North west Italy is home to a dynamic, if complicated, wine culture. Tim Atkin MW explains the varieties and denominations.
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Spot the irony: Alba, arguably Italy's most famous wine town, is also the home of Ferrero Rocher chocolates, with a fountain named after confectioner Pietro Ferrero to prove it. It would surely be difficult to invent a greater contrast than Barolo and Barbaresco, two of the world's finest reds, and a mass-produced ball of hazelnut and milk chocolate. The first is potentially noble, in short supply and invariably expensive, while the latter is ... well, you get the point.
But talk to local people about Ferrero Rocher and you hear a different story. The company was set up just after the war and is still an important employer, with around one-tenth of the town's 30,000 citizens on its payroll. It's hard to believe today, given the prices of the top wines from producers such as Robert Voerzio, La Spinetta, Domenico Clerico, Angelo Gaja and Bruno Giacosa, but Piedmont was a very poor area 60 years ago. Without Ferrero Rocher, Alba might not have survived.
But survive and prosper it did. In fact, Piedmont as a whole is one of the most exciting and dynamic areas in Italy at the moment. The 2007 edition of Gambero Rosso's Italian Wines, regarded by many as the best local guide to the Italian wine scene, gave 53 out of 282 of its coveted Three Glass Awards to wines from Piedmont, second only to Tuscany's 55.
Piedmont is not the largest of Italy's 20 wine regions by any means - it ranked seventh with 51,802ha in 2006 - but it has more DOCs and DOCGs (52 at the last count) than any of its competitors. Inevitably, this makes it a difficult place to get to grips with. Things would be even more complicated if the area had chosen to adopt a Tuscan-style system of IGTs (short for Indicazione Geografica Tipica) as well.The other thing that makes Piedmont difficult to comprehend is that, rather like Burgundy in France, it is an area of small producers rather than large estates. If you look at the distribution of vineyards in the area, 92.1 per cent of owners have fewer than 5ha to their name, and 58.2 per cent less than a hectare.
According to Chiara Boschis of the E Pira estate in the village of Barolo, the rise and rise of Barolo and Barbaresco in the past 20 years has made larger estates slightly more common, as "prices went to the stars and a lot of people sold their land, but it's still very rare to find people with 20ha or more". To take only one example of the fragmentation of Piedmont, the 35ha of the Cannubi cru in Barolo is divided between no fewer than 15 different growers.
So how does one tackle Piedmont? Short of going there yourself - and I can recommend a visit during the autumn to make the most of the truffle season - your best bet is to start with the local grape varieties. Reds are in the majority, and Barbera is the dominant variety with more than a third of plantings. The second-most important grape is the white Moscato, used for sparkling Asti and frothy Moscato d'Asti (around 23 per cent), but the number three and four positions (Dolcetto with 15 per cent and Nebbiolo with around 7.5 per cent) are also both red. After that, you're into local curiosities, the most interesting of which are the white Cortese and Arneis, although Grignolino, Brachetto and Freisa all have their fans.
There is no denying which is the king, or possibly queen, of these varieties: Nebbiolo. It is planted on the best slopes and sells at the highest price on the open market. One kilo of Nebbiolo fetches around l5, according to Giovanni Minetti of Fontanafredda, one of the region's biggest producers. "Barbera and Dolcetto sell for l1 or less, and you'd be lucky to get l0.50 for Moscato."
There may be one or two producers who live by Nebbiolo and Nebbiolo alone, but they are rarer than rocking horse droppings. Most growers work with a combination of grape varieties, partly to spread their risk in an area that shows considerable vintage variation, but also to have a varied portfolio of wines that can be offered to the market at different moments and to meet the expectations of different consumers.
However, very few have as diverse a portfolio as Ascheri in the town of Bra. As well as a Gavi di Gavi, Arneis, Dolcetto d'Alba, Barbera d'Alba, Nebbiolo d'Alba and a handful of different Barolos (including very good own-labels for Tesco and Sainsbury's, as well as a trio of crus), Matteo Ascheri also dabbles with Viognier and Syrah under the Langhe DOC.
He doesn't say so, but you get the sense that his real love is Piedmont's native grapes. "These are difficult grapes to grow. They need special conditions and a lot of care in the vineyards, but they are unique. People are finally starting to understand these wines, and looking for something other than Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot."
The other, arguably more complicated, way to get a handle on the region is through its DOCs and DOCGs, which accounted for 83.9 per cent of its 3.23 million hl of production and 40,000ha of its 53,000ha under vine in 2006. The list of these is long (remember there are more than 50 of them), but some are far more important than others. Even committed Italophiles, for instance, have barely heard of Colli Tortonese, Erbaluce di Caluso, Loazzolo and Ruchè di Castagnole Monferrato.
According to Italian wine legislation (never the most reliable of guides, it must be said) the region's best wine styles are its DOCGs (Asti, Moscato d'Asti, Barbaresco, Barolo, Brachetto d'Acqui, Gattinara, Gavi, Ghemme, Roero and Roero Arneis), but there are a number of supposedly lesser DOCs, such as Barbera d'Asti, Dolcetto d'Alba, and especially the catch-all Langhe that are just as important.
With the exception of Nebbiolo, it's simpler to think in terms of grape than origin: minerally Arneis; softer, slightly honeyed Cortese; grapey Moscato; juicy, vibrant Dolcetto and feral, high-acid Barbera. These grapes exhibit different characteristics on different soil types and at different altitudes, but they are nothing like as terroir- or vintage-specific as Nebbiolo. As Guido Fantino of Conterno Fantino puts it: "Nebbiolo will grow well only in certain spots. We find it does best between 250 and 400m; above that, it's just too cold and we grow Dolcetto and Chardonnay."
When fans talk of Nebbiolo, they tend to reserve their greatest enthusiasm for Barolo and Barbaresco, two wines that are produced in comparatively small quantities. The recently released 2003 vintage yielded 26,130hl of Barbaresco and 63,334hl of Barolo for the whole world. Even when you add the 23,111hl of Nebbiolo d'Alba and the 10,048hl of Langhe Nebbiolo from 2003, that's not a lot of wine.
In the absence of any recognised classification (the equivalent of Burgundy's grands and premiers crus would be welcome), it pays to know the name of the vineyard, or vineyards, from which the grapes were sourced - although some of these seem to be rather flexible. The notion of different crus emerged only at the end of the 1970s. Before that, large merchants tended to blend wines across the region. It was the crisis of 1978 that forced a lot of growers to make and bottle their own wines - and to come up with ways of marketing them. So a top name like Robert Voerzio in La Morra makes seven different single-vineyard Barolos.
As in Burgundy, it pays to know the name of the producer when you are buying Barolo and Barbaresco. There are something like a dozen different families called Conterno in the village of Monforte d'Alba, so it's vital to know the difference between your Aldos, Giacomos, Paolos, Francos and Claudios. Price is one guide to the quality of the wine on offer; but, this being Italy, there's an element of posing going on, too. "Why are your wines so expensive?" I asked one iconic producer. "Because they create emotion," he told me. "I have no shame in telling you that I am totally in love with my wines after all the work I've put into them."
Barbaresco has its fans (not least for the wines of Angelo Gaja and Bruno Giacosa), but it is Barolo that generally makes the most powerful and longest-lived of Nebbiolos. The wine can be made in 11 different communes, all situated to the south of Alba. These are Barolo itself, Monforte, La Morra, Serralunga, Castiglione Falletto, Verduno, Grinzane Cavour, Novello, Cherasco, Roddi and Diano d'Alba. In theory, all are born equal (at least since the decree of 1966), but the heart of the Barolo region is the first five of these villages.
Locals talk of marked differences between them. Franco Conterno of the Aldo Conterno winery says: "Serralunga tends to make the most tannic and structured wines, while Barolo's and La Morra's are the most elegant and gentle. The wines of Monforte and Castiglione are somewhere between the two."
For all that, it depends on who grew the grapes and what they did to them in the cellar. There are well-publicised differences between the so-called modernists (such as Domenico Clerico, Elio Altare and Paolo Scavino) and ultra-traditionalists such as Mauro Mascarello and Giovanni Conterno. The former tend to use new oak barrels and emphasise fruit, whereas the latter use older Slavonian oak and believe that Barolo should take the best part of a decade before it's ready to drink.
However, the battle lines are not as clear cut as you might expect. "Old style or new style is not really the discussion," says Guido Fantino. "It's what happens in the vineyard that matters. Small oak or large oak is just a tool; it doesn't define the wine." Robert Voerzio agrees: "People say I'm a moderniser, but in the vineyard I am as traditional as they come. It's only my barrels that are modern." Surely the point is to take the best of both schools to produce individual wines. "We are modernisers in terms of our fermentations, but traditionalists in the way we age our wines," says Franco Conterno. "Winemakers shouldn't think like the Taliban."
Vintage character is also important. Chiara Boschis describes the four most recent, commercially available vintages: "2001 is a fantastic year, but you need to give the wines time; 2002 had problems with rain; 2003 was very hot and was a harvest that depends on the abilities of individual winemakers and 2000 was a rich vintage with a sweeter taste that has been popular in America. 2003 is a bit like that, too, with lots of rich fruit flavours and softer tannins."
All in all, then, there has never been a better time to indulge in the vinous diversity of Piedmont . The top wines are among the most expensive in Italy (if reasonable by the standards of Bordeaux), but there is plenty of good value drinking to be had between £6 and £15. And then there are those Ferrero Rocher chocolates ...
A selection of UK bargains
Gavi Madonnina, Araldica 2006 (£6.99, Waitrose)
Gavi di Gavi, Raccolto Tardivo, La Toledana 2006 (£7.49, Majestic)
Langhe Nebbiolo, De Forville 2005 (£7.99, Majestic)
Barbaresco, Umberto Fiore 2003 (£7.99, Marks & Spencer)
Barolo, Rocca Ripalta, Ascheri 2003 (£14.99, Tesco)
Sainsbury's Taste the Difference Barolo 2003 (£12.99, Sainsbury's)