Diary: 11 – Mapping Piemonte

Like all Italian regions, Piemonte loves its DOCs and DOCGs, the officially delineated zones that produce legally-defined wines. Thus, Barolo DOCG is a small area of 11 communes or townships in which wines are made from 100 per cent Nebbiolo grapes, subject to various rules about maximum yields and minimum maturation times.  In line with the French concept of AOCs, these denominations are intended to capture a sense of place; in an ideal world, the wine could really only come from here.  

Piemonte is unusual for a number of reasons. The sheer number of denominations is unusual — 17 DOCGs and 42 DOCs, making a grand total of 59. Most wine lovers know about Barolo and Barbaresco, and would also recognise Barbera d’Asti (and by extension all the ‘d’Asti DOCs) but beyond that it gets a bit hazy.  Is Alto Piemonte a DOC or a sub-region (the latter)?  What about Alta Langa (little idea)?  Never heard of Valsusa or Loazzolo? Neither had I until I started on the research for this book … So, I decided the first thing I needed was a large scale map. 

Map making

As far as I know there is no large scale map of all the Piemonte denominations published in Italy. The best places to start are Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson’s World Atlas of Wine, the latest 8th edition, page 157 or, complete, but in a yet smaller scale, Civiltà del Bere‘s atlas, p. 14 (details at the foot of this post).  The problem is that they have to squeeze so much information on to a map in which all the DOCs have to be summarised in an area five inches by five inches … Inevitably, this turns the area around Alba into a vinous spaghetti junction.  What I need is a much bigger map, perhaps A1 size. At A1 size, the same level of complexity is displayed at five times the scale so it is much easier to take in.  

As it happens, the mapping for the World Atlas of Wine was done by the company that also creates WSET’s maps. I wrote to Cosmographics to ask them if they could get the rights to print a large scale map for my personal use.   They in turn asked the copyright owners and the answer was ‘yes’.  A long discussion then ensued on how much it would cost to add the 13 DOCs that are not on the map, whether additional features (additional contours and roads?) could be added and how much all this would cost.  The answer was that additional work was beyond my budget, understandably enough. It turned out to be much simpler to use numbers and a key to at least locate where the missing denominations are.  

In the meantime I did the research on the missing DOCs. The best online resources are Italian Wine Central for excellent summaries of allowed grape varieties and much more, and Quattrocalici, in Italian, with a page on every single denomination, however obscure, with a simple map of each.  What labours of love! 

And what did I learn? That in most cases, the missing DOCs are missing for very good reasons.  Some are vanishingly small. The above mentioned Loazzolo DOC has all of 1 hectare, twice as big as the 0.5 hectare Strevi DOC.  Both are denominations for sweet wines made from Moscato. Loazzolo is for semi-dried (passito) and possibly botrytis-affected grapes, while Strevi is for semi-dried.  The further issues is that there is a perfectly good category for these wines already within Asti DOCG: “Moscato d’Asti vendemmia tardiva”, i.e. late harvest. 

Other DOCs look like little more than an excercise in putting your town’s name on the map. Take Gabiano DOC (2 hectares) and the grandly named Rubino di Cantavenna DOC (3 hectares), both DOCs close to the town of Gabbiano. Both are DOCs for wines principally made from Barbera. Both could have been comfortably accommodated within Barbera del Monferrato DOC.  So to the outsider, there is a great deal of redundancy in the less well known denominations of the region. 

The valid exceptions would be the three denominations on the western fringes of Piemonte, in the foothills of the Alps, bordering France.  They may be obscure – Valsusa, Pinerolese and Colline Saluzzesi – but there are no other local options.  The one denomination they could have used, Piemonte DOC, is the only one that no one appears to have mapped. It is in effect, any area in the entire region that is suitable for decent quality grapes.  (Remember that much of Piemonte is either genuinely mountainous or the plain of the Po river which is much more suited to rice production than to grape growing.) The other peculiarity about Piemonte is that there is no IGT for the region. In effect, the growers’ choices are Piemonte DOC (with some regulation), a specific DOC or DOCG (detailed regulation) or simply ‘vino’.  

Finished Piemonte map

Mapping the region has been very instructive and a fascinating project. There is now no reason for not knowing where a denomination is, however, obscure. Or at least, I now know where to look.  

Resource: L’Atlante delle Doc e Docg, Tutto quello che bisogna sapere sulle 419 Dop italiane, Civiltà del Bere, Milano, 2016 

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