Piedmont is, without question, one of Italy’s premier wine producing areas. It is located in the country’s northwest corner, with Turin as its capital, and the cities of Alba and Asti as its most important wine making centers. Piedmont’s reputation is based largely on its red wines, lending credence to the old Italian saying: “Wine is red.” The four main red wines from Piedmont, in order of increasing intensity, are Dolcetto d’Alba, Barbera d’Alba, Barbaresco and Barolo.
As with so many great things from Italy, there is some inconsistency here. I speak specifically of the way in which these wines are named. Dolcetto is the name of the grape the wine is made of, and Alba is the name of the city where it is made. The same pattern holds true of Barbera d’Alba; Barbera is the grape, Alba is the place of origin. The other two wines are named more as they would be in France: geographically, with no mention of the varietal. Barbaresco and Barolo are both places near Alba, whose wines are made from the Nebbiolo grape. Don’t confuse any of these names with Barbarella which is not a wine at all, but an old movie starring a young Jane Fonda.
Having gotten some of the basic and necessarily dry background information out of the way, I’m eager to say that these wines can be some of the most seductive, complicated, idiosyncratic and tasty wines in the world. They’re well worth getting to know, and a real change of pace, just in case one might be needed from one’s usual Merlot.
Dolcetto is Italy’s answer to a big Beaujolais, such as a Morgon or Moulin-à-Vent. Like its French counterpart, it starts out crisp and clean, with plenty of friendly red fruit, slightly reminiscent of a refreshing Sangria. Then, in an Italianesque tragicomedy sort of way, it finishes with a wisp of bitter almonds; the perfect wine for an inevitably doomed, though pleasant summer fling. The 1998 Torregiorgi Dolcetto d’Alba for $12 is just what it’s supposed to be.
Barbera d’Alba is a perfect though often overlooked “crossover” wine. What I mean by this is that it goes well with many different dishes and works as a great comprise when, for instance, you order the seared tuna with lemon-caper sauce, and your companion gets the osso bucco. To me, its really endearing feature is the way it combines a very firm acidic backbone with a full, round fruitiness. It’s also often a bargain on wine lists. Try Torregiorgi’s 1998 for $15.
The world’s two great wines made from the Nebbiolo grape, Barolo and Barbaresco, are each cut from the same cloth. What could be said of one, could be said of the other, though usually slightly less emphatically of Barbaresco. They are big, rich, aggressive, alcoholic wines, but at the same time subtle, deep and as complex as one is willing to notice. In fine examples, the fragrance of violets, earthiness of roofing tar and fullness of heavy cream are combined with a palate cleansing finish that seems to go on for hours. With a truffled rack of lamb, or just a wedge of Parmigiano Reggiano, life doesn’t get any better. If you like big California Zinfandels, these are wines you should try. The 1995 Ceretto Barbaresco ($35) and the 1991 Gromis Conteisa Cerequio Barolo ($60) are nice examples.
For something completely different, let’s not forget that Piedmont is also the home of Asti, the sweet, fruity, inexpensive sparkling wine made from the Moscato grape. A lot of the people who would never consider it probably enjoy an occasional Coke, and any White Zin drinker could use it as a painless way to broaden their horizons. Wine doesn’t always have to be significant. Fontanafredda Asti ($11) can sometimes be just what the doctor ordered.