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The world warms to Piedmont's treasures

With its wines pleasing wine drinkers the world over, Vietti demonstrates what great strides the wines of Italy's Piedmont region have made in just a few decades. By Jon Bonne

Don't be deceived: The hilltop wine villages of Piedmont can be as hip as they are anachronistic. This tiny town south of the city of Alba is no exception. At noontime, the winding streets fall silent as the traditional Italian lunch hour begins — in our case, in its newest (and second) restaurant, the Locanda del Centro, open just two days.

"Castiglione, it's 500 people," says winemaker Luca Currado Vietti. "Thirty dogs, 20 cats."

Vietti shares lunch and a few beers nearby with his tiny harvest staff. Yet he can as easily recommend Seattle's toniest restaurants as he can those of Alba. His tutelage in wine includes extended stints at such wineries as California's Opus One.

At 37, he has taken the helm of his family's illustrious winery, turning out profound, well-tailored wines from its 14th-century property atop this storied hill, where the Vietti family has made wine since the 1800s, and where the outside world is readily encroaching.

The ancient winery's thick walls are newly restored and painted. As harvest unfolds, a heady, sweet smell of crushed grapes wafts throughout.

With its wines venturing from atop this hill to please wine drinkers the world over, Vietti demonstrates what great strides the wines of Italy's Piedmont region have made in just a few decades.

The region has grown nebbiolo grapes, the exclusive source for the eminent wines of Barolo and Barbaresco, since the 19th century, and its wine have long been lauded throughout Italy, but it wasn't really until the 1960s and early 1970s that the Piedmontese shared their wines with the world — believing the broader wine market might appreciate the subtleties of their terroir.

Courting the worldSome turned away from traditional winemaking implements like large wooden casks. Pioneers like Angelo Gaja — who crafts the region's most sought-after and most expensive wines — opted to rethink tradition, implementing modern techniques and filling their cellars with French barriques (small oak barrels).

Vineyards emerge from a shroud of fog --Jon Bonné / MSNBC.com

Though modernity has arrived, it is not universal. Seated at his desk in the town of Barolo, an elderly Bartolo Mascarello licks a late-afternoon ice cream cone and rants about the oncoming incursion of the new. He has transferred most winemaking duties to his daughter, Maria Teresa, who crafts dusky, classic Barolos using her father's old-fashioned techniques — right down to the gluepot used for labels. "This is not California," Bartolo laments.

Aided by a single young assistant, Maria Teresa and her father eschew barriques, instead finishing their eminently age-worthy wines in large, rustic casks. Should you doubt their iconoclasm, Bartolo's hand-painted labels boast: "No barrique, no Berlusconi."

To the uninitiated drinker, the region's wines may be puzzling. Even more than in Bordeaux, Piedmontese names and appellations require a good bit of ground knowledge to decipher.

Barolo and Barbareso take their names from local villages, but can be sourced from vineyard sites in several localities. Years could be spent discussing the relative qualities of Barbera d'Alba and Barbera d'Asti, the same grape but grown in two appellations demarked by the cities of Alba and Asti, which form a sort of axis along which the region's best wines are located.

Then there is arneis, the crisp white grape that Alfredo Currado, Luca's father, helped revive in the 1970s. And the dolcetto ("little sweet one") grape, which produces deep red wines full of fruit and, when oak is used, a hearty dose of tannins.

'We are Italian'As the French work to copy Australians, and Americans try to copy the French (on wine, that is), one thing is refreshing about many Piedmontese: They have remained true to their own native grapes, even as they court the world.

Over a century of Barolo vintages line the walls at the Vietti winery in Castiglione Falletto, Italy.Jon Bonné / MSNBC.com

"We are Italian, we want to make wine for Italians," says Luciana Vietti Currado, Luca's mother. "But we believe it's important to be in different markets."

She visits the United States at least twice a year, and the family's wine is increasingly seen in South Korea and the Czech Republic.

And some winemakers in this part of Piedmont, known as the Langhe, are copying their counterparts to the south, creating "Super Piedmont" blends similar to Super Tuscans: blending native grapes with newly imported varieties like cabernet sauvignon. Langhe chardonnay has gained critical fame, too. Gaja, needless to say, is a key proponent of both efforts.

Recent fame has yielded another result, one less hospitable to consumers.  The best Barolos and Barbarescos now easily top $100.  Vietti's prices are more moderate, but still hover around $80; its Villero reserve, made only in extraordinary years like 1997 and held for seven years before release, can top $140. The best values are often made by larger cooperatives, like the Produttori del Barbaresco; though often blended from multiple vineyards, lacking the prestige of estate bottlings, they can be exceptional.

While much Langhe wine — barberas and dolcettos, for instance — can be drunk quickly, the best require nearly a decade of aging to deepen and allow nebbiolo's deeper, complex tastes to emerge.

You can't help but notice that elitism has arrived here, as it does in any beloved wine region. On the Via Torino in  Barbaresco, the massive, salmon-colored metal door of Gaja's facility remains ominously shut to German tourists ambling past, looking for the local enoteca, or wine bar.

As in Burgundy and Bordeaux, some of this is simply a matter of scarcity. Though Vietti is a big name, it turns out just 200,000 bottles annually from about 80 acres of its own vines — most of it less expensive bottlings like their Barbera d'Asti. The family uses only its own grapes and has no intention to plant new, non-native varieties. If the grapes fall short, as they did in 2002's lackluster harvest, they declassify their Barolo, simply bottling it as a Langhe nebbiolo.

They know they could easily sell more wine. They choose not to. "The quantity that we have is not enough to meet the demand," Luciana Vietti says. "We don't care about the quantity, really."