Barolo and Barbaresco are wine words I’ve heard often and vaguely thought of as being one) types of grapes and two) rather high end. Which if you’re feeling generous puts me at 1 and 1. I’ve always thought of wines in terms of varietals — Cabernet Sauvignon, Torontes, Sauvignon Blanc — mostly because that’s how New York wines (the only wines I actually know a little bit about) are categorized. Italy, however, does things differently, and it’s not alone. There are, it’s taken me this long to discover, all types of umbrella categories — Chianti, Soave — that refer instead to regions, towns, zones. Cue: Barolo and Barbaresco. These are the “umbrella category” stars of the Piemonte region, Italy’s most northwestern bit, bordered by Switzerland and France.
For a bit of schooling on the Piemonte, I turned to the 1995 copy of “Wine for Dummies” that I’ve watched collect dust in five apartments but never cracked the spine of. (I know I should buy an updated version, but now a part of me enjoys that the authors’ price quotes are so low.) What I learned:
Piemonte — or, the Piedmont — has two super important wine zones and these are around the towns of Asti (cue cheezy Asti Spumante commercial of your childhood) and Alba. The two big, beautiful, important reds of the region are Barolo and Barbaresco, both of which are made from the Nebbiolo grape and named after a village in its production zone.
Piedmont has a third fancy, if less celebrated, red called Gattinara, which is also made from Nebbiolo, except that in the northern part of Piedmont where Gattinara’s from, Nebbiolo is instead called Spanna.
Piedmont also has two main everyday-drinking reds: Dolcetto and Barbera. Dolcetto (which is not sweet, despite the name) is the lighter of the two — think Beaujolais light — and reportedly goes better with food. The best Dolcettos come from the Alba zone (Dolcetto d’Alba) and both Alba and Asti produce Barberas. Per WfD authors Mary Ewing-Mulligan and Ed McCarthy (heretofore known as EM&M), “Barbera d’Alba is a bit fuller, riper, and richer than the leaner Barbera d’Asti.”
A third everyday red, Nebbiolo d’Alba, is the lightest of all, and is from Nebbiolo vineyards outside the Barolo and Barbaresco zones.
Finally, the region also produces two notable whites: Gavi and Arneis (ahr NASE). Gavi, which is named after a town in the southern Piedmont, is very dry with pronounced acidity, per EM&M, and Arneis, which is actually the name of the grape (!) is “dry to medium-dry” with a “rich texture.”
Part of what appeals to me about Italian wines, and what has made me want to learn more, is how intrinsic each one is to where it’s from. The opposite of planting a trendy grape, it strikes me as wonderfully honest, organic, necessary. On this front, EM&M offer a small but poignant detail. The Nebbiolo grape, they write, is a “noble red variety” and Piedmont’s claim to fame. But, they add, it “produces great wine only in northwestern Italy.”