Another Wine Experience- A romp thru northern Italy: the Piemonte
Following a week of hiking around lakes Orta, Maggiore and Como, the eight of us piled into a rented van with all our luggage and headed for the Piedmont (or Piemonte) region, home of dolcetto, barbera, barbaresco and barolo wines. Lucky us (or was it good planning?), we arrived in Alba just in time for lunch and a few hours before the beginning of the annual wine festival. More than 100 wine producers, and a thousand different wines, awaited our tasting glasses (10 euros for a wine glass as an admission price, but you also got into the truffle display and bourse area, much to Sweetpea's delight).
What can I tell you? It was almost as nice an experience as when my parents took me as a youngster to visit FAO Schwartz and see the Lionel train display. With our tummies filled with pizza and calzone so as to absorb the alcohol, we each set off to sample the sea of wine before us. It soon become apparent that I would have to focus on selected wine varieties, or a variety, if I was to draw any meaningful conclusions about what I was tasting while still able to write. And with my amici scattered, it was too late to mount an organized approach to the "chore" of tasting, and besides, they'd probably just pour wine over me if I assumed a work-like demeanor.
So, with glass in pouch (a tasting pouch worn around one's neck is provided) I ventured forward. So many wines, so little time (the festival closed at 7 pm), my first stop was with the producer of "Pietro Rinaldi" wines, and I met the proprietor, Paolo Tenino. At this point I was as yet unfocused and so began with their 2006 Dolcetto d'Alba.
It was much too young, as I found was the case for most of the wines I would be tasting. My palate isn't sophisticated enough (or perhaps "at all") to attempt to discern from a young wine just how it might develop 5 or 10 years down the road. I like to think, at times, I can do just that, and I often share such an opinion with you, but it's a guessing game. This dolcetto was too young to judge its merits; just too dry, too tannic. The 2004 barbaresco however was softer. Its nose was closed, i.e., I couldn't smell anything other than "wine", and it still sported a pronounced tannic backbone suggesting a few more years in the cellar would benefit a proper unveiling. The most drinkable wine was a fruity, pleasant barbera d'Alba from 2005. I didn't ask the price for the wines tasted, as the majority were not going to be available back in the States from these many small producers. But perhaps those of you residing in Europe will find these notes from the festival tastings to be useful. I did find this last wine available from one shop in Arizona, priced at $18.50. And for those of you in Tucson, Paolo's brother, Massimo, owns, and is the chef at, Tavolino, a small Italian restaurant. If you see him there, tell him Paolo said to say "hello".
And for those with access to these small producers in Italy, a quick rundown of those I thought worth a bit of ink. Umberto Fracassi had several varieties of interest. Their barbera d'Alba "Vigneti" 2004 was a bit acidic but had an interesting nose, their barbera d'Alba "Ciabot Contessa" 2005 had a mushroom nose with some other interesting volatiles, good tannic backbone but with soft edges beginning to form. I think this last one would be worthwhile cellaring. The Fracassi 2003 Barolo, "Ratti Mentone", was very tannic with modest fruit expressed, but a closed nose. Wines tasted from Rigo Secondo's azienda Agricola included a 2005 Dolcetto d'Alba with a very fruity nose but still quite young (tannic), as was their barbera superiore 2005. They said they had a distributor (DiDove?) in NYC, but I can't find any of Rigo Secondo's wines listed upon conducting a search. The azienda agricola of "Munt Dur" had a pleasant nebbiola d'Alba 2005, still quite dry but with good fruit, and their 2006 barbera d'Alba was already smoothing out some of the strong tannins and the nose was that of red berry fruit; I liked this last one.
Two wines tried from Bric Sori producers were quite tannic but showed good fruit and so they might be worthwhile down the road: a nebbiola d'Alba 2004 and a 2005 barbera d'Alba superiore. Ceste vintners had a modest nebbiola d'Alba 2004 "Vignadella Guardia", young, a little on the light side, but pleasant, and a barbera d'Alba (Yr?) that showed good berry fruit, was somewhat more acidic than other barberas tried, and whose tannins were beginning to soften. And my favorite of this wine tasting event, from Bric Cenciurio (http://www.langhe.net/Cenciurio), their 2004 barbera d'Alba superiore "Naunda" which was tannic with some roundness and a good nose of fruit and definite body (14% alcohol).
But the in-depth wine tasting didn't really occur until the next few days. The morning after the wine festival, Sweetpea and I began the day with our guide, Paolo, introducing us to his friend, Luigi. Luigi, with his dog, "Linda", would, in turn, introduce us to truffle hunting. It was a fortuitous outing, as "Linda" located five white truffles amounting cumulatively to about 100 gm. Sweetpea and Paolo would use a bit of the truffles to prepare a risotto the following evening. After lunch, which we had back at Luigi's, accompanied by one of Luigi's own 2003 barbera d'Asti superiore Castino Luigi, we set off to taste barbera at CascinaCastlet. These folks do distribute to the US, but not everything they make. The most commonly found item is their barbera d'Asti, distinguishable by the depiction on the bottle of a Vespa carrying the young family.
If this barbera was amongst the wines I tasted that afternoon, I have no recollection of having done so, and no notes. But I do have notes on two of their wines. A Cascinacastlet barbera d'Asti 2004 "Litina", obtained from very old, low-yield vines, and aged for six months in oak, was delicious with red berries and/or cherries mixed with the tannins, but oh so soft. And the price at the winery was only 9.5 euros. As nice a wine as this was, my favorite of theirs, and one of two wines I carried home (the other was the barbera d'Asti superiore, 8 euros, crafted by Luigi, the truffle man) was a blend of 70% barbera and 30% cabernet sauvignon called "Policalpo" 2003. This wine was soft and ripe, with a nice combination of tannins and fruit, a wow wine, and less than 15 euros. Check out this winery's web site at http://www.cascinacastlet.com.
The next day was special. We were going to visit both a barolo and barbaresco predominated winery, followed by a cooking class and dinner with Paolo and a few guests. But I was on a quest for some special wines that day for a special dinner guest, for it was the occasion of my father's 100th birthday. Although he would not be present, I had prepared several 8x10 enlargements of pictures of him selected from the 1930s and succeeding decades thereafter, with the intention of sharing them with the dinner guests that evening. (I also managed a few of Pop's war stories from his days in Italy.)
The morning found us at the Martinenga estate of Tenute Cisa Asinari dei Marchesi di Gresy. Here we were escorted by Marinella and spent the next few hours learning about the winery, its properties, vinification approaches, and tasting wines. We began by tasting their 2004 "Villa Giulia" di Gresy (8 euros), a blend of chardonnay (60%) and sauvignon blanc (40%). With an intense fruit (melon notes) and floral bouquet accompanied by dryness on the palate, this was a perfect start for a mid-morning wine tasting. The first red wine tried was a 2004 nebbiolo "Martinenga" (11 euros). It was a light red, but elegant with soft edges (gentle tannins) and a perfume of berries on the nose. The wine saw no wood, only steel, during its fermentation. The wine I bought for my father's birthday party was a 2004 "Monte Colombo" barbera d'Asti (21 euros). If I had carried back home another bottle, this would have been it. Of the two wines served during the dinner (the other was a barolo, see below), this one, in my mind, was the standout. It had wonderful fruit (cherries) on the nose, well balanced but definite tannins, and was just a delicious mouthful that made one smile. Not much of this wine makes it to the States. The one dealer I found in Oregon who listed the wine (at a price below what I paid for it at the winery!) had sold out of his three cases two weeks earlier. However, there are two sites in Oregon selling the 2005 version of this wine for $18; I just don't know how it stacks up to the 2004.
We then moved on to taste barbaresco, a wine made from the nebbiolo grape, and which spends one year in wood and another year in the bottle before being offered for sale. The di Gresy "Martinenga" barbaresco is the basic barbaresco of the winery. I tasted the 2004 and found it to have red berries on the nose with a bit of spice, a solid tannin foundation but softening. It was a pleasant wine, but for 35 euros a bit much. The next barbaresco was the di Gresy "Camp Gros" and I tried a 1999 bottling. It was very earthy, very tannic still, and I thought it needed more cellaring. At 60 euros, it was not a wine for me. The 2000 "Camp Gros" is widely available in the States for $59-75. But the next barbaresco was my favorite of the trip. I tried a 2001 "Gaiun" barbaresco that was lovely; chewy and soft at the same time (soft tannins), full of flavor and elegance. I was tempted to spend the 53 euros, but the Monte Colombo barbera would do just fine.
The last stop on this tour of Piedmonte was a producer of barolo, the Comm.G.B. Burlotto winery. The tasting room was in what was an old church. First poured was a "Verduno Pelaverga" 2006 (8 euros), a very light red wine, both peppery and fruity (strawberries), and appropriate as a picnic wine. Next tried was the 2005 Burlotto "Lange Freisa", bursting with strawberries and earthiness on the nose, I found much more tannin than the nose led me to believe existed. This was quite a unique tasting experience and only 8 euros. The 2006 Lange nebbiolo (10 euros) was tannic, but not overly so, and had decent red berry fruit taste sensations with a floral nose. A pleasant but not outstanding nebbiolo. These wines are available in the States, with the 2005 vintage nebbiolo listing for about $19. Similarly priced Stateside is the Burlotto barbera d'Alba "L'Aves" 2005, but it was less than 11 euros in the tasting room. This wine was more acidic than the nebbiolo, with spice on the nose and the typical red berry flavors. Nice but not great.
The finale consisted of tasting two of the Burlotto's four different barolos. I selected the 2003 Burlotto "Acclivi" barolo (23 euro) which I found to be very fruity on the nose (strawberries) and refined, but a relatively light wine as barolos go. Sufficient tannins were present to cause slight puckering on the tongue but the fruitiness predominated. This was the second wine I bought to serve at Pop's birthday dinner later that night. The last Barolo was a 2003 "Monvigliero" (25 euro). It had a nose of mushrooms and forest floor and the taste was a spicy, fruity combination with soft tannins, and perhaps a bit of spice and licorice. The prices of these Barolos were quite reasonable compared to most, but I'm not certain they were characteristic of the genre, which usually were big wines when I've tasted them.
Certainly a worthwhile experience, but we only scratched the surface. The wine festival offered too many wines too quickly, and the hours spent in a single vineyard was useful for comparing their wine lineup, but not for comparing a wine type across several different vineyards. For that purpose, I still prefer our wine dinners, for there several like wines are tasted over the course of a few hours and with food. Still, I'm not going to refuse future trips to wine regions for tastings. If you've an interest in a private or small group outing in Piemonte with Paolo, you can find him at: http://www.buongustotours.com/home.html.