Piedmont’s Other Jewels
by Michel Thibault, Michel Thibault Wine LLC
Everyone makes a big fuss over Nebbiolo and its Barolos and Barbarescos. They should, as the wines can truly be outstanding and, with the exception of a few, their prices are not exhorbitant. However, the region offers so much more, just like it does in beautiful landscapes, mouth watering foods and friendly people. In fact, few wine regions offer such diversity: sparkling dry wines, sparkling sweet wines, dry whites, semi-dry reds and dry reds, with much difference in complexion, body structure and flavor profiles.
Let’s start with the most known: Moscato or Muscat, which is the varietal in both Asti Spumante and Moscato d’Asti. Asti production is huge – more than ten times that of Barolo. A traditionally soft to sweet wine, it is also low in alcohol and has nice acidity which prevents it from becoming too cloying, its aromas are that of peaches, apricots and white flowers. Interestingly, it is not made like Champagne through a double fermentation process, but instead in the Charmat method, which implies induced single fermentation. Asti needs to be drunk while young (1-3 years) as flavors seem to fade quickly.
Moscato, like Asti, is a DOCG (Government Guarantee for technique and quality levels). Grapes are picked at maximum Brix and kept very cold to stop fermentation. Since the law stipulates that Moscato d’Asti must have a maximum of 5.5 percent alcohol, when fermentation is stopped, there is still a lot of natural sugar. No secondary fermentation occurs with Moscato, only a stringent filtration which provides the wine with the beautiful golden color it is so known for.
Moscato d’Asti was once known as a pop wine, but many serious drinkers are enjoying the high quality ones, particularly with dessert such as fruit tarts where low alcohol, freshness, slight acidity make the wine an excellent partner.
Since we are on sweet wines, let us look at Brachetto d’Acqui. Also DOCG, the name comes from the location – the grapes are grown around the small town of Acqui Terme, also known for its rejuvenating, healthy waters. Brachetto is red, but reminiscent of Moscato inasmuch as it is sweet, is loaded with floral and fruity notes. (It reminds me of a sparkling strawberry!) Like Moscato and Lambrusco as well, it is Frizzante or slightly fizzy (versus Spumante or sparkly). Alcohol level is low, around 5 percent and the wine is deliciously enjoyed with chocolate desserts such as a flourless, soft center chocolate cake.
Another slightly sweet varietal from Piedmont is Freisa. Getting to be more and more popular in the US, Freisa is a distant cousin of Nebbiolo. This varietal needs lots of sunshine and carries a good bit of residual sugar. It can be found as a sparkling wine, as there often is a natural second fermentation that occurs. Wine Guru Hugh Johnson enjoyed Freisa because of the duality of bitterness and sugar but Robert Parker called it ” repugnant”. Oh well, there has to be something for everybody…
Moving on to dry, white varietals, Piedmont is home to Chardonnay but also to Favorita – seemingly related to Rolle or Vermentino and Arneis, particularly in the Northern Roero area. Favorita’s flavor profile is that of ripe pears and sea salt. A grape utilized in the past to blend with Nebbiolo and make it slightly softer, it ages rapidly and is often seen on Piemontese tables as the house wine.
Arneis, which translates into ” little rascal” in Italian, because it is not so easy to grow, is generally found in Roero, North of Alba. This is a serious varietal, producing wines that are full bodied, with fruity notes of apricots and pears. It used to be grown next to Nebbiolo since the grapes are very aromatic and the birds would feast on them instead of the valuable Nebbiolo…talk about sacrifice! Like Favorita, Arneis offers notes of ripe pears and farmers try to harvest the grapes quickly before they get overripe and lose total acidity.
The most popular white varietal is Cortese. In the US, we know the wine as Gavi. Cortese is light to medium bodied and offers low acidity, which makes it a popular companion to many seafood dishes.
Finally, the dry reds. We start with Dolcetto or “Douce Noire” as the French call it. The name does not reflect on the dryness of the wine as it is surely dry, but rather the low acidity it imparts. Reminding you of a Beaujolais, it should be drunk within a couple of years from bottling. With aromatic profiles of black cherry, almonds and prunes, this popular, light and easy drinking wine marries well with pizza, mild cheeses and pastas.
We finish our tour of ABN (Anything But Nebbiolo) in Piedmont with the grape that has supplanted Nebbiolo throughout Piedmont. It is reminiscent of the Cotes du Rhone appellation in France: wines cover the entire spectrum in quality and style but they are almost always inexpensive and great values. Barbera d’Asti produced around Nizza is of very high quality. There and in more and more areas, wood barrels are used for ageing, increasing vanilla notes and complex aromas. Good balance of red cherries (in the lighter style Barberas) or dark blueberries (in the heavier models) and acidity, make good Barberas easy choices with good food. I had the opportunity recently to drink a 2008 Albino Rocca Barbera d’Alba Gepin and what a treat it was: elegant, juicy, perfumey and all of that for $25 in a restaurant!
Indeed Piedmont wines express “la bella vita” or the pleasure of life, just like its people. I will be back!