Italian Wine For Dummies
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Red wines reign supreme in Italy's Piedmont region. Piedmont’s claim to wine fame is the Nebbiolo grape, a noble red variety that produces great wine only in northwestern Italy. The proof of Nebbiolo’s nobility is its wines: Barolo and Barbaresco are two of the world’s great red wines.

Barolo and Barbaresco wines

Both Barolo and Barbaresco are DOCG wines made entirely from the Nebbiolo grape in the Langhe hills around Alba, and each is named after a village within its production zone. These wines are robust reds — very dry, full-bodied, and high in tannin, acidity, and alcohol. Their aromas suggest tar, violets, roses, ripe strawberries, and (sometimes) truffles.

Barolo is more full-bodied than Barbaresco and usually requires a bit more aging; otherwise, the two wines are very similar. Like most Italian wines, they show at their best with food. Good Barolo and Barbaresco wines usually start at $40 and run to well over $100 per bottle. You must find a good producer to experience these wines at their best.

Weekday red wines

The Piedmontese reserve serious wines like Barolo and Barbaresco for Sunday dinner or special occasions. What they drink on an everyday basis are the red wines Dolcetto, Barbera, and Nebbiolo (grown outside of prestigious DOCG zones such as Barolo and Barbaresco). Of the three, Dolcetto is the lightest-bodied and is usually the first red wine served in a Piedmontese meal.

  • Dolcetto: If you know enough Italian to translate the phrase la dolce vita, you may think that the name Dolcetto indicates a sweet wine. Actually, the Dolcetto grape tastes sweet but the wine is distinctly dry and somewhat grapey with noticeable tannin. Dolcetto is often compared to Beaujolais, but it’s drier and more tannic than most Beaujolais wines and generally goes better with food. Dolcetto sells for $11 to $25.

  • Barbera: While Dolcetto is unique to Piedmont, the Barbera grape is the second most widely planted red grape variety in all of Italy. (Sangiovese is the most planted red variety.) But it’s in Piedmont — specifically the Asti and Alba wine zones — that Barbera excels. It’s a rich, red wine with high acidity and generous black-cherry fruit character. Barbera is more popular in the United States than it has ever been.

  • Nebbiolo: A third weekday red from Piedmont is Nebbiolo (d’Alba or Langhe), made from Nebbiolo grapes grown in vineyards outside the prized Barolo or Barbaresco zones. The wine is lighter in body and easier to drink than either Barolo or Barbaresco, and it sells for about $15 to $20 a bottle. Another variation is Roero Rosso, made almost entirely from Nebbiolo.

White wines in a supporting role

Almost all of Piedmont’s wines are red, but the region does boast two interesting dry whites:

  • Gavi, named for a town in southern Piedmont, is a very dry wine with pronounced acidity, made from the Cortese grape. Most Gavis sell for $13 to $24, while a premium Gavi, La Scolca’s Black Label, costs around $45.

  • Arneis is a white wine produced in the Roero zone near Alba from a long-forgotten grape also called Arneis, which was rescued by Alfredo Currado, owner of Vietti winery, nearly 40 years ago. Arneis is a dry to medium-dry wine with rich texture. It’s best when it is consumed within two years of the vintage; a bottle sells for $20 to $28. Besides Vietti’s, look for Bruno Giacosa’s and Ceretto’s Arneis.

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