Archive for the ‘Barbaresco’ Category

Diane and I took a purely gastronomic vacation in Piedmont. I promised there would be no wine business – well, almost no wine business – just low-pressure touring and high-caliber dining and drinking – simply enjoying what we both enjoy most. Piedmont provided that in abundance.

Abundance is the key term – in Piedmont it is also true, as my friend Gene Bourg once observed of New Orleans, that there is no such thing as an appetizer. Or, as the great Renato Ratti warned me decades ago: The Piemontesi will let you dig your grave with your mouth. If you’re dining in Piedmont, wear loose pants.

Anyone planning a gastronomic or enologic trip to Italy, however, could do much worse than to use the little city of Alba as home base. The heart of both the Barolo and Barbaresco zones and the center of an astounding truffle zone, Alba offers some of the finest dining and drinking to be found anywhere. It was the first stop for us of a trip that would go on to include Torino, a sophisticated city that deserves much more attention than its reputation as a mini-Paris indicates, and would wind up in the alta Piemonte, the sub-Alpine zone of vineyards near lakes Orta and Maggiore. Like Torino, this area and its Nebbiolo-based wines – Carema, Boca, Gattinara, Ghemme, Spanna – deserve to be much better known.

We began our trip with high hopes of savoring the great white truffles for which Alba is famous. The Truffle Fair was on, and on the Sunday afternoon we arrived there the narrow shopping thoroughfare, Via Vittorio Emmanuele, was redolent with the scent of the tubers on sale at stand after stand.

Very promising indeed, until we saw the prices, which probably induced several coronary events in casual fairgoers. It turned out that this was not a good year for truffles: Summer and fall had been dry until quite recently – fine for grapes, but terrible for truffles, which were scarce (the abundance on display completely fooled me on that score), of not great quality (this we proved when we tried some at our first dinner), and expensive (also proved the same way). For more about the truffles, see Diane’s blog.

Despite that disappointment, the fearless gastronomes dined very well from start to finish of their trip. I offer purely as examples (I don’t intend to make you read about every mouthful we ate) our splendid dinners at Locanda del Pilone, a short drive outside Alba, and Antinè, in the town of Barbaresco.

The dining room at del Pilone

Normally I avoid Michelin-starred restaurants in Italy, because the higher Michelin rates a restaurant the less Italian it is, and I go to Italy for Italian food, not the mongrelized international cuisine that I can eat any unlucky day in New York. Alba provided these two exceptions to my rule, both one-star establishments, both excellent, both deeply Italian, and as different from each other as can be imagined.

Del Pilone provided almost classic French-style service, crisp and efficient, for a deeply regional meal that included carne cruda and finanziera. At Antinè the service was just as efficient but simpler, the ambience less formal, but the food just as fine and just as regional – agnolotti del plin, snails, and rabbit. The wines at both were superb – and by New York standards, practically giveaways: 2005 Cascina delle Rose Barbaresco Sordo (€45) and 1997 Produttori di Barbaresco Riserva Ovello (€60). Both wines interacted in incredible harmony with the foods.

The quality of those wines and the moderation of their prices – this in the restaurant, remember, not at retail; back home in the US those would be remarkably good retail prices – set the standard for the rest of our trip. Everywhere we went I was impressed by the scope of the wine lists and the gentleness of their pricing. There were plenty of options of wines from outside Piedmont, and even some (mostly French) from outside Italy, but Barolo, Barbaresco and their friends were among the main reasons we made this journey in the first place.

Most days we took a light lunch at a wine bar or a cafe: a glass or two of Barbera or Dolcetto and some bar snacks or a panino. We tried to save our calories and our capacities for our dinners, which were always worth it. In addition to the two I mentioned above, here are the rest of the wines we drank that week (the most expensive of them was €88, the least expensive €40):

2009 Prunotto Arneis: a fine example of one of Piemonte’s few white varieties, and a perfect accompaniment – medium-bodied, distinctive but not aggressive – for our solitary fish dinner.

2009 Castello di Verduno Pelaverga: a lovely light red from an almost-disappeared local variety, Pelaverga made an ideal lunch wine and our only mealtime deviation from Nebbiolo.

2006 Ferrando Carema Etichetta Nera: In Torino we enjoyed this fine Carema, a Nebbiolo-based wine from near the border with Val d’Aosta – a high-altitude, almost Alpine red of great refinement.

2004 Borgogno Barolo Riserva: This stalwart from an old, traditional house (sadly, it has recently changed hands, and no one knows what this portends for the wines) needed more time to breathe, even after careful decanting. Despite its youth, it loved my tortino of funghi porcini and truffle and partnered beautifully with other traditional dishes.

1996 Rocche dei Manzoni Barolo Vigna d’la Roul: a big, velvety wine that impressed us mightily with the elegant way it interacted with the regional dishes. Everything we drank did so to some extent, but this bottle was particularly lovely.

1994 Marchesi di Gresy Barbaresco Martinenga: our oldest wine rescued a rain-drenched day in Torino and accompanied a huge and splendid bollito misto. By the time we finished the bottle and what we could manage of the meats, we were in (metaphorical) sunshine: a big wine, but perfectly supple, fully ready to drink but not showing the least sign of age.

Next post: Our single wine visit, where we tasted Gattinaras and Spannas spanning eight decades.

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While there has been a lot of flap about the 2007 Barolo, which will be arriving here this Fall, I’ve heard very little said about the 2008 Barbaresco, which is also standing in the wings. That’s a real shame, because the ’08 Barbaresco is by and large a lovely vintage, with a lot of very successful wines, many of them more pleasing than the 2007 Barolos.

The landmark tower of Barbaresco

Both wines are vinified entirely from Nebbiolo, in zones that mirror each other around the town of Alba. But Barbaresco is almost always overshadowed by Barolo, which is the larger zone, produces a lot more wine, and got to be famous sooner. Consumers should note, however, that compared to its sibling Barolo, Barbaresco is often significantly underpriced – especially the wines from smaller, less well-known producers, and those from the world’s finest co-op, Produttori di Barbaresco.

Angelo Gaja and Tom, tasting back in their pioneer days

I suspect that what renown Barbaresco has achieved here in the US owes a great deal to the pioneering efforts of Angelo Gaja, who was an early apostle for the appellation (which he has now largely abandoned: One of his bottlings is still a Barbaresco; the others are all Langhe IGT, because of a small admixture of Barbera into their predominant Nebbiolo). Since those early days, many other producers have broken through to comparable levels of quality, however, and Barbaresco now represents, pretty much across the board, very high quality at a usually very reasonable price. Of which, not coincidentally, the 2008 vintage furnishes ample proof.

Back in May, at the Nebbiolo Prima event in Alba, I tasted more than 70 examples of Barbaresco ’08. With the exception of many wines from the commune of Neive, which tasted over-oaked, I found a lot to like. The wines are nicely structured, with classic Nebbiolo character: good dark fruit, generous but soft tannins, enlivening acidity, and an earthy, mineral understrapping that promises nice bottle development and longevity.

Some of the Barbarescos lined up for last May's Nebbiolo Prima

The 2008 growing season was more than slightly difficult, though its timing – bud break, flowering, coloring, and ripeness – fell into a pretty normal pattern. A chilly damp spring and a very wet summer caused problems of mold and oidium. Those resulted in a reduction of the size of the crop but had little effect on quality. Because of the damp and the chill, white grapes and early-ripening reds didn’t fare well in ’08, but the late ripening Nebbiolo enjoyed all the benefits of an unbroken, two-month-long spell of dry, sunny weather that began mid-August and ran right through harvest in October – a winemaker’s dream weather.

For Barbaresco, this means a vintage that the Consorzio has described with unusual-for-it modesty as “excellent” and “top-quality.” Maybe the Piemontesi are running out of exclamatory superlatives after the long string of fine harvests they’ve been blessed with. (If only the Bordelais would follow suit!) If there is anything to like about global warming, it has to be the kind of harvests with which it has been gifting the Barolo and Barbaresco zones (as well as their transalpine mirror, Burgundy).

The town of Barbaresco and two of its most important crus, Montefico and Montestefano. Detail from Alessandro Masnaghetti's "Barbaresco: The Official Crus"

Here are the wines that impressed me most back in May. Remember, these wines are very young and are still very much in evolution: I’ve chosen to spotlight the bottles that I think will change in ever more pleasing ways, but I could be wrong. Remember too that there are many more fine wines in the 2008 vintage than I have room to mention here: many of them showed good fruit and a great balance of soft tannins and lively acidity. Of the Barbaresco appellation’s three townships, the wines of Barbaresco itself showed that balance prominently, those of Treiso showed very young and fine, though in some cases needing time to integrate, while for me most of the Neive wines – even those from producers I normally admire – were oaky monsters.

Albino Rocca Barbaresco: lovely black cherry and tobacco scents and flavors, deep and smooth.

Albino Rocca Barbaresco Ronchi: not the most famous cru in Barbaresco, but this edition of it is near the top of the charts, with its sweet fruit, minerality, and chocolate/cherry/leather flavors and finish.

Ca’ del Baio Barbaresco Valgrande: from Treiso, and smelling and tasting of berries, mushrooms, mineral, tobacco, and tar – pretty much the whole Piedmont package.

La Ca’ Nova Barbaresco Montestefano: a big wine from the famed cru in Barbaresco commune; black cherry and tar throughout.

Castello di Verduno Barbaresco Rabajà: another important Barbaresco township cru (maybe the most important), and a wine in every way worthy of it.

Ceretto Barbaresco Brico Asili Bernadot: a lovely Treiso wine, at the moment lightly masked by new wood flavors, but very well put together under that.

Cortese Giuseppe Barbaresco Rabajà: black cherry and toast aromas lead, followed by big flavors of black cherry and earth – very Rabajà.


Marchesi di Gresy Barbaresco Martinenga: another important cru in Barbaresco township, showing a little toasted oak (it is slight enough to absorb with time) over completely classic flavors and structure.

Molino Barbaresco Ausario: from Treiso; berries and mushrooms from start to finish.


Nada Giuseppe Barbaresco Casot: a Neive wine with the oak under control; nice balance, a touch of elegance.

Orlando Abrigo Barbaresco Rocche Meruzzano: not a cru I’m familiar with (Treiso township), but a rich and satisfying wine marked by berry, herb, and mineral flavors throughout.

Pertinace Barbaresco Marcarini: an important Treiso cru, showing a light veil of oak vanilla over very good Nebbiolo character. Needs a little time.

Vigin Barbaresco Noemy: another Treiso cru that I don’t really know, and another big wine – dark fruit, soft tannins, good dark finish.


NB: Alessandro Masnaghetti’s maps are available at info@enogea.it.

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Alessandro Masnaghetti, publisher of the newsletter Enogea and probably the foremost authority on Piedmont terroir, has released two new maps of Barolo and Barbaresco, showing all the recently approved cru names and sites in each appellation.

Like Masnaghetti’s other Piedmont maps, these two are handsome to look at, easy to read, and packed front and back with the kind of information a Nebbiolo lover otherwise finds difficult to locate – not just the physical where-is-it of a particular cru, but elevation, exposure, who owns it, and who bottles it. It is exactly that identification and location of each individual cru within both the Barolo and Barbaresco DOCG appellations, along with the information about who bottles a wine from it and under what name, that distinguishes these two new maps from Masnaghetti’s earlier maps.

Each of those charted the vineyards of an individual township, provided information about  their altitude and exposure, and listed all the grape varieties  cultivated in those fields (not just the Nebbiolo). Nor did any cru names appear, as they then had no legal standing, or, for that matter, any agreed-upon boundaries – all of which has been resolved in the now-officially-named sites. Used together, the new cru maps and the earlier township maps answer almost any question the most trivia-obsessed Nebbiolo junkie could come up with. In short, the man I think of as the Mercator of the vineyards has raised the bar even higher for vineyard maps, outdoing even his own previous accomplishments.

I’m not the only one who thinks that these maps will one day be (if they aren’t already) collectors’ items, and not just for wine lovers (see Alfonso Cevola’s acute appreciation).

The maps and the information on them are systematically rendered in both Italian and English, so everything on them is easily accessible. In addition these two new maps are also available in digital format, making them usable on all sorts of handheld devices, and enabling such users to zoom in or out on whatever features interest them. I don’t know if Masnaghetti plans to issue his earlier maps digitally, but everything is available through almasnag@tin.it or info@enogea.it or, in the US, www.rarewineco.com.

This detail from the Barolo map shows some of the crus around Barolo township itself:


You can readily identify the number and size of the different vineyards falling within each cru. And here is some of the kind of information about them that the reverse of the map provides:

Finally, just to give one more example of how good and useful these maps are, here’s a detail from the Barolo map of part of the township of Serralunga and some of its crus:

With Barolo and Barbaresco, it is just as important to know precisely where a wine comes from as it is in Burgundy’s Cote d’Or. Not just the village matters, but where in the village? Which hill? How high up that hill?  It all makes a difference to the wine and to the passionate wine drinker. For me as a wine professional these maps are indispensible, but I know that even as a just plain Nebbiolo-nut, I would want to have them to consult.

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June brings a high concentration of private and public occasions to Casa Maresca.  I’ve never been able to forget either Diane’s birthday or our wedding anniversary because they are separated only by D-Day, a date impossible to ignore.  From our earliest time together, this concatenation has led us into several-day-long fits of cooking and dining – pushed into glorious excess, of course, by the final departure of winter gloom and the arrival of sunshine, fresh vegetables, and the first sweet fruits of the year.

This year was no exception, except that, out of respect for our own increasing age, I substantially raised the age of the wines we drank with our Hail to Sunshine! Hail to Us! dinners – thus, three 1988s and one 1996, and every one of them high grade indeed.

The First Fit: Warm-up. This pre-festivity dinner consisted of the Balthazar-inspired short ribs that Diane has blogged about. They were rich, lush, and filling. Luckily, I had chosen a wine that stood up to them very well. In fact, the wine collaborated with them to enhance their richness and to plump itself up in the process. What we drank with that beef protein-and-calorie bomb was Caparone Vineyards Paso Robles Nebbiolo 1988, and a thoroughly gorgeous wine it was.

As near as I can gather, 1988 was not a great year for Napa and Sonoma. It appears to have been the second of two drought years, and produced some fearsomely alcoholic, harsh-tannined Cabernets. Further south, the harvest fared better, because ’88 was highly esteemed for Rhone varietals. Of course, no one was tracking what the harvest was like for Nebbiolo: Far too little of it had been planted, and most of the growers who tried it were struggling. Nobody ever said Nebbiolo was an easy grape.

Dave Caparone set in his first Nebbiolo in the mid-Seventies (and Sangiovese and Aglianico too), and he tended it like a first-born child, an attitude now continued by his son Mark. As Dave wryly says, Nebbiolo is a grape for those who have mastered Pinot noir and are looking for a challenge. His ’88 answered the challenge, and then some. It was, as you would expect, fully mature, with the classic Nebbiolo pale garnet color and orange edge – but, as I didn’t entirely expect, it was still fresh and live, filled with classic, mature Nebbiolo flavors with a fascinating overlay of bittersweet dark chocolate – unmistakably Nebbiolo, even though equally unmistakably not Piedmont Nebbiolo.

This is just plain classy winemaking, to produce a wine that tastes of both its variety and its terroir. Wine like this reflects a lifetime of labor devoted to what is in California an unfashionable variety: more’s the pity for California. I only wish that more winemakers showed this kind of passion and dedication.

The Second Fit: Aperitif. For special occasions nothing serves better as an aperitif than Champagne, and few things are better than a top-flight vintage Champagne from a great producer. So we started Diane’s birthday celebration with a glass of Gosset Celebris 1996. ’96, as Champagne buffs know, made a great vintage year for Champagne, and the Gosset firm, one of the very oldest in the Champagne region, did a beautiful job with it. This wine exhibited a golden color, minute perlage, and all the classic Champagne wheaty/toasty aromas and flavors, with just the slightest edge of oxidation, which rather than detracting from the wine lent an attractive touch of le gout anglais (as the French call it).

So enjoyable was this Champagne, and so hefty, that we were strongly tempted to keep drinking it through dinner, which it could have handled very nicely. But we had already made up our minds to drink the other half of the bottle for our anniversary aperitif, so we proceeded to . . .

The Third Fit: Birthday dinner, in this case asparagus mimosa followed by sweetbreads prepared in puff pastry packets, as at Chez Pauline, one of our favorite Parisian restaurants back in the days when we got to Paris often. (Where are the snows of yesteryear?) The asparagus were fresh from the Greenmarket, as were the luscious, first-of-the-season shell peas we served alongside the sweetbreads.

The wine I picked to match with all this was a 1988 Drouhin Chambolle Musigny Premier Cru. For me, Musigny is the sweet spot in the Cote d’Or: I just love those wines for their delicacy and grace. Rarely do they show power: Though they have it, they’re just too suave to flaunt it. Most vintage charts will tell you that 1988 was a good but not outstanding vintage in Burgundy, and for all I know they may be right. All I can swear to is that this bottle was outstanding – pale garnet in color (looking remarkably like a mature Nebbiolo, in fact), enticingly floral/herbal/mineral in aroma, on the palate elegant and restrained, yet live and persistent. Understated elegance is as close as I can come to summing up this Chambole Musigny. It meshed beautifully with the sweetbreads, whose presentation in puff pastry created a paradoxical combination of elegance and earthiness (no matter how you wrap them, sweetbreads are an organ meat). A lovely dinner matched with a lovely wine.

We took a breather on D-Day, and dined lightly on the season’s early radishes (the Greenmarket again) and simple omelettes, to make room for

The Fourth Fit: Our anniversary dinner started with the second half of the Gosset Celebris, and I thought it was even better than the first day. I’m not sure Diane agreed, but it was not something we would argue about, especially not before our anniversary dinner: tagliarini dressed with mushrooms and white truffle (both the egg pasta and the truffle paste carried back from my last excursion to Alba), followed by a dish that was a throwback to the ’60s, Steak Diane from Craig Claiborne’s old New York Times Cookbook. The wine I chose this time was a 1988 Barbaresco Bricco Asili from Ceretto. By pure luck, I think this one was the wine of them all.

The 1988 harvest was the first of modern times in the Barolo and Barbaresco zones. I mean that in two senses: that it was the first of the warmer (climate-change induced?) growing seasons that the zones have since enjoyed, as well as the first of an unprecedented trio of top-flight vintages – 1988, 1989, 1990 – that heralded good times for Piemonte winemakers. Growers and Nebbiolo fans alike still argue about which is the best of those three.

Our ’88 showed a lovely crystalline color, a live, bright garnet, with a narrower orange edge than I expected. The aroma was classic – white truffle, tar, dried roses, leather, underbrush – complex and intriguing. On the palate, it gave lovely sweet black cherry fruit, with soft, soft tannins and great, lively acidity, everything finishing in a long-lasting burst of dried cherry. It tasted wonderful with the pasta, in which it recognized a kindred spirit, and almost equally good with the Steak Diane. The last few sips of it, by themselves, practically eliminated the need for dessert. (We ate it nevertheless: the season’s first local strawberries. How could we not?) A gorgeous, gorgeous wine, and a fitting conclusion to our few days of feasting.

After that, it was compensatory salads and Barbera and Beaujolais for a few days, to get us back to normal. Sigh! Who wants to be normal?

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Tasting new releases, as anyone in the wine business knows, is a rarely a pleasure – more of a necessary evil. Especially in these days of intense market pressure, most new releases aren’t ready to drink, and the best of them – wines of texture and complexity – may be years or even decades from their peaks. But science is a cruel mistress, and to keep abreast of the flow, to have an empirical base from which to make judgments and reasonable predictions, a writer has to taste a lot of young wines – many hundreds of them, every season.

That’s why it’s crucially important to drink mature wines at every available opportunity, to remind yourself of what this whole process is all about. It sure isn’t about discriminating between an 88.5 and an 89 point infant Cabernet, whatever the blurbsters may lead one to think: It’s about sipping nectar and being transported, not spitting raw grape juice until they carry you out.

So my cunning plan (as Black Adder used to say) for avoiding that fate consists  partially of trotting out to Brooklyn for dinner at Tommaso’s, which is one of the few places in New York where I can afford to order older wines. (During a recent visit for his seasonal-special white truffle dinner, Diane and I drank his last bottle of Dessilani’s lovely 1970 Gattinara, a dream of silk and subtlety.)  But mostly it consists of raiding my own oldest stock and serving selected bottles to friends who appreciate them as much as I do, partnered with the fine dinners orchestrated by my partner Diane. This fall, we did two such morale-and-palate-saving evenings, extravaganzas approaching caloric megadeath (you can always eat salad tomorrow, or all next week if it comes to that).  The food was wonderful, and the wines played up to the dishes.

For the first dinner, Diane prepared a Piemontese feast for four friends – Charles and Michele, Ernie and Louise – who were about to visit that white-truffle-blest paradise. We didn’t have any truffles, but we tried to give them dishes that would ring true to what lay in store in Italy. I pulled out of my “cellar” (euphemism or metaphor at best) Deutz Champagne brut nv, 1989 Prunotto Barbaresco Montestefano, 1989 Vietti Barolo Lazzarito, 1982 Ceretto Barbaresco Bricco Asili, and Santo Stefano Moscato d’Asti nv.  Ernie, bless his soul, provided a 1990 Aldo Conterno Barolo Gran Bussia and a 1958 Giacomo Conterno Barolo Monfortino.






All the wines were in excellent condition – not a cork problem or bad bottle in the lot – and each showed the elegant depth and heft and complexity that uniquely belongs to mature Nebbiolo of fine vintages. We didn’t drink them in order of age but as I felt their body and power and relative vigor or fragility matched with the food.

The Champagne accompanied some light hors d’oeuvre (toasted hazelnuts, some salume) and continued with an antipasto of fennel spears wrapped with prosciutto and roasted.

Tagliarini with a sauce of wild mushrooms and veal called for first the 1990 Gran Bussia, then the lovely ‘58 Monfortino, both of which provided the elegance and restraint that sauce wanted. The two ‘89s, both big-bodied and vigorous wines, and the 1982 Bricco Asili, fully evolved and very complex, accompanied roasted squabs stuffed with chestnut puree and afterward a plate of cheeses.  Finally the light and charming Moscato, a refreshing palate-cleanser after all that impressive Nebbiolo, paired beautifully with a pear timballo topped with mascarpone cream.







Opinions were pretty evenly divided as to whether the wine of the day was the ’89 Vietti for its concentrated power or the ’58 Conterno for its elegance, but the entire group of wines counted as champions. Truth to tell, it was really one wine too many. They were all so good that they began to interfere with each other. They gave my palate and aging brain almost too much to deal with. I think less would have been more: One fewer bottle – though which of those gems I would omit I can’t imagine – would have focused us better.  A valuable lesson, that, and one I will bear in mind in the future.

In fact, I did bear it in mind for our second dinner. This was less tightly regional, though largely Italian again, for four Italophile friends, Livio and Betty, and John and Vicky.

Here are the wines for that dinner: Roederer Estate Brut nv; 1997 Nipozzano Chianti Rufina Riserva; 1982 Banfi Brunello di Montalcino Riserva; 1991 Serego Alighieri Amarone Vaio Armaron; Santo Stefano Moscato d’Asti nv.  Unquestionably, fewer wines worked better: the matches of food and wine just sang.

Once again our sparkling wine went from hors d’oeuvre through roasted prosciutto-wrapped fennel (when you find a good thing, stick with it). The characteristically Rufina earthiness of the Nipozzano played beautifully with bucatini all’amatriciana (made with la vera cosa, real Italian guanciale). The ’82 Brunello – in that vintage, this wine would have been made from Banfi’s oldest vines, the former Poggio alle Mura vineyards – showed its lively Sangiovese acidity and freshness with a pork loin roast that had been lacquered with Dijon mustard, brown sugar, and chopped pistachios.  At the same time, the wine displayed its velvety Sangiovese tannins with the vegetal bite of the contorno of braised Swiss chard and mustard greens.

With the cheese, that glorious Amarone gave us not an aria but the whole opera, opening different facets of its enormously complex personality with the different cheeses – Gorgonzola dolce, Chabichou, Brunet, aged Gouda. This wine demonstrated conclusively what nonsense is the belief that Amarone can’t accompany a meal. Nothing could have completed the substantial courses of this dinner better.

Finally, the same lovely Moscato as in the previous dinner worked just as effectively with a featherweight pumpkin chiffon pie.

Readers of my earlier rants know just how deeply I love older wines. Dinners like this are the reasons why. If anyone thinks it’s too much trouble to lay wines down and wait for them, I have only one thing to say to you: You’re wrong. It is hardly any trouble at all: the biggest difficulty is to keep your hands off them long enough for the wines to evolve.  The times we live in aren’t conducive to patience. But it is worth acquiring the discipline, because the pleasures properly aged wines afford – as I’ve tried to give some inkling above – are of a wholly different order from, and light years beyond, the best that young wines can do.

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Add two more – 2006 and 2007 – to the already improbably long list of better-than-average-to-great Barolo and Barbaresco vintages that has been accumulating since 1988. These two – the most recently released of the two appellations – are a little different, however, both from each other and from what has preceded them over the past 22 years. Side by side, they look like Jekyll and Hyde: Barbaresco 2007 seems gentle, friendly, good company, while Barolo 2006 is rough and tough and, at this moment at least, decidedly unfriendly. Together, both resemble pre-1988 vintages more than any more recent ones, the ’06 closed and ungiving as superior Barolo vintages used always to be in their youth, the ’07 softer and more welcoming, as good lighter vintages used to be, especially in Barbaresco.

No one ever said Nebbiolo was an easy grape variety to grow or to know. In the past, it was more often heartbreaking than heartwarming, and outside of a few very restricted areas of Piedmont, it still is – a highly localized glory that it shares with Pinot noir, to which it is often compared. And while we appear now to be in a sort of Golden Age of Barolo and Barbaresco, Nebbiolo still occasionally reminds us all – producers and consumers alike – that it is no pushover.

Some of the tasting samples at Nebbiolo Prima

Any wine journalist who might have forgotten that fact was forcibly reminded of it every morning at this year’s Nebbiolo Prima (formerly the Alba Wine Event). Every morning the participating 50-odd international journalists confronted approximately 85 newly released 2007 Barbarescos and 2006 Barolos (plus some few Barbaresco Riserva 2005 and Barolo Riserva 2004).

By noon every day, almost all of us had black teeth and tongues, and cheeks that felt as thoroughly tanned as our best shoes. Make no mistake: this annual Alba marathon is penitential tasting – but it is worth it, for what you learn about the vintages and the way the producers have handled them. Nothing gives you a better sense of a whole vintage across an entire important zone than does this annual endurance contest.

A selection of the Barbarescos at the tasting

As a sort of gentle start, we always taste first the Barbarescos, which get a year less aging before release than do the Barolos. (This also gives us a sneak peak at next year’s Barolo prospects, since there isn’t that much difference between the two zones.) This year, most of the ’07 Barbarescos showed very well indeed. Some examples from Neive were overoaked, but even there I could still taste the vintage’s cheerful, enjoyable fruit. All these Barbarescos displayed lovely balance. Overall, 2007 in Barbaresco has medium body, delightful fresh fruit of an authentic Nebbiolo character, and a nice touch of elegance. These aren’t wines for long cellaring; they are already approachable, and they should be thoroughly enjoyable drinking for the next seven to ten years – which isn’t bad at all.

Here are some of the wines that for me stood out from the (very pleasant) crowd:

  • Cascina delle Rose Rio Sordo and Tre Stelle
  • Castello di Neive, the basic Barbaresco and the Santo Stefano
  • Marchesi di Gresy Martinenga
  • Moccagatta Bric Balin
  • Poderi Colla Roncaglie
  • Produttori del Barbaresco, the basic Barbaresco
  • Albino Rocca, the basic Barbaresco and Vigneto Brich Ronchi
  • Bruno Rocca Rabaja

Most of these names will probably be familiar: they are among the perennial top performers in Barbaresco, turning in excellent wines vintage after vintage. New to me was Cascina delle Rose, which I wish I had known about years ago. I managed to visit the property, a little gem – just about three hectares – in the sweet spot of Rio Sordo. Its nearest neighbors are Gaja on one side and di Gresy on the other, which speaks volumes about its terroir.

The proprietors of Cascina delle Rose, Giovanna Rizzolio and Italo Sobrino, at the cut-out in their cellar that shows the dramatic striations of their terroir

The owners are charming people and very traditional winemakers: no fancy tricks, just straightforward Piemontese craftsmanship. They produce lovely Dolcetto and Barbera d’Alba, as well as their classic Barbarescos, and they also have accommodations for travelers and vacationers (www.cascinadellerose.it).

Still to come – but this will have to be another post: this one’s long enough already – are the 2006 Barolos, which are a whole nother story.

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