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Piedmont Wines: A Comparison

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Photo: David Cicconi

The morning fog, or nebbia, of Italy’s Piedmont region had long since cleared when I found my host, the winemaker Giorgio Rivetti, straddling the steep slope of the Gallina vineyard, inspecting nebbiolo grapes, which get their name and much of their distinctive character from that encompassing shroud. Shortly before, Rivetti and I had finished a lunch the length of a Bertolucci epic. It had involved course after course of local specialties—snails with leeks and apples, pasta stuffed with rabbit—tweaked for modernity and accompanied by multiple bottles of Rivetti’s La Spinetta wines. Inspired, I had struck off alone to visit the grapes.

From the top of the vineyard, I had a panoramic view of the area’s hilltop towns. Capped by medieval churches and fronted by vine-covered hillsides, each stood in the foreground of the next until the soft purples and muted greens faded together at the horizon. It was a timeless scene. But I’d been listening to Rivetti describe the recent evolution—no, call it revolution—of wine making in Piedmont. I’d tasted the extraordinary wines produced in the neighboring communes of Barolo and Barbaresco since the mid-1990’s. I understood that much of what was happening on those hillsides bore scant resemblance to what had gone before.

Short and dark-haired, Rivetti looks something like the actor John Cusack. He’d changed from his lunchtime clothes into a tattersall shirt worn untucked over camouflage pants. Now he looked up from his refractometer, a device he uses to measure the sweetness of the grapes, and greeted me without surprise. Where else but a vineyard would someone go after having sampled such wines?

"The best winemakers are farmers," he said, a notion that hardly sounds revolutionary. But until recently, most piemontese winemakers considered the region’s vineyards little more than a source of raw material, mere office-supply stores for grapes. The wine making began at the winery door. Rivetti, along with perhaps a dozen other inspired and industrious viticulturists, helped change that mind-set. They snipped nascent grapes from the vines in June to give those that remained a better chance to develop character and power. They used modern technology to understand why some vines yielded better fruit than others. They harvested days after everyone else, waiting to ensure that their grapes were truly ripe.

These were common techniques in Bordeaux, not to mention the thoroughly modern Napa Valley. But in this corner of northwestern Italy, a static, insular, landlocked place where fresh ideas are about as common as fresh fish, they seemed heretical. The wines that resulted were both smoother and more potent than the old Barolos and Barbarescos. They were full of personality but without harshness, so they didn’t need a decade or more of cellar time before they could be enjoyed. They appealed to a wide range of wine drinkers throughout the world, not just to locals who’d acclimated their palates to nebbiolo, and to a tiny coterie of Barolo and Barbaresco fanatics elsewhere.

Before long, these wines had altered the economics of the region. For most of the 20th century, young adults in this part of Piedmont, which is called the Langhe, would finish school and migrate from the picturesque but economically stagnant hilltop towns to nearby Turin for work in the Fiat factory. On weekends, they would return to tend their small vineyard plots—as their parents and grandparents had tended them—but with little knowledge or passion. Rivetti and his peers must have seemed like dangerous radicals, but by creating such coveted wines, they ultimately helped transform hobbies into businesses. "Everything changed," says Domenico Clerico, another of these iconoclasts-turned-icons. "Our entire way of life is different now."

These days, acclaim for the new Barolos and Barbarescos is attracting wine pilgrims to what has always been an inaccessible area, hidden behind an arc of mountains and a suspicion bordering on antipathy toward the outside world. Centuries-old villas have been converted into hotels that belong to one or another of the luxury associations. The culinary scene is thriving. Even nature has relented. After several decades of mostly uncooperative weather, a string of remarkable vintages—from 1996 to 2001—has made the wines of the Langhe as consistently great as any in the world.

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