful wines which can develop well with ageing. Barbera is most successfully blended with Nebbiolo, Spatburgunder and Cabernet Sauvignon, all of which produce wonderfully complex wines.
Gavi, or Gavi di Gavi was unbelievably fashionable for a while, unfortunately its poor value for money, increased wine knowledge of consumers and desire for quality wines at a good price led to Gavi di Gavi falling somewhat out of favour. Recently however as with most other Italian wine regions a handful of committed producers are trying to produce quality Gavi di Gavi wines. Gavi di Gavi is made from the native Piedmont Cortese grape variety around the town of Gavi in the province of Alessandria. Gavi wines have rather a neutral taste, neither stunning nor offensive, they are smooth and make a great accompaniment to food.
Of all the new DOC wines. Piemonte, Monferrato and Langhe, Langhe wines are perhaps the most prestigious. Many top producers, whose former Vini da Tavola did not reach or match any DOC criteria are now bottling under this label. Many of these revolutionary producers are using none native Italian grape varieties and new modern wine making techniques to produce new interesting wines which, unfortunately due to Italy's very traditional nature are considered wrong.