Winefriend by David Way

Writing about the wines of Piemonte, Italy and France

Diary 33: a month in Piemonte

On Friday, Janet and I returned to England after a fantastic month in Piemonte. I am exhilarated, slightly overwhelmed by the amount of material I have gathered and somewhat exhausted too! We made 93 visits in around 25 days of visiting … The research was for my book on The Wines of Piemonte, to be published by the Classic Wine Library.

Nizza Monferrato in early autumn
Nizza Monferrato in early autumn

The plan

This visit was focused on southern Piemonte, broadly from Gavi in the east to the Langhe in the west. It was brilliantly coordinated by Stefano Ricagno and Paola Baldi, formally representing the Asti/Brachetto and Nizza growers consortiums but willing to work way beyond these two wine zones. The individual growers’ consortiums were hugely helpful too: Asti/Brachetto d’Aqui, Barbera d’Asti e vini del Monferrato, Gavi, Colli Tortonesi, Ovada and finally Langhe. While I will return to many of these areas, the priority after Christmas will be northern Piemonte. This will include the Nebbiolo area known as Alto Piemonte (Gattinara, Ghemme, Boca etc.) and the province of Turin. The latter includes some tiny but intriguing denominations in the foothills of the Alps on the French side.

What’s next?

The next few months–apart from next week, see further below–will be devoted to writing up all this material. In a way, the producer profiles are the easy bit. What will be more challenging will be the introduction to each area and denomination that will precede the profiles. These sections give the chance to discuss the history of the areas, as well as current trends and challenges.

Reflections

Adding value in Gavi

A month in Piemonte reinforced the huge variety of grape varieties, wine styles and challenges. It was great to visit Gavi and Colli Tortonesi, two top white wine areas with dramatically different histories. Gavi has been a huge commercial success providing low aromatic but refreshing wines that do well in restaurants and supermarkets. The challenge here is to communicate that Gavi can also produce ageable wines of real distinction. It was a privilege to taste wines with 5–10 years in the bottle that demonstrate that beyond doubt. And there is quite a lot of experimentation going on, for example, the use of amphora for skin contact wines.

Gavi being made in an amphora
Gavi being made in an amphora
Timorasso, the new kid on the block in Colli Tortonesi

By contrast, Colli Tortonesi is a new kid on the block, the Timorasso grape variety having been rescued from obscurity as recently as the late 1990s. The ultimate proof that it has now become a desirable territory is that there are sections of the vineyards that have been bought by top Barolo producers (see the picture below). The DOC needs some refinement; that’s an understatement but the work is in hand. The star grape variety, Timorasso, produces wines of real substance and, again, ageability. Perhaps the biggest surprise of this month in Piemonte was the quality of the Barbera being produced here. It is not just white wine in the Colli Tortonesi.

Vietti's Timorasso vineyard in Colli Tortonesi
Vietti’s Timorasso vineyard in Colli Tortonesi
The ups and downs of Dolcetto in Ovada

Ovada, an area whose main grape is Dolcetto, is also in the east of southern Piemonte. Like all Dolcetto regions, it is struggling to get the attention it merits. However, this has meant that it is possible for enterprising people to buy or rent land here and enter the business. We met some established growers and some new entrants, fired up by the chance to work the land and make wine.

The behemoths of Barbera and Moscato

The central part of southern Piemonte is the land of Barbera and Moscato, two juggernauts of Piemonte wine. To be honest, we could have spent a month in Piemonte just here. Fortunately for the other areas, I had done a lot of work on these wines, first in October 2019 in Asti and then during lockdown on Barbera d’Asti and the other 12 denominations under the same umbrella. And the great news is that I am going back to this area for a further week, next week. This is partly a press trip and partly mopping up the smaller denominations that really deserve attention for their unique grape varieties: Ruchè, Grignolino, the Malvasias, plus some Nebbiolo grown outside the Langhe (e.g. in Albugnano DOC).

Banfi's Rosa Regale label
Banfi’s Rosa Regale label, a huge seller in the USA
The Nebbiolisation of the Langhe

The final eight days of the visit were in the Langhe. This included visits in Barolo, Barbaresco, Dogliani and Dolcetto di Diano d’Alba and a few glasses of Nascetta and Pelaverga too. It was a privilege to visit many of the great names and some rising stars too. The strongest initial impression is of the Nebbiolisation of the Langhe. Whereas in the past, growers used to tend Nebbiolo, Barbera and Dolcetto on these magical slopes, Dolcetto has seen a dramatic reduction in the vineyard devoted to it and even Barbera is a very poor relation compared to Nebbiolo. The reasons are obvious. A warming climate has allowed growers to ripen Nebbiolo on slopes that used to be too cold for this variety that buds first and ripens last. And then the prices obtained for Nebbiolo wines are so much higher than for other varieties. According to ISMEA for the six months to July 2021, the average price of Barolo was four times that of Dolcetto d’Alba/Diano d’Alba and two and a half times that of Barbera d’Alba. While Piemonte has a great diversity of wines and varieties, the Langhe is now hugely dominated by the business of growing Nebbiolo.

It has been a fascinating month in Piemonte! There is no doubt that the general standard of the wines is as high, probably much higher, than in the past. The question for the region is whether it can find ways of giving value to varieties other than Nebbiolo.

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