Arriving in Alba for the first time, Barolo and Barbaresco were just about the whole of my vinous diet. Thank heavens for my next door neighbours who, admittedly on my first visit served me a 1961 Barbaresco from the Cooperative Cantina which was simply divine, thereafter serving me the more simple wines of Dolcetto and Barbera to accompany their delicious food. At this point I shed the scales from my eyes and realised just what the region had to offer.
Below is a list of the major wine styles you’re likely to encounter with brief descriptions of what to expect. Most names are derived from the actual grape variety used, however some blends have now appeared and as with all blends, specific proportions of the constituent parts cannot be given.
The village of Barolo is one of 11 where the wine can originate with 5 of these being particularly famous – Barolo, Serralunga, Monforte, Castiglione Falletto and La Morra. It has the designation of D.O.C.G. which is the highest level of recognition for Italian wine. It can only be made from the Nebbiolo grape and must undergo ageing for a minimum of 18 months in wooden barrels. However these can be the small barriques or the larger botti, the choice is down to the wine maker and in some part, is the dividing line between the modernists and traditionalists.
Tar and roses is an oft quoted description of the savoury aromas and flavour some can find but this is only scratching the surface of the complex nuances the wines offer. The Nebbiolo grape is the latest to ripen and some say it derives its name from Nebbia, Italian for fog, as the full ripeness of the grape is seldom achieved before October when the morning mists and indeed, at times, fog descend on the vineyards. It has a thick skin yet is not too high in pigment so wines can often be light in colour. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security though as Nebbiolo gives wines with a bright acidity, a good tannic backbone and decent alcohol levels (the minimum alcohol permitted is 13% but this is the starting point).
If you’re drinking Barolo in a restaurant, get them to decant it, even with younger wines, to allow it to open up and justify its price.
Good producers include: Paolo Scavino, Domenico Clerico, Angelo Gaja, Giuseppe Mascarello, Giuseppe Rinaldi, Aldo Conterno, Aldo Vajra (Great Value) Ciabot Berton, Seghesio.
Lesser known than its big brother Barolo, Barbaresco tends to be more elegant and feminin by comparison. There’s good reason for the lack of recognition in that the vineyard area is only about half of the size, thus the production is only about 50% and the wine is less often seen. But do give it a go, there are some wonderful producers here.
Again it’s made from 100% Nebbiolo and shares similar characteristics to Barolo and as with many wines of the region, a battle exists between the traditionalists and modernists. Whatever your preference, both can be exceptional and it really does become a personal taste.
Good producers include: Angelo Gaja, Moccagatta, La Spinetta, Produttori di Barbaresco (good value too) Giuseppe Cortese.
Nebbiolo and Langhe Nebbiolo
Often, these are from vines grown in either Barolo or Barbaresco vineyards but of lesser age and thus the owners do not think the grapes to be of the quality required to produce their major wines. They can, however, be from separate vineyards outside of the two great appellations that would not be entitled to the big names. Sometimes where the sun doesn’t strike the vines for the full day or where the altitude is too great to achieve perfect ripeness. Either way, this is where some great value can be found and not only value but some very fine drinking too. Langhe Nebbiolo can have up to 15% of other grape varieties blended in.
Good producers include: Giuseppe Mascarello, Giuseppe Rinaldi, E Pira, E Boglietti (Good value) Paolo Manzone
The most planted grape variety and one which produces wines in various styles. For many years it was allowed to over-produce and thus the wines were thin, acidic and lacking in character. Nowadays there are some exceptional wines produced from this grape variety and it is often consumed locally as the basis of everyday meals. However, this wine can come in many shapes and sizes, from barrel matured to absolutely no oak influence whatsoever. It is generally well coloured with a flavour profile of red and black fruits, some floral notes and a juicy acidity. However, this is just a catch-all description and you’ll find an array of wines of different styles and prices.
Good producers include: Giuseppe Mascarello, Ciabot Berton (Fisetta, Bricco San Biagio with oak) Seghesio (White Label) Renato Corino (White Label)
There are several different areas where Dolcetto is grown – Alba, Dogliani, Diano – but in my humble opinion Dogliano produces the most flavoursome and fruity wines which are ideal for quaffing over a long lunch. They are also of D.O.C.G. status. Fresh, with a bright acidity and plenty of fruit, they are generally not over extracted and are very easy to drink especially with food.
Good producers include: Anna Maria Abbona, Chionetti, Luigi Einaudi, Pecchenino
There are two diverse styles of Freisa and made often from two different clones. The first is a light red, slightly frizzante (sparkling) with a touch of sweetness on the palate. The other is slightly darker in colour, completely still and very dry. It’s a grape variety less seen these days as the above varieties are easier to sell.
Good producers include: Giuseppe Mascarello (Dry version) Roberto Voerzio (Frizzante version)
Yes, Pinot Noir has made it here too! The vast majority is grown in the Alta Langhe as the bright acidity achieved there is ideally suited to making Champagne Method sparkling wines. But there are one or two producers who make good still wines from it. It’s not Burgundy but it’s very very drinkable! When you’re tired of wrestling with the tannins of Barolo, a cool, fresh bottle of Pinot Nero certainly brings the palate to life.
Good producers include: Pecchinino
To be honest, I find the Arneis wines (white wines) from the Langhe a little flabby and uninteresting but those from across the Tanaro River in the Roero region when grown in the sandier soils, display good, crisp fruit balanced by a stoney mineral under-carriage. They make for excellent aperitifs and are also good to partner with fish and seafood.
Good producers include: Ca Rossa, Matteo Correggia, Cornarea.
Less seen but equally as good is the Favorita grape as it is known locally but perhaps better known under its Ligurian or Sardinian title of Vermentino. As with Arneis, it fares better over in the Roero and is well suited to similar drinking.
Good producers include: Ciabot Berton
Some growers with vineyards at slightly higher altitude have taken to growing Riesling. The general quality level is good however the style is very much Piemontese with lean, crisp acidity and light fruit. Nevertheless it is fun to drink especially with carpaccio of seafood or simply by itself to enliven the palate before a heavy dinner or lunch.
Good producers include: Ettore Germano
This international grape variety is grown worldwide and the Langhe Hills are no exception. As with many Chardonnay wines, they can be rather bland and ineffectual but searching out a good one is worthwhile. The wines can be either tank fermented or made in barrel, the latter requiring very high quality grapes that will produce sufficient flavour and aroma that the wine won’t be overpowered by oak nuances.
Good producers include: Moccagatta, Aldo Conterno
This is long forgotten grape variety that is native to Piemonte. It is semi-aromatic in character producing white wines with delicate aromas of citrus fruits with some faint tropical notes. On the palate it tends to be savoury and slightly herbal. The D.O.C. was awarded in 2002. The main producers tend to be around the village of Novello but it is now appearing in other villages too. Wines can be made using just stainless steel or barrel fermentation, the latter for me tending to bury the delicate flavours of the grape variety.
Unlike Asti Spumante, Moscato d’Asti is only classed as frizzante or semi-sparkling. The best vineyards are situated around the village of Mango where there is a regional enoteca. Made from the Muscat a Petits Grains it’s like a fruit salad in a glass and just the thing to accompany light desserts and pastries.
Good producers include: Paolo Saracco, Dogliotti (La Caudrina)
Alta Langa Metodo Classico
This sparkling wine, made in the same way as Champagne, is a relatively recent addition to the spectrum of wine available from the region. It is based on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay as is most fine Champagne. Grown in the Alta Langa at a higher altitude than the vineyards of Barolo and Barbaresco, the grapes retain a higher acidity which is essential for the production of great sparkling wine. The law states that the secondary fermentation in bottle and ageing must be for at least 30 months, 12 months more than the law in Champagne. Thus the final products have fine bubbles, good complexity and depth of flavour. If you love Champagne, try this when you’re there. It won’t disappoint.
Good producers include: Ettore Germano, Fontanafredda.