Winefriend by David Way

Writing about the wines of Piemonte, Italy and France

Artisan wines of Piemonte

The still wines of Piemonte region have something of a double reputation.  On the one hand, bottles of Barolo and Barbaresco are among Italy’s greatest and most sought after wines.  Some of them have a price tag to match.  Then, on the other hand, there are inexpensive reds from less prestigious areas, made from higher-yielding varieties, and, let’s be honest, often rather dull Gavi.  It tells us how far wine culture has come in the UK when we remember that Gavi used to be a staple of the UK restaurant trade, a beacon of sophistication in a country without wine! 

Nowadays, with the wines of the world to chose from, more discerning UK customers will be looking for distinctive wines that reflect their origins and reasonable value for money.  On the first point, Piemonte can be a star. It has a clutch of varieties of real distinction, some famous, some not, with particular climate and soil types.  On value for money, it is more of a struggle.  The Wine Society has the remarkably characterful Nebbiolo/Dolcetto blend, Bricco Rosso Suagnà, at £6.75 a bottle – but it is the exception which breaks the rule.  Otherwise, the best buys are from cooperatives such as Araldica, but you have to pick and choose for wines of some real interest. 

Into this field now comes the brainchild of Noel and Tricia Desnos who source wines in the region from small, hitherto unimported, wineries at very good prices. Andover Wine Friends’ tasting of April 2013 put these wines to the ‘distinctiveness’ and value for money test.    Let’s start with the two stars of the evening.  

Minola Barbera

Barbera is a very versatile grape variety which has at least three main styles – inexpensive jug wine, sometimes fizzy, which can be good or very ordinary; quality fruit-led varietal wine; and quality varietal wine which has been oaked.  The first is not available in the UK, the second I comment on below, and third was well represented by Minola, Barbera del Monferrato, Azienda Agricola Nuova Cappelletta, 2008.  This wine comes from the area most associated with Barbera and one where it – and not Nebbiolo – gets the best vineyard sites. The grower states that this wine always makes 15%, whatever the year, and that it has the highest recorded level of colour components in tests in the local lab – clearly something to brag about in the bar!  It comes from certified biodynamically farmed grapes with a substantial two weeks of maceration time, which produces all those anthocyanins.  It is then aged for a year in barriques and bottled with a low level of sulphur dioxide.  It showed dense black plum colour and a really good balance between plummy fruit and the smoke and leather notes derived from its time in barrels. The fruit covers the alcohol all too convincingly and is offset by Barbera’s trademark acidity. The tannins are quite chunky but this would be excellent with food. The wine certainly more than passes the distinctiveness test and is remarkable value at just over £12. 

The evening’s other prima donna was competing in a rather stiffer context: Barolo.  Here we are not looking just for competence and some complexity but for real vinous excitement.  Barolo, SA.PE.RI 2004 certainly provided that. If you wanted a textbook example of what fine, structured, ageable, Nebbiolo is about – at a reasonable price – you need to look no further.  A true pale-brick colour, as you lift the glass to your nose you are met with a waft of complex fragrance – red fruit, smoke, floral notes, a hint of something earthy.  In the mouth, this has the volume and structure which would make it work well with big meat dishes, with ripe red fruit and tar, and then the tannic wall which characterises this variety. The fruit, high acidity and tannins should mean it will develop well over the next ten years.  Highly drinkable now with rich food, good value at £20. 

At this point I will sneak in one more star wine: mildly fizzy, a nose and palate of rose blossom, orange citrus notes and grapiness, attractive sweetness in the mouth, it can only be the minor classic that is Moscato d’Asti, again from SA.PE.RI.  Just 5.5% of alcohol and £9.50 a bottle.  Partially fermented grape must of high quality, the sweetness comes not from later additions of sugar but from the original grapes themselves.

Other wines tasted

The reds Basaricó, Sauvignon, Langhe DOC, Adriano Vini, 2010 – very pleasant peach and herbal notes on the nose joined by some well-tamed green fruit on the mouth-filling palate with a bit of welcome steeliness. Very commendable if an unusual variety to find in the Langhe. 

Cortese, Piemonte DOC, Nuova Capelletta, 2010 – made with the Gavi grape, this is sold as unsulfited wine and sadly it showed.   Some burnt toffee and celery notes on the nose, then an oxidised palate. It didn’t have the fruit or the intensity to carry off the oxidation. Maybe a faulty bottle, maybe just too old, maybe inadequately protected.  PS we tried another bottle of this a couple of weeks later and it was much better – rich, peachy nose and palate, some attractive citrus rind, medium plus length, the slightest oxidative touch which was an enhancement, not a distraction.

Roero Arneis, Antica Cascina dei Conti di Roero, 2010 – made from the currently and rightly, fashionable white grape of Piemonte, Arneis, I was anxious about this as Arneis has to be really good if it is not really young.  But it carried its few years lightly.  Not a huge nose but then floral, quite exotic fruit and commendable continuing freshness. 

Barbera d’Alba, Antica Cascina dei Conti di Roero, 2008 – our example of quality unoaked Barbera if at a modest price level (£9.65) grown in the sandy soils of the Roero.  This wine real split opinion.  I and some others liked the dry, sharp cherry palate with decent persistence, a good light summer red, others did not. 

Nebbiolo d’Alba DOC, Antica Cascina dei Conti di Roero, 2008 – often sold as a ‘junior Barolo’ this is really not the case as it does not have the complexity. But this example did have attractive smoky red-berried fruit, freshness and a taut palate.  Good value at £9.65. 

Basarin, Barbaresco DOCG Riserva, Adriano Vini, 2005 – classic Nebbiolo perfume on the nose, bright strawberry fruit, high chewy, somewhat unresolved tannins, medium-plus persistence, very good value at under £15. 

Ravera, Barolo DOCG, Azienda Agricola Cagliero 2005 – a rather more traditional style Barolo than the SA.PE.RI above with clove and red and a hint of black fruit on nose and palate, those dense chewy tannins again, very good but still needs time to soften and develop more complexity. But again a steal at £21.50.

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