The five regions of north-central and northwest Italy cover much of the great arc of the Alps and Apennines that walls in the Po as it flows east through its broad valley to the Adriatic. The types of wine - like the topography, soil and climate - vary to extremes in these regions, which are grouped rather loosely as neighbors but, in true Italian style, maintain their own proud identities.
This most affluent part of Italy comprises the "industrial triangle" between Milan, Turin and the Mediterranean port of Genoa and the agriculturally fluent flatlands of the Po and its tributaries. Since property is valued and mountains take up a major share of space, vineyards are confined and wine is a commodity that must be either financially or spiritually rewarding. Yet between the cool terraces of the Alps and the often torrid fields of the Po basin, contrasts abound. Along with some of Italy's most revered bottles can be found some of its most frivolous. But whether the label says Barolo or Lambrusco, the producer probably takes his work seriously.
Between them, the five regions produce about 20% of Italy's total wine and account for about 30% of the DOC. Emilia-Romagna contributes heavily with the fourth largest output among regions after Apulia, Sicily and the Veneto. Piedmont stands tall in the quality field with the most DOC or DOCG zones of any regions, as well as the most classified vineyards, even though it ranks only seventh in overall production.
Piedmont dwarfs its neighbours of Valle d'Aosta and Liguria which, by Italian standards at least, are mere dabblers in wine. Valle d'Aosta, the smallest region, produces by far the lowest volume of wine from its rocky slopes. Its DOC output is surpassed by some single wineries in other regions. Liguria, with little space for vines between the mountains and the Mediterranean, is second from the last in production, offering wines that are rarely more than esoteric.
Despite the proximity of France, whose vines have been warmly welcomed elsewhere in Italy, growers in Piedmont, Valle d'Aosta and Liguria prefer their own vines and tend to make wine in their own style. Piedmont's host of worthy natives includes Barbera, Dolcetto, Grignolino, Freisa, Cortese, Arneis, Brachetto, the Canelli clone of Moscato (for Asti Spumante) and the noblest of them all in Nebbiolo (source of Barolo, Barbaresco and Gattinara). The vines of Valle d'Aosta often have French names - Petit Rouge, Gros Vien, Blanc de Valdigne, for instance - due to the Savoyard history of the region. Liguria favours the local Rossese, Pigato and Vermentino, while working with its own version of Dolcetto, known as Ormeasco.
Lombardy, the most populous region, ranks only twelfth in wine production, but it does boast the nation's largest spread of Pinot vines in the southern Oltrepo` Pavese and a major concentration of Nebbiolo vines for the DOC reds of the mountainous Valtellina.
Emilia-Romagna is a prolific region that had been a leading exporter with shipments to America of sweet and bubbly Lambrusco, whose vines spill over the fertile plains of Emilia. But lately growers have been concentrating on distinctive wines from the hills. Best known are the Alban and Sangiovese of Romagna, but gaining notice are Barbera, Cabernet, Chardonnay and Sauvignon from the Apennine foothills of Emilia.