When the weather cools, I find myself craving the great Piemontese red wines of Barolo and Barbaresco.
It's likely because Barolo, produced in the northern Italian region of Piedmont, is known for truffles generally, and white truffles are at their peak in Piedmont in October and November.
It might also have something to do with my visits to the region which usually happen during the middle of a snowstorm. Regardless, Barolo and Barbaresco just seem to taste best when the wind is crisp and you're cooking at home or eating at a restaurant where the menu has shifted to hearty, warming fare.
Barolo and Barbaresco are the product of a very special red-grape variety named Nebbiolo. The name Nebbiolo is derived from “nebbia,” the fog that blankets the Piedmont area in late October and helps moderate the ripening of this slowly maturing grape.
Unlike the so-called “international grapes” like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, which are grown worldwide, Nebbiolo seems most content in its northern Italian home of Piedmont and neighboring Lombardy. While a handful of California winegrowers have successfully experimented with the grape, Nebbiolo's fickle temperament has relegated it to Piedmont's long ripening season and limestone soils.
If Nebbiolo is beginning to sound as finicky to you as Pinot Noir, that other famously fussy red grape variety, it is, and the comparisons don't stop there.
Like Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo is pale in color and highly expressive of the soil where it's grown. Single-vineyard bottlings of Barolo and Barbaresco abound, and both Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir require a deft hand in the cellar. It is also highly aromatic and classically described as smelling of “tar and roses.” I agree that it smells of roses, because Nebbiolo almost always shows something akin to potpourri, but the smell of tar is a stretch. In great examples of Nebbiolo, I often find a plethora of complex aromas such as violets, red cherries, prunes, chocolate, truffle and even incense and yellow curry after time in the bottle.
Where Nebbiolo and Pinot Noir differ greatly is in tannin levels. While Pinot Noir aficionados extol that grape's svelte and silky profile, Nebbiolo forcefully asserts itself with mouth-gripping tannins. Tannins are the bitter and astringent compounds that all red wines possess in varying degrees. The bitterness of oversteeped tea is a good example of high tannin levels. In an effort to tame these tannins in wines, Barolo and Barbaresco were traditionally aged in large Slavonian oak barrels for extended periods before being put into bottle. Once in the bottle and in your home, you must cellar Barolo and Barbaresco for several years to give the tannins time to soften. While modern winemaking techniques have shortened barrel aging times (Barolo still requires a minimum of 18 months in wood), Barolo and Barbaresco benefit greatly from five to 15 years in your cellar.
Less expensive and early drinking examples of Nebbiolo can be found in some of Piedmont's outlying areas such as Gattinara (in Piedmont), and Valtellina (in Lombardy). Perhaps the best value of all is Roero, where the sandy soils give a more forward and accessible version of the grape.
Nebbiolo's classic partner is hearty winter fare such as braised meat dishes, roasted game birds and pastas stuffed with veal. Nebbiolo's tannins will complement any rich protein such as prime rib or venison and is superb with umami-rich dishes like mushroom risotto.
A few Nebbiolos to try in Omaha:
2009 Fratelli Povero Roero Rosso
From Piedmont's Roero zone where sandier soils yield a more forward (and more affordable) Nebbiolo. Fratelli Povero is a family winery specializing in classically styled Piemontese wines. This wine still shows the firm, tannic structure of Nebbiolo but with a sweet core of fruit and richness on the palate.
Available at Corkscrew Wine & Cheese, $29/bottle
2003 Luciano Sandrone Barolo Le Vigne
One of the very best producers in the so-called “modern” style and one of my very favorite Barolo producers period. The wines are aged in 500 liter casks and only taste of ripe and pure Nebbiolo fruit. Powerful, rich and complete.
Available at Omaha Wine Co., $130/bottle
2007 Giovanni Rosso Barolo La Serra
Davide Rosso is my favorite producer of Barolo. La Serra is an excellent single vineyard located in Serralunga d'Alba, arguably the top performing village within Barolo. Here wines are aged in the classic botti, large Slavonian oak casks ranging in size between 10hl (1000 litres) to 150hl (15,000 litres). Elegant and precise with seductive aromatics and texture.
Available at The Winery, $110/bottle