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Dean's Wine and Food Notes - Italy - Piemonte Wines

Dean Gold (Dean)

Dean Gold and Kay Zimmerman own Dino, an Italian restaurant in Washington D.C.

Again, the reorganization of my Italian wine collection has spurred me on. A little over 2500 words on a favorite wine production area.

The whole area of Piemonte would be too large a topic for a single page. So I will concentrate on the best know fine wine area and that is the area surrounding Alba, home to Barolo and Barbaresco and white truffles. This is an area that is rich in game and wild mushrooms. Given this heritage, the wines are huge and rich. They are among the biggest in all of Italy. I would say that most people would put Barolo and Barbaresco, along with Amarone and Brunello, at the top of any list of great red wines of Italy.

The Grapes

Nebbiolo is the most famous grape here. It is the grape of Barolo and Barbaresco as well as being bottled under its own name or in combination with Dolcetto or Barbera in proprietary blends. It may have actually been related to Pinot Noir! Since Nebbiolo are some of the most rich and tannic grapes around, this is a surprising thought. Nebbiolo can have a deep violet flavor and a spicy aroma. It can also be over made into hard as nails wines. The name Nebbiolo probably comes from nebbia or fog. The vineyards are often shrouded in fog in the mornings or afternoons while there is full sun in the middle of the day to promote ripeness.

Barbera is an earthy grape that can result in wines ranging from seductive and elegant to earthy and rustic. There is no particular style in Barbera, a point which can either be a joy to behold or a real pain in the neck. Barbera's can now cost as much as a Barolo or Barbaresco or be a real value prices wine.

Dolcetto is perhaps my favorite "fun" wine in all of Italy. Made carelessly, they are insipid and fruity. But made with care, they are simply superb. They are loaded with fruit but have the power of all the red grapes of the area. Some can be highly acidic which actually makes them a good match with rich game based stews.

Gavi - A very nice white that is made in a Chardonnay model typically - big, rich, broad on the palate, okay.

Cortese di Gavi - The grape of Gavi, usually wines thus labeled are fresher and sprightlier than Gavi or Gavi di Gavi.

Arneis - A native grape to the area that almost went extinct. It has been propagated more widely in recent years but is still not too common. Crisp and lively, my favorite Piemonte white.

Moscato - Used to make a fun extremely aromatic yet very low in alcohol crackling dessert wine. One of my true guilty pleasures. My favorite way to end a meal in Italy.

Characteristics

Barolo and Barbaresco

In general, these two areas produce wines that are similar in structure: Big, spicy, earthy, tannic and needing age to show their full promise. They also are famous for having relatively few great vintages in a given decade (thankfully the 90's are a major exception). Barolo has to be aged 4 years before release so 1997 is the current vintage. Barbaresco is aged a year less and you are seeing more and more 1998's on the market. There are riserva and riserva speciale designations which are becoming less and less common because the move now is to less aging. We are now in an embarrassment of riches since 1996, 1997 and 1999 are all superb vintages. I have not tasted any 1998 Barbaresco's yet so I cannot assess them, and the 1999's are still in cask or are bottled but not released. The aging period called for in the DOC speaks to barrel, cask or bottle aging. Nowadays the move is on to age the wines along a more Bordeaux like regime-two years in barrique (60 gallon or so French oak barrels). I am not a fan of too much new oak- the vanillin it contains makes the wines more drinkable when young but takes away from the character of the grape as the wine ages. I prefer aging wines in either old oak or in larger sized barrels.

There are several large vineyards where ownership has been split up so that now there are many owners of these vineyards. Some of the best known in Barolo are Brunate, La Serra, Canubbi, Bussia etc. Many producers will have a vineyard designation on their wines and may produce several examples. I myself love wines of Bussia, Brunate, La Serra and Canubbi so I will try other producers wines when I see these vineyards.

I do not like my Barolo and Barbaresco too aged, but with all the modern advances in winemaking we will just have to wait and see. I usually buy 2 bottles of a given wine with the idea of opening one in about 5 to 7 years after release (10 years for a Barolo from vintage date and maybe 8 for a Barbaresco) and then judging what to do with the second by how well the first has done.

1996 is one of the greatest vintages ever in Barolo and Barbaresco in my opinion. The wines are classically styled with loads of both fruit and tannin. These are serious wines that will benefit from 5 or so year in a good cellar. I am especially impressed with Barbaresco's from 1996. This vintage is still available fairly widely. The 1997's have overshadowed the 1996's but there are serious wines to buy and cellar. If you want to drink today or in the near future, buy 1997's.

1997 is a controversial vintage because the Nebbiolo got so ripe in that year. I have tasted some simply outstanding wines. True they are not classically styled but they are yummy! I personally am buying my favorite producers in pairs so I have a little of both vintages. I have not had many Barbaresco's from '97 but have had several Barolo's and have enjoyed them immensely. Great producers who grow all their own grapes have done well in 1997. Producers who also make a fruit oriented style in most years also have done better then those who make really big wines typically.

Barbera's can be released relatively young. There are several areas where you will find Barberas made - Barbera di Alba and Dogliani are two of the most common. There used to be consistent differences between the two regions but now I would have to say house style is more important. 1997 is a superb vintage for Barbera as the grape is wonderful in years when it is fully ripe or even a bit overripe. 1997 is an overripe year.

Dolcetto is the everyday wine of folk in Piemonte, yet it is not too well respected here. They can be very big and rich. 1997 again is a superb vintage. 1999 and 2000's are available and I am impressed with both vintages so far.

Food Matches

Nebbiolo is milder and smoother than Barolo and Barbaresco. Still it is a big wine and should go with grilled meats and game birds. It can also go with pasta sauced with red wine containing sauces.

Dolcetto is a wonderful wine to accompany a wide range of flavors. Its superb with almost any pasta except one with fish sauce. While I do subscribe to the red wine with fish theory, that does not include the red wines of Piemonte - they are just too tannic and will be too bitter with fish. I also love Dolcetto with a platter of salumi. Again, some are higher in acidity so they might go better with stews and rich dishes. I love Dolcetto with my pasta course, especially if the sauce is mushroom based, Bolognese or truffles. Dolcetto will also go with a range of meats from a simple grilled or roast chicken to veal to heavy stews. For this reason it is a great restaurant wine where people will be having a wide variety of different dishes.

Barbera is a rough and ready wine that will go perfectly with rich stews like stracotto. In fact, I like to use a little of the wine I am going to drink in the stew. The wine won't be hurt by several hours of air time if it is a big one.

Barolo and Barbaresco are serious wines (and seriously expensive!). they need to be well thought out in terms of food choices. This is the wine for grilled or stewed game, especially cinghiale, cervo (venison) and ostrich. I love it with quail if the little birds have been marinated. I would also love it with a fiorentina or any other big thick chunk of steak. Lastly, there is no better wine for a cheese course. You can go wild and try all sorts of wonderfully pungent (OK stinky) cheeses and the wine will hold up easily. I love it with parmigiano reggiano, especially when splashed with a little aceto balsamico vecchio (25 years old or more).

Arneis and Gavi are for the obvious choices, fish and chicken as well as lighter pasta sauces and veggie dishes. I really don't go out of my way to drink whites from Piemonte, far preferring Trentino or Friuli whites.

Moscato d'Asti is a perfect wine for sipping with some fruit for a hot summer day pick me up or to go before the dessert. Although it is sweet, it will not hold up to an ooey gooey dessert as it is very low in alcohol. It will be very nice with a bit of plain, not too sweet cake.

Producers

Most producers make several DOC's in this region. For example, Gaja makes Barolo, Barbaresco, Nebbiolo, Barbera, Dolcetto and a couple of blends and single vineyard wines. He also makes Cabernet and Chardonnay, but these are just missed opportunities to have more Nebbiolo planted. This practice makes for a way to organize your thoughts on the reds of Piemonte. Most producers, at least the smaller ones, have a distinct house style. When I like one wine from a producer a lot, there is a great chance that I also like their other wines. So I tend to stick with a lesser variety of producers that I really love. Lastly, my education into Piemonte reds came largely from the importers Neil and Maria Empson, so his wines are over represented in my favorites. I will go from producer to producer and not grape by grape in giving my favorites.

Marcarini - My favorite producer. Manuel Manchetti and his wife are some of the nicest people I have ever met in the wine business. In the late 1800's, her family was the first to use a single vineyard designation on a Barolo with the Brunate vineyard. The house style is to emphasize fruit characteristics. They have superb sites in Barolo in La Serra and Brunate. They also make the best Dolcetto I have ever had, the extremely hard to find Boschi di Berry. This vineyard has the oldest vines in all of Italy, being over 140 years old and planted pre phyloxera. This wine is stunning when you can find it. Their "regular" Dolcetto called Fontanezza is quite fine but nothing as extraordinary as the BdiB. Their Moscato is a picture of freshness and fun, my favorite.

Ca' Rome - A newer producer. I believe the family was in the wine business before coming into the winemaking trade. They produced what is my single favorite red from Piemonte- their Barbaresco Maria di Brun. They only export Barolo and Barbaresco to the US as far as I know. They make a DOCG Barbaresco every vintage. In exceptional vintages, the best barrels are selected to form the Maria di Brun. It is named after, I believe, the grandmother of the current winemaking generation. They have two Barolo's: Rapet and Vigna Ceretta. All their wines are stunning in my opinion. My second favorite producer after Marcarini.

Luigi Einaudi - Here is a more rustic style that has been freshened up over time. The wines are true to their rustic style yet well made and modern in a rustic way. They make Barbera, Dolcetto and Barolo, having several bottlings from each area. They make my other favorite Dolcetto bottling (second only to Boschi di Berry) called Vigna Tecc. Luigi Einaudi was the first president of the Italian republic as well as mayor of Alba, and his grandchildren are now involved with the winery. They really do an outstanding job!

Podere Cola - From the family that made A Prunotto such a great wine estate comes this newer property. They have Barolo, Barbaresco as well as Bricco del Drago which is a wonderful blend of 85% Dolcetto with 15% of either Barbera or Nebbiolo (I think it's the latter, I am too senile to remember and the cellar is 2 stories down!). I love both their Barolo Bussia and their Barbaresco Tenuta Roncaglia.

Tenuta Caretta - A more rustic style, great Barolo from the Canubbi site. A great bargain.

Aldo Conterno - A more traditional style of wine, very big.

Gaja - The most famous name in the area but I think the wines are far too expensive for their quality. There has also developed a sameness to the wines, a house style that overrides the differences between the grapes and the vineyards they come from. I once heard Angelo Gaja say that the name Gaja is in large type and the name Barbaresco in small type because what is important in that the wine is from Gaja. I feel he has been hoisted on his own petard by this philosophy. House styles are important but I also want a wine to taste of where it comes from.

Bruno Giacosa - One of my favorite producers but sadly one I can not really afford. His wines are very pricey for what they are. Even though they may be among the best from that area.

Ceretto - Another of the big three most famous producers (and among the highest priced). Not as painful as Giacosa or Gaja but still you pay more for his wines of a given quality than you will with lesser names. Makes a wonderful Arneis Blange and Moscato, both in a crackling style. The Moscato is not as good as and is more expensive than Marcarini's, but is widely poured by the glass both in Italy and at fine Italian eateries here.

G Mascarello - The first Barolo I ever tasted. His single vineyard bottling "Mon Privato" is superb. Huge wines with a rough edge. I love them.

Produttori del Barbaresco - A cooperative that bottles a huge array from various vineyards. While they are not my favorite producers, it can be a real eye opening experience to get together with a bunch of Barbaresco buffs and taste thru a range of various vineyards. You will not believe the range of flavors from grapes grown in a very small geographic area. All of Barbaresco is much smaller than the Napa Valley. It's more in line with the Stag's Leap District or Carneros in size.

Giacomo Bologna - One of the great Barbera producers. Giacomo made the first "Super Barberas" to really take hold, leading to a range of very high end Barberas. His wines have always delivered the goods but I have not tasted any for several vintages ('93 or '95 were the last I tasted). I look forward to trying a '97 to see if they have maintained their standards. These Barberas are just as expensive as a good Barolo or Barbaresco, and just as good!

R Voerzio - A very famous wine geek name, fairly hard to find and a little on the high end of things. Wonderful wines.

Moccagatta - Incredible Barbaresco from Bric Balin and Bassarin. Superb wines in a more modern style. Very spicy wines. Worth the money. They also make great Barbera and Dolcetto if you can find them.

Resources

Dean's Slow Travel Articles

Dean's Food and Wine Notes

www.winespectator.com: Wine Spectator Magazine

www.chianticlassico.com: Chianti Classico Wine (ask for their free map of the Chianti region)

www.italianwinereview.com: Italian Wine Review


Dean Gold lives in Maryland, when he is not in Italy, and owns the Washington DC restaurant Dino, www.dino-dc.com. See Dean's Slow Travel Member page and more of his food and wine notes.

© Dean Gold, 2002

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