(Editor's note -- this article is intended for those with little/no knowledge of the Piedmont's big reds)
Brrr. This morning I took the pooch out to pee and noticed frost on the ground. It seems winter is trying to infringe on autumn - my favorite time of year. Why do I adore fall? For some primitive reason, when the weather cools and leaves begin to yellow, I crave roasted foods. With apologies to my vegetarian friends, I heartily crave slow roasted meat. In addition to roasted culinary delights, autumn unleashes my passion for brooding, gnarly red wine. As I happily strut around in my favorite fall sweater, I scoff at the silly little reds in my wine cabinet. I want red wine with structure and attitude. Thankfully northwestern Italians share my passion for red wine in autumn. This region of Italy is called the Piedmont and its bold red wines are killer (in the colloquial sense). And it just so happens that they all begin with the letter, “B”: Barbera, Barbaresco, and Barolo.
Italy’s Piedmont is famous for truffles, vermouth, grissini (skinny breadsticks), and extravagant multiple course meals eaten at a leisurely pace. The Piedmont’s wines are an integral part of food and family. Hours are spent eating, conversing, and imbibing. We hectic Americans may have some difficulty connecting with the biggest of Italy’s B’s, Barolo. Barolo is known as the “king of wine” and the “wine of kings.” Not only is it considered to be one of the world’s biggest wines, but it is also widely regarded as one of the best. Like the Piedmont’s slow food ethos, Barolo is a slow wine. It requires patience, which is something most American diners are not known for. Traditionally, many Barolo producers aged their wine for ten, or even twenty years before releasing it for sale. Nebbiolo, the grape used to make Barolo, demands this sort of ageing. Nebbiolo is a harsh, tannic grape that only mellows after a long while in a Barolo bottle. A glass of Barolo can be an otherworldly experience – scents of tar, violet, rose, truffle, and strawberry are followed by a very full-bodied dry wine with bracing tannins. This wine is at its best when paired to a hearty, flavorful meal. Try it with rack of lamb, beef stew, or pasta with meat sauce. The downtown wine shop offers a surprisingly robust Barolo selection. Keep in mind Barolo isn’t cheap, and it won’t hurt to let the wine evolve for ten or more years from the vintage date. Introduce yourself to Barolo with Damilano Barolo ‘Liste’ 2000 ($65). If you want to have a go at becoming Piedmontese, save your pennies and try Giacosa Barolo ‘Falleto’ 1998 ($134). Just remember to go slow – decant the wine, allow it to open up, and sip at a snail’s pace.
Barbaresco can be considered Barolo’s more graceful sibling. Like Barolo, Barbaresco is made from the gnarly Nebbiolo grape. However, the Barbaresco vineyards are a bit ‘up the road’ from Barolo’s vines. These grapes mature earlier and produce wine that tends to be lighter and fruitier. The advantage to Barbaresco is that it’s often more approachable at a young age. In addition to classic Nebbiolo scents of tar and roses, Barbaresco can offer up aromas of cherry, spice, and licorice. A sip of Barbaresco reveals its lighter weight and more relaxed tannins. Still, this is a wine that is at its best with a little bit of age (5-10 years) and a complimentary meal. Try Prunotto Barbaresco 2001 ($43) with roast beef or aged cheese.
The final Piedmont ‘B’ is Barbera. Barbera is the name of the grape used to produce Barbera d’Asti and Barbera d’Alba. Both wines are named after their respective hometowns (Asti and Alba). Barbera is almost the exact opposite of Nebbiolo. It produces light, crisp wine with low tannin content. Most Barbera-based wines are intended to be drunk young. When sniffing a glass of Barbera, I’m often reminded of tart red cherries, dried herbs, and the occasional red currant. This wine’s acidity is immediately noticeable after a single sip. It’s mouthwatering and incredibly food flexible. So if you’re autumn is rather rushed, I suggest trying one or both of these Barbera-based vinos: Boroli ‘Bricco dei Fagiani’ Barbera d’Alba 2001 ($30) or Michele Chiarlo ‘Le Orme’ Barbera d’Asti 2003 ($14). Either wine will be great with roast chicken, roast veggies, or a humble baked potato. Cheers.