Wednesday, April 2, 2014

ITALY: Foothills of the Alps

Monferrato Barbera vineyards
Everyday, it is the mystery of wine that has always drawn me in.  A planned Spring holiday touring Italy has me drawn into the wines of the northern region of Piemonte, that highway of Hannibal and the realm of the regal House of Savoy.  It would be hard to deny that this was a proud and strategic landscape, surrounded by mountains on three sides that give birth to the fertile Po Valley. It declares itself nobly, Piemonte, sitting at the foothills of the mountains(Alps).  Notably, the large region is ancestral home to one of the world's great vitis vinifera varieties, Nebbiolo.  This journal, however, reviewed that ethereal grape back in 2011, so I decided to explore the region's widely popular indigenous everyday varieties, dark-skinned Dolchetto and Barbera.

Piemonte is home to more defined and regulated growing regions, called DOC's, than any other Italian region(more than 40).  The classification system of Denominazione di Origine Controllata was introduced in 1963, and in theory identifies wines at a higher quality designations to conform with the French AOC laws, which subsequently were adopted by the EU.  Further sub-classifications of Classico, Superiore and Riserva present more stringent qualifications for viticulture and production. At the top of the rankings sit the limited wines designated as of  'Controlled and Guaranteed Designation of Origin' or DOCG, from specific designated areas and having not only passed strict analyses, but also tasting requirements.
Vineyards of Langhe hills

Due to the fact that tannic Nebbiolo wines traditionally take so long to be drinkable, it is said that widely planted Barbera, with over 50,000 acres planted and Dolcetto(little sweet one) are the everyday wines. Juicy, savory Barbera(Roberto Ferraris, Ettore Germano, Vietti are favorite producers) with its opaque skins, offers a grape that is high in acid strength, with remarkably low concentrations of bitter tannin.  As a vinified product it can give the ripe impression of being tart, yet fruit forward; waves of dried red and black fruits with herbaceous notes. Ever evolving Barbera, where typically large Slovenian oak or chestnut barrels were used limitedly, produced friendly wines with oak nuance not a big part of it's ripe, approachable personality. Today, quality producers who integrate smaller, new oak barrels in longer production schedules are offering structured wines of stronger oak flavors and firmer tannin, producing an everyday wine that is actually capable of aging.

Grown in the broad swath of rolling hills of Asti and Alessandria provinces, tart Barbera d'Asti DOCG dominates here in soils of clay, silt, sand and limestone.  From its ancestral origins, Barbera del Monferrato DOC is today grown in a broad zone covering over 200 nearby communes. When upgraded with even more restrictive production requirements, Barbera del Monferrato Superiore DOCG, represents some of the best examples of this regions most popular varietal. Heading southwest, even fuller bodied (+value priced) Barbera d'Alba DOC grows along the warmer south-facing hillsides that are inching closer to prestigious Barolo.
Barbera at harvest

Early ripening, Dolcetto has been described as 'grapey' or fruit-forward, thus questioning its aging potential. Curiously, this fruity, low-acid varietal is naturally high in tannin, leaving an impression of bitter cherry in the mouth.  The easily grown varietal has found its place in less prestigious vineyard locations here, grown in soils of calcareous clay and limestone. Combined with its slightly lower minimum alcohol and aging DOC requirements, this varietal historically too has seen little or no oak.  Fortunately, contemporary producers are beginning to experiment to the betterment of this much loved native varietal. In southern Cuneo province, Dogliani DOCG(Luigi Einaudi, a consistent quality producer) with its calcareous or siliceous clay soils has long been thought to be the varietals ancestral home. Here it can evolve, with a longer minimum 12 month aging requirement and higher minimum alcohol levels to attain Superiore status.

In Dolcetto d'Alba DOC(Mirafiore, Giuseppe Cortese, Francesco Rinaldi) food-friendly bitter cherry values can consistently be found for under $25. Typically, these are easy drinking wines produced from 100% Dolcetto.  Throughout the region, wines of higher minimum alcohol would be qualified for Superiore status, an increasing evidence of the producers challenge to master the little sweet one. Grown in the clay, tufa and limestone soils of Alessandria province to the east, Dolcetto di Ovada wines must be of Superiore status to qualify for its DOCG status. Beyond, sitting on the hills between these preferred Dolcetto zones is Diano d'Alba DOCG, consistently producing some of the varietals best examples.
Vineyard dominated Piemonte hills

Under the broad Langhe DOC appellation that covers Cuneo province, the DOC's roll off of the tongue with names like Canavese, Gabiano, and Valsusa. These high standard everyday wines contribute to the Piemonte volume, giving it today more quality wines than any other Italian region.  Natives have often known these and many other everyday values above the simple Vino di  Tavola designation in the cafes and osterias of Piedmont.  The food-friendly regional wines of Dolcetto and Barbera can here enhance the sweet life, the dolce vita, as patrons sit to converse and watch the late hours of the day pass. Even as their mystery unfolds in each glass, perhaps the greatest mystery is why so many American wine lovers have yet to discover them!


P.S. Society of Wine Educators results for our submitted Presentation Skills Demonstration have not yet been released, but are anticipated shortly.  Hopefully, we'll soon have another reason to celebrate la dolce vita!

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