Nestled amongst the foothills of the Alps in the northwestern corner of Italy sits Piedmont, the country’s most world-renowned wine region. Rolling hills of elevations ranging from 150 to 600 meters above sea level enchant a landscape where the notorious Nebbiolo reigns supreme. In fact, Italy’s Barolo DOCG and Barbaresco DOCG covering Nebbiolo wines are two of the most famous Italian wine appellations. They’ve garnered international acclaim amongst wine critics and stolen the hearts of wine connoisseurs and wine novices alike. Yet one would be remiss to solely cast Nebbiolo in the starring role for Piedmont’s show on the world wine stage. While this Italian red wine certainly deserves its starring role, there are many rare white Piedmont wines eager to captivate the palates of curious wine lovers.
Cortese is a classic Italian white wine primarily produced under the Gavi DOCG. This variety found the perfect growing conditions to foster the slow ripening it needs in southeastern Piemonte. Cortese vines typically grow on hillsides where the altitude and Mediterranean Sea breezes moderate temperatures and increase hang time. Thus, creating the ideal conditions for Cortese to develop its naturally high acidity and intoxicating floral aromas.
If the grapes solely come from the town of Gavi rather than the wider appellation, the wine will be labeled Gavi di Gavi DOCG. These wines tend to be pale and light-bodied with aromas of citrus, green apple, and pear. Plus, that trademark refreshing acidity.
Mauro Sebaste produces one of my favorite Gavi DOCG wines. Learn more about Cortese and Mauro Sebaste’s Gavi here.
Arneis is one of the great Italian white wines worth seeking out. Piedmont has been home to this white variety since the 15th century. However, by the 1960s Arneis was on the verge of extinction. Producers chose to plant international varieties instead, thanks to Arneis’ high yields and challenges viticulturists faced in taming the variety.
Vietti Saves Arneis
Yet Arneis was destined to claim its place amongst legendary Piedmont wines. This fate rested in the hands of Vietti, one of Piedmont’s most celebrated producers. Alfredo Curado married into the Vietti family in the mid-20th century. He brought with him a dream of producing a great dry Italian white wine which Piedmont could call its own.
At this time, there were only around 4,000 vines of Arneis growing throughout the region. Moreover, these vines were meant to feed the birds. Rows of Arneis were planted between each row of Nebbiolo. The Arneis grapes would ripen first, attracting hungry birds. In this way growers strategically protected the late-ripening Nebbiolo grapes until they could be harvested.
In researching Arneis, the idea developed that the variety could be a genetic mutation of Nebbiolo . Cluster shape, leaf size, and stubborn mentality in the vineyard indicated the possibility of Arneis as white Nebbiolo. Though it’s still yet to be proven, some producers in Piedmont embrace this theory.
In the late 1960s, Curado and his wife enlisted the help of a local priest to source grapes for their first Arneis vintage. They asked him to speak to local farmers who had limited Arneis vine. Subsequently, that vintage Vietti produced just 3,000 bottles of Arneis with grapes sourced from 35 growers.
Vietti gave Arneis, named little rascal in the local dialect, a new life. Arneis wines are medium bodied with moderate acidity and luxuriously fragrant with aromas of pear, apple, stone fruits, and almond. Today, you’ll find premium Piedmont wines of this variety labeled as Roero Arneis DOCG.
Timorasso is another Piemonte comeback kid. Just two short decades ago, Timorasso was on the verge of complete extinction. Thankfully, Walter Massa lifted the variety from obscurity. Today, this white Italian grape thrives in the hills of Tortona. This area, known as Colli Tortonesi, rests along Piedmont’s border to Lombardy, Liguria, and Emilia-Romagna.
Massa recognized the elevation, soil, and microclimate of Colli Tortonesi as well-suited to white wine production. So, he set out on an entrepreneurial venture, branching out from Barbera production to pursue a hunch that Timorasso could lead to greatness. Massa always grew a small amount of Timorasso, which he normally blended with Cortese. In 1987, his first 500 bottles of single-varietal Timorasso told him he was onto something special.
Currently, Massa makes a few single varietal Timorasso wines. His Derthona, named for the local dialect for Tortona, is perhaps the most renowned. Plus, Massa inspired other producers like Vietti to follow suit. Today, Timorasso continues its rise to stardom amongst Piedmont wines.
Still an underdog in the Piemonte wine scene, Erbaluce grows on the western edge of Alto Piemonte just before Vallé d’Aosta within the Canavese district. This white Italian grape dug into prime real estate surrounding the town of Caluso. Absolutely flourishing here, the variety claims the only white wine DOCG designation of the region. Encompassing just 188 hectares, the Erbaluce di Caluso DOCG offers dry, sparkling, and passito styles of wine.
This Piedmont variety is named for its earthy, hay flavors and ability to thrive in the sun-soaked hillsides of Caluso—erbe, meaning grass or herbs, and luce, meaning light. The first historical mentions of Erbaluce in Piemonte date back to the 1606. Yet still to this day, the variety hasn’t spread beyond this Italian wine region’s borders.
Some compare Erbaluce to Chenin Blanc, in that the variety offers high acidity and successfully lends itself to a range of wine styles. Expect poised white wines with vibrant, electric acidity, fruity melon, apple and lemon flavors, and a subtle minerality. With just a handful of wineries producing Erbaluce, look to Ferrando and Orsolani for exceptional Piedmont wines of this variety.
Like many minority varieties, Nascetta saw only limited re-plantings after phylloxera wiped out what few already existed. The only Italian white variety native to the Langhe, Nascetta practically disappeared following the two World Wars. Yet in the 1800s, ampelographer Lorenzo Fantini noted the variety as “an exquisite grape, tending toward art.”
Though infamously difficult to cultivate with a tendency for unpredictable yields, pioneering producers Rivetto and Cogno saw potential in Nascetta. They procured the help of the University of Torino, which cultivates indigenous varieties, to source their early plantings. As of 2004, Langhe DOC wines were able to incorporate Nascetta. In 2010, the Langhe Nascetta di Novello DOC was born. Nascetta wines are intensely perfumed with floral and tropical fruit aromas. They offer a crisp palate with flavors of citrus, apple, and honey. Christy Canterbury MW recommends Nascetta producers to seek out here.
Finally, Favorita, or the favorite one in Piemontese, grows throughout the Langhe. Significant plantings in Roero on the left bank of the Tanaro River produce noteworthy Peidmont wines. Though I wouldn’t consider this variety unique to Piemonte, since Favorita is a relative of Vermentino. Yet it’s worth mentioning, because it’s a favorite of producers in Piemonte.
Just like Nascetta, producers abandoned Favorita after World War II. Then, growers in the 1970s, inspired by Favorita’s potential, resumed production with increased plantings. Today, the variety lends itself to elegant, expressive Italian white wines. Favorita’s fresh acidity drenches the palate followed by a slightly bitter finish. Expect aromas and flavors of citrus, white flowers, melon, and peaches.