This week we are talking Italy, and more specifically the Italian northwest region of Piedmont. We've asked expat and local resident Valerie Quintanilla why Piedmont is a must for wine lovers thinking about visiting Italy.
The first time I heard about the Piedmont wine region (Piemonte in Italian) was during a business dinner with an Italian colleague in the United States. I had a trip to Italy planned with wine as my focus. I gushed about visiting the Valpolicella to experience Amarone and of course Tuscany — because back then I thought wine travel in Italy was not complete without a trip to Tuscany.
As she shook her head a disapproving click-click came from her mouth. “No, no. If you want Italian wine, you go to Piemonte,” she said.
I had never heard of the region. My eyes widened as she described a rural wine mecca in the hills of Northern Italy, surrounded by the Alps and steeped in wine making traditions. I knew I had to go there.
It took me a year, but I finally made it. Five years later, Piedmont is my home.
I didn’t make it on the first solo wine trip because after hours of online research it seemed too difficult to navigate such a rural place on my own. Today, it’s slowly getting better. More hotels, producers, and tourist boards have websites. More tour companies have set up shop to show visitors the region. And, more and more locals are speaking English. Yes, it is getting better. But, visiting Piedmont is still not easy.
And to many that is part of the region’s charm and intoxication. Those who put in the travel planning time are aptly rewarded with its breathtaking beauty, the world class food, and of course some of the world’s greatest wines.
The Beauty of Piedmont
Piedmont is situated in Italy’s northwest corner, bordering France and Switzerland. In 2014 Piedmont’s vineyard landscape in the Langhe, Roero, and Monferrato wine growing areas received Unesco World Heritage designation. Vineyards stretch out across the rolling hills as far as the eye can see and charming little winemaking villages dot the countryside. In many ways it feels like being in a magical bubble, cushioned from the outside world. The best views of Monviso, Montblanc, and the supporting Alps cast come in the winter and spring. And, in the fall when the nebbia (fog) has settled over the region and the peaks are visible, you know you have found a little slice of heaven.
The Food of Piedmont
Each year from mid-October through mid-November the area hosts international visitors during the Alba White Truffle Festival. The event runs six weekends in the primary winemaking town of Alba, which sits between the Barolo and Barbaresco zones. Tourists can be found exploring the fair, taking in a truffle hunt, wine tasting, and trying any number of menus topped with the decadent tartufo bianco d’Alba. Eateries all over Piedmont serve up truffle shavings by the kilo on traditional foods. Insider’s tip: Truffles are better in colder, icier conditions, so if you plan to attend the Alba White Truffle Fair do it in the last two weeks for the best ones.
Piedmont: The Wine
If you look around the world of wine today, you'll notice that most wine is made with the same grape varieties. Pretty much every 'New World' country produces wines made from grapes native to France; Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot... the list goes on. This is no bad thing as stylistically, all the above varieties can be drastically different depending upon climate, soil, viticulture and vinification. The vast majority of glossy, bold Shiraz from Australia is, literally and figuratively, a world away from the savoury, peppery wines of the Northern Rhone, for example. However, in the last 10 years the fashion has been to move away from seeking out the 'best' examples of these well known varieties and instead to look for unique expressions, typically from grapes native to specific countries and regions. This has seen the emergence of some new stars in the world of wine, from the austere, mineral wines of Mount Etna in Sicily to the powerful, racy Assyrtiko of Santorini in Greece. Austria has re-modelled its vinous reputation with the versatile Grüner Veltliner and even as afar as South America, Bonarda and Pais are resurging on both sides of the Andes, in Argentina and Chile respectively.
However, no country has been rediscovered in quite the same way as Spain. There are somewhere in the region of 600 grape varieties on the Iberian Peninsula, the vast majority of them indigenous and regionally specific in production. Despite this, Spain was for decades synonymous with oaky, extracted wines from Rioja, and to a lesser extent Ribera del Duero, with Tempranillo the only celebrated indigenous grape hailing from the country. Short-sighted producers ripped up their old, unfashionable vineyards and replanted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and anything that was currently selling, not realising that in doing so they were giving up their major point of difference on the international market-place. However, this wasn't true for all producers and quietly, many went about their business as they had done for centuries; cultivating their families vineyards and producing wines of distinction and style, as their vines slowly became older, sturdier and produced better quality fruit. To look at the market now compared to 20 years ago is staggering. Shops in Barcelona are awash with local Catalan wines, Galician field-blends are appearing in top restaurants across the world and even Sherry is making a come-back! To cover the entirety of this resurgence would take a strong liver and a lot of time, but I'd like to share a few exciting varieties from my own little corner of Spain, the fiercely independent Catalunya:
Wine is a fussy product. Starting from its very beginnings as embryonic genetic material located on the buds of vines, to its moment of glory in your glass, there are countless chemical reactions, pitfalls and opportunities to be navigated and controlled in order to create a good bottle of wine. The vast majority of these is, fortunately, taken care of by the time we actually buy a bottle of wine, as the vigneron has spent the entire year wrestling against nature, ensuring the right balance of sugars, acids and flavour compounds, before handing over the baton to the wine-maker. This is where the grapes will be converted into wine through the magical process of fermentation, possibly aged and then bottled with care being taken to ensure biological stability. Then depending on where the wine is to be sold, it will go through a long or short supply route, potentially crossing oceans, continents and all sorts of checks before it finally appears on a shop shelf or restaurant list somewhere in the world.
Enter us; the consumer. We purchase the wine with the intention of one day drinking it, whether that be within minutes of the purchase, or 20 years down the line, after extended storage to allow for it to evolve within the bottle. Assuming the bottle has been purchased close to home and you intend to drink it in the near future, this is all well and good as any issues of storage are very much the responsibility of the retailer/restaurant and bottles can be returned for a refund. However, if you're buying the wine far from home, possibly, abroad, we run into some potential issues quite quickly.
Having just come back from a two week trip to the Mount Etna region of eastern Sicily we thought we'd share some of the best wine stores we came across travelling in the region. I must say I love the "enoteca" concept in Italy, where you can come for an aperitivo, taste local wines by the glass with some food, and then purchase bottles that you've tasted and liked. We loved visiting and tasting wines directly at the wineries of course, but the experience of tasting different producers side by side, and the ability to try older vintages can only be done at an enoteca.