Oeno-File, the Wine & Gastronomy Column

by Frank Ward

Piedmont, Italy – Region of mists and mellow fruitfullness (I)

PART I

July 2011. The roar of the traffic gives way to birdsong as we quit the autostrada and find ourselves doing a gentle rollercoaster through the green hills and valleys of Piedmont. I give silent thanks to the people here, for knowing exactly where to place a building on a hillside in a way that enhances both peak and edifice. And the buildings are beautiful in their own right.

To celebrate our airrival, we stop for lunch at Tre Stelle, a small but elegant bistro a few kilometres from Barbaresco. The owner, emissary for his wife in the kitchen, brings us a series of delicious dishes, including an exquisite linguine creation so light it almost floats. He also recommends a half bottle each of a Piedmont red and white that, while unpretentious, work as first-rate palate-tuners for the tastings ahead.

Andrea Sottimano runs a 14-hectare estate with Barbaresco as its main speciality.: They mature their wines in French oak, the sole source of which is the famous Burgundy firm of François Frères (their dialogue with this cooper is so close that M. François has paid them a personal visit). Only natural yeasts are used, and the vatting time is around 20-25 days, depending on the character of the vintage. They don’t rack, and use minimal amounts of sulphur. “It’s wrong if anybody recognizes the wines as yours, tasting blind. It’s the grape they ought to recognize!” says the diffident Sr Sottimano. We can assume from this that he opposes “cult of the personality” winemaking, preferring nature and the soil to speak loudest.

The main grape of Piedmont is the noble Nebbiolo, followed a few paces behind (like a kind of varietal consort) by the Barbera. A third grape, the Dolcetto, is in an entirely different mode: sweet and freshly fruity, it allows the region’s growers to offer a fast-developing wine that can be enjoyed almost immediately after the harvest. By contrast, the Nebbiolo and Barbera wines are markedly harsh when young, and take years to soften.

2010 DOLCETTO D’ALBA BRIC DEL SALTO *

Vivid and sappy, this smells of red fruits, redcurrant to the fore, quickly broadening to include wild cherry. A light, smooth wine to enjoy in gulps over the next year or two.

2009 BARBERA D’ALBA PAIROLERO (40-year vines on limestone) **

Altogether different, this is darker and richer, with a broad, weighty aroma of fig and damson jam. There’s a ferruginous quality too. A big, emphatic wine, all of a piece, but still closed up. Taste again in a few years’ time.

2009 LANGHE NEBBIOLO **

A hint paler than the Barbera, this has a vital, elegant nose, quite “bricky”, of wild cherry and carnation. The high-acid flavour is full of energy but not particularly complex. Only medium long on the finish. A medium-term wine.

2008 BARBARESCO FAUSINO (vines at 200 metres altitude) *

This colour, too, is not especially intense but the nose of carnation, plum, and red rose shows a promising tautness. The flavour is Iively, turning towards strawberry compote and prune, and is a bit short. The tannins dry the palate. To drink around 2013-18.

2008 BARBARESCO PAJORE (Iimestone plot at 400 metres, 14.5° alc.) **(*)

A Iimpid wine with an expansive, very Piedmont aroma, both taut and assertive, of damson, chocolate, prune, and raspberry. This is easily the most complex wine so far, with its savage, clean-cut flavour of damson and sloe. The fine, vigorous acidity is the best~ integrated so far, bringing the damson-Iaden aftertaste into focus. Needs a decade at least.

2008 BARBARESCO COTTA (vines at 250 metres) **(*)

I’d guess this to be from old vines, because of its subtly nuanced purple colour. A slight browning can be noted. Very vital – clearly a Sottimano trait – it has a fresh, assertive smell of red rose, strawberry compote, and carnation. These are pent-up aromas, giving the most complex wine so far: it will be extremely perfumed when mature. There’s terrific tension on the palate, packed with wild cherry fruit, and currents of flavour swirl in different directions. Still in infancy.

2004 BARBARESCO COTTA ***

This has the blackish-purple colour of ripe plum. The impressive aroma shows several facets: plum jam, iron, orange peel, and raspberry. There’s a marvellous intensity of fruit in the mouth, and the primary flavours give way to chocolate, almond, and truffle. Still tannic, mouth-drying, it needs a decade or so to open fully.

“Very good with hare”, says Sr Sottimano with an inward look of someone recalling sybaritic pleasures.

Hoping for sybaritic pleasures ourselves, we set off for the local one-star restaurant Locanda nel Borgo Antico, just outside Barolo. It’s a smart place, with vast, tilted windows overlooking the vine-furrowed hills of Barolo. The head waiter insisted we take a glass of a white wine opened by them that morning as a sample. It proved to be slightly corked but we said nothing and, assuming it to be an offering from one professional to another, pushed it aside. When the bill arrived, much later, that item appeared as “2 aperitifs, 24 Euros”.

The best part of the meal was the two appetisers: a small fish fried whole in batter, and tiny quenelles in Gorgonzola-flavoured sauce. Thereafter it was downhill all the way: dry slabs of veal, pellets of dried cod utterly without flavour, and quail so insipid you might just as well have chewed a rubber band. The bird was garnished with tinned tuna. An expensive red recommended by the selfsame head waiter, 2000 Barolo Rocche Dei Manzoni “BIG d’Big”, had loads of character but was so aggressively tannic as to barely drinkable. It may well be excellent in 10 years’ time; but sommeliers should see to it that guests drink wines that are delicious now.

We were received at the Elio Altare estate by the daughter, Silvia, who proved to be an exceptionally helpful and welcoming person. One of her first acts was to call another Barolo producer, whom she described as “outstanding”, and persuade him to receive us, contrary to his normal practice, the next morning, a Saturday. She then launched into an account of the recent history of Barolo, telling us that her father Elio had helped to drag the region into the 20th century, making fellow growers aware of the wider world of wine. He’d been at serious loggerheads with his own stick-in-the-mud-father, who’d actually disinherited him. They’d even resorted to fisticuffs, we learned, all agog. “Today, we have 11 hectares. It’s just me and my dad and three employees. One of them’s Japanese” (we meet him later, grinning from a tractor) “and our cellarmaster’s 75 years’ old. We produce about 60,000 bottles a year and make three different Barolos : a Village, and two Grands Crus.”

“My dad pioneered the use of barrels in Barolo. He loves Burgundy and went there years ago, making friends with René Engel at Domaine Engel. Dad started up in the 1970s, doing his first bottling in 1974. We do a very short vatting – only 48 hours for the Dolcetto, three days for the Barbera, and five days for the Barolo. We ferment at a high temperature, 32-33° C, and do a very soft pressing.”

l’m surprised that the vatting time is so short, especially when I see what good colour and fruit they obtain. All the same, I conclude at the end of the tasting that the wines might have been still more complex, and even more expressive of the terroir, had the vatting been longer and at a lower temperature…

On the way to the tasting we pass a collection of bottles that testifies to the strong French influence here: rare wines from the Iikes of Trapet and Mugnier in Burgundy, of Clos Rougeard in the Loire.

2009 DOLCETTO D’ALBA

The colour has medium intensity, the Iively aroma suggesting raspberry and elderberry. Not a lot of depth and substance, and just a bit raw, but should drink reasonably well during 2012.

2009 BARBERA D’ASTI *

A total contrast: the colour is a deep black-purple, the nose is soft and conjures up cherry, blackcurrant, and carnation. Elderberry surges forward on the palate and the finish is on the gritty side. For mid-term drinking.

2007 LANGHE LA VILLA *(*) (60% Barbera, 40% Nebbiolo, 18 months in new oak)

A blackish wine exhaling black cherry, elderberry, and Iiquorice. The aroma, quite gamy, is in the ascendant: the flavour is surprisingly Iight at present, but will doubtless fill out. I find charcoal on the gritty finish. Hard to judge, as very closed, but with the stuffing to improve for several years.

2007 BAROLO **

The aroma of cherry jam and strawberry compote is round, expansive and fresh. It’s fresh in the mouth, too, and the assertive, bitter aftertaste shows a promising tautness. A jolt of intense fruity acidity gives added tension to the firm finish. Best around 2016-22 – and possibly beyond.

2006 BAROLO **

Roundness and vitality characterise the nose, with wafts of red cherry, strawberry, carnation, and clove. Redcurrant creeps into the flavour, which is full of energy but only medium long at present. I detect crushed stone on the finish. The kind of wine that will grow rounder and fuller as it ages. Best around 2016-24.

2005 BAROLO **

Cherry and cherry-stone dominate on the nose, and there are fugitive hints of ginger and almond. The flavour is smooth and vibrantly fruity, the aftertaste sustained. Plenty of red fruit notes. A bouncy wine to enjoy over the coming 7-8 years (’05 seems to be a precocious vintage hereabouts).

2005 BAROLO “CERETTA” (single vineyard) **(*)

This Iimpid wine has a perfumed scent of red fruits with a faint echo of Campari. The flavour is dynamic, long, and intense. A wine of good body and real vigour, to savour over the next decade or so.

2004 BAROLO ***

At seven years, this has an extra dimension, showing that Nebbiolo wines need even more time than Cabernets. The richly perfumed aroma suggests cherry, raspberry, and carnation, with an almost burgundian intensity and finesse. The flavour has as many facets as cut-glass, with suggestions of cinnamon and clove on the finish, where they fuse. There’s a ferruginous hint too. To enjoy around 2015-24.

Up to this point I find it hard to get a handle on these wines. It’s the last one that brings the revelation. The style of this partly mature Barolo is very Italian, with a hint of the stirring, declamatory quality of grand opera – though without theatricality. You feel that had Verdi been a winemaker he might well have made wines in this mode: vibrant, dramatic, showing both power and subtlety. Barolo needs time.

Before we leave Silvia, alluding to her introduction of us to another Barolo producer, says: “This spirit of sharing didn’t exist in the past. It was always, “I’m the best!” She mimes somebody beating their breast in a boastful way. If Silvia is typical of Barolo’s new generation, then the region is in good hands.

© Frank Ward 2011

>> Continued : Piedmont, Italy – Region of mists and mellow fruitfullness (II)

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