Please join me as I continue to explore the many wonderful Italian wine regions. This week, I decided to take a slightly different approach. I will compare and contrast two Italian regions that are about as different as they come: Piedmont and Basilicata. In looking at these two regions, you don’t get many more exact opposites in a single country. Not only are these regions located completely opposite one another; their cuisine and wines are a study in contrasts borne by geography and history.
Lying in the hilly area below France and Switzerland, Piedmont (“the foot of the mountain”) is Italy’s preeminent wine region. Piedmont’s herb cultivation is also world renowned, as are artisan-crafted cheeses and the famous Alba truffle, from the town of Alba, which, according to Karen MacNeil, “holds an almost mythic place in the minds of food and wine lovers.” Many European tourists travel to Piedmont, so you’ll find eclectic and adventurous cuisine. (Liquid pizza? I guess you don’t say no until you’ve tried it.) From frog legs and rice, to herb spiced stuffed pasta, the food is refined and authoritative.
Piedmont makes me think of the favorite child who gets everything, including the best chocolate. It ranks sixth in hectares of wine production, yet boasts the most DOC registered vineyard zones (38).
Piedmont’s most famous red wines are Barolo, Barbaresco, Barbera and Dolcetto.
Barolo and Barbaresco are both made from the Nebbiolo grape. According to Karen MacNeil, they are “Italy’s most majestic and powerful red wines.” They are described as having aromas and flavors of tar, violets, leather, licorice and prunes. Because Barolo is grown on steeper, cooler sites, it is considered to be the more masculine of the two.
Barolo and Barbaresco are quite expensive, so they aren’t drunk on a nightly basis. The nightly wines in Piedmont are Barbera and Dolcetto. Barbera is an incredibly food friendly, acidic, rustic mouth-filling wine, made from a grape by the same name. Please check out my article on Barbera to learn more. Dolcetto is one of my personal favorites. It is a berry party in your mouth, kind of like an adult Hawaiian Punch. Please check out my Dolcetto blog post to learn more about this delightful grape and wine.
Because Piedmont’s red wines are so front and center, their white wines take a back seat. Nonetheless, Piedmont makes some wonderful white wines, the most famous of which are Gavi, Arneis, Moscato d’Asti and Asti Spumanti.
Gavi is made from the Cortese grape. It’s a dry, crisp wine with mineral and citrus notes. Arneis is made from the Arneis grape. It’s a dry, fresh wine that pairs beautifully with seafood. Moscato is an ancient variety known for its fruity, floral and musky aromas and flavors. Asti Spumanti (also known as Asti) is a world-famous semi-sweet bubbly made from Moscato grapes.
Now turn your eyes south to Basilicata. Resembling the “instep” of Italy’s “boot,” this poor-relation region has almost nothing Piedmont has, but her courage and determination are endearing. The geography is rugged, hilly and not inclined to growing much, and the population has historically been among the poorest for centuries. Due to its coast-hugging location, the region was frequently raided and influenced by a wide variety of marauding cultures. The native population fled inland to the inhospitable hills and eked a living from forests in that rugged place.
In terms of wine (and just about everything else as well), Basilicata ranks almost last in many categories (size, vineyard hectares, DOC vineyards, population, tourism). Yet they do have a single source of pride, which is their one DOC wine: Aglianico del Vulture, from a grape imported from Greeks hundreds of years before the common era, which pairs perfectly with a hearty meat dish or steak. Perhaps due to the rocky soil and other unexplored factors, Basilicata’s wines tend to be flavorful and aromatic.
The region’s cuisine is unremarkable in every way that Piemonte’s is dramatic and full of flair. You’ll not find much seafood in every day Basilicata fare, as the coast was historically a dangerous place. These “people of the forest” (per the region’s other name, Lucanus) tend toward simple food: in-season vegetables with fresh meats from hill-favoring animals. One famous sausage they produce called Luganega dates from ancient Roman times.
As hard as times were, and possibly still are in Basilicata, the people are not without humor. You’ll find exquisite olive oils and wicked hot peppers comically named “saddle breaker” and “little devil.”
I would love to hear about your experiences in Piedmont and Basilicata. Please share them with us here. Grazie!