Bordering France and Switzerland, Piedmont stands at the western approaches to the Italian peninsula. After the Second World War, the area became the heart of an industrial revolution, centred on the regional capital, Turin. Factories like Fiat were attracting emigrants from the poorer regions to the south with the offer of much higher wages than were available in the mezzogiorno.
In spite of this bustling modernity everywhere, there is a sense of history from the Romanesque severity of the Sacra di San Michele founded in the 10th century to the stunning rococo delights of the Palazzina di Caccia of Stupinigi, a royal hunting lodge close to Turin. There is, of course, also the iconic Mole Antonelliana in the centre of the capital.
Here is the birthplace of the river Po that runs across northern Italy, fertilising some very rich agricultural land along the way. If you have wondered where the rice for your risotto comes from, this is it. Italy is the largest rice producer in Europe and the rice comes mostly from Piedmont and neighbouring Lombardy.
There is huge variety in the landscapes here from the surrounding mountains – and they are very real mountains – through the hills to the river plains. The mountains limit the wine growing areas of this region with most of the production to be found to the south and east of Turin. There is a tremendous variety here with no less than 17 wines awarded the DOCG designation. The most famous of these is Barolo. The history of this wine dates back to the time of Italy’s first prime minister, the Count of Cavour, in the middle of the 19th century. The wine produced became a favourite with the royal family thus earning it the name ‘The King of Wines’.
By way of complete contrast is the sweet sparkling wine Asti Spumante. Asti, or Spumante, (as it is sometimes referred to) is the most exported Italian wine and one of the biggest manufacturers is the big daddy of them all, Martini. In Pessione, a small town between Turin and Asti, is the Casa Martini museum where you can see, amongst the vast collection of wine related artifacts, ancient Greek kraters, bowls used for diluting wine, and Roman amphora.
But no look at this region would be complete without mention of Barbaresco. Made from the same grape as Barolo but grown on subtly different soils, this wine does not have to age for quite as long and its lighter taste has earned it the sobriquet The Queen of Wines.
For those looking for dry white wines look no further than the Roero area and the DOCG wine made from the indigenous Arneis grape. Piedmont is truly a must for the wine aficionado.