Stephen Brook MW has an enviable task – to pick some of his favourite newly released Nebbiolo from 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. Overall 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.
Fosco, Diano d’Alba, Salvano, 2009, 13.5%
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, 2007, 14.5%
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.
Sudisfà Roero Riserva, Angelo Nero, 2006, 14%
The warm-up act continues with this wine 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 winemaking 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, 2007, 14.5%
This Barbaresco demonstrates 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, 2006, 14%. This is made from fruit from old vines and then 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, 2006, 14.5%
The commune is La Morra), 80% of the wine 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, 2005, 14%
From Giorgio Scarzello in the commune of Barolo, this 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.
Broglio, Barolo Riserva, Cascina Schiavenza, 2004, 14.5%
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.
Vigna La Rosa, Barolo, Fontanafredda, 2006, 14%
Slightly oddly, back to the normale, from the Serralunga d’Alba commune, 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.
Vigna San Giuseppe, Bricco Boschis, Riserva, Cavallotto, 2004, 14.5%
And finally, a wine from 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 a half and the array of perfumed red fruit aged in oak was just wonderful. That’s what makes Nebbiolo a great grape variety.