Happy summer to everyone! Again, apologies for the long layoff, but things have been busy in Bozeman; between hobbies, travel, family, and work the amount of time for writing has been scarce. However, I am back and ready to continue spreading the word on great wines. You may note that I have not lacked in the consumption aspect of delicious wines if you read my recent post highlighting some of the wines that I was able to drink in the last few months. Of course I have been busy with many other things outside of wine, most notably cycling. Cycling is my exercise of choice and while I’m not really that fast, I enjoy trying to do a few races each year. Being a heavier person in the world of cycling (I believe the French would refer to me as a rouleur as I tend to be better on flats and rough roads) I generally do not climb as well as those diminutive types who have less effect of gravity dragging them down. I’m not quite fast enough to be a true sprinter either, so really I think my speciality is “classics” type races. These would be races such as Paris-Roubaix, Tour of Flanders, etc. I say “I think”, because of course for rank amateurs as myself, these types of races don’t really exist. This is probably smart as a bunch of poor bike handling amateurs on slick, muddy cobbles would likely mean loads of crashes and injuries. With this in mind, when I get dropped during the races that I do participate in, I simply tell myself that it’s because it wasn’t a race suited to my qualities as a cyclist. It works as a nice salve to the ego anyway. This season I had the added benefit of having had some virtual training during the winter thanks to Zwift and my Wahoo Kickr trainer. These have revolutionized my winter training, though for some reason I still came into the spring about 5-6 kilos over race weight. Too much wine you may say… probably true, but a small sacrifice for the enjoyment I derive. Despite my weight being a bit high, I had big hopes for a local Montana race that myself and a few friends decided to do. It was a rolling course with one longer 4 mile climb that would likely decide the race. Our 3 man team was thankfully equipped with a tiny little pure climber and our plan was to lead him out ahead of the climb to provide a springboard for victory. I was willing to sacrifice my own chances to deliver victory for the team. The race took off at a blistering pace and my teammate and I provided perfect protection from the wind for our super light leader. As we approached the climb, we were in perfect position and took the race into our own hands; we destroyed the front of the race with a massive outpouring of wattage. Suddenly, with the climb upon us, we had a lead over everyone and our plan was coming to fruition! Our Lilliputian leader took off up the climb as planned and the two of us who gave every ounce sat up to enjoy the celebration. Somehow, and I still don’t really understand what happened other than deliberate neglect, our race winning move was foiled when our pint-sized leader decided to miss a turn and go horribly off course! Victory was assured and yet somehow we managed to turn it into defeat due to inability to follow a course map! When I saw this, I knew I had to do something to rescue team morale and despite the fact that my legs were completely shot and my quads were a quivering mess of muscle fibers, I managed to dig deep into my cave of pain and follow the next riders on the road. I suspect had I not destroyed myself for the team good I would have been able to deliver a win, but as it was given the prior efforts made I was only able to hold on for 3rd. Not a victory, but at least we were on the podium after a day of hard work. The team was obviously distraught about our leaders lack of direction, but we still celebrated with our first podium of the year. I suspect there will be more to come, although team leadership is now in question given this performance… further updates will be given as the season progresses.
Now that you know what has been occupying my time and energy, I will refocus this missive and get on to some wine! This edition will focus on the small area of northwest Italy known as Barolo. I have discussed this briefly with some of you in the past, but we haven’t delved into the great nebbiolo grape much and I think it warrants more discussion. As you can see on the map below, the region is located in the top of the boot near the Dolomites. Nebbiolo (please note that in some regions in the Piedmont nebbiolo is referred to as spanna, but they are the same grape) from this region is what initially made Italy’s reputation internationally. These were the wines that the former king’s requested on their tables when visiting dignitaries showed up! On my personal wine preference list, I have nebbiolo as a solid 3rd behind pinot noir and northern Rhone syrah. The wines can be hauntingly beautiful, age gracefully for decades, and are incredible partners for food. Nebbiolo is generally considered an autochthonous varietal, which means that it has not really spread significantly beyond the Piedmont region. This is probably partly because it isn’t as well known as grapes like cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, etc; but also because it doesn’t grow as well in other areas. Nebbiolo is a thick-skinned, late ripening varietal that generally requires a good amount of warmth and sun to do well. The name is thought to come from the word nebbia, which means fog. The fog in Piedmont is generally quite thick around harvest time and legend has it that the best plots for nebbiolo had fog that burned off earlier given their better sun exposure. You may think that a late ripening varietal would not do well in the northern area of the country with the alps looming close by, and you would be correct. There are only select areas where nebbiolo thrives. Historically, the best areas for nebbiolo are the regions of Barolo and Barbaresco. Within these areas, the southwestern facing hills that were noted by the local viticulturists to have snow melt first were considered the prime sites for nebbiolo while other areas were reserved for earlier ripening varietals like dolcetto and barbera.
The region of Barolo is located in the Po river valley and is made up of multiple different townships, 11 in total. Of these, Barolo, La Morra, Serralunga d’Alba, Monforte d’Alba, and Castiglione Falleto are the main production zones that excel in producing great Barolo. Each of these subregions has different soils and exposures resulting in different
types of wine. I won’t go into depth on each commune here, but in general Serralunga and Monforte have more sandstone soils and are known for big, powerful wines. Barolo and La Morra have more of a calcareous marl and generally are known for more aromatic, elegant styled wines. These are certainly generalizations, but will give you a little bit more to help in your selecting process. In the past many producers had vineyards in different areas and made their wine as a blend of sites to compliment each other. The aromatics of La Morra with the tannic power of Serralunga, etc. More recently, however there has been more interest in showcasing the individual characteristics and this has led to somewhat of a revolution in the way Barolo is made. Instead of blending wines from different sites, they are now producing more single vineyard wines. The Italian DOCG has recently approved the labeling of certain individual sites called the “MGA” or Menzione Geografiche Aggiuntive. There is no requirement to make wines in this way and some producers have decided to continue to make blended wines, however many other producers are showcasing their best sites. This is partly modeled on the Burgundy idea of “crus” and has certainly added intrigue to the region. If you are interested in more thorough review of the “MGAs” Alessandro Massnaghetti produced a beautiful and informative book with maps and breakdowns of the ownership and characteristics of each of the crus. I highly recommend it.
Nebbiolo in general is a grape that produces high tannins due to its thick skins, but is also high acid, and has the potential to produce high alcohol. Interestingly however, it is a grape with limited anthocyanin and therefore does not normally produce dark, deeply colored wines. Typical nebbiolo wines will be more of a garnet, ruby, or red brick and fade to an orange-ish hue with age. As I mentioned earlier, this is a late ripening grape and harvest is often not until mid-late October. With the above characteristics you would imagine that nebbiolo makes wines destined for long aging and you would be correct. In many cases, Barolo specifically is not even approachable for 10+ years and doesn’t truly hit its stride until 15-20 years. In fact I just recently purchased a nebbiolo wine from 1964! There have been some changes in the more recent history of Barolo as the world has gradually eliminated patience and become fixated on instant gratification. Barolo is not an instant gratification wine and this need for cellaring became a negative for the ability of the wine to sell. To counteract this, producers began to experiment with modern winemaking techniques to soften the wines and make them more approachable earlier. This is commonly referred to as the “Barolo Wars” and producers of the wines were angry on both sides. The traditional producers who stuck with aging in large botti and avoided techniques to extract more color while softening tannins felt that the other side were masking the typicity of the grape and region; the modern producers were frustrated that these old fashioned types weren’t willing to change to improve the sales in the region and the international reputation. My personal opinion is that the more modern wines aged in barriques have a different character and while some of them are solid, they do not capture what I think is the essence of nebbiolo. Thankfully, the “war” has mostly petered out. The result has been somewhat of a middle ground, with many traditionalists implementing some modern techniques and modernists moving back towards the traditional methods. Recently in my opinion, the quality of Barolo has never been higher. Whether this is better wine making, global warming to ensure better ripeness, or a combination, the wines are delicious!
Let’s talk a bit more about the wine of Barolo. The wines as mentioned are generally high in tannin, high in acid, and high in alcohol (often 14+%). The nose of good Barolo can be simply arresting. A fresh melange of red berry fruits, perfumed notes of roses and lilacs, tanned leather, a forest after a fresh rain, spices like anise and fennel, dried tobacco or notes of a humidor, and the classic note of tar or creosote which is often how I recognize Barolo. With age, the wines develop more earth, truffle, and mushroom notes. The palate as you would suspect is often robust and if too young, can be overwhelmingly tannic and tart. Once ready, however the balance and power is stunning and a great Barolo truly rivals any wine in the world. Rich fruit and floral notes with spice and earth mingle on your tongue. The flavor seems to last forever, lingering on after you have finished your sip… spellbinding wines for sure!
Barolo is definitely a wine for the table and not one to be quaffed in the backyard. The Piedmont is also a foodie mecca thanks to the rare white Alba truffle that grows here. There are certainly of great Piedmontese dishes that pair beautifully with Barolo, many of them with truffle as a centerpiece. Generally a richer, earthy dish will pair best. Wild boar with a mushroom ragout; braised leg of lamb with fennel and mushrooms; hearty stews with beef or game, mushrooms, herbs and potatoes. These are the dishes that make Barolo shine even brighter! If the wines are aged, you can go with simpler preparations of lighter meats such as a roasted game bird or herb roasted pork loin. Of course, if you have can have a truffle dish with a fine Barolo you are approaching the pinnacle of food and wine….
Now that I have your palates salivating and ready to taste; lets talk about some producers to look for.
My favorite producer of Barolo is Giacomo Conterno. A traditional house for sure, these are not Barolo’s for the faint hearted. They beg for 20 years of cellar time and the blossom into some of the greatest wines in the world. The flagship Monfortino riserva is unfortunately priced into the 0.1% range and is often the most expensive wine in Italy (if you have one and would like to share please contact me!); but the Barolo Cascina Francia and Cerretta can be nearly as good for 1/5th or less of the price. Still expensive and a splurge for sure, I have yet to be disappointed by a wine made by Roberto Conterno. My advice is to look for wines from “off” vintages as I have had a few and they are “value” priced but still delicious. I recently had a 2003 which was written off as a roasted, pruney vintage; the Conterno was still fresh, with no signs of excess ripeness, fabulous concentration and depth with absolutely classic flavors. It was simply excellent. I will also mention that a property in Gattinara was recently purchased by Roberto Conterno so this will be another possible option to obtain some value nebbiolo from one of the greatest wine makers of the area.
Some of my other favorite “traditional” styled producers include: Giuseppe Rinaldi; Bartolo Mascarello; Bruno Giacosa; Francesco Rinaldi (offers great value); Vietti (I’ve not tried many of their wines since being bought out); Giuseppe Mascarello; GD Vajra (also excellent value for the quality); Cappellano; Guido Porro; Lorenzo Accomasso; and A & G Fantino. You really can’t go wrong with any of these producers.
My favorite producers that have a modern bent include: Luciano Sandrone; Angelo Gaja; Aldo Conterno; Elio Altare; Elvio Cogno; Paolo Scavino; Domenico Clerico; and Cerretto. As a note, Gaja wines often do not have the term Barolo on the label as he was one of the original site specific advocates and began labeling his wines as such years ago. An entire day could probably be spent discussing Gaja, but for now we will not get that far into it.
There are many other excellent Barolo producers, but I haven’t gotten around to all of them yet. So if you can’t find the above, roll the dice and try one. I don’t think you will be disappointed. You may also want to consider trying the more elegant Barbaresco which we will have to discuss in more depth on another day. These wines are often approachable a bit younger, so if you don’t have the patience for cellaring or access to back vintage wines, this may be a better option for you.
I hope that this finds you all well and I hope that you will be able to get out and try some fabulous Barolo soon! I’ll be back in touch in the near future with more wine recs and discussions.
J. “MGA” Newman, CSW