For those of you following along on my WSET wine tour around the world, we recently did a brief stop in Northern Italy for a pop quiz about some of the wines produced. Indeed, that did cover a lot of ground, but not nearly the whole region. So I want to take time to look at Northern Italy in its entirety and explore the different regions and wine styles produced.
When we look at Northern Italy, we are looking at the area closest to the foothills of the Alps as well as the plains of the River Po. In general, Northern Italy has a moderate climate with dry, short summers. The Alps, which you may be able to tell from the map above, span the length of the Northern Italian border, thus shielding the area from rain. Like the River Po, other bodies of water that provide climatic moderation to the more inland areas include lakes such as Lake Garda. As you can see, there are also portions that are close to the sea—these areas can have higher levels of rainfall, so the major vineyard concern there will be fungal diseases.
Traditionally, vineyards were trained on the pergola system, as this provides air flow as well as keeps the grapevines off of the moist vineyard floor. Furthermore, with the vine canopy drooping over the fruit clusters, the training system also helps minimize excessive sun exposure. This system is still utilized today for grapes that require a high amount of acidity and low sugar (such as for sparkling wine) and for those wines that require grapes to be sun-dried (as in the passito method, which requires grapes to be fully developed and free of fungal disease so they can dry-out off the vine, post-harvest—we covered last time, but will touch on it again here). However, it’s noted that higher density plantings utilizing a VSP training system is now more widely used overall.
So let’s break down the different regions within Northern Italy…
Alto Adige is Italy’s most northern wine region and is situated on the foothills of the Alps. The region has a moderate climate with short, dry summers and an overall low level of rainfall during the growing season. Thankfully, because most vineyards are planted at altitude, they experience a diurnal range, thus successfully producing aromatic white wines—such as Pinot Grigio. Here, Pinot Grigio is produced in a dry style, with light body, high acidity, and primary fruit flavors of citrus and green apple. Other white wines include Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay, and Pinot Blanc.
The region is also noted for it’s light-bodied red wines, the primary variety being Schiava: a light, fruity red wine with low tannins and flavors of raspberries and plums.
Wines from Alto Adige are labeled Alto Adige DOC.
Just south of Alto Adige we find Trentino. Here, as you can imagine, the lay of the land consists more of the valley floor along with the slopes that edge that valley. The climate is similar to that described in Alto Adige, but due to its more southerly location, and the fact that its position relative to the mountains shields it from any cooling influence from the local Lake Garda, the region will be, overall, a bit warmer than its neighbor to the north.
Grapes planted at altitude will be similar in style to those found in Alto Adige, but those planted along the valley floor (which make up the vast majority of the region’s plantings) will be different, indeed. White wine grapes include Pinot Grigio as well as Chardonnay. White wines tend to be medium bodied, with a lower level of acidity, and riper stone fruit aromas and flavors.
When it comes to red wine, plantings are dominated by Merlot and Teroldego. I’ve only had Teroldego from California (thank you very much Miss Cindy Cosco of Passaggio Wines!). The WSET book describes Italian Teroldego as deep color, medium to high tannins, high acidity, and a medium to full body, with aromas of black fruits. The wines are typically aged in oak and able to age further in bottle. Yes, that sounds exactly what I experienced from Cindy, hence cellaring a bottle and waiting (not so patiently) to see what time will do!
Wines made in Trentino are typically labelled Trentino DOC.
I always have trouble finding Friuli-Venezia Giulia on the map. It’s up and to the right, FYI. Here’s a zoomed-in version I found on Wine Folly.
The most northern vineyards in the region are, again, situated on the foothills of the Alps and cooled from the air coming from the mountains, thus providing a moderate continental climate. However, the more southern vineyards are situated on a flat plain near the Adriatic Sea, thus experience a warm maritime climate. As you can imagine, the grapes grown in each area produce very different wines, indeed. Wines from the plains are labeled Friuli Grave DOC and tend to be simple, fruity white wines. This, unfortunately, is what I think of when I think of Friuli, as (I suppose) I’ve only been exposed to the “generic” white wines of the region.
However, Friuli-Venezia Giulia is known to produce some of the richest Pinot Grigio in Italy, with medium to even full-bodied wines with ripe fruit flavors of peach and tropical fruits.
Other grapes to know: Merlot and Friulano.
Wines labelled Collio DOC and Colli Orientali DOC indicate wines produced from grapes grown in the foothills, thus producing premium, more concentrated wines—predominantly white, but it’s noted that Colli Orientali is also known for red wines as well.
This is one of Italy’s largest wine-producing regions and, it is said, home to some of its best-known wines—Soave and Vallpolicella. Overall, Veneto climate is warm with moderate rainfall, enjoying cooling influences from the foothills of the Alps for those vineyards planted at altitude. However, those vines planted on the lower, flatter plain, experience quite a bit of fog rolling off the River Po, increasing vineyard risks of mildew, rot, and fungal diseases. These flat plains are, as you may have suspected, the key producers of high volume, inexpensive brands labelled as Veneto IGT. Key grapes to know throughout the Veneto region: Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Merlot, Corvina, Garganega, and Trebbiano.
Soave has two distinct sections to it: the foothills to the north and the flat plain to the south, near the River Po. It is the portion located on the foothills that are considered the Soave Classico. Here, the foothills have limestone and clay soils, along with some volcanic rock. These naturally cool soils, along with the altitude at which the vineyards are planted, ensure a moderate climatic condition that slows down ripening, allowing grapes to ripen fully while maintaining a high acidity. Sounds great for a white wine. And remember, Soave is Garganega. Garganega is a white grape and everything about it is medium: medium body, medium acidity and medium-level of fruit maturity when it comes to flavors (i.e., pomme and stone fruits).
Valpolicella—the region—is similar to Soave in that it contains the foothills rich with limestone, clay, and volcanic soils, which slow down the ripening and ensure a naturally high level of acidity in the grapes at harvest. This area, too, has a flatter southern region filled with sandier soils and that has an overall warmer climate. Grapes grown here will be fruitier, but less acidic.
Remember, when you think Valpolicella think Corvina—a red wine grape. (I’m emphasizing this because I always think it’s a white…). Valpolicella—the Corvina wine grape—is a thin-skinned variety with low to medium tannins and a high acidity. Again, there is a Valpolicella DOC and a Valpolicella DOCG, the DOCG indicating wines from the foothills. Either way, the wine tends to be simple, fruity, with light tannins and red cherry flavors. They rarely see oak and are ready to drink upon release.
Hm…so what can one do to increase the structure and flavor of one’s wine?
In Veneto, there is something called the passito method that is widely used to increase structure and flavor concentration, as well as color when used with red wines. The passito method: Grapes are picked early with a high level of acidity and dried indoors, which will concentrate the sugars and flavors. These grapes will not begin the fermentation process until winter. Wines labelled Amarone della Valpolicella DOCG are typically aged in old oak casks, and the resulting wines are dry or off dry, full-bodied, high in alcohol, high in tannins, and intensely concentrated in red berry and spice flavors. Wines labelled Recioto della Valpolicella DOCG are made from grapes so sweet that the fermentation stops naturally. These wines will have intense red fruit flavors, are high in alcohol, full-bodied, with medium to high tannins.
SIDE NOTE: The Soave region makes a sweet wine using the same method called Recioto di Soave DOCG.
Taking it a step further…
Valpolicella Ripasso DOC is made using the ripasso method. Word Nerd Alert: passare = to pass; ripassare = to pass again —that’s a clue. So, the ripasso method uses grape skins from a fermenting Amarone della Valpolicella (the guys that were picked early, with high acid levels, and then dried indoors prior to fermentation—but not the uber concentrated berries). Before that Amarone della Valpolicella finishes fermenting, the juice is drained off the skins. The unpressed skins are then added to a vat of Valpolicella that has finished fermentation. But that Amarone della Valpolicella that hasn’t finished fermentation brought along with it…yeast! (Are you with me so far?) The yeast then begins to ferment the remaining sugars from the Amarone della Valpolicella grape skins, and those grape skins are simultaneously giving off color, flavor and tannins. The resulting wines are medium- to full-bodied, with medium- to high-tannins, and have flavors of stewed cherries and plums.
Up at the top and to the right we find Piemonte. Once again, vineyards located at the northern-most extremity will be in the rain shadow of the Alps. The climate is moderate continental, with long, cold winters and summers that include thunderstorms, hail and fog. The more southern, inland vineyards will receive moderating influences from the River Po and Lake Maggiore. Piemonte is noted for its foothills, providing a wide range of aspects and altitudes at which to plant the grapes.
Key grapes for the entire region: Nebbiolo, Barbara, Dolcetto, Cortese and Moscato.
NOTE: There are not IGP or IGT labelled wines in Piemonte; all wines are of either DOC or DOCG status.
Barolo DOCG must be made from 100% Nebbiolo. I just want to get that out of the way because Italian wines can be confusing. Sometimes they call a wine by the wine-grape’s name and sometimes they call it by the region or nearest town it’s made in. So, when you hear Barolo, you must hear Nebbiolo and Nebbiolo is a red wine grape that has a high level of acid and tannin, but is very light in color. It’s also a slow and late ripener. I was recently listening to a podcast featuring a winemaker from Barolo and he said that Nebbiolo is the first to flower but the last to fully ripen—so you can imagine that the vineyard conditions would need to be very accommodating. (In fact, he compared its fickle-ness to Pinot Noir.)
The thing about Barolo DOCG is that it’s a very hilly region, with vineyard slopes reaching 300 to 500 meters high, which allow the grape to ripen as slowly as it would like. As stated, Piemonte has a moderate, continental climate: winters are long and cold; summers can see thunderstorms, hail, and fog. So keeping this funny red grape at a south-facing aspect and at altitude is imperative for it ripening fully.
And what happens when a Barolo is able to ripen appropriately? It develops perfumed aromas—many say of tar and roses, but the WSET describes sour cherries, herbs, and dried flowers. These wines are typically full-bodied, high in acidity, high in tannins, and are certainly intended for aging. Barolo is required to age for 3 years prior to release, 18 of which must be in oak, so one will certainly smell and taste the influence of those oak barrels.
Sorry to be confusing but, again, when you hear Barbaresco DOCG, you must hear Nebbiolo. Here, the vineyards are situated on slightly lower altitude hills than those found in Barolo, thus the wines will ripen earlier, producing wines that are fruitier, less perfumed, but still high in acidity and tannins. Barbaresco DOCG must age for 2 years prior to release, with at least 9 months in oak barrel.
Asti and Alba
Here we get a little relief: wines from Asti and Alba are typically labelled using the name of the grape plus the name of the nearest town. For example, Barbera d’Asti DOCG or Dolcetto d’Alba DOC. The key grapes to know are, in fact, Barbera and Dolcetto.
Barbera is a late ripening grape with medium to deep color, low to medium tannins, and high acidity, with aromas of red cherries and plums. They are made in both youthful, fruity styles, as well as barrel aged and spicy.
Dolcetto is an early ripening grape—even earlier than Nebbiolo. Thus, it can only truly thrive and develop in the coolest sites. The best, it is said, tend to come from Dolcetto d’Alba DOC. The resulting wines are purple with medium to high tannins, medium acidity, and displaying aromas of black plums, red cherries, and dried herbs.
Ah! I know what you’re thinking: Moscato, what about Moscato? Yes, the Piemonte region is famed for its sparkling wine produced from the Moscato grape. But I think I’ll hold off to that for if or when I get to do a sparkling wine feature. (I become ever more aware of how much time is running out for me to study…)
Last but not least is the south-eastern region of Gavi. She kind of hangs out there like a loner out to the right, doesn’t she? But this is a lovely wine region, cooled by both altitude and sea breezes, resulting in a long, slow growing season and ensuring maintenance of natural high acidity in its key white wine grape—Cortese. The wines produced are pale and light bodied, high in acidity, with aromas of citrus, green apples, and pears—all of which are highlighted by the protective winemaking style. These wines can be labelled either Gavi DOCG or Cortese di Gavi DOCG. But if the wine produced is made out of grapes solely from the town of Gavi, then it may be labelled Gavi di Gavi.
And for some reason that makes me extremely happy, so I will end it there.
Any questions, comments, concerns, observations or requests? Have a favorite Northern Italian wine you’d like to share with the class? Let’s hear it. And I’ll see you next time when we venture off to…Central Italy…Ciao!
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