Comparing the Langhe Region of Italy to Napa, California
Every two weeks I email out a notice about my wine blog – Vino Voices. This goes to a list of friends and wine lovers which grows slowly over years.
I also write short online articles for Forbes. My readership of those posts is greater than those who read this blog. Yet I decided to continue writing this independent blog – separate from Forbes.
Why? Because you followers have read me through the years. I want to provide you with fresh material that is informative and useful. Although this takes time, it’s satisfying. I appreciate your readership. Bottom line: thanks for following this blog through the years.
This week: Langhe and Napa…
Piemonte, or Piedmont in English, means “foot of the mountain” when translated from Italian. It is the second largest of 20 separate regions that make up the country of Italy. This parcel of land with close to 5 million people sits in the northwest of the country – inland from the Mediterranean and south of the Italian Alps.
The Piemonte region is further subdivided into 8 provinces. One in the southwest corner is named Cuneo. Within Cuneo is a region known as Langhe. This, translated, means “the tongue,” perhaps a reference to a spit of geological outpouring, a wash of ancient soils.
In 2014 a total of five regions, including much of the vineyards of the Langhe-Monferrato region, were designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites. This increased the number of such sites within Italy to 50 – a greater number than for any other country.
The Langhe is home to famed wines produced from the Nebbiolo grape – Barolo and Barbaresco, as well as from another red grape – Barbera, and the sweet bubbling Moscato d’Asti made from the white Moscato grape.
This land bubbles with hills, each dotted with ancient castles. The region has a reputation for astounding food: hazelnuts grow close to vines, wild boars that provide cinghiale meat roam hillsides, and cheeses and breads here are outlandishly tasty.
Within the Langhe different towns sit on their own hilltops. These include locales we visited: Barolo, La Morra, and Montforte d’Alba.
Last week I visited with friends. While driving, one asked me to compare the Langhe region to the Napa wine region in California in the U.S. I am no great fan of Napa, thinking their wines generally overpriced and overoaked. However I do consider Napa an attractive location. Considering its reputation in the world, I deliberated the question and found some general comparisons.
There’s a sizable difference in size between these two regions. The Langhe includes some 3,300+ acres under vine, whereas Napa has some 45,000+ acres under vine.
Just as Napa is one American Viticultural Area (AVA) with 16 sub-AVAs, the Langhe includes its own divisions – but these are more complex, and accord to grape types produced as well as the quality of resultant wines (the governmental designation of the highest quality wines – DOCG, or Denomanazione di Controllata et Garantita – is applied generously, and deservedly, to the Langhe). Both Napa and the Langhe are vine lands interposed with what were once villages with smaller populations – Oakville and Yountville in Napa, for example, and La Morra and Barolo in the Langhe. But whereas Napa is generally a linear, broad bottomed valley accessed via two semi-parallel roads, the Langhe is topographically more complex – with multiple hills circled by swirling valleys accessed via dipping, switchbacked roads.
Villages in Napa and the Langhe were traditionally farming communities, bonded to neighbors through trade. But to protect themselves from sword wielding invaders, each castled hilltop in the Langhe retained agricultural independence in case of attack or siege.
Both locales include hot, hilly terrain influenced by cool maritime influences – the Pacific Ocean to the west of Napa, and the Mediterranean south of the Langhe. Both have soils that were once ocean floors – lifted to dry land some 150 million years ago in Napa, and 30 million years ago in the Langhe. Whereas Napa is known for its Cabernet Sauvignon, the Langhe has its famed Nebbiolo grape – both of which produce tannic bold wines that command stiff prices due to limited production and cachet.
The food is legendary in both places. In Napa the tradition evolved more recently when increased wealth provided visitors who could pay steeper prices, luring in Michelin quality chefs. The Langhe has a longer and more traditional culinary history filled with natural bounty – truffles, rich cheeses, hazelnuts and soft breads beyond description.
Our time there was scant. The only tasting of Barolo we had time to enjoy was at 10.30 am. I happily obliged, as did my colleagues (except the driver) and none of us spit out what we drank. When in a gold mine, enjoy the gold, as we did by swirling and comparing the Barolos we liked best. The surprise – and it was large – was the cost, which appears to have diminished since I last visited almost a decade ago: now 21 to 35 Euros buys a bottle of extremely decent wine, a bargain from a collective group of producers based out of locales such as La Morra (which produces one third of all Barolo wines).
I first visited Barolo eight years ago and was given a vertical tasting of some amazing wines by a local winemaker. Since then I’ve had an affinity for this land. Do I have a preference between Napa and the Langhe? Good question. In order to decide, perhaps it would be best to visit both locales again to drink wines and eat local foods. Twist my arm.