Whenever people starts seriously studying wine, there are two sections of the world that normally give them problems: Italy and Burgundy. On Thursdays, I'm going to start a series where I discuss Italy in a systematic manner, and try to break it down into bite-sized pieces. Maybe I'll attempt Burgundy after that.
Why is Italy so hard? Well, besides the fact that the wine industry is governed by a legal system that seems to change with the wind, there is also the fact that there are almost 1 million registered vineyards, spread over 20 regions, that produce over 1000 distinct grape varietals from areas that cover every imaginable geography. To give you a small amount of vocabulary to work with, Italian wines are broken into a couple of quality levels- Vino di Tavola, IGT, DOC, and DOCG. Let's loosely assume that as the latter wines are better than the former wines, but remember that there are many, many exceptions to this rule. As for the 20 wine regions, let's start with the big ones.
Piedmont is in the Northwestern corner of Italy, and as it's name suggests (meaning "foot of the mountain"), it is a rocky, rough area. It is the largest of Italy's inland regions, but due to its steep geography a bulk of the land is not useful for growing grapes. The vineyards are dominated by three main grapes- Nebbiolo and Barbera (red), and Moscato (white).
Nebbiolo is the main grape in the famous Piedmontese wines of Barolo and Barbaresco. These are some of the most age-worthy wines in the world, and can have flavors that will haunt you forever. They are intense, with high acidity, dusty cherry flavors, and absolutely stunning. If the intensity of these wines (or their atmospheric price tags) makes you nervous, try the straightforward Barbera. These wines tend to have a much softer edge, are ready to drink now, and are a bit more fruit-driven.
If I'm ever in the dog house with the wife, one way that I might attempt to patch things up (besides pleading, cleaning, walking the dogs, washing the car, cooking dinner, and letting her have the remote) is to bring home a Moscato d'Asti. The moscato grape is a soft, often slightly sweet grape that is somtimes served a bit frizzante (bubbly). These wines show delicate peach and floral flavors, low alcohol, and are generally able to be guzzled by the gallon due to how refreshing they are.
Of course, this doesn't cover all of the wines made in Piedmont, but just a handful. You can also find Dolcetto (a light bodied red with flavors that border on bubble-gummy),and Gavi (made from the white grape Cortese) and Arneis, which are wonderful white wines with a fantastic mineral edge. Also, don't forget Asti Spumanti, the slightly sweet, foamy bubbly wine popular with those that don't want to spring the $$ for Champagne.
I hope this gives you a small insight into the wonderful world of Italian wine. For today's suggestion, go take out a second mortgage, and buy some Barolo from a producer like Sandrone or Aldo Conterno, especially if you can find some of the 2004 vintage. Put the wine on its side in your basement, and drink it 10 years from now. You will be glad you did!