Piedmont under the spotlight

Published by Sally on October 21, 2010

A tasting seminar of Piedmont wines, presented by respected author Stephen Brook, was hosted in London recently by Decanter on behalf of the group representing growers, makers and bottlers – the Consorzio di Tutela Barolo Barbaresco Alba Langhe e Roero.

The main focus of attention was the weighted trio of barbera, dolcetto and nebbiolo.

Stephen Brook

Stephen Brook

Setting the Piedmont scene Brook explained that it is a huge and diverse region. He said the “heart of the region is the Langhe with the central town of Alba in the north of the region.”  The Roero area is to the north of Alba, on the north side of the river Tanaro.  North east of Alba lies Barbaresco, and to the southwest is the Barolo zone.

In literal translation, Piedmont is the foot of the mountains, in this case the Alps.  Brook said while “summers can be hot, this is not a Mediterranean region.  Winters can be harsh and foggy. And the Alps can be seen from the hilltop villages of Barolo.” It is on the slopes of these hills that the vineyards lie. 

Brook said people often compare nebbiolo with pinot noir, but he warned against a facile comparison with Burgundy’s Côte d’Or, which “is one slope. Whereas Langhe has expositions facing all conceivable directions.” He added “even in a single cru there are different altitudes and expositions.” And nebbiolo is always reserved for the best sites, with the likes of barbera, freisa and dolcetto playing second fiddle.

The region is one of family smallholdings with one or large families, such as Gaja and Fontanafredda. Adding to this complexity, said Brook, is that “more producers are bottling their own wines, often spurred on by the younger generation.  This has resulted in a proliferation of estates which have started bottling just recently.”  

Grape varieties

Dolcetto is a rich and gluggable red, according to Brook. It’s low in acidity and rich in colour.  It is usually drunk young, though there is a fashion for treating it very seriously, which means barriques.

Barbera is low in tannin, high in acidity. Brook says it’s a great food wine as it cuts through cuisine. And it’s often made in two different styles:  one for early drinking, which is made in steel or traditional big oak botti grandi; the other being made with new barriques, to add tannic structure. Both styles work well, appealing to different occasions.

Nebbiolo, however, is the star of the Piedmont show.  Brook said it picks up “tar [aromas] from hot fermentations, and chocolate from barriques.”  It’s a grape with lots of everything: tannin, acidity, alcohol, making big wines. “The trick” said Brook “is to bring all the elements into balance. The wines often do not achieve full harmony till 6 to 10 years of bottle age.”  They are undoubtedly wines that demand patience.

Of the Barbaresco camp, Brook explained that the soils are a bit more fertile than in Barolo. He said “Barbaresco gets a bit more fog in winter and is a touch warmer in summer.” As a result of which the grapes are picked 5 to 7 days earlier than Barolo. “The differences are not colossal” he said “Barbaresco is a tad lighter, a tad more elegant, a tad more approachable than a Barolo of the same vintage.” Added to which the prices can be a bit lower than the great names of Barolo.

Tradition versus modern

“The alleged battle between traditional and modern styles is an oversimplification” said Brook.  “When I first visited the region 25 years ago, the tradition was for a long fermentation, at a high temperature, over 30°C. The wines were rich in tannin, and needed a minimum three years’ ageing in botti grandi before the tannins softened up, and then more bottle age.”

It was the late ‘70s and early ‘80s when producers such as Altare, Gaja and Clerico started using barriques to age wine.  “But it was not just about the wood” said Brook, “Altare started green harvesting; he saw the importance of reducing yields. And he wanted his wines to be not so tannic and extracted. So he used rotofermenters over a few days.”  

Having blind-tasted some older vintage in the region this year, Brook said “there were some magnificent wines from the ‘70s and ‘80s. With the older wines it was impossible for me to say that this is a ‘traditional’ or ‘modern’ wine.”  He added “the variety and terroir took over. The perfume, elegance and acidity of nebbiolo came through more importantly than what the wine had been aged in.” 

Now some producers blur any boundaries up front by using both new barrique and old oak. Brook concluded that whilst there may be a few arch-traditionalists and arch-modernists, most producers are pragmatists.

Of the Barolo camp, Brook listed the important communes of La Morra, Monforte d’Alba, Barolo, Serralunga and Castiglione Falletto, in which villages there are dozens of different crus.  “Generalisations are terribly dangerous” he said, though himself succumbed with ”La Morra is the most elegant and perfumed, while Serralunga gives dense and tannic wines.”


2007 not the greatest vintage, mostly for medium term drinking
2006 more structured, formidable vintage
2005 lighter than 2004
2004 very good.

Nebbiolo plantings in Barbaresco and Barolo

Appellation Plantings (ha) No. of wineries Production (million bottles)








Source: Consorzio di Tutela Barolo Barbaresco Alba Langhe e Roero, most recent five year averages

Tasting, London, September 2010, and comments

Cantine Salvano, Fosco 2009, Diano d’Alba DOC   
Dolcetto 100%, 13.5%, ~£15
UK Importer: Cibo Wholesale                
Almost purple hue, typical for dolcetto. Parma violet freshness on nose, youthful and crunchy with smooth palate attack, good volume of fruit mid palate. Fresh and enjoyable. Brook:  sweetness of fruit and vibrancy are the bywords for dolcetto.

Az. Agr. Rivetto, Lirano Soprano 2007, Barbera d’Alba DOC
Barbera 100%, 14.5%, ~£35
UK Importer: Ellis of Richmond 
Full throttle oaky barbera, made in 50% new barriques from not very old vines. Smoky, toasted notes with smooth, rich and young primary fruit; nicely balanced and integrated. Good intensity, long finish.

Az. Agr. Negro Angelo & Figli, Riserva Sudisfà 2006, Roero DOCG  
Nebbiolo 100%, 14%, ~£30
UK Importer: Great Western Wine 
Bricking colour with orange tint to rim. Tar, rose and tangerine bouquet. An element of lightness to the palate attack, with redcurrants and cherry. Chalky, youthful tannins, pretty approachable now, thought with grippy finish. Good.
Brook:  Roero region soils are different from Barbaresco and Barolo. They are sandy, which gives a more accessible style of nebbiolo. It’s much less prestigious, so can offer a Barolo experience at affordable price.

Az. Agr. Albino Rocca, Vigneto Brich Ronchi 2007, Barbaresco DOCG 
Nebbiolo 100%, 14.5%
UK Importer: N/A
Pale, tarry nose, something elusive in the background. Rich-baked redcurrant attack, full body, very fine grained, almost supple tannins. Appealing now, nicely balanced and readily integrated.
Brook:  A single vineyard Barbaresco.  From 2007, he has switched to using Austrian ovals which are smaller than the traditional botti.

Az. Agr. Orlando Abrigo, Vigna Rongalio Meruzzano 2006,  Barbaresco DOCG
Nebbiolo 100%, 14%
UK Importer: N/A
Palish colour, then dark and brooding, brambly, full and fleshy, spicy  notes to mid palate. Rich, almost supple fruit, structured. More modern appearance. Good density and volume. 
Brook: A single vineyard wine.  Short, 10-day maceration, half in botti, half in 500-litre casks.

Az. Agr. Mauro Veglio, Rocche dell’Annunziata 2006, Barolo DOCG
Nebbiolo 100%, 14.5%,
UK Importer: N/A
Commune:  La Morra
Faint rose petal perfume, has a certain elegance of attack. Dry autumnal dried oranges, cinnamon, fine ripe tannins which then grip at the end. Dried cherries, and an ethereal element of charm.  Delicious.
Brook:  A neighbour of Elio Altare.  Uses rotofermenters and up to 80% in barriques. Classic La Morra expression – floral, raspberry fruit, graceful, poised, subtle. Acidity and length

Az. Agr. Giorgio Scarzello, Vigna Merenda 2005, Barolo DOCG
Nebbiolo 100%, 14%,  £42.50
UK Importer: Phoenix Wine Agencies 
Commune:  Barolo
Brick rim, savoury, tarry nose. Lifted baked berry fruit, savoury core, grippy, dry tannins demanding some attention. Traditional style, muscular and tannic, with savoury fruit to accompany, and hint of lifted VA for complexity. Big and bold. And long.
Brook:  producer favours long macerations, then 30 months in large casks.

Az. Agr. Schiavenza, Broglio 2004, Barolo DOCG Riserva
Nebbiolo 100%, 14.5%
UK Importer: N/A
Commune:  Serralunga
Medium deep colour with brick rim. Dark, brambly perfumed, full, muscle-toned attack and body, sweet fruit with grip of structure. Lush aspects to volume of fruit, big, savoury-sweet, long finish. Aromatic gun-smoke; rich, big, youthful. Very good.
Brook:  Plums and darker fruit.

Fontanafredda, Vigna La Rosa 2006, Barolo DOCG   
Nebbiolo 100%, 14%, ~£55.50
UK Importer: Enotria Winecellars   
Commune:  Serralunga
Medium pale, ruby rim. Fresh cherry nose, approachable, but lacks a little complexity and density. It’s missing real personaility.
Brook: They got a new winemaker in 1999 and quality has improved since then.  They prefer a long maceration, then half in new oak for 12 months, then large French-made casks.

Tenuta Vitivinicola Cavallotto,  Bricco Boschis Vigna San Giuseppe 2004, Barolo DOCG Riserva   
100% nebbiolo, 14.5%, RRP: £45
UK Importer: Goedhuis and Co    
Commune: Castiglione Falletto
Medium deep colour, petals and bright dark cherries. Understated, bit of a stealth wine, it’s all to come. Balance, intensity, length and integrity. Very good.
Brook:  Classic barolo. This is what barolo is all about, beautifully balanced, aromatic, complex. The best sector of the Bricco Boschis vineyard is San Guiseppe. The vineyards are around the house.  Macerations are now about 20 days, then matured in botti.

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