Today I’m zero-ing in on the northwest portion of Italy, specifically the key regions for the key red wine grapes grown—Nebbiolo, Barbera, and Dolcetto. Pop Quiz: Can you describe each of these grape varieties’ key characteristics? How would describe the market positioning for each?

Map by Jeff Quinn.
Map by Jeff Quinn.

For a more general overview of Central Italy, based on WSET Level 3, please see Wine Region Overview: Northern Italy


  • “Tar and roses,” is the common descriptor for the wines produced from this fickle grape
  • First to bud, last to ripen, it’s susceptible to all the environmental threats known to Piemonte’s continental climate: thunderstorms, hail fog, frosts and late-autumn rains.
  • The vines themselves are quite vigorous, thus canopy management is essential to avoid shading
  • Vines have to be pruned high because the first few buds are infertile, thus more buds are needed (and again canopy management/cluster thinning essential for vine balance)
  • Mass selection preferred for new vine propagation; the goal: vines with low vigor, open bunches, and small berries
  • Best wines are said to come from vineyards planted calcareous marls on south, south-west facing aspects 

Nebbiolo Denominations to know:

  • Barolo DOCG100% Nebbiolo
    •  the vineyards of the region are planted on south and south-west facing slopes (good sunlight and cooling influences allow for a long, slow growing season—full phenolic ripeness complemented with acid retention)
    • Minimum age requirements: three years total; 18 months in oak; Barolo Riserva DOCG has to be aged for five years and two months with a minimum 18 months in oak.
    • Soil types of Barolo DOCG
      • Blue-grey marl in the north and west produce lighter, more aromatic wines (best consumed a few years after bottling)
      • Less fertile yellow-grey sand and clay to the south and east produce wines that are closed and tannic in youth (should be cellared for 10 to 15 years)
      • Top producers blend wines from grapes grown on several vineyards to add complexity, though single vineyard wines are produced as well.
  • Barbaresco DOCG100% Nebbiolo
    • slightly lower altitude and slightly warmer climate
      • thus wines are riper
        • therefore the minimum aging requirements are less
  • Others: Gattinara DOCG and Ghemme DOCG

Winemaking for Nebbiolo

  • Old school: extended maceration on skins and 5 to 8 years of aging in old wood
  • Modern winemaking is more moderated: producers pick grapes with ripe skins and seeds, thus eliminating aggressive tannins, macerate for just 3 to 4 weeks and age wines in large format oak or a combination of large and small with just a small percentage of NFO used
  • Wines for early drinking are made within the regional denominations (Langhe Nebbiolo DOC); typically made from younger vines and/or less favored sites; maceration shorter, wines age for about one year in neutral vessel, some blend plots from both Barolo and Barbaresco that don’t meet quality standards for top tier wines; wines are cheaper to produce thus less expensive.


Ratti Ochetti Nebbiolo Langhe DOC 2018

Appearance: pale garnet

Aroma: medium (+) intensity—wild strawberry, cranberry, dried cranberry, sour cherry, rose petal, rosemary, lavender, herbs de Provence

Palate: medium (+) acid, medium (+) grippy and fine-grained tannin, medium alcohol, medium (+) flavor intensity—all of the above, with the addition of a hint of cocoa, vanilla and nutmeg (baking spices)

Finish is medium (+) in length

Conclusion: This is wine is of very good quality. The intensity of red fruits is the primary observation on first sniff and first taste, delicately underlined by some floral/herbaceous characteristics reminiscent of herbs de Provence. While I didn’t get overtly oaky aromas or flavors, I did get a subtle hint of some baking spice notes on the palate, which leads me to believe this wine may have seen just a touch of oak aging. Between the levels of flavors from the primary characteristics and the delicate undertone of the secondaries, I definitely would call this wine complex. The finish falls shy of long at medium (+) and thus I am not rating the wine as outstanding, but it is of very good quality.

Suitability for Aging: I think that this wine is completely enjoyable now and teetered on whether it would positively evolve in a significant way over time. Certainly, structural components are present to lend to longevity—acid, tannin, alcohol, and intensity of flavor. I think the nature of the fruit is such that it could develop into cooked and dried forms, and take on more complexity and depth of flavor. So I am concluding that this wine is suitable for aging.


  • most grown variety in Piemonte
  • most plantings around the towns of Asti and Alba—the best quality is said to come from Asti (In Alba best sites are reserved for Nebbiolo)
  • early budding (prone to spring frost) and late ripening (but earlier than Nebbiolo)
  • vigorous and high yielding


  • Piemonte DOC allows high yields thus lack concentration/intensity.
  • Barbera d’Asti DOCG—restricted yields; Barbera must be aged in oak a minimum of four months
    • subzone Nizza DOCG—greater restriction on yields; must be aged for 18 months, minimum 6 of those months in oak.


  • In general: high in acid, low to medium in tannin, medium alcohol;
  • Most wine is made as still wine for early drinking with medium to deep ruby color, medium intensity red plum and red cherry fruits sometimes with black pepper aromas.
  • Higher concentration Barbera is also made from lower yielding sites, often from old vines
    • These wines are aged in French oak adding body and ability to age.


Ratti Battaglione Barbera d’Asti DOCG 2018

Appearance: pale ruby

Aroma: medium (-) intensity—red roses, cranberry, strawberry, mineral/wet stone

Palate: medium intensity—all of the above, with the addition of red cherry, raspberry, boysenberry, red plum (just ripe); medium body, medium acid, medium fine-grained and smooth tannin, medium body, medium alcohol

Finish is medium

Conclusion: This is a good wine that, though lacking in aromatic intensity at first, opened up on the palate, providing those fresh red fruit flavors along with a wet stone-like minerality that added just a touch of intrigue. Though the intensity did increase from the medium (-) aromatics, the palate was just simply medium and that level of intensity carried through to the finish which stopped at medium as well. That being said, the wine is wonderfully balanced in that the structural components of acid, tannin, and alcohol did not overwhelm the delicate and subtle primary fruit characteristics on the palate. I did not get any indication that this wine was aged in oak or that any other complex winemaking methods were utilized and I was tempted to call this wine simple. However, like the wine above, though it technically lacks complexity (as well as intensity and finish), I am making the argument that this is a good wine, even if simplistic in its winemaking, because it is a good example of the intended wine style:

Suitability for Aging: As stated above, I think that this wine is intended as a fresh, fruity expression intended for immediate consumption. Structurally, the wine does not have enough tannin, acid or intensity of flavors to withstand any kind of longevity. Those delicate primary fruits will only fade further in time, lending to an imbalanced wine.


  • ripens earlier than either Barbera or Nebbiolo
    • can be grown on cooler sites.
      • BUT grapes are fragile/easily broken, which is exacerbated by weather extremes
      • AND vines have low vigor and ripening can be inhibited by prolonged cold weather


Best areas for Dolcetto are in

  • Alba—Dolcetta d’Alba DOCG
  • Ovada—Dolcetto di Ovada DOC
  • Dogliani—Dogliani DOCG


  • reductive in the winery, requiring frequent cap management
  • fermentation is mid-range to maintain fresh primaries
  • wines spend just a short time on the skins to avoid extraction of naturally high tannins
  • aged in stainless or cement to preserve primaries.
  • typically deep ruby, medium (+) intensity, medium (-) acid, medium (+) tannins


Ca’ Violat Dolcetto D’Alba Vilot 2018

Appearance: medium ruby

Aroma: medium intensity—roses, red cherry, red raspberry, strawberry, hint chocolate, hint toasted wood, red licorice, red plum, violet,

Palate: medium (+) acid, medium alcohol, medium tannin (tacky), medium body, medium flavor intensity—all of the above

Finish is medium

Conclusion: I think this wine is of good quality. It is completely balanced, medium across the board in terms of tannin and alcohol, neither of which overwhelms the palate, but does a solid job in creating the overall medium body. The fact that the acidity is at medium (+) means that those fresh varietal characteristics, which again showed a solid medium in terms of intensity on both the nose and the palate, stayed fresh and vivacious throughout the tasting and through to the finish. The wine is by no means complex, though I thought I got a hint of some oak notes on the aroma, I failed to find those on the palate as strongly, which leads me to believe this wine either saw very little oak (probably large, neutral oak if any) or no oak. Further, the primary characteristics primarily stay in one category—the red fruited category. Therefore, there isn’t what one would call the standard definition of complexity in terms of primary fruits, however there is a wide variety of those fruits. Because the intensity and the finish (which was simply medium) are not there, I cannot rate the wine any higher than good. I am making the argument that this wine is better than acceptable because it is well balanced and it shows a good example of the intended wine style: fresh, fruity, easy drinking which is well showcased in the broad range of red fruits displayed.

Suitability for Aging: While the tannin, alcohol, and acid are all structurally present, typically indicators of age-ability, I do not think that this wine is suitable for extended aging due to the lack of intensity and length of finish. I think that with time, these primary characteristics will fade, not develop, creating an unbalanced wine. As stated, this is a fresh, fruity, easy drinking wine intended for immediate consumption. Enjoy.

Pop Quiz: What can you tell me about the white wines of Piemonte?

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