The King & Queen of the Piedmont

November 20, 2009

Last Thursday’s adventure began at the Wine Bottega, featuring 19 wines from the Piedmont. The Piedmont is the one Italian wine region that I continue to get really excited about. My experience with Italian wines has been interesting; the vast majority have been unexciting and mediocre, and quite a few awful, but on the other hand some of the absolute best wines that I have ever tasted have come from the boot. Barolo and Barbaresco have for me most often fallen into that latter category; these are some of the most incredible wines, big and powerful, but at the same time nuanced, refined, and delicate. As with all of the Bottega tastings, I left this one with a much better idea of what Barolo and Barbaresco are all about, and it only affirmed my belief that the King and Queen of Italian wines absolutely deserve their nicknames, and I got to meet a bit more of the royal family as well.

Like most great tastings, we began with bubbles, which Kerri quickly poured to get me caught up to the first group. I had no idea they even made sparkling wine in the Piedmont, and this wine, made from the erbaluce grape (check another one off the list), is a nice alternative to Champagne. I didn’t write down any notes on this one, but I remember liking it. We then tasted two more whites. The first was an Arneis, which was interesting because of its body; it had a simultaneous creaminess and spritziness going on and clean pure fruit flavors with a bit of minerality, essentially a white wine that I find it hard for many people to dislike. Next was a Gavi, which was surprisingly rich and very aromatic, perhaps due to the fact that it was aged in acacia.

We then tasted a few more reds leading up to the king and queen, starting with a Grignolino. Grignolino actually means, ‘many pips,’ or seeds, and these wines are especially tannic but light in body, giving them a unique place in one’s food-pairing arsenal, I’m thinking an antipasto platter with prosciutto and hard Italian cheeses. Next was a Freisa, which I have had blended with Barbera before, but by itself it produced a nice easy-drinking light-bodied wine that was highly aromatic, with bright red fruit on the palette but a somewhat rustic component on the background that is unmistakably Italian. Pinot Noir drinkers need to try this. The 2007 Bartolo Mascarello Dolcetto d’Alba caught me off guard, bringing the familiar flavors of Dolcetto, bright red fruit with a hint of spice and bitterness, but with a surprisingly full body. The 2003 Le Piane, from Boca, in the northeast Piedmont, was a blend of Bonarda, Nebbiolo, and Vespolina, immediately made me think Thanksgiving – it was a little lighter in body than your typical Nebbiolo, high in acid, but with a similar flavor profile to Barolo and Barbaresco, though perhaps a little more approachable and far more affordable. Next was a 100% Nebbiolo (not a Barolo or Barbaresco though, maybe a Duke or Prince) that had obvious black cherry flavors. Finally, another Nebbiolo from a pair of winemakers one of whom’s name differs from that of the grape only by the absence of a single ‘b’ and the other’s indicates its color (Piero Nebiolo and Claudio Rosso). I tried two awesome single vineyard Barberas from these guys last month, and their Nebbiolo is every bit as exciting, with a gorgeous nose and tons of big red fruit on the palette, a perfect wine to transition into the royal couple.

Starting with her majesty, the abbondanza showcased five examples. Any time I had heard Barolo and Barbaresco described prior to this tasting it was always relative to each other; Barbaresco tended to be more elegant and supple whereas Barolo was more powerful and weightier; hence the Queen and the King. The common feature was the Nebbiolo grape, which I found brought tons of super fresh powerful red fruit. Not candified fake red fruit like some Syrah, Cabernet or Malbec, not subtle fruit like New World Pinot Noir, and not the riper black fruit like Bordeaux or Napa Valley Cabernet or Merlot. Imagine every red fruit you can think of, at its optimum stage for eating, freshly picked. That forms the centerpiece of these wines, surrounded by just enough body, tannin, acid, and spice to present a complete package that just screams elegance and complexity – big and bold, but necessarily so. The first two ladies were from Roncaglie, one of the premier areas within Barbaresco. The most striking feature for me from this pair, an ’04 and an ’05, was a silkiness that rivaled the best Pomerols. Two more ‘04’s, a classic vintage, followed. The Cigliuti Vigne Erte I simply wrote 93 next to and seriously contemplated picking up a bottle of. The Ca’ Rome Maria di Brun was a little tannic, though still had everything going for it and most certainly will open up after a few more years in the bottle. Finally we tried the 1997 Fratelli Oddero Barbareso, which mellowed out with its age and its flavors were a little more subtle, with more of a creamier and spicier component. Not unlike an old queen – think Elizabeth II today, she’s 83 but still has it.

And now the king. The first Barolo was a 2003, the Gabutti Boasso, which in comparison to the Barbarescos was obviously fuller-bodied, but also had more of a smoky note going on that set the stage for the next three. Very good, not earth-shattering, but at $40 when the average price of the Barolos in this tasting was close to twice that, definitely a wine to consider. Next, a duo of 2005’s from Elio Grasso, two different vineyards and both carrying a $75 pricetag, both of which were incredible. The Gavarini Chiniera had all the beautiful red fruit, good firm tannins, but was a little bit lighter, almost approaching the Barbarescos, which the folks at the Bottega attribute to a higher altitude and limestone soil. The Ginestra Casa Maté was more classic Barolo, with a cola flavor coming through on top of the fruit and more body. Tasting these two side by side was interesting because the only difference is the terroir and the microclimate of two different vineyard sites; everything else, vintage, producer, vinification, was identical, yet the wines were completely different. The final Barolo was the 1993 Paglieri da Roagna, La Rocca e La Pira Riserva. First of all, let me begin by saying this is the best wine that I have had in a long time. I didn’t even make any specific tasting notes, I simply wrote ‘unbelievable,’ but this wine had everything going on that the other Barolos did – gorgeous red fruit, spice, body, just the right amount of oak, with this austerity that comes from age that I can’t put into words. In all seriousness it was truly majestic; if we’re talking kings, think Charlemagne compared to George III. The take home message here is to let these babies grow up. 2004 was a legendary vintage, 2005 almost as good, whereas Parker gave 1993 a 91, but this single ’93 was light years ahead of everything else we tasted. I’ve always known that we, the modern American wine consumer, are drinking almost everything too young, but this juxtaposition really drove that point home for me. Buy some 2004 Barolo, sit on it for a decade, and be prepared to be amazed.

The last wine of the tasting was something unlike anything I’ve ever tasted before, and likely never will again. The nonvintage Vergano Mauro is a Nebbiolo based wine infused with various herbs and spices. Maybe I was just in a holiday mood, since I found Thanksgiving on the Le Piane, but this wine smelled exactly like Christmas. There was a definite eucalyptus component, almost gin-like botanicals, and a quinine thing going on, almost like if you spilled a gin and tonic at a holiday party that had way too much holly and scented candles, but while you were smelling all of this you were drinking a very good Barbaresco.

To summarize, this tasting was incredible, definitely deserving of the largest crowd I have ever seen at the Wine Bottega. I thought I was 10 minutes early and still only made it downstairs by a stroke of luck, and it was wall-to-wall when I resurfaced from the cellar that I have grown to love. If possible, Barolo and Barbaresco are even higher on my list, and I can now say that with more confidence rather than just having tasted maybe two of each. The vibrancy of the fruit really surprised me, and also what I think I like most about these wines, that they can somehow maintain that fruit with everything that makes Old World wines so compelling. While I loved the Barolos, I think I have a slight preference for Barbaresco; there’s something about the silky mouthfeel that gives the queen a slight edge for me. Also, the other Piedmont wines all showed well and gave me some insight into what else is happening in this region. Finally, that last wine was definitely a unique treat. If I didn’t have to rush off to the Languedoc-Rousillon to try more wine I certainly would have stayed longer.


2 Responses to “The King & Queen of the Piedmont”

  1. Thanks for the great write-up! It was an epic evening and I truly appreciate having this thorough re-cap. You really captured the beauty of these special wines.

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