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Piemonte

Piemonte (Piedmont is the English spelling), in the far north west of Italy, enjoys an unrivalled seat among the world's very finest wine regions. It is the home of more DOCG wines than any other Italian region, among them such well-known and respected names as Barolo, Barbaresco, and Barbera d’Asti. Although famous for its austere, tannic red wines made from Nebbiolo, Piemonte's greatest success story in the past decade has been sweet, white, sparkling Moscato d’Asti.

Piemonte sits at the foot of the Western Alps – the name Piemonte means "the foot of the mountains" – which encircle its northern and western sides and forms its naturally formidable border with Provence, France. To its southeast lie the northernmost Apennine Mountains. These low coastal hills divide Piemonte from its long, thin neighbour Liguria, and the Mediterranean Sea beyond.

The Alps and Apennines are great significance here, in various ways. They are largely responsible for the region's favourable climate, and for many centuries provided a certain level of protection from invasion. It wasn't until the region's mountain defenses were successfully breached (first by the Romans, then repeatedly by the French) that advanced oenology finally arrived here. The introduction and regular updating of foreign winemaking technologies is one of the main reasons that Piemonte remains so viticulturally advanced compared to other Italian regions. The region's proximity to France also plays a part in this.

Piemonte is often described as the Burgundy of Italy, a reputation due to its many small-scale, family wineries and a focus on quality which sometimes borders on obsession. What Burgundy does with Pinot Noir, Piemonte does with Nebbiolo – not the region's most widely planted grape, but the one which has made the largest contribution to the quality and reputation of its wine. Nebbiolo grapes are behind four of Piemonte's DOCGs: Barolo and Barbaresco (two of Italy's finest reds), Roero and Gattinara. Nebbiolo wines are known for their "tar and roses" bouquet, and the pronounced tannins which can make them unapproachable in their youth but underwrite their excellent cellaring potential. The grape is known as Spanna in the north and east of Piemonte, and is used in at least ten local DOCs including Carema, Fara and Nebbiolo d'Alba.

Barbera, a dark-skinned variety from the Monferrato hills, is Piemonte's workhorse grape and the region's most widely planted variety. It is long been used to make everyday wines under a number of DOC titles, but is now behind a growing number of superlative wines. Piemonte's best Barberas are sold under the Barbera del Monferrato, Barbera d’Asti or Barbera d'Alba titles. These are classically Italian in style: tangy, sour cherry-scented reds with good acidity and moderate complexity. Less astringently tannic than their Nebbiolo-based counterparts, Barbera wines are enjoyable (and marketable) within just a year or two of vintage, giving them a competitive edge in today's fast-paced, impatient wine market. This has made Barbera popular with both wineries and consumers.

The third red grape of Piemonte is Dolcetto. It has several DOCs devoted exclusively to it: Dolcettos d'Alba, d'Acqui and di Ovada are the top three. Although its name means "little sweet one", Dolcetto is usually used to make dry red wines with an appetising, gently bitter finish. Unfortunately, the care and attention lavished on Nebbiolo and Barbera too often leave their poor cousin Dolcetto lacking refinement and complexity.

Brachetto is also worthy of mention, not least for its role in the sweet, sparkling reds of the Brachetto d’Acqui DOCG. So too is Freisa, with its broad portfolio of sweet, dry, still and sparkling red wines made in Asti and Chieri.

Although Piemonte is known as a red wine region, it produces several well regarded white wine styles. The most obvious (in every sense) are crowd-pleasing Moscato d’Asti and its less ambitious cousin Asti Spumante. Both of these are made from Moscato grapes grown around the town of Asti, but there is a key distinction: Moscato d'Asti is sweeter, more lightly sparkling and generally of higher quality.

Much less frivolous than the sparkling whites of Asti is Gavi, the Piemonte white of the connoisseur. This is made from Cortese, a variety which struggles to produce wines of any aromatic complexity anywhere else, and is now facing serious competition from the alluringly aromatic Arneis. Although not as prestigious as the whites above, Arneis, the best of which comes from Roero, is increasingly popular for its delicate, exotic perfume. A final white worthy of mention is local obscurity Erbaluce (of Erbaluce di Caluso), which has naturally benefitted from the 300% increase in Piemonte's white wine production over the past three decades.

With more DOCGs and DOCs than any other Italian region, and about 40% of its wine produced at DOC/G level, Piemonte is challenged only by Veneto and Toscana for the top spot among Italian wine regions. It is a region which has identified its star grapes, while continuing to experiment with new varieties in the background. Viognier has been trialled by at least one well-respected winery, and the ever-successful Chardonnay is also present in many Piemonte vineyards. Although secure for now, over the next decade Piemonte will be exposed to increasing competition from other Italian wine regions seeking to usurp its crown.
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