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Piedmont Wines: A Comparison

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Photo: David Cicconi

"Piedmont is in the middle of nowhere," Boffa volunteers. "There are no direct trains here. But the thing is, we like that. We’re a very closed people. We like to stay by ourselves."

The Rivettis were different. In the mid-1800’s, the family left for Argentina. Around 1920 Giorgio’s grandfather, Giovanni, wandered to Brooklyn, where he seems to have found work in wine distribution, though alcohol sales were illegal in the United States at the time. Eventually, Giovanni’s son abandoned New York for his ancestral home. Giuseppe Rivetti bought land in Neive, in the heart of Barbaresco, and started making wine. Unlike almost everyone else in the Langhe’s wine industry, he hadn’t grown up in the region. He wasn’t doing things a certain way because his ancestors had. And when his youngest son, Giorgio, asked to spend two years working with the Bordeaux producer Château Margaux, Giuseppe was worldly enough to appreciate the opportunity.

Rivetti had already taken an undergraduate degree in Alba, and he would later study enology in Turin, but his real education came at Margaux. He was exposed to the viticultural and enological techniques used to make the world’s most renowned wines, and he was able to taste those wines day after day. He came home in 1985 with a head full of ideas and a car full of bottles: French wines, from Bordeaux and farther afield. Soon after, he called friends and colleagues and invited them to a restaurant called Guido, in Costigliole d’Asti. He wanted them to sample the wines he’d brought back, alongside a selection of wines from the Langhe. "I wanted them to realize, ’Why would anyone buy piemontese wine when it tastes like this?’" Rivetti says now. "Old, dirty, oxidized. And the French wine was so approachable, so drinkable."

Many of the attendees of that tasting—Elio Altare, Luciano Sandrone, Roberto Voerzio, Enrico Scavino, and Domenico Clerico—now rank among the region’s greatest winemakers. "We tried the wines to understand what is good, what is wrong, what is best," says Roberto Damonte, an enologist who studied with Rivetti and whose Malvirà wines are made just outside the Barolo appellation, in Roero. "We realized that Piedmont has too much tradition. Our wines weren’t clear. They smelled wrong. After that, vintage by vintage, producer by producer, the wines changed."

The 1989 and 1990 vintages marked the first successes for some of the new and revitalized producers. Simultaneously, the Slow Food movement, founded as a reaction to the encroachment of McDonald’s hamburger stands around the world and headquartered in the Piedmontese town of Bra, emerged to provide a context. These wines were made in limited volume from nebbiolo, which is native to Piedmont and known for expressing the attributes of the terroir where it is grown. The grapes have a transparency of place that the Slow Food mentality cherished. Nobody could mistake a Barolo or Barbaresco for anything else.

Soon curious wine drinkers from Switzerland and Germany started to visit, driving down to taste for themselves the changes that were unfolding. Many had spent time in Bordeaux, Burgundy, and beyond, and when they began calling on the Piedmontese farmers and sampling wines in rudimentary tasting rooms, a curious thing happened. "They’d actually teach some of the producers," Rivetti says. "They’d say, ’These wines are good, but try doing this and they might be even better.’ And the producers learned!"

By the time the first of the extraordinary run of vintages arrived, in 1996, both vines and mind-sets were ready. And as the wines began to sell, affluence crept into the region. That same year, Damonte and his wife, Patrizia, bought a hillside vineyard in Canale, near Alba. With the property came a dilapidated 18th-century villa that a Genoese lawyer had kept as a summerhouse. At the time, there was little commercial use for such a structure, but by 2003 they’d transformed it into Villa Tiboldi, a stunning hotel with a commanding view of the Roero. They marketed it first to clients who bought their wine, then pitched the property to their importers around Europe.

Now Villa Tiboldi sells itself. It is booked much of the year by Germans, Swiss, French, English, other Italians, and a smattering of Americans. With each morning’s fog, Patrizia arrives bearing freshly laid eggs, and one by one guests throw open their shutters to the day. By lunchtime exquisite dishes such as roasted squab with grainy mustard and a marmalade of green tomato are served on the terrace.

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