Italy’s northwestern zone of Alba is so intrinsically linked with Barolo that its winemakers often become transfixed. Now they’re starting to realise there’s more to life than Nebbiolo – Barbera and Dolcetto for a start. RICHARD BAUDAINS takes up the story

Alba lies in the heart of Piedmont, home to many of Italy’s greatest red wines. It is also responsible for a lot of excellent, lesser known ones besides.

Set on the river Tanaro, the town gives its name to a DOC which extends over the whole of the Langhe and Roero hills and includes in its orbit the DOCG zones of Barolo and Barbaresco. The hierarchy is pretty much set in stone.

Barolo is more than ever the king of Alba wines, not for reasons of divine right, but because it is simply the best and most dynamic denomination. Production is growing (some fear too much and too fast, but that is another issue) but quality has never been so consistent nor the pool of top-class producers so large.

As for winemaking styles, after a decade of hammer-and-tongs discussion about the relative merits of the so-called modern and traditional schools, the two seem to be converging. The modernists and traditionalists have learned from each other over the last 10 years. Winemakers who favour long maceration and ageing in big barrels these days pay a lot more attention to the quality of their tannins and the purity of aromas. Equally, many previously progressive thinkers are retreating from hyper-extracted colours and simplistic fruit towards more authentic terroir character.

The bigger and better Barolo gets, the more difficult it seems to be for Barbaresco to emerge from the shadow of its illustrious neighbour, which is a great pity. Barbaresco might be a lighter and subtler rendition of Nebbiolo, but this does not make it any less interesting. It has to be said, however, that in comparison with Barolo, overall quality is less consistent. Recent years have added very few new names to the list of consolidated leaders, though producers on the up include Marchesi di Gresy, Cigliuti, Paitin and Bruno Rocca.

There was a time in the late 1990s when it looked as if Nebbiolo was going to progressively oust other traditional varieties from the Langhe. Fortunately producers are rediscovering the value of a diversified production. Barbera d’Alba, with its dark purple shades and intense plummy fruit, is the biggest and fullest flavoured of the many wines made from this widely planted variety. Definitively promoted out of the everyday drinking category, nowadays top producers lavish it with man-hours in the vineyard and new oak in the winery.

Dolcetto could be going the same way. Traditionally it has always been considered an antipasto and first-course wine, bottled early and drunk within the year. This model is being challenged, in particular by the wines from the specialist production area of Dogliani.

This village, on the edge of the Barolo zone, has its own DOC for the variety and the upgrade to DOCG is on the way. Bigger and more firmly structured than other Dolcettos, Dogliani wines are often aged in wood. Nicoletta Bocca of San Fereolo defends the style: ‘It is not a question of wanting to ape Nebbiolo, but simply of treating the variety with respect and giving the wine time to offer something else beyond simple fruit.’ In a region where prices are not always easy on the pocket, Dolcettos, whether Alba or Dogliani, can offer outstanding value.

The other new DOCG in the pipeline is the fast-developing area of the Roero. The flag bearer is Arneis, the native white variety of these sandy hills on the right bank of the Tanaro. With production growing and quality steadily improving, this soft and delicate, candied fruit wine is threatening to become the white varietal of the region.

As for the reds, Roero produces (not very helpfully under the Alba DOC) a dry and floral style of Nebbiolo and Barbera which is lighter than the equivalent wines of the Langhe. Straight Roero is a monovarietal Nebbiolo which could soon be challenging for a place alongside Barolo and Barbaresco.

Key players

Giacomo Conterno, Monforte

Thirty-something Roberto Conterno has taken over the mantle of his father Giovanni without compromising an inch on the philosophy of this historic estate. There may be computer-controlled fermentation tanks in the cellar but the canons of artisan winemaking which Roberto has inherited are respected to the letter. He sees himself as a custodian of tradition, which he defines as ‘the maximum respect for the variety and the terroir’, and is scathing about what he considers the dumbing down of authentic Barolo character. ‘Modern Barolo styles go towards the consumer,’ he says. ‘In the case of traditional wines it is the consumer who has to go towards the wine.’ Conterno’s monumental Barolo Riserva Monfortino was a cult wine long before the term was coined. Made from a severe selection of fruit from old vines at the Cascina Franca property at Serralunga, it is renowned for maceration times of 30–35 days, barrel ageing that lasts at least seven years and a potential for bottle ageing that only the fortunate few have the chance to appreciate.

Angelo Gaja, Barbaresco

The aura of designer exclusivity which surrounds Angelo Gaja makes it easy to lose sight of the fact that besides being a style icon he is also a producer of exceptionally fine wines. His Barbaresco, the only DOCG wine left in the range after the move to IGT labels in 1996, is consistently the top performer in Barbaresco, while the impeccable definition and personality of the Langhe Nebbiolo wines demonstrate that there is no contradiction between barriques and terroir. Sperss is structured, long and grippy with classic Serralunga liquorice at the end; Conteisa is broader, softer and more floral with a delicate vein of sweet fruit in the finish; Sorì San Lorenzo is silky and refined, Sorì Tildin fleshy and robust. Gaja’s wines are horrendously expensive, but if you can afford them, and provided you are not seduced into drinking them before they are ready, it is hard to imagine that they would ever disappoint.

Bruno Giacosa

Bruno Giacosa is a Piedmontese of the old stamp. Taciturn and almost painfully modest, getting a quote out of him is like trying to get a loan from a mafioso. When Signor Giacosa pours his wines for you it is tacitly understood that any comment on your part or his is entirely superfluous. His wines speak for themselves. Stylistically consistent and painstakingly crafted, Giacosa’s Barolo and Barbaresco single-vineyard selections are the pure expression of terroir. His top wines are the eagerly awaited riservas, which he brings out when he judges the vintage to be right. Of the current batch, the Barolo Riserva 2000 Rocche di Falletto has all the warmth and ripeness of the hot summer, while the stunning 2001 Barbaresco Riservas have the elegant aromas and tight concentration of what promises to be a very long-lived vintage. Besides the special-occasion wines, Giacosa also makes delicious, excellent-value versions of basic Langhe and Roero wines from Arneis to Barbera, Dolcetto and Nebbiolo.

Roberto Voerzio, La Morra

Roberto Voerzio practises a form of radical viticulture which makes him one of the true contemporary innovators of the Langhe. He plants Barbera at the unheard-of density of 8,000 units/ha and trains his Nebbiolo vines to produce five bunches and 500 grammes of fruit per plant. Voerzio’s natural habitat is the vineyard. In contrast to the passion with which he speaks about growing grapes, he shows little enthusiasm for discussing the finer points of his winemaking (which is nevertheless absolutely meticulous). He ferments in standard vats and tends towards long maceration. He uses barriques, but for the solely practical reason that, ‘vinifying lots of small parcels separately, you need the flexibility of small barrels’. From micro-plots dotted around the top cru sites of La Morra, Voerzio makes half a dozen single-vineyard Barolos and a cult status Barbera which is bottled exclusively in magnums. Voerzio’s latest project is a super riserva from newly acquired vineyards scheduled for release (‘If it is ready’) in 2013.