The Northwest

northwestFrom the Adriatic to Mont Blanc
The five regions of northcentral and northwestern Italy cover much of the great arc of the Alps and Apennines that wall in the Po as it flows east through its broad valley to the Adriatic. The types of wine – like the topography, soil and climate – vary to extremes in these regions, which are grouped rather loosely as neighbors but, in true Italian style, maintain their own proud identities.

This most affluent part of Italy comprises the "industrial triangle" between Milan, Turin and the Mediterranean port of Genoa and the agriculturally fluent flatlands of the Po and its tributaries. Since property is valuable and mountains take up a major share of space, vineyards are confined and wine is a commodity that must be either financially or spiritually rewarding.

Yet between the cool terraces of the Alps and the often torrid fields of the Po basin, contrasts abound. Alongside some of Italy’s most revered bottles can be found some of its most frivolous. But whether the label says Barolo or Lambrusco, the winemaker no doubt takes his work seriously.

Piedmont stands tall in the quality field with the most DOC/DOCG zones of any region, even though it ranks only sixth in over all production. Emilia-Romagna contributes quantity with the fourth largest output among the regions after Veneto, Apulia and Sicily.

In contrast, Valle d’Aosta and Liguria are mere dabblers in wine. Valle d’Aosta, the smallest region, produces by far the least volume of wine from its rocky Alpine slopes. Its DOC output is surpassed by some single wineries in other regions. Liguria, with little space for vines between the mountains and the Mediterranean, is second to the last in production, offering wines that are intriguingly esoteric.

Despite the proximity of France, whose vines have been warmly welcomed elsewhere in Italy, growers in Piedmont, Valle d’Aosta and Liguria prefer their own vines and tend to make wine in their own style.

Pedmont’s host of worthy natives includes Barbera, Dolcetto, Grignolino, Freisa, Cortese, Arneis, Brachetto, the Canelli clone of Moscato and the noblest of them all Nebbiolo, source of Barolo, Barbaresco and Gattinara. The vines of Valle d’Aosta often have French names – Petit Rouge, Gros Vien, Blanc de Valdigne, for instance – due to the Savoyard history of the region. Liguria favours the local Vermentino, Rossese and Pigato, while working with its own version of Dolcetto, known as Ormeasco.

Lombardy, the most populous region, ranks only thirteenth in wine production, but it does boast a major concentration of Nebbiolo vines for the DOC reds of the mountainous Valtellina. It also boasts spreads of Chardonnay and Pinot vines for the growingly prestigious sparkling wines of Franciacorta and Oltrepò Pavese.

Emilia-Romagna had been a leading exporter of wines with shipments to America of Lambrusco, whose vines spill over the fertile plains of Emilia. But lately growers have been concentrating on distinctive wines from the hills. Best known are the Albana and Sangiovese of Romagna, but Barbera, Cabernet, Chardonnay and Sauvignon from the Apennine foothills of Emilia are gaining notice.

Aosta Valley
Aosta Valley This tiniest of regions, tucked into Italy's mountainous northwestern corner against the borders of Switzerland and France, has precious little space for vines on its rocky Alpine terraces. But the minuscule amounts of wine it does produce are distinct from anything else in Italy or its foreign neighbours.

Emilia-Romagna Emilia-Romagna, as the hyphenated name reveals, consists of two distinct sectors which coincide more or less at the capital of Bologna. To the west lies Emilia, with its prosperous towns strung like jewels along the ancient Emilian Way: Modena, Reggio, Parma, Fidenza, Fiorenzuola, as far as Piacenza on the Po. East of Bologna lies Romagna with the towns of Faenza, Forlì, Cesena, Ferrara, Ravenna and the Adriatic resort of Rimini.

Emilia-Romagna's wines might be considered northern Italy's most eccentric, different on the whole from their neighbours' but always refreshingly individualistic.

Liguria The rugged terrain of this slender seaside region makes grape growing a challenge, meaning that vineyards are scattered along the Italian Riviera and wine production is limited. Still some of the wines of Genoa's region, if hard to get to, are well worth the search.

Lombardy Wine does not rank high on the list of Lombardy's numerous industries. The citizens of this most populous and well-to-do region are better noted as consumers than producers of wine. Still, even though output is much less than that of neighbouring Veneto, Emilia-Romagna and Piedmont, Lombardians do make some fine wine, a growing share of which is truly excellent. Just why the inhabitants (the eclectic Milanese, in particular) downplay local wines is hard to explain. But regional wines are often upstaged on restaurant lists by the reds of Tuscany and Piedmont and the whites of the Venezie (Veneto, Trentino and Friuli). Many of the 6 million bottles of Nebbiolo reds produced annually in the Alpine Valtellina are spirited away by the neighboring Swiss before Italians have a chance at them. On the other hand, Lombardians do show growing signs of pride in their preferences for the metodo classico sparkling wines of Franciacorta, which have attained the status of DOCG (while the red and white wines of the zone come under the Terre di Franciacorta DOC).

Piedmont An overwhelming majority of Piedmont's wines derives from native vines. Besides the noble Nebbiolo, source of Barolo, Barbaresco, Gattinara and Ghemme, which are all DOCG, Barbera ranks as the most popular vine for reds, followed by Dolcetto, which is enjoyed for its mellow, round flavors. Brachetto makes sweet, fragrant bubbly red that is DOCG as Brachetto d'Acqui. Freisa and Grignolino lead a host of local varieties in rounding out the honour roll of reds. Still, among classified wines, whites represent about a third of the volume. First comes Asti, whose DOCG applies to both sparkling Spumante and the softly bubbly Moscato d'Asti. With an average annual output of nearly 60 million liters, the Asti appellation ranks second in volume to Chianti among Italy's classified wines. An established star is Gavi, a dry white made from the native Cortese grape.