In vino veritas, part XXVIII: Piedmont power

For those of you who haven’t visited Italy yet, fake an injury and hop on the next flight out. Well, maybe don’t go that far, but, as an Italophile, I suggest that the country should definitely be on your bucket list. The beauty of Italy lies in its vast depth of history and culture as well as the exceptional qualities of its individual regions (remember that Italy as a modern, unified nation has only existed for just over 150 years).

One of these regions is the Piedmont in the northwest, centered on the city of Turin with the main appellations in Montferrat around the cities of Asti and Alessandria. For a very long time, it was a part of the Duchy of Savoy, meaning it still has many cultural links to France. As far as winemaking goes, I wrote a previous post on Tuscany — which is often first to mind as the main producer of Chianti and other Sangiovese delights — but the Piedmont is more than its equal with Barolos, Barbarescos, Dolcettos and many other excellent varietals made here.

To understand the Piedmont is to first know that the region has some of the best geography for viticulture. Its flat grasslands and rolling hills are ringed by the Alps in the north and west and the Ligurian range in the south (separating it from the Genovese coast). All told, these mountains effectively trap the summer heat with sunny, humid days easily passing 40 C (104 F) — conditions that also happens to be perfect for concentrating sugars and flavor in thick-skinned grapes.

What’s important to keep in mind with these thick-skinned grapes is that the wines take a long time to mature, and the taste shows substantial changes year to year. The cream of the crop (in my opinion) — a decent Barolo, with its hearty, tar-filled drop — can take a decade to reach a semblance of maturity, best paired with meats and other heavy, cream-laden dishes. The Dolcetto exudes a tangy, fruity red flavor perfect for pomodoro pizzas, light pastas, spicy foods or strong Parmesan-esque cheeses. Hungry yet?

The Piedmont has many other excellent bottles worth a taste or a purchase. Many of the reds are based on the Nebbiolo (which translates as “fog”), Barbera and Moscato Bianco, which is the basis for the sparkling Champagne usurper Moscato D’Asti.

I could go on and on about the wonders of Piedmont wine, but the only way to really get to know this region is to experience it yourself — by traveling there, or, as a runner-up, visiting your local liquor store and sampling a few bottles.

In addition, like many other countries with a strong viticultural heritage, Italy also has many proud culinary traditions, with each region contributing its own delicacies and unique dishes to the overall picture. As a resident of North America, Italian cuisine is more often than not lumped into the broad, countrywide categories of antipasti, ensalada, pizza, pasta, mains and dolci. This arrangement definitely doesn’t excite the eyes, chiefly because every other bistro, pizzeria or trattoria is doing the same thing.

Instead, how about arranging the menu items according to their respective region of origin? Then, of course, wine — as a fantastic complement to any such dinner — would also be matched accordingly. So, you could have barolos and moscatos paired on the page with Piedmont specialties like bagna cauda or, as a dessert, some gianduia chocolate. Or how about a Ligurian white matched with some of Genoa’s other homegrown creations like focaccia or pesto and salsa di noci (walnut sauce) lathered over pizza or pasta?

I still recall the way the menu was organized at the Meritage restaurant in the Boston Harbor Hotel, where foods were grouped according to the types of reds and whites they matched best with. Why can’t you do the same, say, with the French café on your lobby floor? In this case, you might bifurcate the menu into Provencal and Lyonnais haute cuisine and Northern French, Breton and Normand dishes. Yes, there is the possibility of confusion, but the greater idea here is to be different and therein create an impression.