by Ed McCarthy and Mary Ewing-Mulligan MW
A fine red Bordeaux or Burgundy can be a thrilling experience- as can a sensual Hermitage or Côte Rôtie from the Northern Rhône, or a rich California Cabernet. But if we had to choose one red wine for a very special occasion, we’d select a mature Barolo from a top producer. Not only do we love Barolo, but also we’re extremely fond of its homeland, the Piedmont region of Italy.
Piedmont, in Northwest Italy, is a marvelous region for red wines. It’s just about the only place in the world where the difficult, slow-ripening Nebbiolo grape variety grows well, making two of the world’s best reds, Barolo and Barbaresco. Piedmont also boasts other good red wines, such as Barbera and Dolcetto. But the Nebbiolo-based wines are particularly special and unique.
The primary reason that Nebbiolo grows so well on Piedmont’s hillsides-as opposed to the rest of the world- is the climate. Most years have plenty of sunny days and just enough rain; more importantly, perhaps, are the long, mild, foggy autumns, which allow the notoriously late-ripening Nebbiolo variety to do its thing. A typical Nebbiolo harvest occurs in mid-to-late October, but occasionally takes place as late as November.
Over 90 percent of Piedmont’s Nebbiolo wines come from the southern part of the region, the Alba area, which includes the Langhe hills and the Roero hills. Piedmont’s other two more obscure Nebbiolo wine zones are The Vercelli and Novara hills in the northeast, home of Gattinara and Ghemme wines; The Alps region in the northwest, home of Carema.
Most of Piedmont’s great reds come from the Langhe hills, which surround the town of Alba. A prosperous community of about 35,000 inhabitants, Alba is filled with excellent restaurants, wine bars, espresso bars and wine shops, plus lots of clothing and shoe stores. Alba makes a convenient home base for visiting many of the best Barolo and Barbaresco producers, most of whom are within a 20-minute drive.
Barolo, when made by a capable producer in a good vintage year, is one of the greatest red wines in the world. It is powerful and relatively full-bodied, but very dry, and not necessarily deep colored. (The Nebbiolo grape lacks the deep pigmentation of Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah, for example.) Barolo wines possess all kinds of fascinating aromas and flavors, such as ripe strawberries, tar, roses, licorice, camphor, eucalyptus, and white truffles.
The climate has been particularly favorable recently for both Barolo and Barbaresco; the area experienced an unprecedented string of good vintages from 1995 through 2001, with 1996 and 1999 being especially great and long-lived.
Barolo is often austere and tannic when it’s young; we usually wait at least eight years from the vintage before even dreaming of opening a bottle. Good vintages, such as 1982, 1985, or 1990, are fine to drink now. The really long-lived vintages, such as 1978, 1989, and certainly 1996, all need more time to develop. If you just can’t wait, decant Barolo Barbaresco, to aerate the wine and soften the tannins.
Barolo’s vineyards are located primarily around five villages south of Alba, whose names you’ll often see on the labels: La Morra, Barolo, Serra-lunga d’Alba, Castiglione Falletto, and Monforte d’Alba. The character of the wine is subtly different in each area.
Among our favorite producers of Barolo are Giacomo Conterno, Giuseppe Mascarello (especially for his single-vineyard “Monprivato”), Giuseppe Rinaldi, Bartolo Mascarello, Bruno Giacosa, Gaja, Vietti, Aldo Conterno, Marcarini, Pio Cesare, Ceretto, Renato Ratti, E. Pira & Figli, Luigi Pira, and Prunotto.
Barbaresco, the other great Langhe red, is very similar to Barolo. Its vineyards are northeast of Alba, a short drive from the Barolo zone; in fact, many producers make both Barolo and Barbaresco. In general, Barbaresco tends to be slightly less austere and full-bodied than Barolo (with the exception of certain producers, such as Bruno Giacosa, who makes massive Barbaresco and Barolo wines). The Barbaresco zone is smaller, yielding only about 35 percent of the quantity that the Barolo area produces. Its smaller size can be a blessing in terms of consistency: whereas about 200 producers make Barolo, not all of whom are top-notch, we’ve seldom come across a poorly made Barbaresco.
Almost all the Barbaresco vineyards are situated around three villages high in the Langhe hills: Barbaresco, Neive and Treiso. Our favorite Barbaresco producers include Bruno Giacosa, Angelo Gaja, Ceretto, Marchesi di Gresy, Albino Rocca, Bruno Rocca, and Produttori del Barbaresco. The latter is a co-operative, perhaps the world’s finest wine co-operative, that produces traditional, consistently fine Barbaresco wines at reasonable prices.
We recommend Barolo or Barbaresco with beef, pork, or lamb to customers. Two of our favorite entrées with these two wines are beef braised in red wine and wild boar.
Other Nebbiolo wines
Nebbiolo wines are also made outside of the Barolo and Barbaresco zones; these wines have such names as Nebbiolo d’Alba, Nebbiolo delle Langhe and Nebbiolo di Piemonte. In general, they are lighter-bodied, less serious wines than their two uncles whose names begin with “B,” but have the advantage of being ready to drink sooner and being less expensive.
Roero, an area north of Alba, specializes in Nebbiolo-based wines known as Roero Rosso. They also are lighter-bodied than Barolo and Barbaresco and far less well known, but some very fine producers, such as Matteo Corregia and Malvirà, are in this area. Roero Rosso wholesales for $240 to $420 per case.
Rather different Nebbiolo wines come from the Vercelli and Novara provinces, about an hour’s drive north of Alba. There, on alpine hillsides, in a cool climate influenced by the nearby Po River basin, Nebbiolo (also called Spanna here) makes Gattinara and Ghemme — lighter-bodied and more elegant wines than Barolo or Barbaresco. These lesser-known wines are readyer to drink sooner than Barolo and Barbaresco, and they are about half the price. But don’t imagine that they are short-lived; the tannins and acidity of Nebbiolo permits them to continue maturing for 20 years or more in good vintages.
Gattinara must be at least 86 percent Nebbiolo, with two other local varieties, Bonarda and Vespolina, permitted. Look for Gattinara wines from Antoniolo, Nervi, or Travaglini, the three top producers. Ghemme must be 65 to 85 percent Nebbiolo, with 10 to 30 percent Vespolina and up to 15 percent Bonarda permitted. The leading Ghemme producer is Antichi Vigneti di Cantalupo, whose wines are available in the U.S.
The most delicate Nebbiolo wines of all are from Carema, a village in the extreme northwest corner of Piedmont, just south of the Valle d’Aosta region. Carema wines are entirely Nebbiolo. They are medium-bodied, and less tannic than Barolo or Barbaresco, but with longevity-promising high acidity, thanks to the cool, alpine situation of the scraggy, terraced vineyards. Fewer than 10,000 cases a year of Carema are made. Two producers stand out: Luigi Ferrando and the excellent co-op, Cantina dei Produttori Nebbiolo di Carema.
on route to PIEDMONT . . .
Besides the wines, another reason we love Piedmont is that it’s off the beaten tourist track. You go to Piedmont for two reasons: the food and the wine. If you love white truffles on your pasta or risotto, you visit in the autumn; the area around the town of Alba is the world’s prime source for this rare delicacy.
Although a drive from Milan’s airport might be the quickest way to reach Piedmont (about two and a half hours on the autostrada if you drive like an Italian), we much prefer to take one of two other scenic routes. We either drive east from Nice, France, over the Alps (a three-hour trip to Barolo and Barbaresco territory), or we drive south from Geneva, Switzerland, through the Alps via Mount Blanc Tunnel (a four-hour-plus trip, but very beautiful). When we start in Geneva, we always stop for lunch in the Valle d’Aosta, a small Italian region wedged between Switzerland and Piedmont. In a tiny mountain village, Entrèves, just south of the tunnel, is a fantastic local restaurant, La Maison de Filippo, that will give you a great introduction to hearty mountain fare, plus a gorgeous view of the Alps—outdoor in the summer or by a roaring fireplace in chilly weather.
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