Surprisingly, the hills famous for Barolo and Barbaresco are also producing an array of white wines.
A decade ago, if you’d asked me about white wines of the Langhe, I’d have answered with a blank stare. “That’s an oxymoron,” I might have offered. “The Langhe is red wine country: Barolo and Barbaresco for feasts; barbera and dolcetto for everyday suppers. If you want to talk dry whites from Piedmont, well, there’s Gavi di Gavi due east, towards Genoa.”
The realization that the Langhe does indeed have an array of whites dawned on me slowly. For years I’d been visiting the region, a spectacularly gorgeous vineyard fairyland flanking the Tanaro River, with long, parallel hills that resemble tongues of land—hence the name langa or langhe (plural), derived from a Celtic word for tongue and echoed by the Italian lingua. Like all novitiates to the cult of Barolo, I’d arrived eager to delve into its arcane mysteries, and my winery hosts were willing enablers, hastening through their “lesser” wines to cut to the chase. If there were any whites on hand, they remained demurely on the sidelines.
Maybe it’s climate change, but in recent years when we’d arrived red-faced and panting from unnatural heat spikes, those were the first things uncorked. Over time, I noticed that many Langhe winemakers make at least one white—either as a pet project, or for their own resuscitation in the summer, when tannic nebbiolo is as appealing as a scratchy wool sweater. Some were playing with native grapes like arneis, nascetta, favorita and cortese; others were hosting foreign interlopers like chardonnay, riesling, and viognier. Was this a new phenomenon—or just new to me?
Arneis, king of the hill
Even I knew that arneis had knocked Gavi di Gavi off its perch as Piedmont’s most fashionable white. When done right—Giovanni Almondo’s Bricco delle Ciliegie Roero Arneis, for instance—it offers an appealing bouquet of peach, pear, and white flowers, as fresh and floral as a Botticelli.
Though grown in the Langhe, Arneis is more closely identified with Roero, a smaller subzone north of the Tanaro River. Of the 7.8 million bottles made altogether (from 1,000 hectares), 80 percent comes from vineyards in Roero. In truth, Roero, with its looser, sandier soils, is better at coaxing out arneis’s pretty aromas.
Despite its charm in the glass, arneis nearly went the way of the Dodo bird thanks to its difficult character backstage. Before modern clonal selection, the vines tended to become deformed. Some say that’s how the variety got its name, which in dialect means madcap or capricious. Arneis is also low in acid, which can lead to flabby wines, and it oxidizes easily, which spelled trouble back in the old days, before temperature-controlled fermentation. Done in purezza, Arneis was basically a farmer wine.
In the field, it served a second purpose: Arneis’s sweet, early-ripening fruit diverted ravenous birds from the more precious nebbiolo. In Roero, white and red were grown and vinified together, the arneis softening nebbiolo’s harsh tannins. But by the 1960s, arneis had dwindled to a few interplanted rows.
Three Langhe producers saved it from extinction. In 1967, Alfredo Currado, venerated patriarch of Vietti winery in Barolo country, wanted to add an indigenous white to his roster. Meanwhile, Bruno Giacosa, grape whisperer of Barbaresco, had the same idea. Then in 1985, the enterprising Ceretto brothers leapt in with all four feet. Today Ceretto produces a whopping 10 percent of Piedmont arneis.
That makes theirs the easiest to find stateside. I happen to like it very much. Called Blangé—after boulange, or bakery in French, a nod to the baker who once owned their vineyard—this rendition stands out for its subtle spritz. That sparkle, coming from a dose of CO2, makes it extra refreshing—just the ticket when lunching al fresco on vitello tonnato.
N.B.: If the label says “Langhe Arneis DOC,” some or all of the vineyards are outside the Roero zone. “Roero Arneis DOCG” indicates everything lies within those boundaries. In the case of Blangé, three of the four vineyards are in Roero, but one is by Ceretto’s headquarters near Alba, thus the Langhe designation.
When in Barolo country, I used to skip the chardonnay. Ho hum. Why travel 3,000 miles for that when Piedmont has so much else to offer? But sometimes, the winemaker would pour it anyway. That’s how I came to taste Langhe Chardonnay DOC at Aldo Conterno, Massolino, Conterno Fantino, and Bruno Rocca, for starters. I must admit, it can be pretty wonderful stuff.
Typically, the Piemontese take an understated Burgundian approach, fermenting and nursing the chardonnay in French barrique, but with a light touch. Sometimes there’s no oak at all. Richness is more likely to come from bâtonnage—the stirring of spent yeast. Thanks to the Langhe’s sizable day/night temperature swings, acid remains high, so the chardonnay has a lip-smacking freshness to it.
I was surprised to learn just how old some of these vines are: 25–30 years isn’t uncommon. Even more surprising (to me, anyway) is the amount of Langhe Chardonnay DOC: 1.2 million bottles from 317 hectares, split 90/10 between Langhe and Roero vineyards.
The trend started with Angelo Gaja in the 1980s. (What didn’t he pioneer?) When he first planted chardonnay and cabernet next to the village of Barbaresco, he really rocked the boat. (French grapes! Is he crazy?) But his first Gaia e Rey chardonnay in 1984 demonstrated that Piedmont is capable of making age-worthy whites. Other serious producers soon followed suit (which explains those old vines). Gaja once said that all tradition starts as innovation, and here he proved right.
The motley mix
After arneis and chardonnay, it’s a kaleidoscope of whites. Winemakers might plant a personal favorite. Or they’re just curious how a particular grape will do. They rip out a dolcetto vineyard or hazelnut orchard—some cooler plot—and set the experiment in motion.
My first love among Langhe whites was Langhe Sauvignon DOC from Marchesi di Grésy, one of Barbaresco’s oldest properties. As precise as a classically trained soprano, it eschews exaggeration, being neither overtly grassy nor in-your-face tropical, but offers pure, exciting fruit for sauvignon nuts like me. It started in 1987 as a table wine for the noble Grésy family. “Until 2005, we were the only producers making sauvignon blanc in stainless steel,” says Jeff Chilcott, the affable cellar master and New Zealand transplant. “Only five producers in the area do a good sauvignon blanc; overall, about twenty try.”
But my newest infatuation is with riesling. I was clueless about its existence in the Langhe until two years ago, when an inquisitive traveling companion shared a bottle he’d just discovered in an Alba wine shop: Ettore Germanno’s Hérzu. Planted at 1650'—higher than nebbiolo is allowed—it was racy and sublime, with a bouquet of lime, wet stone, and flower. There was even a touch of petrol—that Holy Grail of riesling aromatics.
So I was excited to try G.D. Vajra’s Pètracine (“roots on the stones”). Though known for Barolo and barbera, the winery founder, Aldo Vaira, did his thesis on malolactic fermentation, so he was swimming in whites during university. Riesling became his favorite. (He has a thousand bottles in his cellar.) In 1985, Vaira was dismayed to learn that a vineyard he’d just bought wasn’t suited for nebbiolo. So he took the leap. Using Alsatian vine cuttings and German rootstock, he became the first Langhe producer to grow riesling. Now there are 40, though most add it to Langhe Bianco blends. No more than 10 dare make it pure. “Precision is the most important thing,” explains his son Isodoro Vaira. “If you pick one day too early, it’s too acidic. One day too late, it’s too sweet.” To capture that ideal ripeness, they do multiple passes at harvest. The result has landed Pètracine among the top three in a blind tasting in Pfalz.
I’m equally intrigued by nascetta. Here again is a variety that escaped extinction by a hair’s breadth. Some think it’s of Mediterranean origin (as with vermentino, there’s a subtle backnote of sapiditá or salinity). I first encountered it at Elvio Cogno—its rescuer, as it happens. In 1991, Cogno’s son-in-law, Valter Fissore, tasted a nascetta made by a neighboring farmer. Aged five years, the bottle demonstrated nascetta’s potential for aging. After that epiphany, Fissore planted nascetta vines on their property in Novello, a commune of Barolo, and vinified 800 bottles in 1994. “We originally made it for the family restaurant in La Morra,” Fissore says. Now they make 10,000 bottles. Called Langhe Nascetta di Novello “Anas-Cetta” DOC, it’s a mouthful in more ways than one: Full-bodied and packed with honey, acacia flower, and savory herb, it’s enriched by six months of aging on the lees in French barrique. Today nascetta grows at twenty-some wineries in the Langhe and beyond, though unblended versions like Cogno’s are the exception.
There’s plenty more to be jazzed about. Albino Rocca’s mineral-laden Piedmont Cortese is a needle in a haystack—the only instance of cortese in Barbaresco (it’s traditionally the grape of Gavi). Matteo Ascheri in Bra is exploring Rhone varieties, including viognier (labeled Langhe Bianco). Then there’s favorita, a genetic twin of vermentino, which made its way from Liguria to Piedmont and became a popular table grape in Roero. Langhe Favorita DOC is still identified with Roero, and my favorite so far (by Morra Vini) is from there. But then, I haven’t tried Fallegro, a Langhe Favorita from Gianni Gagliardo in La Morra, singled out by other critics. It seems my education has just begun.
Published in the August 2015 issue of Tastes of Italia magazine.