Every year, more tourists flock to Italy’s northwest in search of the latest Barolos and Barbarescos—two of the country’s most famous and expensive wines—and to enjoy the area’s upscale dining, especially in the fall when rare white truffles make an appearance.
Alba and the nearby Langhe hills are the undisputed epicenter of Piedmont’s fine wine and dining scene, boasting 12 Michelin-starred restaurants within a 10-mile radius.
And judging by the boom of recently opened luxury hotels, spas and golf resorts, the Langhe certainly seems to cater to an upscale clientele.
Fortunately, there’s another side to these hallowed hills. For visitors who don’t want to break the bank, the region also offers simple country hotels in the vineyards and informal restaurants that specialize in local cuisine.
Best of all for wine lovers, Piedmont’s famed Barolo and Barbaresco producers also make delicious, affordable wines that can be served with a variety of dishes and offer sheer drinkability—Nebbiolo, Barbera and Dolcetto.
These wines are growing in popularity, and with an increasing number of labels imported to the U.S., they offer a little taste of Piedmont here at home.
Dolcetto, or “little sweet one,” is actually a light- to medium-bodied dry red wine, with mouthwatering black cherry, licorice and almond notes. With its low to moderate acidity but firm tannins, it’s the polar opposite of Barbera, which has high acidity and virtually no native tannins.
Dolcetto d’Alba should be enjoyed within a year or two of its vintage date, and is usually aged in steel or in concrete tanks to preserve its aromas and freshness.
In Dogliani, Dolcetto’s spiritual home on the outskirts of Barolo, Dolcetto Superiore can age for a few years or longer, so producers often mature it in oak casks to obtain more complexity.
Both versions are extremely food friendly. Dolcetto has long been a staple on Piedmont dinner tables.
“Dolcetto is what most people in Langhe and in the rest of Piedmont still drink every night for dinner,” says Barolo producer Franco Massolino.
Maurilio Garola, chef at Il Ciau di Torrevento, one of the area’s Michelin-starred restaurants, agrees that Dolcetto makes a wonderful table companion.
“Dolcetto goes with everything,” says Garola. “I really love it with pasta e fagioli, but it’s a wine you can enjoy right through the meal, from the first course to the meat dishes.”
The classic Italian picnic wine, Dolcetto also works well in summer when slightly chilled.
90 Pecchenino 2011 Sirì d’Jermu (Dogliani Superiore). This single-vineyard Dolcetto from Dogliani is made using wild yeasts and no added sulfites. It’s fragrant and structured, with restrained wild cherry, spice and mineral notes that come together with flair and finesse. Vias Imports.
abv: 14% Price: $18
90 Massolino 2012 Dolcetto d’Alba. This delicious Dolcetto d’Alba has ripe berry and spice aromas. The palate delivers strawberry, black pepper and licorice flavors, with a hint of almond. Soft and fresh, with a silky texture, this is perfect to pair with cured meats or savory pasta dishes. Domaine Select Wine Estates.
abv: 13.5% Price: $20
88 La Fusina 2011 Gombe (Dogliani). Here’s a nice Dolcetto from Dogliani, the grape’s spiritual home. It has a classic varietal fragrance of cherry, licorice and black pepper accompanied by smoky notes. The palate delivers black cherry and white pepper flavors along with chewy tannins. This would pair well with mushroom risotto. Marathon Selections.
abv: 13% Price: $20
87 Castello di Neive 2011 Basarin (Dolcetto d’Alba). Here’s a straightforward Dolcetto loaded with black fruit and spice aromas. The palate offers black cherry, plum, pepper and licorice flavors. This is simple, but well made and very fresh. Pair it with pasta and tomato sauce, or tomato soups. Winebow.
abv: 13.5% Price: $22
Barbera —a round, fruit-forward red wine boasting fleshy cherry and black pepper flavors—owes its current popularity to the late Giacomo Bologna, who in the 1980s revived Barbera in Piedmont’s Asti hills. By replanting Barbera in more suitable sites, applying careful vineyard management and adopting scrupulous winemaking methods, Bologna transformed a coarse local tipple into a world-class wine.
Just a few miles away, producers in the Langhe took note and began replanting Barbera in vineyards with better sun exposure and altitudes. Most winemakers also started aging it in barrels to give the wine the tannic structure it naturally lacks.
“Thanks to all the care in the vineyards and the attention in the cellars, there’s been a Barbera renaissance that’s turned what we always considered a rustic wine into an elegant wine with longevity,” says Gianluca Grasso, the winemaker for his family’s Elio Grasso winery.
While Barbera d’Asti has more structure, Barbera d’Alba is generally more refined. Its exuberant fruit and naturally high acidity make it ideal to pair with a range of dishes, from fish to meat.
It’s a favorite of Giuseppe Rosati, the wine director at Felidia in New York.
“Barbera is incredibly versatile with food,” says Rosati. “I love to drink it with everything, from grilled red meats to pasta dishes with mushrooms and truffle.”
90 Elio Grasso 2010 Vigna Martina (Barbera d’Alba). Here’s a structured and spicy Barbera, with an enticing fragrance of black fruits, white pepper and exotic spices. The palate is round and smooth, delivering a tight core of black cherry, along with black pepper, cinnamon, mint and thyme. It’s delicious now, but thanks to its refreshing acidity, this will also stand the test of time. Martin Scott Wines.
abv: 14.5% Price: $32
90 Giacomo Fenocchio 2011 Barbera d’Alba Superiore. This is just what a Barbera should be: delicious, easy to drink and ready now. The palate shows mouthfuls of black cherry, spice and licorice, balanced by fresh acidity and a silky smooth texture. Pair this with virtually anything. Masciarelli Wine Co.
abv: 13.5% Price: $25
87 Mario Gagliasso 2009 Vigna Ciabot Russ (Barbera d’Alba). This Barbera offers ripe dark fruit, spice and earthy sensations, as well as hints of black pepper and anisette. Refreshing acidity makes this very food friendly—it would work well with pasta topped with porcini mushrooms. Kysela Père et Fils.
abv: 14.5% Price: $28
87 Mauro Molino 2012 Barbera d’Alba. This Barbera has a subtle fragrance of plum and spice. The palate offers restrained black cherry flavors, along with hints of white pepper and nutmeg. Simple, but well made, this would pair perfectly with pasta Bolognese or mushroom dishes. Pioneer Wine Co.
abv: 14% Price: $16
Nebbiolo—long considered Italy’s most noble grape and only grown in tiny amounts outside the region, is the sole grape in both Barolo and Barbaresco.
While the latter are full-bodied, complex and long-lived wines, with aggressive tannins that need years to tame, Langhe Nebbiolo is an elegant, easy-drinking wine destined to be enjoyed young.
“It shows the bright, charming side of Nebbiolo,” says boutique Barbaresco producer Giovanna Rizzolio of Cascina delle Rose.
Rizzolio ages her version for six months in oak casks to add a touch of complexity and smooth out the firm tannins. Many Barolo producers, such as Giuseppe Rinaldi, age their wines longer, up to 18 months.
Some producers make Langhe Nebbiolo from their Barolo and Barbaresco vines, but others craft Nebbiolo d’Alba from grapes grown just outside those denominations.
Bruno Giacosa sources his fruit from nearby Roero.
“Nebbiolo grapes from Roero yield very refined and approachable wines that are perfect for drinking young,” he says.
Langhe Nebbiolo and Nebbiolo d’Alba both possess enticing floral fragrances of roses and irises, along with crunchy, cherry-berry flavors balanced by silky tannins and fresh acidity. And they’re surprisingly versatile with food.
“I usually pair meat dishes with Barolo, so I love to pair Langhe Nebbiolo and Nebbiolo d’Alba with substantial pasta dishes, like agnolotti in brodo and tajerin with butter sauce,” says Jeff Porter, the wine director at New York City’s Del Posto restaurant.
92 Cascina delle Rose 2012 Nebbiolo (Langhe). This elegant Nebbiolo has alluring fragrances of rose petals and ripe berries, while the palate delivers succulent strawberry, mint and mineral notes. Silky smooth and very fresh, drink this young to catch the softer side of Nebbiolo in all its glory. Polaner Selections.
abv: 14% Price: $30
90 Paolo Scavino 2010 Nebbiolo (Langhe). Scavino, one of Barolo’s top producers, makes this silky smooth Nebbiolo from two of his Barolo vineyards in La Morra. It’s fresh, floral and loaded with finesse. Thanks to six months of barrel aging, it also has structure. Banville & Jones Wine Merchants.
abv: 14% Price: $26
89 Bruno Giacosa 2011 Valmaggiore (Nebbiolo d’Alba). This elegant Nebbiolo has a lovely, bright character and heady aromas of rose petal, strawberry and mineral. The palate is vibrant and refined with strawberry, cherry and mineral notes. It will pair perfectly with pasta topped with porcini mushrooms. Folio Fine Wine Partners.
abv: 14% Price: $40
88 Mauro Sebaste 2011 Parigi (Nebbiolo d’Alba). Here’s a young Nebbiolo that boasts floral and berry aromas. The palate delivers ripe strawberry and raspberry flavors, with a hint of orange peel. Bright and delicious, this would go beautifully with mushroom risotto. Saranty Imports, Pleasure Elite.
abv: 14.5% Price: $23
Piedmont’s Other Pours
Piedmont also boasts a number of lesser-known wines made from indigenous grapes. Most are imported into the U.S., albeit in limited amounts.
Spicy and light-bodied, Grignolino works wonderfully with several difficult-to-pair dishes, including omelets and other egg dishes. When slightly chilled, it makes a perfect summer red. Producers to try include Castello di Neive and Francesco Rinaldi.
This jewel of a wine is loaded with strawberry and cherry aromas and flavors, along with notes of black and white pepper. Its rather tannic structure lends it to modest aging, generally up to eight years, and it works well with cured meats and seasoned cheeses. Producers to try include Cavallotto and Brovia.
Ruché is one of the little-known treasures of Piedmont’s already exciting wine scene. It has lovely rose aromas, along with lush cherry, black pepper and nutmeg flavors. Its modest acidity and velvety tannins pair well with charred steaks and grilled vegetables. Producers to try include Crivelli and Montalbera.
This is a medium-bodied white with scents of wild flowers and aromatic herbs, accompanied by exotic fruit, sage and rosemary flavors. It pairs well with white meat and fish courses. Top producers include Elvio Cogno and Rivetto.
Here’s a white with the heart and soul of a red. Timorasso is full-bodied, with floral aromas, lush but restrained fruit flavors and plenty of spice. It’s a perfect companion to smoked fish or caviar. Producers to try include Vigneti Massa and Daniele Ricci.
Piedmont Travel… On a Budget
The best time to visit Piedmont is during the fall, so you can catch the last of the harvest. If the weather is favorable, you’ll also catch the white truffle season.
The closest international airport is Milan Malpensa (MXP), which is about a 2½-hour drive from Alba, and there’s also a smaller airport in Turin, about one hour from Alba.
There’s no train service to the area and no taxis outside of Alba, so a rental car is a must if you intend to tour the Langhe hills.
Hotel Barolo, Barolo (CN)
Located across the street from the celebrated Cannubi hill, this is Barolo’s oldest hotel and is run by the third generation of Brezzas, among the area’s top Barolo producers. Although the rooms in the main building are modest, a new building next door offers more spacious accommodations. The family also welcomes visits to their winery, located beneath the hotel. Prices start at $120.
Cascina delle Rose, Barbaresco (CN)
Surrounded by the Barbaresco’s stunning Tre Stelle and Rio Sordo vineyards, this small country inn, known as an agriturismo, is owned and run by Barbaresco producer Giovanna Rizzolio, her husband, Italo Sobrino, and his sons Davide and Riccardo. The rooms and apartments are comfortably furnished in country chic, and guests can organize cellar visits and tastings at the firm’s onsite winery. Double rooms start at $145.
Rizzi, Azienda Vitivinicola Treiso (CN)
This winery bed and breakfast, owned by the Dellapiana family, is located on the crest of the Treiso hill in Barbaresco, where guests enjoy gorgeous views of the surrounding hills and vineyards. Winery visits and tastings are available. Rooms start at $90.
Osteria dell’Unione, Treiso (CN)
This informal restaurant in the Barbaresco-producing village of Treiso serves typical dishes and is best known for its delicious handmade ravioli, agnolotti del plin. Book ahead, as this is a favorite with locals, including wine producers—Oscar Farinetti, founder of Eataly and owner of Fontanafredda, was dining with friends the night I was there.
Antica Torre, Barbaresco (CN)
Situated in the center of the small town of Barbaresco, in the shadow of the village’s iconic tower, this simple trattoria makes authentic interpretations of local specialties, including fowl and game. It also serves wonderful housemade pastas, like tajerin topped with a butter and sage sauce.
Ristorante Brezza, Barolo (CN)
Part of the Hotel Barolo, this family-run restaurant’s laid-back atmosphere and traditionally prepared local specialties—like handmade agnolotti—is another favorite among the area’s wine producers. The wine list includes bottlings from a number of local producers, as well as past vintages of Brezza’s own wines.