Bordered by Alps on three sides, this region derives its name from ai piede del monte, which means “at the foot of the mountains.”
Just south of the city of Alba, the Langhe Hills are home to Piedmont's most celebrated expressions of Nebbiolo: Barolo and Barbaresco. Though Barolo is known as “the King,” the wines of Barbaresco may surpass Barolo in elegance and finesse. The finest examples are labeled riserva or are produced from a single vineyard site such as Briccolina or Rabaja.
Vercelli and the Novara Hills
Nebbiolo is known as Spanna in this region, and although these wines are seldom among Nebbiolo's finest examples, they are reasonably priced, straightforward expressions of the grape. Gattinara is no longer considered a peer of Barolo, as it was in the 19th century, even though better vintages can produce wines of great depth. Ghemme lies directly across the Sesia River, producing sturdy wines capable of developing an elegant bouquet with aging.
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The three regions in Italy’s northeast corner are known collectively as the Tre Venezie (Three Venices) owing to their previous inclusion in the Venetian Republic during the Renaissance. They produce an indisputable majority of Italy’s fine white wines, known for elegance and finesse. In spite of this laudable reputation, the Tre Venezie actually produces more reds than whites. Red wines of true class are made from indigenous grapes in each region, though Corvina is the primary red variety. White varieties of note include Garganega in the southwest and Pinot Grigio and Prosecco in the northeast.
The names Friuli and Giulia refer to Julius Caesar, whose armies conquered the area. Friuli was derived from the Latin name, “forum Iulii” meaning Julius’s forum, and Giulia is the female form of Julius.
The Alps to the north open like an amphitheatre onto the Adriatic Sea. The exchange of air currents between the Alps and the Adriatic has created a highly favorable habitat (“air conditioned,” as the local growers say) for vines on the region’s terraced slopes. These areas play host to Italy’s most famous and innovative winemakers in the realm of whites, most notably Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio and Friulano. Red wines are made from Refosco or Schioppettino grapes.
Italy’s northernmost region is bordered by Austria and Switzerland. It is extremely mountainous, and only about 15 percent of the region’s land is cultivable. Both Trentino and Alto Adige are known for their Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay, whose popularity is still increasing. However, their emphasis remains on reds made from Lagrein and Teroldego grapes, the majority of which are exported to Austria, Switzerland and Germany.
This area was once the cradle of the renowned Venetian republic, revered as la Serenissima (the most serene republic). Today, one of its most famous wines is Valpolicella, a red blend that is dry, medium- to full-bodied, high in acid and low in tannin. Veneto’s top red wine is Amarone, made from the same grapes as Valpolicella. Soave is a dry, light-bodied white wine made from at least 70 percent Garganega. Bardolino is a pale and light-bodied red wine made from the same blend of grapes as Valpolicella in different proportions. When it is vinted as a rosé it is called Chiaretto.
The scenic hills of Tuscany are home to the cities of Florence and Siena, as well as to Chianti, a blend made primarily from the Sangiovese grape. It was once known as an inexpensive table wine marked by its bulbous bottle and woven base, but efforts by innovative winemakers have produced very fine examples that have made the wine world reconsider the cliché. Chianti is a dry, medium-bodied wine with high acids, moderate tannins and flavors of cherry, herbs and sweet spice.
One of the most aged and revered wines in Italy is Brunello di Montalcino, made entirely from a clone of Sangiovese grown near the town of Montalcino. It is a medium- to full-bodied dry wine that tastes of black fruits, earth and pepper.
Vino Nobile di Montepulciano is another well-thought-of wine made from Sangiovese and is an affordable alternative to Brunello. “Super Tuscans” are highly regarded wines often made outside of the Italian classification system so that producers have greater freedom of choice.
Vin Santo is made from dried grapes traditionally hung from the rafters of a family’s farmhouse. These wines are most often sweet and served with biscotti as a dessert course at the end of a meal, or as a midafternoon snack.
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Despite a reputation as the green heart of central Italy, Umbria remains terra incognita to most wine drinkers, overshadowed by its neighbor, Tuscany. However, the winds of change are blowing in Italy’s only central land-locked region.
Orvieto, the major white wine of the region, has entered world markets and achieved visibility. A blend of Trebbiano, Verdello and other local grapes, it is dry to semi-dry, light- to medium-bodied and moderate in acidity. Orvietos have notes of citrus, minerals and apples, and are perfect for light pastas, poached fish or prosciutto.
Torgiano, originating on a hilltop near Perugia, is the most established of Umbria’s first-class reds. Constructed primarily from Sangiovese grapes, Torgiano Rosso also employs 15–30 percent Canaiolo, and may include some Ciliegiollo, Montepulciano and white Trebbiano.
Umbria’s latest superstar is Sagrantino di Montefalco, produced from the Sagrantino grape, a variety once scorned due to poor yields and an outmoded style. Rescued from extinction by innovative vintners, it is now emerging as one of the “hot” cult wines of Italy. In its previous role, Sagrantino yielded a sweet wine from dried grapes (passito) with a touch of frizzante. Reborn as a dry, formidable, dark, rich wine, it's now a force to be reckoned with. Another red manufactured in the area is Montefalco Rosso. While Sagrantino forms only a fraction of the blend, it does wield an influence, adding a boost of richness.
Although many focus on Tuscany as Italy’s wine innovator, Umbria holds its own with vigorous and persuasive reds.
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