Italy Part 1: Piemonte! + DOC Laws & Ramblings
Okay, guys. Enough garbage about My Emotions and life as a woman-girl lost in the mountains. This is a wine blog and dammit we are going to talk about wine.
The past three weeks in WSET Diploma have been all Italy, all the time. I think I know about Italian wine. I have consumed a small swimming pool’s worth (at least an over-full hot tub), sold it for many years and travelled there for wine stuff 3-5 times (wine trips! how to keep track?! #imtheworst). You can imagine my surprise to discover I actually know nothing. The theme of this blog, I am coming to realize, is how little I know, how many emotions I have + trips.
I mean, it’s probably not all my fault re: giant knowledge holes #mostlymyfault. There are 500-2000 native varietals in Italy depending on who you ask and over 330 DOCs (more on that later). Of the twenty most-planted varietals, only one of them is international; it is Merlot, you dweeb. Much like my romantic life 93% of the time, it’s complicated. So, let’s talk about Italian wine in sections because it is famous, delicious, there’s a lot of it, and much of it is from regions even “professionals” Wikipedia in their cars before tastings (I mean, I totally would never do that, but, you know).
By far the most planted grape in Italy is Sangiovese. We’ll get there, I promise. But first the north-west because I said so and so did my textbook. I was going to do the entire North-West in this post, which also includes Lombardia and Veneto, but it turns out that is 4700 words, so why don’t we start with the most prestigious, The King of the North: Piemonte - game of thrones, guys, I finally started. Its proximity to France and relative prosperity over time = stable and evolved viticulture. They know what grows best where and have pretty much mastered the right techniques for ageing and fermenting those things.
As such, it’s not so surprising that the entire region of Piemonte is a DOC. As an area, it produces more DOC(G) wine than any other in the country (#1 of over 330 regions, so saying something). As an aside: what the fuck does a DOC mean? A DOC is equivalent to a French AOC, a Spanish DO or a Canadian VQA: basically a geographically delimited area where they make stuff – cheese has delimited areas too - in fact cheese started the whole de-limiting thing with Roquefort, so does ham and likely other food I don’t know about.
The DOC is a set of regulations that name and cap a zone of production, say what can be grown (varietals), how much of it can be grown (maximum yield) and how drunk it is likely to make you (minimum alcohol). It is supposed to guarantee quality and be based on historical best practices to ensure the region isn’t tarnished by sewage water + cherry juice. DOCG is even fancier – it is (in theory) restricted to only the best appellations, 36 at present, that have stricter rules (lower yields, smaller zones) and super, really guarantees quality, this time I pinky swear.
The DOC/ DOCG can and does limit production and guarantee basic quality. That said, it can also be a drag. First, it is made by humans, so not always right. Second, the many restrictions can frustrate producers (what do you mean I can only grow this one grape, don’t you know we have ONE THOUSAND?) and they often don’t go far enough in limiting yields or areas of production (Chianti is HOW big? Answer: really, really big). Two solutions to the DOC(G) shortcomings: 1. IGT! This is a geographically defined zone without the rules. Want to add Merlot to your Sangiovese, Brunello region? No biggie! IGT Sant’Antimo. Before IGT existed non-DOC wines were Vino Da Tavola and couldn’t put a grape type or a vintage on their wine. That really sucked. IGT was invented in 1992 and changed that. Most famously the super-Tuscans Ornellaia and Sassicaia (Sangiovese + Bordeaux Varietals) eshewed the DOC (only Sangiovese!) and made better more expensive wine than their neighbours. When you see IGT on a wine label it means the producer is doing something different, which can be great or crappy. Helpful, right?
2. Classico zones. Some DOCs are hilariously large. The further the region gets from its historical heartland the less likely the grapes are going to express the character of the region. Soil and climate, they totally change. Solution: “Classico”. Classico is added to a region i.e., Chianti Classico, to give the consumer a guarantee that this wine was produced in the original region not in their cousin’s boyfriend’s uncle’s garage. That said, even Classico zones can be big and though DOC(G)s and Classico’s help steer you in the right direction, not all DOC(G)s/ Classicos were created equal and knowing a bit more super helps navigate wine stores and lists.
Okay, okay, huge tangent over. Piemonte! Isn’t it fun to say like an Italian? It really is. Their climate is continental with a cool Alpine influence. It is famous for being foggy, which looks wicked in photos, but can cause rot in vineyards – why you don’t find a ton of organic/ biodynamic producers in this region.
Their star grape is Nebbiolo, which is super famous and delicious, but in reality only accounts for 3% of the region’s production (#HardToRipen). Nebbiolo ripens late and needs sun and good drainage - only ripening at the top of Piemonte’s hilly slopes, preferrably south-facing. As a category, Nebbiolo based wines are light in colour (think garnet – orangey), with intense perfumes otherwise found percolating in a witch’s cauldron: rose, earth, truffle and cinnamon (+ children’s bones!). Nebbiolo based wines pack killer acid, tannin and alcohol, but in this elegant little punch that makes your tongue smack, your teeth forget all shades of white and your palate buzz for a long time.
You totally know Nebbiolo’s handsome leads, the brawny, buff Barolo (the first DOCG awarded in Italy!) and the seductive, floral Barbaresco. People call them masculine/ feminine, respectively, which is totally a thing, but I will not as I am confused for a boy way too often and plenty of men smell like violets and have soft hands. Both are 100% Nebbiolo. Both come from small, hilly regions with low yields. Both spend a bunch of time in oak (2 years for Barbaresco, 3 for Barolo) and another year resting in bottle for those tannins and acids to relax. Barbaresco is cheaper, softer and more floral overall and needs less time to age. Barolo, as a sweeping generalization, has more structure, intensity and tannin. All that to say, ya these wines are really nice. They have labels with crests. They are on the top shelves and bottoms of wine lists with impressive sounding names and astounding price tags.
But I mean, really, who cares. Don’t get me wrong, I super do, Barolo and Barbaresco producers I work with and tirelessly advocate for! These wines are some of the best in the world. They have crazy reputations and live up to them. And yet, they stand for most of us as extreme special occasion wines and are best consumed 5-20 years after they’re bottled. In terms of quantity alone, they are a tiny percent of a tiny percent and even if we were all rich beyond our wildest dreams there is just not that much to go around. Luckily: there is sooooo much more in this region than it’s babely stars and much value and excellent wine to be found.
Here are some appellations to look out for and some cocktail party facts to impress snobby relatives.
Gattinara: this is an appellation to the North of Barolo and Barbaresco in the hills of Vercelli and Novara. It is also famous for its Nebbiolo, which tastes really, really good – in the early 19th century these wines were the most prized and expensive in all of Piemonte - at this time Barolo and Barbaresco were sweet! To be confusing, they call Nebbiolo Spanna, which sounds like a super fun Spanish dance move. The climate is a bit cooler (more North and closer to the alps), which results in more delicate expressions of Nebbiolo with less fat tannin and lower alcohol. It received DOCG status in 1990 and has improved quality greaty since then. Travalini is a great, classic producer to look for.
Nebbiolo D’Alba DOC: Italian DOC from Nebbiolo grapes in the 32 townships surrounding Alba, one of the Barolo regions most famous towns. Must be 100% Nebbiolo and aged for 12 months. Great value wine to be found!
Nebbiolo delle Langhe DOC: Langhe means ‘tongue’ and this DOC covers the hills North and South of Alba that lick around the town's centre - gross, right?! This region is super confusing, I'm sorry. Langhe inclues the entire region lying South of Alba. It is often where Barolo and Barbaresco producers de-classify their fruit to make easy-drinking, less aged Nebbiolo based wines. Producers can legally add 15% of other red indigenous grapes (like Barbera or Dolcetto), which can make this category easy to drink and enjoy. To add another layer, Langhe DOC can be used as a broad category for non-traditional grapes in Piemonte (like Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc). And lastly, to make things even more confusing, Langhe Nebbiolo can also be declassified Nebbiolo d'Alba.
Roero DOCG: sandy hills on the Left bank of the Tanaro river. A lighter expression of Nebbiolo. Less complexity, but also fresh and easy if done right. Also grows lots of great Barbera and Arneis.
Barbera: The workhorse of Piemonte, producing almost half of its wine. If it is cropped high and grown in a parking lot – or overcropped in a fertile field - it will have searing, wretched acidity, caustically sour red fruit and less complexity than a really not complex thing. Good ones though, and there are lots, are deep ruby in colour, juicy with pleasing red fruit and soft, easy to drink tannins. Barbera D’Alba and Barbera d’Asti DOCGs are both great appellations to start. You’ll find supple, well made examples, some with French oak to emphasize their sweet fruit and give some complexity. The most delicious Barbera I've had is the Pio Cesare "Fides", which is grown in a vineyard that could be Barolo if planted with Nebbiolo, but is instead planted to Barbera to show the complexity, intensity and balance of this grape when on great soil, cropped low and vinified carefully.
Dolcetto: The “little sweet one” literally, is not sweet at all, but certainly lush – all deep purple, low acid, substantial tannin and dark, brooding fruit. Cheap and good in Alba and Asti, more complex, interesting and powerful in Diano d’Alba and Dogliani Superiore. Try it, really. The cheaper ones are meant to be light and fruity (think Beaujolais Nouveau) and would be tasty a bit cold.
It’s not all red.
Whites are 30% of the production in Piemonte. Try these.
Gavi: A DOCG in the province of Alessandria famous for growing the Cortese grape. Clean and fresh with refreshing high acidity and persistent bright flavours. Drink it on its own or with seafood. The wines from the region's centre, the town of Gavi, are labeled "Gavi di Gavi" and can be more complex and delicous - though there are great vineyard sights outside of Gavi di Gavi too, so this isn't a hard rule.
Arneis: This white Italian grape means ‘little rascal’, which I obviously love. It is super hard to grow right. Much more floral and perfumed than Cortese with less linear acid and a bit more mid-palate weight. The best examples are grown in the sandy DOCG hills of Roero, but it can also be found in the greater Langhe as a DOC.