Posts Tagged ‘Piedmont’
That there is a competitive streak among many men is hardly an earth-shattering observation. Wine tasting can be social, relaxed, erudite and many other things but it also can be competitive. Ben Llewellyn, MD of Caviste set up Thursday evening’s tasting as a competition – between two of Europe’s best established and prestigious regions. Burgundy and Piedmont just happen to be among my favourite regions. The tasting focused helpfully on the two most important grape varieties (with apologies to Chardonnay of course): Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo, from Burgundy and Piedmont, respectively. Ben has been talking for months about having secured some exceptional bottles of Nebbiolo without a thought for the cost, while Mark was assigned Burgundy within a budget … Not that there was any suggestion that this was a fix.
The idea was to taste six Pinot’s and six Nebbiolo side by side, by category – best wine by a cooperative, from a single vineyard, etc. This was an excellent approach, made better by the fact that the two varieties share some similarities: pale colour, red fruit (if raspberry v. cherry), medium to high acidity, producing full bodied wines in cool climates and, perhaps above all, ability to develop in very subtle ways with age. And there are only 225 miles between Beaune and Alba – plus the Alps! – so the climate is not that different. There is one huge difference of course: Pinot is only moderately astringent while Nebbiolo is the king of (pale) tannic wines!
So how did the competition work out? Each wine was scored out of twenty and all the scores were totalled. This ensured a high level of participation on the evening, not to mention the occasional outbreak of barracking. Janet refused to score on ideological grounds, while I did the same for another reason which will become clear shortly. But the outcome was interesting. Despite the Burgundies being on the whole much cheaper, they only lost by the smallest margin – less than 2%. Why was this? Two guesses: people are much more familiar with Pinot Noir than with Nebbiolo and, further, the latter is seriously tannic, even in good examples. One could say that Ben needed much better, more expensive, wines than Mark to make it a contest!
My aversion to scoring has nothing to do with disapproval of competitive sports. Scoring has its uses – but only in my view if the wines are in flights of similar wines. It makes no sense at all to try to score an off-dry ethereally light German Riesling on the same scale as a massive Californian Cabernet. It is difficult to score Pinot against Nebbiolo – even if we disregard the point that the samples of the former cost 50% less on average than those of the latter.
Let’s ask a completely different question: how good were the wines? There were many good wines in the line up and some really outstanding ones. G D Vajra’s village level Barolo 2005, £32, from an ordinary year, now has fine balsam, fruit, the smell of cloves from old wood on the nose and fine complexity. Domaine Sylvie Esmonin Gevrey-Chambertin, Vielles Vignes, 2007, £35, is already singing – again great complexity in the the red and black fruit, superb. And, I am pleased to say, the great Barolo examples were just that: the 2003 from Monprivato Mascarello and the special treat – though sadly one bottle was corked – from Giorgio Rivetti. The name of this wine is so complicated it needs a sentence of its own: Giorgio Rivetti, La Spinetta Campè Vürsù, Barolo Campè, 2000, now just under £100. The family name is Rivetti (expert makers of Moscato), the company is called La Spinetta Campè and the wine is Barolo from the Campè vineyard near Grinzane Cavour, with the added name Vürsù – which I am guessing is going to be a bit of Piedmontese dialect as 30 minutes of research has not revealed anything! To all the usual Barolo qualities this adds rich, developed fruit, probably due to its very modern wine making process – in rotofermenters, which extract a great deal of fruit quickly, and then French barriques. Superb.
If this is the standard of wines we can expect at Caviste’s future tastings, we will look forward to more – with or without the competitiveness!
Stephen Brook MW has an enviable task – to pick some of his favourite newly released Barolo and Barbaresco and introduce them to the trade at a recent Decanter event entitled ‘Highlights of Piedmont’. He has to get his selection down to ten wines and so he can only nod at Dolcetto and Barbera as grape varieties and indeed to the Roero district. There are no whites at all which is a bit hard on Arneis, Cortese and Moscato. Understandably enough he sticks to Barolo and Barbaresco – seven wines to convey the most famous wine style to come out of Piemonte. But once we get to the heartland as it were, he is keen to play down stereotypes, Barolo v Barbaresco, traditionalist v modernist. Over all the message was: generalisation is dangerous.
Having been introduced by Pietro Ratti, head of the growers’ consortium and of the historic firm of Renato Ratti, Stephen Brook locates us. As he speaks on 20 September, the harvest for the Dolcetto and the white grapes has happened; now the producers are hoping for some more sun to finish off the ripening of the later picked Nebbiolo, the most important variety in the Langhe. The climate is not Mediterranean as people think. The Langhe, south of the Tanaro river, is within sight of the Alps and has harsh winters. And – to get to his theme – as it is a landscape of multiple slopes, small family holdings and some large vineyards with multiple owners, you can’t generalise about areas, terroir or weather conditions.
The naming convention followed here is: wine name (may be a vineyard name often preceded by Vigna or Vigneto), denomination ie DOC or DOCG name, producer, degrees of alcohol, year, followed in brackets by the commune of Barolo or Barbaresco where appropriate.
Fosco, Diano d’Alba, Salvano, 13.5°, 2009
The first wine is made from the Dolcetto grape. While not valued in the same way as Nebbiolo, this can make rich and glugable wines. Low in acidity and high in tannins, it is mainly intended to be drunk young. This example has a gorgeous, fruity nose, and sweet vibrant fruit set off with some tannins. You can tell that it would be good with food.
Lirano Soprana, Barbera d’Alba, Rivetto, 14.5°, 2007
The Barbera grape has come into the limelight in the last decade. Traditionally, with Dolcetto, it was seen as the everyday wine which the producers drank while they waited for the Nebbiolo to come round and soften. Now, it is produced in at least two styles, lightly oaked to allow the fruit to shine and with more new wood, especially French barriques to create a ‘serious’ wine. This example has to fall into the latter category, being aged in 50% new barriques and there is quite powerful if attractive new oak on the nose – vanilla along with the lovely red fruits typical of Barbera. It is another fine food wine. By contrast with Dolcetto, there is lots of refreshing acidity (great with tomato based sauces) but few tannins.
An important style which this tasting did not show is the simple Nebbiolo (eg Nebbiolo d’Alba), ie short maceration, often no oak, made for drinking within five years. It can be perfumed and fresh. Just right for a simple lunch and not expensive.
The warm up act continues with Sudisfà Roero riserva, Angelo Nero, 14°, 2006, made from Nebbiolo grapes in the Roero district, north of the Tanaro river and on sandier soils. There are two big advantages here: the wines are at their peak between only four and ten years after being made and they can be cheaper than those coming from south of the Tanaro, though this one at £26 isn’t. But this is a serious wine, from the pretty fierce 2006 vintage, quite perfumed already, high in tannins and with a spicy finish. The perfume will develop with some more years in the bottle while the tannins become tamer. It will be worth the relatively short wait.
Barbaresco and Barolo basics
Barbaresco and Barolo, the two principal quality wine zones (DOCGs) of the Langhe, respectively East and South West of Alba, are slightly confusingly also village names which give their name to the commune as a whole. So not every Barolo is from the area immediately around the village of Barolo, far from it. And then there are the plethora of cru, top vineyard, names, some of which cross commune boundaries. It all adds up to Burgundian complexity. Barbaresco is the smaller area with 700 hectares under vine, of which 500 is Nebbiolo, producing four million bottles a year. To qualify as Barbaresco the wine must be entirely made from Nebbiolo grapes from the delimited area and be aged for 26 months, only 9 of which have to be in barrels. While sharing much the same geology of marine deposits and fine clay, the area is – to risk a few generalisations – a bit more fertile than Barolo, a bit foggier, and slightly warmer, with the result that harvest is typically 5-7 days before neighbouring Barolo. The resulting wine is typically slightly lighter, more elegant and more approachable than Barolo. All these generalisations can be over-ruled by the year and the individual vineyard. As I tasted later in the open tasting, Barbaresco from a ‘big’ year can be less approachable than Barolo from a smaller year.
By contrast, the Barolo area produces 11-12 million bottles per year and the wine must be aged for 38 months, 18 of which must be in barrels. The times are longer again for riserva wines. Again there are marked differences between the various villages but broadly speaking one looks for elegance from La Morra and Barolo itself while the south eastern section, eg Serralunga d’Alba, initially tends to the dense and tannic.
And, while we are on basics, it’s worth pointing out that Barolo and Barbaresco are not your typical deep ruby red with purple edges which we associate with modern red wines. The comparison with Pinot Noir is instructive in the paleness but Nebbiolo is browner than Pinot, as the picture on the right shows. It is often called ‘brick’ but personally I have not seen many translucent bricks.
Rather like in Tuscany where Sangiovese’s acidity and tannins have to be tamed, here the task is is nurturing Nebbiolo. The rampant growth of the vine has to be checked and then the bunches kept on the vine until early October to reach full maturity if at all possible . The next decisions take you into the traditionalist v. modernist debate. Traditionally (ie during the last hundred years, before that the wines were sweet) the wine was fermented and then kept on the skins for 30 or more days, producing pale if tannic red wine. High temperatures could be reached in the fermentation period, resulting later in the ‘tar’ aromas which made up the classic ‘tar and roses’ combination. The tannins were tamed by long ageing in large oak botti, just like Brunello in Tuscany. 5-7 years was not uncommon. Young growers in the 1970s and 1980s, for example Altare and Gaja,changed all that, adapting approaches that they had seen in France, which after all is just on the other side of the Alps. The key features introduced by the modernists were:
- reduction of yields in the vineyard by green harvesting, aiming for full ripeness in the remaining fruit. This was highly controversial with an older generation who remembered real hunger and saw wine as a food. Interestingly, this last point is now being made again by the natural wines movement.
- moving away from bulk sales and growing for big firms to growing and vinifying your own wine, aiming for quality and higher prices
- cooler fermentation to preserve the fruit flavours and reduce extraction
- shorter maceration periods, eg 15 days, or even 5 days with a rotary fermenter, with less extraction of tannins and therefore less need to soften wines by long ageing
- maturing wines in new oak barriques which increases the wood to wine ratio, giving both more oxygenisation and more extraction of flavours from new wood and its toast. This was controversial, firstly because it was expensive and, secondly, because it changed the character of the wine in the early years of a its development. The wines were drinkable much earlier but had a sort of overcoat of vanilla and oak, we hope in a stylish sort of way.
Interestingly, Stephen Brook’s comment was that the effects of modernist approaches over against traditional ones disappear in 20-30 year old wines. They are noticeable enough in young wines (and remember ‘young’ here probably means up to 10 years). What shines through after 20-30 years is the different terroir, not the wine making style. Sadly, most of us will have to do with ‘young’ wines. Today’s excellent winemaking means that many Nebbiolo wines are ready to drink in the short term but the real treat would be to taste traditional wines which have come round.
Vigneto Brich Ronchi, Barbaresco, Albino Rocca, 14.5°, 2007 demonstrates today’s finesse. The wine is less than three years old and has been matured in a sort of compromise Austrian oval, a medium sized barrel. Stephen Brook praises its charm and lift, quite delicate for a Nebbiolo. Similarly approachable is Orlando Abrigo’s Vigna Rongalio Meruzzano, Barbaresco, 14°, 2006. This is made from fruit from old vines and the given a short maceration time and then aged half in large botti and half in tonneaux – perfectly illustrating the compromises now being made between traditional and modernist styles. My MW neighbour correctly called this wine as dumb or very slightly corked and the second sample was full of wonderful fruit.
Four Barolo wines followed:
Rocche dell’Annunziata Barolo, Mauro Veglia, 14.5°, 2006 (commune = La Morra), 80% of which is matured in barriques, indicating that Mario Veglia is a disciple of nearby Altare, one of the modernists. The wine leads with raspberry and floral notes and has great poise; it is light, perfumed and tannic. It is very young. 2006 was a good year which needs time to develop in the bottle.
Vigna Merende Barolo, Scarzello, 14°, 2005 (Barolo), from Giorgio Scarzello was quite tarry with good fruit and very obvious tannins, as befits a traditionalist. In general 2005 is more ready to drink now than either of its illustrious neighbours, but this needs more time.
Schiavenza, Broglio Barolo riserva, Schiavenza, 14.5°, 2004 (Serralunga d’Alba): some growers will identify one top site and in the best years make a riserva. This one from Serralunga d’Alba had a good roses nose plus cloves, lovely smooth texture, following tannins and was very, very long.
Slightly oddly, back to the normale, Vigna La Rosa, Barolo, Fontanafredda, 14°, 2006 (Serralunga d’Alba) was a creditable showing from the large company Fontanafredda. Moderately perfumed with a decent palate, again this needs time, reflecting the severity of both the place (Serralunga d’Alba again) and the year. Very long.
And finally, Bricco Boschis, Vigna San Giuseppe riserva, Cavallotto, 14.5°, 2004 (Castiglione Falletto). 20 days of maceration, matured in traditional botti, quite muted now, austere, fine tannins, very, very long. Try again in 10 years or more.
And the most remarkable feature of this tasting? After we had been sitting for an hour and a quarter, listening, tasting, writing notes, reflecting … I remembered to go back and observe the development of the wines in the glass. The wines had probably been poured for an hour and half and the array of perfumed red fruit aged in oak was just wonderful. That’s what makes Nebbiolo a great grape variety.
The landscape of wine
Before the wine and certainly before words about wine, the landscape of Piemonte – more particularly of the Langhe – is to be celebrated.
Outside, in the vineyards, the meeting of human beings and the land they have cared for and worked has a special poignancy, perfectly captured by the ciabot (cha-bot, Piemontese dialect) the tool huts and shelters that dot the landscape.
On these steep slopes, no one will want to carry their tools further than they need, or want to go far for shelter.
The rolling hills of the Langhe also benefit from a wider backdrop which sets all this activity in a much bigger frame – the arc of the Alps. Although the photo below is taken with some magnification, in late spring the snow line is clearly visible and emphasizes the rapid change of landscape and microclimates in Piemonte.
Back to the human scale, the farmhouse (cascina) is an art form here. Most are quite substantial if low key, pleasant functional buildings. Many have a well-concealed winery below ground, reducing the impact on the visual environment and getting all the benefits of stability of temperature for wine making and storage. Monchiero Carbone (red building below and actually in the Roero area) shows the large domestic scale and of course you can’t see the substantial winery below.
Some wineries are have started afresh but even then they can be simultaneously very contemporary and, with that curved and grassed roof, disappear into the landscape. This is the historic firm of Renato Ratti, now in modern guise.
After the Capezzana tasting, the riches of Decanter’s Italian day at the Landmark Hotel. This has to be the best one-day introduction to the Italian quality wine scene in the UK and maybe beyond. It’s big – with 86 listed producers – and pretty representative, 13 out of 20 regions present, with Sardinia a surprising absence. A third of producers are from Tuscany with 16 from Chianti alone, but then we all know about that English love affair.
Faced with these riches, you have to choose. Janet and I concentrated on filling in a few gaps from our recent Piemonte trip and of course some Tuscan friends. Here are some of the highlights.
This winery, between the communes of Barolo and La Morra, has a great range of wines and of single vineyard cru. It is particularly pleased to be expanding its holding in the important Cannubi vineyard from two to ten hectares, leasing the additional land from Marchesi di Barolo, which will give them 60% of the cru. The investment is eye-watering, with one hectare of Cannubi in the €2m range. And so is the responsibility of moving from 9,000 to 50,000 bottles of this wine per year.
Of the wines we particularly enjoyed Barolo Cannubi 2005, squeezed between two great vintages, now showing better than most expected, with a very rich, complex nose and dense fruit. But a good word has also to be put in for the Barbera d’Alba 2007 in a modern oaked style (40% new barriques), but a good depth of fruit and quite luxurious.
Michele Chiarlo, while being based in the Monferrato region, has important wines from many key areas of Piemonte – whites from the Roero and Gavi, Moscato, an interesting sparkling wine which we drank when we were in Alba, quality Barbera and of course Barolo and Barbaresco. The highlights included the premium Barbera, La Court, Barbera d’Asti Superiore ‘Nizza’ 2006. This wine, which from the 2008 vintage has acquired DOCG status, is treated like the top wine that it is – low yields of only 1 kg of grapes per plant, harvested late in the middle of October, half fermented and aged in larger 650 litre barrels, half aged for 12 months in barriques and then for a year in bottles. It shows brilliant dense fruit, complexity and typical great acidity, a powerful but balanced food wine. The wine received the Gambero Rosso’s top grade of ‘three glasses’ in this excellent vintage, as well as in 2000, 2001 and 2003. It’s great value too at €26 – just over half what you would expect to pay for a Nebbiolo based wine of similar quality. All the wines we tasted here were very good or excellent: Arneis Le Madri 2009 and Gavi di Gavi Rovereto 2009 were very good, Barbaresco 2006, Barolo Tortoniano 2005 and Barolo Cerequio 2005 were excellent.
So, so far on this football day, an early 2-0 lead to Piemonte.
Marchesi di Frescobaldi
In the Tuscany room, I noticed that Frescobaldi had bought a fine range of wines including top Brunello and Chianti. But there was also the chance to taste two Super Tuscans, which draw on the cultural and religious symbolism of the Mediterranean, Lucente and Luce. From these bottles beams the sun rays in embossed golden splendour – can the wines live up to this? Lucente 2007 – the affordable option – has very good medium weight fruit, good counterbalancing acidity, a decent second level Super Tuscan. Luce 2006, a 50/50 Sangiovese/Merlot divide, spends two years in barriques and emerges with deep, dense, colour and aroma (prunes and cherries, balsam), great fruit (the Merlot of course to the fore) and lively acidity (Sangiovese makes its mark). Perhaps a wine for tasting rather than drinking, but an excellent achievement nonetheless.
Having tasted this company’s top Vernaccia di San Gimignano at Vinitaly, I was keen to catch up with at least the other whites in the range from this producer. Maria Elisabetta Fagiuoli introduced the wines herself and fully justified the company’s slogan Sono Montenidoli – ‘I am Montenidoli’, or rather less likely, ‘They (the wines) are Montenidoli’. This part of Tuscany is the product a great prehistoric salt-water sea, a land of fossil filled limestone which can produce whites of real character.
The Vernaccia tradizionale 2007 is the product of long maceration on the skins and has very good complexity on the nose though it is rather flatter on the palate. I love this style but if you prefer something cleaner, more fruit led, then there is Vernaccia Fiore 2007, with freshness and even delicacy, some fruit, pleasurable drinking. Il Templare 2007 is a real marmite wine (Gambero Rosso agrees: these wines don’t leave you indifferent …): 70% Vernaccia, 20% Trebbiano gentile, 10% Malvasia bianca, a distinctly cheesy opening, then herbaceous notes, nice texture, good lemon and melon fruit. We also enjoyed Canaiuolo 2007, the unusual rosé made from Canaiolo, a Tuscan grape usually relegated to being a blender with Sangiovese. Here it produces a nicely balanced, quite floral wine for summer drinking.
Dutch investment, French know-how and biodynamic agriculture is the package at this very contemporary venture, near Riparbella close to the Tuscan coast. Dominique Génot remembered us from our visit on a tempestuously rainy day in May 2007 and judging by the wines, since then things have gone from strength to strength. A fine sweet wine and a dry white have been added to the entry level if excellent Pergolaia (90% Sangiovese) and the top wine, Caiarossa. The grape mix for the latter sets new standards for a multi-grape wine in Tuscany – you could be in the southern Rhône: around 20% each of Sangiovese, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, plus 12% Cabernet Sauvignon, with small amounts of Alicante, Syrah, Petit Verdot and Mourvèdre. Or to put it another way, that’s 40% Bordeaux, 30% Rhône and 30% Tuscany. The show offered three vintages:
Caiarossa 2004: is now beautifully knit together, with a fabulous nose of ripe fruit and savoury wood, rich in texture, complex, satisfying.
Caiarossa 2005: squeezed between two great vintages, this shows more herbaceous notes but still very creditable.
Caiarossa 2006: do not drink this wine yet! Not that there is anything wrong with it but it is going to be outstanding with its great depths of fruit, zippy acidity, so much potential – currently very young.
Oro di Caiarossa 2006 and 2007: late harvested Petit Manseng, slow strong pressing of whole bunches, two days of cool maceration, then barrel fermented for eight months. A delicious sweet white with apple and nut flavours. The 2006 shows some oxidation (there are risks in that long slow fermentation), the 2007 is exactly what the maker intended: a sweet wine with freshness, notes of acacia honey, good fruit, very good.
We left the tasting early – me for football reasons, Janet heroically filled in the time shopping. The cup final, which looked like it could be a mismatch between the top and bottom teams of the Premier League, exceeded expectation with a match full of incident and interest: competitive, lots of goal mouth incident, bad tackles, two missed penalties. Chelsea ran out 1-0 winners but somebody ought to explain to them that the ball is supposed to go between the posts, you don’t get any points for hitting post or bar. To complete the perfect Italian weekend in England, the winning cup final manager was of course an Italian.
Giacosa Fratelli is rather different from most of the wineries we visited in our recent week in Piemonte. The winery is much bigger than most of the places we went to, a large, functional building coincidentally right next door to Bruno Giacosa, who, after Gaja, is probably the biggest name in Barbaresco. The business is based in Neive, one of the three main communes of Barbaresco, though the firm has its best vineyards in the Barolo area.
This tasting came about because of the success of Giacosa Fratelli’s Barolo Bussia 2005 which won a prestigious 5-star rating in a Decanter tasting late last year. When I enquired about the wine from Coe Vintners I discovered that they have a number of other Nebbiolo based wines from the same company and a number of vintages, the perfect opportunity for a comparative tasting. At a subsequent London event with Coe Vintners the wines tasted a little rough and not quite ready to drink but by then I had already bought the wines and all was set.
A fine wine supper with a group from Andover Wine Friends was a perfect opportunity to re-evaluate the wines. First impressions are important. Nebbiolo, made for ageing, initially comes over as perfumed, only moderately fruity and tannic. Janet commented that she could smell the floral and woody notes upstairs as I was decanting the bottles two hours before the tasting. That pale ruby red with an orange edge even in young wines is also a bit different. Then there is the surprise when you taste the wines. We are so used to fruit led wines that the austerity of Nebbiolo is an initial hurdle to get over, followed of course by the mouth drying finish of lively tannins. It was always said that the growers used to drink the (fruity) Dolcetto and the (zippy) Barbera while they waited – for up to ten years – for the Nebbiolo to come around.
And it is quite a wait. Traditional Barolo and Barbaresco is made by long maceration of the wine skins in the must, 20-30 days or even more in some cases, followed by some years in large, relatively inert oak barrels. The wine has to then have a year in bottles before it is released an absolute of minimum of two years (Barbaresco) or three years (Barolo) after the harvest. So a five year old is still a young wine, perhaps a decade off its initial peak with several decades ahead of it in the best cases.
Our five wines were a good sample of styles and ages. The first two were generic Barbaresco and Barolo, in other words wines made from grapes from anywhere with the two adjacent wine regions of those names which flank the town of Alba. Both were from the quite tricky but ultimately decent 2005 vintage. And both these wines were true to to type, the Barbaresco being rather more approachable and ready to drink after five years, the Barolo more structured, denser and still quite demanding. Both have notes of Turkish delight (rose water) and red fruit on the nose.
Barolo Bussia 2005 is quite a step up and this was the wine that got the 5 star rating. This is a single vineyard wine from the magnificent Bussia vineyard with its long, undulating, south facing slope. The biggest difference in the finished wine is riper, fuller fruit. The wine continues to be high in acidity and tannin but despite being bigger is more approachable because it is better balanced.
Also true to type was the difference between the two Barolo single vineyard wines. The Bussia vineyard (or at least this part of it) is in the Barolo commune, while the Vigna Mandorlo is from the adjacent commune of Castiglione Falletto. They may be only a few kilometres apart and both are still in the quality wine area of Barolo but the geology has changed. The wines of Castiglione Falletto are characteristically more structured, more demanding, longer lived.
Barolo Vigna Mandorlo 2004 is from the excellent 2004 vintage now just starting to get into its stride. The perfumed nose is wonderfully pronounced but the wine is much tougher, all set for the long haul to vinous perfection. The vineyard name itself, Mandorlo, is the historic name of the best, top, part of the Rivera vineyard, on the steep slope just below the picturesque town of Castiglione Falleto. There is a perfect picture of it on the introductory page for the whole Italian section of the latest edition of the world wine atlas (Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson). Life’s not fair is it – it’s both beautiful to look at and a great wine!
Our final wine is a 1996 vintage of the same wine, coming up to the mid-point of its second decade. In the last ten plus years, the wine has knit together into a seamless velvety texture and a richer, deeper unity in terms of flavours. You could try to describe this (balsam and liquorish from the wood ageing, fruit more in the blackberry, mulberry range), but the point is that they are no longer individual components. The tannins and acidity are still with us but now provide structure for this remarkable wine. This really makes the point – if it’s a well made wine to start with and from a good year, these bottles do develop into something far more than the sum of their parts. The perfume develops, the austerity remains but now as a component of something which is much more than a glass of wine – a glass with a history, a range of sensations for nose and palate, a place of course, a stimulus to the brain as much as to the senses.
Planning a week’s tasting in a region is a mixture of thorough preparation, chance meetings and recommendations, and sheer persistence. And there is the question of whether to visit wineries which you already know and whose wines are available in the UK as opposed to those you can only taste in situ. Our final day in the Langhe region of Piemonte had a large gap in the final afternoon but after a few phone calls, we arranged a visit to G.D.Vajra (pronounced VAI-ra), a very well established name, located above the village of Barolo since 1972. All the planning had paid dividends as this was also the only time in the week that we had to drive from our morning tastings in Barbaresco, well to the east of our base in Alba, to a visit at the opposite end of the region, via a very good if hurried lunch and a near disaster at a self service petrol station.
Vajra’s substantial winery has a workmanlike feel about it, with the exception of the charming stained glass windows which throw a slightly surreal glow over proceedings. But this is clearly a place of work, of focus on the goal of a quality across a largish range of wines. For whites they have a Chardonnay from the Luigi Baudana company which they are now directing and a surprise package in Pétracine, the Riesling which they have been making since 1986. They also have quite a serious Dolcetto from the two vineyards, Coste and Fossati, which can be aged for up to 10 years, a denser more structured wine with nice cherry and almond notes.
The use of barriques is interesting here. Usually expensive new wood is dedicated to the most important wines but here the new wood is matched up with the forceful Barbera grape and it is only when the wood has mellowed that it is used on the prized Nebbiolo. This means that you get the mild oxidising effect of small barrels for Nebbiolo but without the vanilla and toast aromas of new barriques. Very clever.
Barbera comes in two shapes, normale 2007 and riserva. The former comes from the younger vineyards and a part of it is matured in new oak for six to eight months. It has a gorgeous, fruity nose which covers the new wood – it needs to express itself, like an adolescent, says our host Sabrina. The Barbera riserva (or superiore) 2007 comes from 50 year old vines from the famous Bricco delle viole vineyard, the source also of one of the cru Barolo. However, the law being what it is, you can only put the vineyard name on the back label of Barbera, whereas of course it is allowed to be on the main label of the Barolo! This wine is aged in large traditional barrels and tonneaux for 18 months. It has a super concentrated nose of dark fruit and some oak ageing, wonderfully ripe, sweet fruit on the palate and is extremely long. An outstanding wine which makes the case for great Barbera.
After Barbera comes Nebbiolo of course, though in this case we could have gone next to that other native, Freisa, of which more anon. With the addition of Luigi Baudana wines, Vajra now has four Nebbiolo wines, the simpler Langhe Nebbiolo 2008 (quite a complex perfumed nose, no wood, quite tannic) and three Barolo. Grapes from three vineyards, La volta, Fossati and Coste di Vergne go into Barolo Albe 2005. These are relatively young vines, 20-25 year olds, though the wine making is very traditional – maceration of the skins in the young wine for 30 days followed by three years in traditional large botti. The label reflects the youthfulness of the vines rather than the traditional winemaking and seems a very loud statement next to the traditional main label. You can see the density of the ‘legs’ in this glass – 14.5? of alcohol and lots of extract. This is a good Barolo – structured, perfumed, with spicy notes, beautiful.
The final two Barolo are from the respective houses of Vajra and Baudana. Barolo Bricco delle viole 2005, that vineyard again, is the flagship wine getting the full 40 days of maceration and 40 months in large traditional barrels. It is rich and delicate simultaneously, already beautifully knit together, with layers of fruit, spice, balsam and further spice on the nose. By contrast the Baudana offering, Barolo Serralunga d’Alba 2005 has a much more obvious use of oak ageing (balsam, cloves), quite velvety in the mouth but still tough and tannic, typical of the Serralunga area.
Having tasted the heights of Barolo we are definitely on the descent from the tasting mountain, but there are various points of interest as we return. First off is Kyè 2006 (a play on words on chi è, who’s this?), made from the local grape, Freisa. Vajra are one of ten producers of this wine, though there is still, not the more conventional light, sparkling red wine. Sabrina says its a wine for the autumn, perfumed and tannic (it must be something in Piemontese soil that produces this combination), good acidity, could last 10 years. Then there is a version of Pinot Noir, called PN Q497, 2006, though our bottle had been open a while and perhaps wasn’t a fair test (slightly odd caramelly notes). Of course there is also Moscato d’Asti, all 5.5? of it, but delicious none the less. And finally – thirteenth in line – our first taste of Barolo Chinato, a digestivo, which is Barolo infused with herbs and beefed up with added alcohol. This had lovely bitter notes, a complex cocktail of herbs and counterbalancing sweetness.
This comprehensive tasting was a fitting climax to our week. As we drove back to Alba we enjoyed for a final time the great views across the ridges of the Langhe, this time around La Morra bathed in spring sunshine.
Many thanks to Sabrina and all at Vajra. The wines are available in the UK via Liberty Wines, eg Caviste.
This winery is appropriately enough near ‘three stars’ (Trestelle), itself a sort of mid point between the three Barbaresco communes – Treiso, Neive and, of course, Barbaresco itself. But the three stars could also refer to the three daughters of the family or indeed to the excellent quality of the wine in relation to price.
The winery covers all the bases – four Barbaresco, one other Nebbiolo wine, a Dolcetto, two Barbera and then, somewhat surprisingly, three white wines. Paola, who showed us around, gives the simple explanation that this is because of her father’s love of white wine, in an area basically given over to reds. We are in the last gasp of the Moscato d’Asti zone so one of them is of course Moscato. The other two are different takes on Chardonnay.
wines. ‘Moscato Trefie’ is a reference to the three daughters. Paola and Valentina work here and Federika makes patisserie – for which of course the delicious, slightly sparkling wine, sweetish but with a herby tinge, is a perfect accompaniment. The two Chardonnays are unoaked (Luna d’agosto 2009, with a bit of native Cortese in it) and oaked, Sermine 2009, extremely good value at €5 and €8.50 respectively.
For the Barbaresco a range of oak is used. The simpler Langhe Nebbiolo is matured in the traditional large oak barrels, Barbaresco Marcarini and Asili see a divide between large barrel and barrique treatment, while Barbaresco Pora is raised in tonneaux – a sort of half-way house in terms of size. Is there a profound wine making reason for this? No, it’s because there isn’t much of it.
In many ways, Ca’ del Baio is a near perfect winery to follow for the wine lover. It’s got that real family feel, they seem relaxed about their success; there are no airs and graces, just a great range of wines at good prices. The Langhe Nebbiolo 2008, Bric del Baio, spends 12 months in large barrels, has a lovely perfumed nose and good fruit. Elegant every day drinking at €8 – if you live in Italy of course. Equally good and good value are the prize winning Barbaresco:
- Valgrande 2006, which gets the traditional treatment of two years in the large botti. Still very young and slightly rustic but full of fruit.
- Asili 2006: from a hillside which gets the sun all day, 10% matured in barriques for a little added richness, great nose of fragrant red fruit, a little bit of spice, typical high tannins and acidity which will carry it into a glorious maturity (here’s hoping for the rest of us). Tre bicchieri in the Gambero Rosso 2010. All this for €20 at the winery.
- Pora 2005: quite restrained on the nose, does not have the opulence of the 2006s but still good.
Thank you to Paola and Valentina for a great visit. Sadly the wine is not available in the UK. Thanks also for the recommendation for the fabulous La Ciau del tornamento, super sophisticated restaurant in Treiso with food and a view da morire! And I learn from the web site, a 30, 000 bottle cellar … fortunately we only had time for one excellent course and left refreshed and with wallets intact.
Having finished the posts from Vinitaly, we return to our week in the Langhe, home of the famous wines of Barbaresco and Barolo. The message at Bruno Rocca’s family winery in Barbaresco is clear. However much they are completing an impressive new winery under the current house, the heart of the matter is the land. It is only now after three decades that the new winery has become a priority, until then it was buying the best possible sites. Daughter and marketing manager Luisa explains: her father of course has to sit in the office at times but always with a sense of impatience, he would always rather be in the vineyard. Or, as the brochure says, ‘The wine which grows here is the mirror and soul of its land’ – to translate the Italian version very literally.
Thirty years ago the previous generation were selling wines in demijohns and now the new winery nears completion. Such is the speed of change when you get the basics right. And Bruno Rocca has been happy to learn from from others including a period in Burgundy. Not only is the Cote d’Or not that far away (give or take the odd range of Alps) but the similarities are very obvious: many, small family wineries; a smallish wine zone with seemingly infinite if miniscule variations of terroir; passion for the local and the particular; red wines of subtlety and elegance. The recent conference in Alba which focused on Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo was on to something. If they had added Sangiovese, some of us would have been in wine heaven!
Bruno Rocca has a full range of wines – no less than four Barbaresco, a red blend, two Barbera, a Dolcetto and – perhaps with a nod to Burgundy again – a Chardonnay. We chose to go the red route. It is always interesting to taste the Dolcetto because it tells you about wine making standards. All the attention in the Langhe is on the wines made from Nebbiolo and after that Barbera. The Dolcetto, made for drinking young, is a lovely purply red, with quite a dark cherry nose, quite complex, very drinkable indeed. It carries its vineyard name, Trifolé, truffle in the local dialect.
The second red, Langhe DOC Rabajolo, is a blend and contains – shock, horror – Cabernet Sauvignon! 50% of the Bordelaise foreigner, plus 25% each of Nebbiolo
and Barbera. Bruno Rocca himself appears just in time to explain that he thinks the Cabernet ripens well here and loses its greenness. Certainly, after the deep ruby red colour, the aroma is of ripe fruit, not typically mint and blackcurrant. The wine has spent 16 months in barriques in their first and second years of use. The Barbera makes a big contribution to this wine, which does have that characteristic Italian edge of bitterness.
The final wine has to be Barbaresco of course, in this case the cru Rabajà 2007 – this seems right given we have been driving up and down the Rabajà road to reach the various wineries. The 2007 had just been released and like all Nebbiolo is pale ruby red with a characteristic orange tinge, even in relative youth. It has spend 18 months in barriques and a further 12 at least in the bottle. The maturation in the future will be in the fine, traditional brick built cellar with its wonderful barrel roof. After some clove and spice notes, the fine red fruit is prominent, very rounded and already well integrated, but also some hazel nut and butteriness. Very refined, complex, a fitting climax to the visit.
But we must return to the land. Others can give a technical explanation of why it is so suited to fine red wine production. We can enjoy meeting the people, tasting the wines and being surrounded by a very beautiful landscape.
Many thanks to Bruno and Luisa Rocca. The wines are available in the UK via Liberty Wines.
As Janet and I had been in Piemonte but not got to the Gavi area, we made bee-line for the home of the Cortese grape at Vinitaly 2010. This massive wine fair allows you taste some of the real specialities (and peculiarities) of Italy and that includes some little known sparkling wines. Here the focus will be on two little known sparklers, from the Gavi (South East Piemonte) and Franciacorta (Lombardia) areas.
Generally, Gavi has a reputation a bit like Soave – rather a basic, mass produced white wine, popular in the past with Italian restaurants, with a few good exceptions which only wine buffs know about. La Scolca, or Soldati La Scolca to give it its full name, have always held out for quality and especially for the steep rise in interest which bottle ageing brings to good Gavi. The company has just celebrated 90 years so it clearly has done some things right.
All of La Scolca’s whites are made exclusively from the native Cortese grape. The entry level Gavi 2009 is a fresh, moderately fruity wine, well made without being very attention seeking. Gavi di Gavi 2009 must come from the commune of Gavi is not itself a big jump up in quality but is much more persistent in its flavour. By contrast the selection Gavi di Gavi D’Antan 2000 is a revelation. First of all it is made from the best grapes in good years only, secondly it has the benefits of a decade of ageing. It has a pronounced nose of pears and melon fruit, then a strong lime streak. In the mouth it is a quite a big, structured wine, with great persistence. The company has these older bottles to sell, in this case at €35. You can suddenly taste what all the fuss is about.
La Scolca have also made a speciality of sparkling versions of Gavi. The great majority of Italian sparklers are tank fermented which is a cheaper process and preserves the freshness of the fruit for wines for drinking young. By contrast La Scolca’s wines are all metodo classico, ie second fermentation in the bottle, like Champagne, and all are from individual vintages. The Metodo Classico 2006 has a honeyed nose with good fruit and fairly modest yeast notes. It has a noticeable bitter finish – highly prized in Italian food and wine but not to everyone’s taste. The Metodo Classico riserva 2002 is a pale straw colour with a green tint and has really benefitted from its seven years on the yeast in the bottle – a much more complex nose, lovely yeasty, patisserie notes followed by plenty of delicious fruit. Better again is the D’Antan riserva 1998, which has spent a full eleven years on the yeasts of the secondary fermentation in its bottle. The nose is yet more sophisticated and the wine is beautifully smooth in the mouth – a real treat.
Brief aside – all wine bottles are difficult to photograph successfully because of the light reflecting off the bottle. But this bulbous shape takes the biscuit. Every single one of my general ‘whole bottle’ shots has my reflection in it – just to prove I was there! Low angle next time.
This starts out as a pale salmon pink and ages to this rather lovely apricot. D’Antan rosato 1998 shows the influence of even this tiny addition of Pinot Noir with some more (now very rounded out) raspberry fruit, altogether a class act.
Just over one hundred miles North East, the other side of Milan is the Franciacorta area. I was cheered to read in Tom Hyland’s Vinitaly blog that one of the reasons he gives for going to this wine fair is Franciacorta. Where else can you try these quality sparklers, so prized in knowledgeable Italian circles, so unknown elsewhere? Basically the wine comes from a zone in Lombardy, near Brescia, is made from the same grapes as Champagne, by the same method, and costs much the same price. But the style is rather different, no doubt because of the geology plus the warmer weather. There is a market out there for a Champagne style wine but with richer, more mature fruit, but cracking it will be a huge challenge. In the meantime it is one to search out.
This time we tasted wines from just two growers, the first of whom makes just one wine. Santus is a new venture between two agronomists who pay tribute to their vine/wine consultant, Alessio Dorigo, who they charmingly describe as rigoroso spumantista! With their ‘precision bubble maker’ the two of them have done a great job in producing something really rather distinctive, in comparison with the fresh, subtle but fruity, sparkling wines, typical of the zone. A key difference is their practice of keeping the grapes on the vines for 10 days or so after full maturity. 10% of the wine has been aged in old barriques and all the wine is kept in its bottles on the lees for 21 months. This produces a wine strawy yellow in colour with a rich, extracted palate and a dry finish. A very promising debut and we look forward to the rosé which will appear in the future.
We then enjoyed the wines of Bredasole, a more typical Franciacorta company with five sparkling wines. These are classic Franciacorta – around two years in the bottles during the second fermentation producing nice yeasty flavours above ripe fruit (Brut 2007). By contrast the Satèn (2007) style is made from white grapes only (in this case 100% Chardonnay) and has slightly less pressure. It has a delicate nose, and lovely subtle fruit. The most ‘serious’ of the five, is Nature 2006, which is a blend of Chardonnay (50%), Pinot Nero (30%) and Pinot Blanc (20%), spends an impressive three years in bottles in the second fermentation stage and has no balancing sugar/alcohol added at the end. The yeast notes are beautiful and pronounced as is the excellent fruit. Two party pieces follow – a rosé and a medium dry version. The former – Rosé 2007 - is the palest apricot pink, the product of the freshly pressed grape juice being held with the Pinot Noir skins for just 2-3 hours. Nice raspberry fruit, entirely dry finish. By contrast Demì starts out life as a rather more acidic base wine but with higher dosage, so more sugar added to offset the acidity. In the mouth the sweetness-acidity balance is good, definitely sweet but not at all sickly. Would be excellent with patisserie. This is a really good range at decent prices – but sadly not available in the UK.
And finally, a part of the Piemontese wine scene that is massively undervalued, the lovely, quite sweet, sparkling Moscato. It’s a classic which gets little attention because it’s not ‘important’, ie at least one of expensive, fashionable, or in need of long ageing. But it is straightforwardly delicious, full of flavour (it actually tastes of grapes, how strange is that) and low in alcohol. Perfect for tea time (how English!), for picnics, for celebrations, for desserts.
There is a very assured feel about the entire operation at Albino Rocca in the village of Barbaresco itself. The vineyards have been build up to an impressive 23 hectares and the usual excellent job has been done in hiding the winery under the house. There is also the obligatory beautiful view of the hills of Barbaresco and the town of Neive.
Within the winery the equipment is very up-to-date and the longer term wines rest in beautiful large botti. Our guide was Monica Rocca who expertly showed us round and introduced a good sample of their twelve wines.
As we had tasted so few whites from south of the Tanaro river (ie in Barolo or Barbaresco), we started here with white. La Rocca Bianco, 2008, is made of Cortese grapes, the mainstay of the Gavi zone, further east in Piemonte. In colour it is an attractive mid straw yellow on it way toward gold and has a very good nose of vanilla and some quite tropical fruit. It is fermented and aged in French barriques, rather like white Burgundy, whose style it follows rather successfully. On the palate it is not quite knit together but it will be very good. It’s a rarity in that there is so much demand for the reds of Barbaresco, it takes determination to grow Cortese. They also have Chardonnay and Moscato.
The first of the important reds we taste is Gepin (dialect for Giuseppe), Barbera d’Alba 2007, made from 50 year old vines. It is aged for 14 months, half in botti grandi and half in barriques in their second and third year of use. The aim of preserving the fruit is well executed but this is much more sophisticated than most Barbera you taste – it has clearly been handled very, very well. (Compare at a similar quality level the much denser style of Bruno Giacosa.)
In this area, in the end, there is always Nebbiolo. The first of two, Nebbiolo d’Alba 2008 is made from the younger vines, though there is a range from 10 and 60 years. Maceration is limited to four days to produce easily approachable wines to be drunk young, with the smell of fruit to the fore. A rather less traditional label for this wine completes the picture.
The climax of the visit is the chance to taste one of the three Barbaresco cru which Albino Rocca produces, Vigneto Brich Ronchi 2007. (The others are smaller parcels, including one which is a riserva from this vineyard.) This was a very good year in Piemonte and it shows in this wine, which is aged for two years in wood, 80% in botti grandi and the rest in barrique. The 2007 already has a well developed and integrated nose, red fruit above all, lovely perfume typical of Nebbiolo, already very drinkable with soft tannins for the style and medium acidity. Sold with a suitably golden label which emphasises the gentle rolling hills and the vines of Barbaresco.
With thanks to Monica Rocca. The wines used to be imported in the UK by Justerini & Brooks but there is currently no UK stockist.