Switzerland lies at a wine-making crossroads in Europe. Not only is it home to a diversity of wonderful wines and stunning vineyards, but it also borders some of the richest and most varied wine regions in the world. In this third of a series on our wine-producing neighbours, we head to the Piemonte region of Italy.
Piemonte – literally “at the foot of the mountain” – lies just south of the Alps, under four hours’ drive from Lake Geneva. It is no coincidence that its tradition of fine wines is intimately associated with its great culinary reputation. Home to the priceless white truffle, Piemonte is also the cradle of the Slow Food (and Slow Wine) movement that has spread around the planet. It is Piemonte that we must thank for grissini, risotto, gorgonzola, panna cotta and an array of hazelnut confectionery including gianduja chocolate and the ubiquitous Nutella spread.
The region alone can claim more designated quality wines – DOC (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) and DOCG (e Garantita) – than anywhere else in Italy. Moreover, its reference red and white wines are made from single grape varieties rarely found elsewhere.
The distinctive and potent Nebbiolo grape planted on the rolling Langhe hills around Alba makes the world-famous Barolo and Barbaresco. Typified by its haunting scents of tar and roses, these red wines are high in both acidity and tannins and demand patience, especially Barolo. It is worth trying different producers to experience the many expressions of Nebbiolo as these vary according to village and vintage. There are more affordable versions, promising good quality and which can be enjoyed younger, like Nebbiolo d’Alba and Langhe Nebbiolo. Good food pairings include braised beef (brasato al Barolo), roast goose, game like wild duck and pigeon, truffles, pasta con funghi and risotto alla Milanese or with mushrooms. Look out for producers such as Domenico Clerico, Aldo Vajra and Vietti.
Its naturally high acidity makes Barbera an incredibly food-friendly red wine with full body and low tannins. It pairs beautifully with classic Italian tomato-based dishes like spaghetti Bolognese and pizza. This variety is widely planted in Piemonte and bears the name of one of the three DOC zones: Alba, Asti and the Monferrato. More and more Barbera is being aged in oak, which makes the wines rounder and more spicy. Recommended producers include Braida, Elio Altare and Roberto Voerzio.
Dolcetto is the traditional grape used to make soft, fruity red wines with characteristic cherry notes for drinking young. However, there is a growing trend to turn it into a grander wine, though this tends to make it less easy to drink. Serve with grilled or barbecued meats, osso bucco, pasta with a simple tomato sauce and charcuterie. Notable producers are Bruno Giacosa, Claudio Alario and Sottimano.
While the region’s reputation is built on its red wines, there are some local whites that deserve a mention. Gavi made from the Cortese grape is probably the most well-known. Unfortunately, it does not always offer good value for money. A more tempting proposition is Arneis, whose roots are in the sandy hills of Roero. Best drunk young, its wines deliver fairly pronounced aromas of almonds and peaches. It pairs well with grilled fresh fish, tuna tartare, clam chowder and creamy or curried chicken dishes. Producers of note include Malvirà and Matteo Correggia.
A whirlwind tour of this region would be incomplete without referring to its sparkling wines. Many will be familiar with Spumante (previously known as Asti Spumante), though maybe with mixed memories. Made from the Moscato grape (Muscat) this is produced in vast quantities. However, a small amount of its best quality grapes is set aside to make the lightly sweet Moscato d’Asti with its enticing aromas and naturally grape-like flavour. This wine is ‘frizzante’ – lightly fizzy – and also lower in alcohol at 5.5% compared with a Spumante. It lends a refreshingly fruity finish to a meal. If you are tempted, serve it with delicate fruit pastries, light creamy desserts such as panna cotta or peach mousse and fresh fruit salad. Amongst the best producers are Saracco and La Morandina.
Simon Hardy holds a Diploma in Wines & Spirits. He is the founder of Fitting Wines, which provides a range of personalised wine services in Switzerland. firstname.lastname@example.org.