Discovering the other Piedmont: Nizza Monferrato and Barbera
With gentle slopes covered in vines, historic hilltop villages overflowing with charm, chic restaurants and cosy B&Bs, it’s easy to see why Piedmont is such a popular destination for French Riviera residents. This corner of Northern Italy is a world apart from the glitz and glamour of our azure stretch of coast, yet is less than a three-hour drive from Nice.
The hills surrounding the pretty villages of Barolo and Barbaresco are usually where visitors head, seduced by the romantic landscapes and the scent of the world-class wines bearing these very same names.
These villages are, justifiably, the stars of the show, although the Langhe (as the area is known) doesn’t have the monopoly on breathtaking scenery and fine wine. And, while the rolling hills, medieval villages and stylish restaurants extend throughout every corner of Piedmont, the wine landscape changes quite significantly. Nebbiolo, the grape of Barolo and Barbaresco, may be king, but other varieties such as Dolcetto, Arneis and Cortese make noble wines. Yet, it’s the cheekier grape sibling, Barbera (in the wine Barbera d’Asti), with who the wine world is currently rekindling their love affair.
Traditionally regarded as the every-day quaffing wine to Nebbiolo’s special occasion status, Barbera is high in acidity and low in tannins, hardly a winning formula for red wines. Nebbiolo, on the other hand, with both high tannins and high acidity, has won the genetic grape lottery and only gets better with age.
The last few years have, however, witnessed a real reversal of fortunes for Barbera, thanks to passionate and innovative producers who have used careful oak ageing to increase the wine’s roundness and tannic structure. Today, in the villages of the Monferrato, the spiritual home of Barbera to the east of the Langhe, there’s a real excitement. Because, finally, the rest of the world has awoken to what they’ve known all along: that their Barbera wines are both world-class and totally fun.
The villages surrounding Nizza di Monferrato, 50 kilometres east of Barolo, have been at the heart of the Barbera revolution and are a wonderful base from which to explore the “Barbera” side of Piedmont. Nizza itself may look rather uninspiring from the outskirts but don’t let that put you off. The monotonous brown apartment blocks give way to bright, pedestrianised streets of the town centre, full of charming old buildings, stylish bars and restaurants and friendly locals.
To say they’re proud of their wine here is an understatement: “Nizza e Barbera” (Nizza and Barbera) is a sign you’ll see more than once. It’s also the name of an annual spring wine festival that sees the town come to life in celebration of their beloved grape.
The paint is still drying on Nizza’s elevation to its very own DOCG (the highest classification for Italian wines), which recognises the town itself and 18 surrounding villages as producing their own unique, high-quality style of Barbera d’Asti. The distinction was finally made in 2014, and the wines from that very important vintage have only just made it into the bottle.
Producers such as Tenuta Olim Bauda, Azienda La Gironda and Tenuta dell’Arbiola are making some of the most acclaimed wines in Nizza: overflowing with juicy, fresh fruit and with the grape’s notorious acidity in control. The requisite six-month oak ageing gives Barbera from Nizza complexity and richness and, since these wines don’t have the astringent tannins so common in young red wines, you can enjoy a glass both by itself and with a meal.
In fact, Nizza’s Barbera is the perfect dinner party guest: bright, vibrant and full of interesting conversation. It also offers incredible value for money and a visit to the cellars of the wineries above is highly recommended.
Villages such as Castelnuovo Calcea and Rocchetta Palafea are important names for Nizza wine but also offer a road less travelled in the region. You would be wrong to assume that this translates to less appealing, however. The Monferrato hills shelter an array of intimate boutique hotels, such as La Collina dei Conigli in Castel Boglione, which offer the same spellbinding landscape as its Barolo neighbours.
Fine wine with a view? Make Nizza di Monferrato your next weekend escape.
Chrissie McClatchie is an Australian wine specialist who has been living in Nice for the past seven years. You can follow her travels at www.rivieragrapevine.com or on Twitter @RivieraGrape