The wines of Piedmont

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Piedmont’s wine growing history is ancient in origin, with the Greeks being the first to bring quality wines to the region. From Liguria they expanded into Piemont bringing vine shoots and cuttings used to establish the first vineyards. The Romans continued to cultivate fine wines, but with fall of the Roman Empire , wine making in the region went into a period of decline. Despite the barbarian invasions, traditions did survive and the growth of the grapevine continued after the beginning of the second millennium.

Piedmontese vine growing occurs predominately in the two large areas known as the Langhe and Monferrato. The Langhe region is full of splendid hills, bounded by the Tanaro and Bormida valleys and the Ligurian Alps. The hills, which geographically speaking make up an extension of the Northern Apennines into Western Padania, slope down from an altitude of 700–800 metres. Some of the most famous wine production takes place in this region. This includes not only Barolo and Barbaresco, but also Moscato d'Asti, Nebbiolo, Barbera and Dolcetto.


The Monferrato vine growing area is subdivided into two geographically distinct areas. The Villafranca d'Asti valley, the Borbore stream and the lower part of the Tanaro valley divide the northern Lower Monferrato from the Upper Monferrato .

Upper Monferrato, differing from the usual geographical use of the terms "upper" and "lower," is the southern part, and has lower altitudes (average of 350 meters) in comparison to the hills of Asti. The slopes are steeper and the valleys less marked. The names Acqui, Ovada and Gavi are the provincial capitals of winemaking. There is considerable production of Barbera del Monferrato and Moscato d'Asti, and two brands of the esteemed white Cortese wine: Alto Monferrato and di Gavi. Also noteworthy are the richly flavoured Dolcetto di Acqui and di Ovada, and the lesser known (mostly due to modest production) but appreciated and prized by connoisseurs, Brachetto d'Acqui dessert wine.

Lower Monferrato is made up of a system of hills with elevations reaching 700 meters, and is the area with the highest density of grape vines. Asti, the provincial capital, has been the centre for wines of high interest for hundreds of years. These wines include Moscato (introduced several centuries ago), Barbera (already well known in the 1700s), Freisa (known throughout the region but less popular over time), black Malvasia, and Grignolino (considered one of the most refined wines of Monferrato).

The table below provides information to help you match the major appellations of the region with the grape

Table 1 - Piedmont Wine & Grape Varieties

Grapes Used
Bonarda [traditionally called Croatina]
Nebbiolo or Bonarda
Red Effervescent
White effervescent
Moscato d’Asti
Gavi or Cortese
Roero Arneis
White Sparkling

On The Wine Trail

When you exit the autostrada or leave the train station at Asti , you enter Astesana, an ancient land , dotted with ancient castles and fine houses. Astesana is one of the most fertile areas in the province of Asti, with over 50 closely connected towns and cities, and producing a third of Piedmont’s wine. Delicious Barbera, aromatic Moscato, the splendid Brachetto, and the famous Italian Spumante are all produced here. There are over 300 wineries, mostly private and some co-operative, available for tastings and purchases. Also worth sampling while you are here is Italy’s only DOP goats' milk cheese, incredible vegetables and of course the famous Piemonte truffles.

A Selection of Astesana Wines

In total, there are 12 DOC and DOCG wines from Astesana, and when the various types and sub-denominations are factored in, over 47 types of possible wordings can appear on the wine labels. It is no wonder people can get confused about what to buy! The descriptions provided on the follwing pages are not intended as an exhaustive list of all wines available, but hopefully they will give you a guiding hand with your selection.

Vini Rossi: the Red Wines

Barbera – The Barbera grape occupies nearly 35% of Piedmont’s 53,000 hectares of vineyards. In recent years, creative wine growers and producers have been adapting their management of this versatile grape to satisfy a wide range of tastes and demands. The results have been impressive, and at home in Italy, Barbera is firmly established as an important red wine. It is not, however, as well known in other markets, although this is changing slowly.

Piedmont’s provinces of Asti and Alessandria provide optimum conditions for the Barbera grape, and it is suspected to have originated from here. A high proportion of the best Barbera wines come from three DOCs (Denominazione Di Orgine Controllata): Barbera d’Alba DOC, Barbera del Monferrato DOC and Barbera d’Asti DOC. Barbera d’Alba tends to be what you most frequently see in export markets, as these are the Barbera wines made by the Barolo and Barbaresco producers from the Langhe region.

Essentially you have the choice of three styles of Barbera. First, the stainless steel aged Barbera produces a fresher, fruity wine. Thanks to their plentiful anthocyans and their reduced tannins, in skilled hands Barbera grapes can produce splendid easy-to-drink medium-bodied reds that are affordable and approachable when young. Next, the barrique-aged Barberas that are grand and powerful. Giacomo Bologna changed everything for Barbera when he released his Bricco dell’Uccellone in the early eighties. Selecting grapes from the best vineyards and aging them in new French barriques, his results started a revolution in Piedmont wine-producing circles. Today’s producers are now using the barrel to soften out their acidic Barbera wines. Barrique techniques, combined with lower yields and old vines, are producing wines that are big and soft. The 11% alcohol levels of the supermarket brands can be raised to 14% or higher in some of the new-style Barbera wines. The best selections and the ‘Superiore’ version will grace any table, and are perfect with top quality meat, game and mature cheeses. To obtain a ‘Superiore' denomination requires adherence to strict regulations, including careful selection of the grapes and barrel refining in the cellar for a minimum of 1 year. If stored properly, these wines can be appreciated even after 10 years in the bottle. Finally, the third type of Barbera comes from producers who are blending Nebbiolo and Barbera grapes. These super-Piemonte wines fall under the Langhe Rosso DOC denomination, and typically consist of around 60% Barbera and 40% Nebbiolo. They represent Piedmont's answer to super-Tuscans. They can cost as much (if not more) than Barolo and Barbaresco.

What to chose?

In the Astensana zone (ancient wine roads) Barbera is king and in Asti and Monferrato areas you will find wonderful Barbera bargains. Your choice is extensive and will depend on:

How you feel about strong oak flavours in wine;

How much you want to spend;

How well you can store the wine;

Whether you want to invest for the future and lay the wine down;

What you are going to drink it with;

Since 1970 Barbera d’Asti DOC and Barbera del Monferrato DOC have been produced from perfect soils, the best exposure of hills and a great microclimate.

Barbera d’Asti – This is one of the most important wines of Astensana. Linked with ancient farming traditions, the grapes are harvested quite late (early October). This wine is sold in various forms and is increasingly becoming the choice of knowledgeable consumers. Although the ‘Barbera’ label is not yet well known outside of Italy, its secret is being discovered with a resultant growth in its popularity and eneological interest. This wine can be young and fresh, ready to drink immediately, or classical and full of vigour for up 8 to 10 years. It is zesty, with a full flavour; a good Barbera d’Asti can be as smooth as silk. The wine is often made as a non-varietal with Barbera grapes, but some are blended, to a maximum of 15% with Freisa, Grignolino or Dolcetto. Its colour is ruby-red, turning towards garnet with aging. This grape grows best in the Monferrato hills to the north and south of Asti . If the label bears the term 'Superiore' it means the Barbera d’Asti has enjoyed a prolonged maturing process (usually of three years, but a minimum of one year), six months of which must have been in wooden casks. Since the wonderful 2000 harvest, three particularly prestigious areas within the Barbera d’Asti production zone have been defined: Barbera d’Asti Superiore Nizza; Barbera d’Asti Superiore Tinella and Barbera d’Asti Superiore Colli Astiani or Astino. These sub zones adhere to stricter regulations and comply with more severe selection processes that enhance the quality of their product.

Recommended tasting temperature for Barbera d’Asti wine is normally 18–20 degrees centigrade, and you should open the bottle at least two hours before drinking.

Piemonte Bonarda – This ruby-red wine is made from a traditional Piedmontese grape that has been around since the 16th century. It is best cultivated in very exposed sites, which perhaps explains why it is currently only grown in small amounts in this region. The Bonarda grape has also been exported to other parts of the world, and is used increasingly in blended wines. This is a full-bodied wine with a long lasting bouquet and a fragrance that comes with a subtle hint of almond. It is slightly tannic but with less acidity than its near neighbour the Barbera grape, and it is more rounded and softer. A wine with style and character that is not available in large quantities, this is an excellent choice for those who do not shrink from being more individual with their wine collections. It pairs well with hors d’oeuvres, cold meats, soups and red meats, and is excellent with fresh or mild cheese. Recommended tasting temperature is 18–20 degrees centigrade.

Piemonte Brachetto – This is the red cousin of the white Moscato grape. A great Piedmontese desert wine whose production is limited, but its scarce quantity is compensated by its excellent quality. It is produced by 18 communes in the province of Asti and eight in the province of Alessandria. Only hilly vineyards with appropriate slopes and exposures whose marl terrains are primarily clayey-calcareous in nature are considered appropriate to the production of Brachetto. It is a ruby-red wine of medium intensity, tending to bright pinkish garnet; with a highly delicate, musky odour and scents of roses; sweet and soft in flavour, and fizzy. It is produced both as sparkling [Spumante] and slightly sparkling (frizzante) versions. It is an enchanting wine with strong aromas and huge agreeability.  This is another great wine to have if you are looking for something more individual, as you won’t find it on the supermarket shelves. It pairs well with sweet desserts and fruit salads, and is delicious with strawberries, fruit tarts and surprisingly, even complements chocolate! Serve chilled (6–8 degrees centigrade).

Barbera Del Monferrato – This area claims the Barbera grape as its own. A dry, vaguely semi-sweet, full to medium-bodied wine, usually effervescent or sparkling, that leaves the palate pleasantly velvety. It is a ruby red colour of varying intensity. Good vintages are aged up to four years. It pairs well with all meats, including chicken, and can complement spicy cheeses when aged. Its light froth results from natural fermentation, and makes it a good accompaniment to beef stews. Recommended tasting temperature is 18–20 degrees centigrade, and you should open the bottle at least two hours before drinking.

Grignolino – One of the great aristocratic wines of Piedmont, Grignolino has been around since the 18th century, and the grapes were probably used in other wines as early as the 16th century. The wine's production area used to be quite extensive, but the spread of vine-destroying parasites throughout Europe led to a big reduction in the cultivation of Grignolino because it was more sensitive to such pests than other types of grapes. Among its famous admirers were Giovanni Lanza, Italian Prime Minister at the time of the unification, and King Umberto I (1878–1900), who preferred it to any other wine on his table. It is produced in the hilly zone centred around the town of Asti. Only hilly vineyards with appropriate slopes and exposures are considered suitable for production. It comes either as a 100% Grignolino non-varietal or with the possible addition of Freisa grape (up to a maximum of 10% to maintain DOC status). Grignolino is a light ruby-red coloured wine with a tendency to develop orange tones with aging and mellowing. Its aroma is delicate and characteristically floral, with forest fruit overtones. The taste is dry, warm, and slightly tannic, with a pleasantly bitterish flavour and persistent aftertaste. The taste improves with natural maturity to become more aromatic and delicate. It is best paired with soups, risottos and light first courses such as grilled meats, and also complements salamis and sausages. This wine can even be enjoyed slightly chilled as a summer wine.

Vini Bianchi: the White Wines

Asti Spumante – The best known sweet white sparkling wines of this region, Asti Spumante is made from the Moscato grape. Millions of bottles are exported from Italy every year. Asti Spumante refers to a fully sparkling wine with straightforward sweet and fruity flavour, which is best enjoyed on its own or as a dessert selection.

Moscato D’Asti – This aromatic wine is not so well known outside Italy as Spumanti. It is a finer wine, made from the finest, most select of the Moscato grapes, which are often harvested late and cite the name of the vineyard. Moscato d’Asti is one of the world’s great wine styles. It is a golden straw coloured wine with a minimum overall strength of 4.5% by volume. This is a delicate, delicious low alcohol wine, with natural fruit sweetness and a light fizz. Moscato d’Asti has about half the carbonation of a typical sparkling wine, and is released very soon after the vintage to preserve its uniquely fresh character. It is extremely aromatic with a famously complex perfume; its mild level of sweetness is counterbalanced by vibrant acidity. Moscato d’Asti makes an exceptional dessert wine but is also versatile enough to have as an aperitif. Served alone, it is one of the most refreshing wines in the world, and one would be hard pressed to find something better for a hot summer day. Some might even suggest that if you are going to serve wine at breakfast, then this is the one. Moscato d’Asti is always best consumed within two years of the vintage. Recommended tasting temperature is 6–8 degrees centigrade and it benefits from being served in a chalice.

Cortese Alto Monferrato – One of the most important of the dry white wines produced in this area. Even though the Cortese grape has been around since the 18th century, this wine does not enjoy the same reputation as the reds and the Moscatos. It is however an easy drinking wine that is delicious with the right food. The grape is only grown in very hilly areas with appropriate slopes and exposures. It is bright straw yellow in colour, sometimes edging towards green. It comes in dry still, dry frizante, and dry sparkling varieties. Normally it has an aromatic slightly acidic bite. Cortese Alto Moferrato is drunk quite young, after 1–2 years of aging standing. It pairs well with hors d’oeuvres, light fish, pasta, risotto, vegetable dishes and bruschetta. Recommended tasting temperature is 8–10 degrees centigrade.