Why Piedmont is the New Burgundy
But while the French president heaped plaudits on his country’s wine industry, my mind turned back to a year ago, when the vineyards of the northwestern Italian region of Piedmont—including Barbaresco DOCG, the Langhe and the villages of Barolo and Monforte d’Alba—were also deemed to have the special cultural or physical significance worthy of this honor.
“In terms of pure thrill factor, Piedmont is difficult to beat,” says David Berry Green, Italian wine importer for DBGitalia, who is now based in Barolo full time. “It’s not just that it is jaw-droppingly beautiful. The grape varieties possess attributes which can make fine wine: a balance between sugar, acidity, tannins and aromas, as well as an ability to age gracefully over many years. In that sense there is a real parallel with the wines of Bordeaux.”
If the ability to age gracefully draws a comparison with Bordeaux, the landscape, style of wine and culture of the growers owes more to Burgundy. “Italy is just like one big Burgundy, with lots of tiny growers and lots of regional differences,” adds Mr. Berry Green.
Piedmont, often seen as Italy’s second-best wine region (after Tuscany), feels like it is on the cusp of achieving something special. Last November in Beaune I spoke with Burgundian négociant Roy Richards who said, over a glass of red Burgundy, that, in terms of potential, no region in the world excites him as much as Piedmont.
He pointed to what happened in Burgundy in the late 1970s, when a new generation decided not to sell their wine to the local cooperative but to bottle it themselves. This resulted in wines with more individual character and definition and, he says, almost exactly the same thing is happening in Piedmont today: the quality has risen but the wines also have their own signature.
The key to understanding this region is the Nebbiolo grape variety, which is grown in Barolo and Barbaresco, in the foothills of the Alps. Although it makes up only a small part of Piedmont’s overall output, it is these wines that I believe are of most interest to the fine-wine sector.
At its best, the Nebbiolo grape produces a medium-bodied wine that has the ethereal appeal of good Pinot Noir, and can smell of anything from rose petals to cherries. One of its main attributes is that the tannins, the astringent, bitter flavors that leave your mouth feeling dry, come from the fruit and not wood, as they do in oak-aged, heavier wines.
These grapes also have a real sense of provenance, thanks to the rare ability to communicate the character of the location where they are planted. You get a village expression just as you do in Burgundy, where Santenay is different from Pommard. In Piedmont, Barolo from Verduno is soft and accessible, whereas from Monforte d’Alba it is more powerful.
Mr. Berry Green recommends producers such as Giovanni Rosso, Trediberri, Casina Bric 460, Cascina Fontana, Fratelli Alessandria, Cascina Luisin, Punset, Roccalini, Manuel Marinacci and G.B. Burlotto. For my own part, I find these wines as thrilling as any I have tasted.