Our journey begins in the land closest to us, Piedmont. Piemonte in Italian literally means “at the foot of the mountains” – indeed some of the highest peaks in the alps, like our Monte Rosa, are located in Piemonte! It is one of the largest regions in Italy and due to its variety of soils, climates and possibly its proximity to France, it is home to some of Italy’s most renowned wines.
If you think of Piemonte, you probably think of Barbera, Barbaresco and Nebbiolo, perhaps of Moscato or Asti Spumante, but above all of Barolo. There is such a multitude of wines, that knowing them all is a challenge. Ideally, from a wine perspective, we can split Piemonte into North and South – with the latter being the most renowned. Taken as a whole, the division between North and South is a fantastic example for the concept of “terroir”: the vines are mostly the same (at least the red varieties), but the soil, the climate and the know-how differ considerably. The result is great territorial expressions in the form of wines, unmatched anywhere else in Italy.
By way of example, the differences between North and South can be illustrated by using Nebbiolo, the king of red grapes, as a measure. These are the main differentiating traits.
1. Bloom is just about 2-3 days difference, earlier in the South.
2. Fruit set in the North is usually 5-7 days after Barolo.
3. Harvest time is usually 7-12 days after the Barolo area.
4. Potential alcohol is completely different. Barolo ripeness could be 14.5-15.5% while 13-13.5 in Northern Piedmont areas for optimal phenolic maturity.
5. The pH of soils is completely different as well. The soils in the North are more acidic and more alkaline in the South, where they consist of limestone. As a consequence, the wines from the South have a lower pH. Barolo/Barbaresco – soil pH can be 7.80-8.80 pH, which is a basic pH. Northern Piedmont Nebbiolo based wines – 4.2-5.50 pH, which is extremely acidic.
6. The soils in the North are lighter than the Langhe, so drainage is better.
7. The Northern Piedmont areas are much drier during the picking season than the Langhe, which is ideal for diverse phenolic ripeness for Nebbiolo.
8. Cool days, with wind blowing from the alps, bring out greater aromatic depth and variety in the North.
Historically, Nebbiolo is often blended with other red grapes in the North, whereas Barolo and Barbaresco must be 100% Nebbiolo.
Descending through the Valsesia from Alagna towards Vercelli and Novara – or for those who return to Malpensa – towards the motorway, on our left is a small appellation around the town of Boca. Here the soil is of volcanic origin in red porphyry that strongly influences the positioning of the vineyards.
The term “Alto Piemonte” is unofficial, it cannot be found on any wine labels, or on wine maps of the region. It is used to connect the group of Northern Piemonte townships that all produce wines from Nebbiolo, as opposed to the “South Piemonte”