Piedmont is a wine region to which grape varieties are the key. The region's great, intense, subtly perfumed, alcoholic, long-lived, occasionally unbearably tannic red wines owe everything to the finicky, local speciality, the late-ripening Nebbiolo vine (supposedly named after the fog). Yet enormous quantities of much juicier lively Barbera and softly mouth-filling Dolcetto are also grown.
Many of these wines are labelled varietally, as in Nebbiolo d’Alba, Barbera d'Asti and Dolcetto di Diano d’Alba. Langhe, Roero and Dogliani are other important DOCs and DOCGs. One of these wines labelled Nebbiolo can offer some of Piemonte's dark, satanic majesty in a bottle at a fraction of the cost of a great Barolo or Barbaresco, although so can some of the best Barbera. Barbera is grown in great quantity all over the region and used to be regarded as the light, tart, quaffing wine to be drunk as young as possible. However, its fortunes have changed entirely with the widespread adoption of small French oak barrels for maturing the produce of low-yielding Barbera vines. Taking the lead from the late Giacomo Bologna’s prototype oaked Barbera, Bricco dell’Uccellone, hundreds of producers have now made changes to their Barbera production in both vineyard and cellar. These are serious wines designed for ageing.
Although the historical essence of Piedmontese wine was as single, 100% varietals, an increasing number of producers now experiment with blends: Nebbiolo blended with Barbera, Merlot, Cabernet or even Syrah.
Even the colour of the wines seems to have changed. Traditionally Barolo and Barbaresco were not notably deep-coloured and often had an orange tinge at only a few years old. Today the wines are in general much deeper-coloured and more likely to be crimson than orange. This may be partly because of the evolution in winemaking and partly because, like Pinot Noir in Burgundy, the Nebbiolo grape mutates easily and has been adapting itself to local conditions. But there is many a whisper that these deeper colours owe much to a judicious slug of Barbera or even Cabernet or Merlot – even if Barolo and Barbaresco have officially been meant to be 100% Nebbiolo.
There are dozens of inspired producers in these small wine zones. My favourites include Elio Altare, Ascheri, Domenico Clerico, Aldo Conterno, Giacomo Conterno, Conterno-Fantino, Fontanafredda, Angelo Gaja, Bruno Giacosa, Elio Grasso, Marchese di Gresy, Giuseppe Mascarello e Figli, Parusso, Pira, Prunotto, Ratti, Bruno Rocca, Sandrone, Vajra, Vietti and Roberto Voerzio.