I fell in love with Piedmont, Italy, before ever stepping foot in the beautiful, fairy tale-like land. Instead I was in a tiny wine shop in a Colorado mountain town, sipping the most extraordinary wine I had ever tasted. It was a 2010 Barolo, produced by a family-run winery.
I was studying for my level 1 Sommelier Certification and working part-time at the wine shop, immersing myself in the fascinating world of wine. The pungent aromas of dusty cherries, violets and tar jumped out of the glass with intensity, demanding my full attention. The mouth-drying tannins gripped my tongue without remorse and the acidity from the grapes made my mouth water for more.
I examined the bottle, and on the front label was the winery name "Cascina Ballarin" with a drawing of a couple dancing. On the back label I found this humble description: "We are a family-run winery with 4 rooms for rent and space for camping." My heart leapt. I knew right then that I must go to Piedmont, and I wanted to meet the family that produced the delightful wine that was in my glass.
Three years later, I found myself in the humble tasting room of Cascina Ballarin, explaining to the family in Italian how much of an impact their wine has had on me. Since that day in the wine shop, I have earned my Sommelier Certification, learned Italian (at least by toddler standards), and I have a job leading bike tours in Italy--and yes, even Piedmont.
Through this process, I have become an aficionado of Piedmont wines, which surprisingly are quite varied. Guests on the trips that I lead in Piedmont can expect to leave with a heavy dose of wine knowledge and encouragement to swirl, sniff and taste the different varietals.
The most widely planted variety in Piedmont is Barbera, which is juicy and slightly rustic with notes of fresh cherries and vanilla. It has a smooth, mouthwatering finish, without the rough tannins at the end. It's delicious on its own and also pairs beautifully with most food, especially light appetizers and red sauces. This is my 'go-to' dinner party wine because it's affordable and most people really enjoy it.
Although there are many to choose from, I like to encourage visitors to taste the three main reds: Barbera, Dolcetto and Nebbiolo.
Another classic of the area is the deep-purple Dolcetto, which translates to "little sweet one" in Italian. It's a far cry from sweet or little, however, and on the contrary, has big, mouth-drying tannins that scream for cheesy pizza or cured meats. It has delicious notes of blackberries and spice, without the juiciness (i.e. acid) that you will find with Barbera. Often, this is what the old-time locals drink. That's because this was (and still is) an affordable and easy-to-drink table wine.
The most prestigious of them all--known as the "King of Wines and the Wine of Kings"--is Barolo, made from the highly prized and hard-to-grow Nebbiolo grapes. This wine is not to be missed. There are strict regulations to making Barolo, such as the time of harvest, alcohol level and aging requirements. Barolo must be aged for a minimum of 3 years, and often it is aged longer. Barolos tend to be big, powerful wines with heady aromas of licorice, violets, chocolate, figs and leather. The bold flavors of the wine pair perfectly with the rich Piemontese dishes like roasted game, rich porcini risottos, and Tajarin pasta with shaved truffles.
There are other wines made with the Nebbiolo grape, including Barbaresco, Barolo's "Queen." Barbaresco generally has a slightly lighter and more approachable style due to the differences in climate, soil and lesser aging requirements. We visit both areas on our Piedmont Biking Trip, so guests can taste the difference between the "King" and "Queen" of wines.
Have you ever tasted a wine from Piedmont? If you're up for an adventure, I recommend sampling the three main reds: Barbera, Dolcetto and Barolo/Barbaresco. Taste them using all of your senses; you never know where it may lead you!