Monday, October 22, 2012

The Langhe (Piemonte, Italy) wine region

The third annual Decanter Reader trip (Great Piemonte Reader Weekend) placed a small band of intrepid wine enthusiasts deep into the wilds of the Langhe region to test their resolve and ability to survive an avalanche of information, food, and wines of the region.  This post is intended to provide the lens through which all future posts on the topic should be viewed.

Piemonte is one of the most highly regarded Italian wine regions, a reputation due, in large part, to the stellar wines produced in its Langhe sub-region. The Langhe (tongues of land) is separated from the Roero sub-region by the Tanaro River and is characterized by long, steep-sided hill slopes that are separated one from the other by a series of narrow valleys.

The climate in the Langhe is continental with warm Mediterranean air from the Ligurian Sea moderating somewhat the effects of cold air coming off the Alps to the north.  Weather varies from year to year resulting in appreciable vintage variation.  Hailstorms are an appreciable risk with the potential for associated crop loss.

When the Padano Sea retreated from what is today's Langhe, it left behind layers of clay, calcareous marl, blue marl, tufa, sand, and sulfur-bearing chalk.  This soil is credited with bestowing structure and finesse on the areas full-bodied reds.

The primary grape varieties grown in Langhe are shown in the table below. 

Nebbiolo, the variety used in the region's famed Barolo and Barbaresco wines, is considered Italy's most noble grape.  Its name is thought to derive from the Italian word for fog, a condition which is common in Barolo during the September-October maturation period of the variety. The grape requires the warmest sites in order to ensure full ripening. There is significantly more Barbera planted in Langhe than Nebbiolo. This variety is vigorous, high in acid, and resistant to fungal disease and its retiring aroma (plus acidity) renders it an excellent blending wine. When cropped for quality this grape can show aromas of red fruits, currants, and blackberries.  Dolcetto -- the little sweet one -- is an early ripening variety which is low in acid but high in tannins.  It is however, considered much more approachable than its rich cousins and serves as the everyday drinking wine of the Piedmontese.  This variety is characterized by aromas of ripe blackberries and plums.  Moscato Bianco is a white grape that is the fourth most planted variety in Italy.  Known by a number of names, the resulting wines tend to be fizzy or sparkling and produce aromas of lychee and rose petals.

Barolo DOCG Soils
Barolo wines are produced from Nebbiolo grapes grown on the hillsides to the southwest of Alba in five key communes and parts of five sub-zones.  The substrates of the hills are marine sedimentary deposits that formed in the Miocene epoch (23 - 5 million years ago). These deposits are composed primarily of white- to blue-colored compacted marl and calcareous clay and are more- or less-resistant to water penetration depending on the sand-to-clay ratio.

The Barolo zone is divided into two soil subzones based on the age of the deposits. To the west, the soils around the towns of Barolo and La Morra are composed of a calcareous (limestone-rich) marl with high levels of sand -- referred to as Tortonian (11 - 7 million years ago) -- that yields aromatic, elegant, medium-bodied wines which evolve in the bottle earlier than their counterparts.  The wines from the Barolo commune are thought to be more complex, and broader in texture, than the more perfumed and graceful La Morra wines. 

The Langhian (until the 1960s, Helvetian) soil around the communes of Serralunga d'Alba, Monforte d'Alba, and Castiglione Falletto was deposited between 16 and 13 million years ago. The soils of this zone are mostly calcareous clay marls with little sand content and produces a wine that is more structured and requires longer aging.

Serralunga d'Alba

Serralunga d'Alba is a small, medieval village in the Langhe region of Piedmont that is 7100 meters long, 1800 meters wide at its widest point, sits on a hill 414 meters above sea level, and serves as the eastern flank of the Barolo wine production zone.  According to, Serralunga d'Alba is one of only three of the 11 Barolo communes that are contained in their entirety within the production zone (the remaining two are Barolo and Castiglione Falletto).

According to Gambero Rosso (Serralunga Barolo: The unrushable wine;, Serralunga d'Alba has "compact, sandstone-based soils dating from the Helvetian period."  These soils are high in sand, limestone, iron, phosphorous, and potassium and, as a result, produce wines that are intense and structured and that need time to mature.

Click here for a detailed map of the Barolo wine-growing region.

Barbaresco DOCG

Barbaresco wines are produced from grapes grown on the steep, pre-alpine hillsides of four small villages located to the northeast of Alba.  The grapes are grown on limestone rich marl soils on south-facing exposures with elevation in excess of 200 meters.  The climate in the Barbaresco growing area is warmer and drier than in Barolo, allowing the grapes to ripen earlier and the resulting wines to be less tannic and more approachable.  Barbaresco wines are known for their rich, spicy flavors and perfumed sweetness.

A summary of the DOCG and DOC wines produced in Langhe is provided in the table below.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme


  1. I hope I am not wrong but I think I remember some winemakers telling me that they can no longer assume that planting Nebbiolo vineyards is most suitable for the Southwest slopes in the future. This is because weather patterns are changing and therefore they may have to study ideal directions for their vineyards and re-evaluate! It will be interesting to see... Anyway, my mouth is watering now! cin cin

    1. I have not had any input on this front but will look into it as I have future discussions with winemakers from the region. If you do get hard info (including a citation), please let me know.

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