After publishing pieces on how to get started with Burgundy and Bordeaux, we got a few requests to tackle Italian regions, including Piedmont and Tuscany, which really should be no surprise—these Italian regions are seriously complex!
Take Piedmont, for example: There's a lot to take in, from a multitude of grape varieties (Dolcetto, Barbera, Nebbiolo, Bonarda, Pelaverga and so forth, just among the reds) to many DOCs, DOCGs, communes and vineyards. It's like they didn't have a marketing plan when they started making wine here or something. But where to start?
I remembered an interview with Gianpaolo Paterlini, wine director of Grand Award-winning Acquerello in San Francisco, in which he compared the layout of Piedmont to Burgundy (see Piedmont map below). So I thought he might be able to help work out a game plan for approaching Piedmont. Here's his advice:
1. Narrow Your Focus to Nebbiolo from Barolo and Barbaresco
As mentioned above, a lot of different grapes and wine styles are floating around Piedmont, many of them totally drink-worthy (especially if you're on a budget). But for the purpose of learning about the region, said Paterlini, you're better off starting with the classics, Barolo and Barbaresco, which are made from the Nebbiolo grape. When you've mastered these, then circle back and start trying out the likes of Brachetto and Grignolino.
2. Get Your Atlas Out
"For me, the texture of the wine is shaped more by geography than producer style," said Paterlini. "One easy generalization is that the farther the village is from the Tanaro River, the more powerful and structured the wine will be, and the closer the village, the softer and more elegant the wine will be."
That holds true for both Barbaresco and Barolo, so instead of contrasting the two DOCGs against each other tastewise, think about similarities in the geography of both. He says the powerful Barolo wines of Castiglione Falletto and Serralunga have more in common with Barbaresco's Nieve than they do with Barolo's elegant Verduno and La Morra wines.
"As a sommelier, understanding these geographic features allows me to suggest a Barolo from Verduno for a Pinot Noir drinker, or a Barolo from Serralunga for someone who is more accustomed to Cabernet," said Paterlini. What this means for you? You're going to need to study up on geography.
3. Get to Know the Producers
"It's best to taste their least expensive, or entry-level, wine first," said Paterlini. "This is often a blend of multiple vineyards from multiple villages, so producer style is more evident than terroir. Once you find a producer you like, try exploring their single-vineyard offerings, which are often more expensive."
4. Use Your Knowledge of Producers to Learn More About Geography
Reinforce your geography lessons in a fun way: Compare wines from different villages side by side. Paterlini recommends tasting one producer's wines from multiple villages: "Vietti is one of the easiest to find in the consumer retail market: Brunate from La Morra, Ravera from Novello, Rocche and Villero from Castiglione, Lazzarito from Serralunga."
Alternately, he suggested, "The Produttori del Barbaresco makes nine single-vineyard Barbarescos, all from the village of Barbaresco. It's really interesting to taste a few of them side by side because they are all made the same way. This really helps to illustrate vineyard characteristics.
5. All the Recent Vintages Are Good
"With regards to vintage, the market is incredibly safe these days," said Paterlini. "Since 2002 and 2003 [cold and wet; hot and dry], we have seen a string of above-average vintages. Some are better than others, but really there hasn't been a bad vintage in more than 10 years." (If you're thinking about opening some older wines, or curious as to how recently released vintages stack up against each other, check out the vintage chart on WineSpectator.com or our WineRatings+ app for iPhone.)
6. Don't Be Afraid to Open a Young Bottle
Have you read that Barolo has to age 10 years before you can drink it? That's no longer the case, said Paterlini. "The wines being made today are not your grandfather's Barolos. They're not even your father's Barolos. Because of technology, improved vineyard work and a better understanding of tannin management, Barolos and Barbarescos no longer need to be cellared for decades to be drinkable."
As recent a vintage as 2009 provides a good example, even for producers whose wines have typically needed a long time to mature. "Shockingly drinkable," he said. The wines will still evolve and improve for decades, he predicts, and may not be at their best until 10 or 15 years of age, but they're still "drinking well out of the gate."
Veteran Piedmont drinkers: Do you have any advice of your own? What else should curious beginners know? Please share in the comments.