Italy's northwest, stretching from Milan to Genoa and the foot of the Alps, is not known for producing the largest quantity of wine in Italy — but it is the home of the Piedmont area, which is where grapes are grown for Barolo and Barbaresco reds, as well as Asti Spumante sparkling wine. Though parts of northwestern Italy share a border with France, the Italian growers stay true to their roots, literally. Don't expect any French influences here, but do expect some top-quality Italian wines. Piedmont alone boasts more DOC and DOCG zones than any other region in the nation.
If you're traveling in northwestern Italy with an eye toward sampling local wines, spend a few nights in Alba, on the Tanaro River. It's the nearest decent-size town to the local vineyards that produce Barolo and Barbaresco wines, and it's the home of the white truffle, a delicacy mushroom that's in season from September through December and costs about $1,000 per gram in American stores. Some tour operators, such as Arblaster & Clarke (
What are the DOCG zones in the Piedmont region?
Asti, Brachetto D'Acqui, Barbaresco, Barolo, Cortese di Gavi, Dolcetto di Dogliani Superiore, Gattinara, Ghemme, and Roero. Piedmont also includes several dozen DOC zones, including Barbera del Monferrato, Dolcetto d'Asti, Piemonte, and Valsusa.
Barolo is often called “the king of wines, and the wine of kings.” It is regularly renowned as the finest wine that one can get from Italy, and aficionados regularly clamor for cases at auctions from London to New York City. It's made from the Nebbiolo grape, which is grown only in the Piedmont, Aosta Valley, and Lombardy regions of Italy. That may have something to do with the weather, which typically includes a heavy fog in late October. Nebbiolo derives from the Piedmontese word nebbia, or fog.
More than 1,100 vineyards produce Barolo, which, at everyday wine stores in the United States, start at about $40 per bottle and go well into the hundreds of dollars. The vintages widely regarded as the finest of the past few decades are 1982, 1989, 1990, 1996, and 1997 (though 1998 and 1999 have many fans as well).
Barbaresco, which takes its moniker from the 650-person Piedmont municipality of the same name, is also made from the nebbiolo grape. Though Barbarescos and Barolos are grown about ten miles apart, they do have differences. In general, a young Barbaresco tastes better than a young Barolo, but a Barbaresco will not last as long in the bottle as a Barolo.
In Piedmont, you may be asked which side you favor in the “Barolo Wars.” This is a disagreement between classic producers, who let the wine ferment for at least three weeks and age in wooden casks for years, and modern producers, who prefer fermentation of less than two weeks and shorter aging periods in oak barrels. Neither is necessarily right.
In addition, Barolos tend to be more expensive than Barbarescos, even though there is more Barolo out there to be had. Each year, the production of Barbaresco is only about 35 percent that of Barolo. The best vintage years of Barbaresco tend to mirror those for Barolo.
Asti Spumante is a white, sparkling wine made near the town of Asti in Piedmont. It comes from the moscato bianco grape, which is also cultivated to make wine in France, Australia, and South Africa. Asti Spumante is primarily known as a dessert wine and has earned quite a following in the United States, where it has been aggressively marketed by the Italian company Martini & Rossi. Asti Spumante is often promoted as a good sparkling wine to serve in lieu of French Champagne for events such as New Year's Eve.
Because Asti Spumante is produced in mass quantities, you can often find a decent bottle, even in the United States, for less than $10. The trick when traveling in Italy is to look for the more expensive brands being sold at low prices.