Firmly Rooted in the Piedmont- Eric Asimov

Very informative article on Nebbiolo by Eric Asimov in The New York Times. Once again I find myself in complete agreement with Mr. Asimov. He understands wine made from the Nebbiolo grape and  to be at their best they must be paired with food.

New York Times March 5th 2015

For wine drinkers reared on the myriad red grapes that are common all over the world, a wine made of nebbiolo is a departure.

It may flash a ready comparison to others: the combination of delicacy and intensity found in the best pinot noirs, the tannic potency of cabernet sauvignon, the taut acidity of barbera. Yet when you add in the specific aromas and flavors of nebbiolo (proverbially described as tar and roses), which are so unlike most red wines, you have a selection that seems entirely singular.

The blend of these remarkable characteristics results in wines that can haunt enthusiasts for the rest of their lives. Only fine red Burgundy rivals great Barolo and Barbaresco, the most prominent of the nebbiolo wines, for their ability to stir both the soul and the intellect, to dazzle aromatically, to delight the palate and to demand contemplatio Wine School: Your Next Lesson: Langhe NebbioloJAN. 29, 2015

Yet while pinot noir, the red grape of Burgundy, is grown successfully in many places around the world, nebbiolo seems to prosper only in the Piedmont region of northwestern Italy and in Lombardy, the neighboring region to the east.

Photo

CreditSerge Bloch

That’s not literally true. I’ve had nebbiolos from the Sonoma Coast, from Santa Barbara and Monterey, even from Baja California. But so far, at least, these wines have been few, noteworthy more as expressions of love for Piemontese nebbiolo than for their success in capturing the scope and potential of the northern Italian versions.

Welcome back to Wine School, where together each month we subject a type of wine to the most pleasurable sort of examination. It works like this: I’ll pick a genre and suggest some good examples. Then we all drink the wine in relaxed surroundings conducive to enjoyment and attention, with food, family or friends. Finally, we share thoughts and insights atnytimes.com.

The idea is that we learn most about wine, and our own tastes, when drinking rather than tasting, experiencing how the wine changes over time and in context. Good wine never resembles that static snapshot conveyed by the usual tasting notes. Indeed, from the time you pour the first glass until the last drop is drained from the bottle, the wine will evolve as it is exposed to air, as its temperature changes, as you add food to the equation. Your company, your surroundings, even your mood will all make a difference.

At Wine School, we try to capture the totality of this experience with the understanding that much of wine remains subjective and even mysterious. The questions posed by good wine are integral to its beauty. We don’t understand, for example, exactly why nebbiolo refuses to humor the ambitious few who would grow it outside of northern Italy. Is it wed only to the composition of the soils there? To the angles of the hillsides on which nebbiolo vineyards typically flourish? The microclimates? Like the white truffles of the Piedmont, nebbiolo refuses to be reproduced on demand or explain why.

The firm tannins and rippling acidity of young nebbiolo make it a particularly demanding wine. It’s hard (at least for me) to drink Barolo and Barbaresco young. Nebbiolo is grown in many other appellations in the region, but for our purposes, the best examples to share were those labeled Langhe nebbiolo.

The grapes for these wines may come from areas outside the boundaries for Barolo and Barbaresco. Or they may come from young vines that the producers do not think are ready to contribute to the more exalted wines. But they do give a taste of what makes nebbiolo such an unusual grape, and at moderate prices. Luckily, most people were able to find at least one of the three Langhe nebbiolos I recommended — Produttori del Barbaresco 2012, G. D. Vajra 2012 and Vietti Perbacco 2011 — or a good alternative.

Each of the wines was excellent, typical and yet distinct from the others. Many people used the term “floral” to characterize the aromas, and a few were even more specific, citing roses. Did anybody reach for “tar,” the evocative but clichéd description? Does nebbiolo really smell like tar? Not exactly, yet the term rises continually in wine literature, illustrating the power of repetition in the effort to express what is really a more complex and elusive aroma.

“It is not anise, not black earth, not Mr. Lincoln rose, not hot road tar, not burnt beef-fat, not pipe tobacco, but a delightful combination favoring none,” Giuseppe of Boston wrote, arguing, perhaps unintentionally, that overspecificity never captures the whole of a wine. To his list I would add: It’s not red or black cherry, even though bitter fruit flavors lie buried under the more savory initial aromas, emerging only after long exposure to air.

For me, the Vajra was compact, very dry and almost austere, more savory than sweet. In lieu of a few more years of aging, this wine demanded to be decanted in an effort to open it up. Even so, I could taste the combination of richness, purity and delicacy that is often at the heart of the nebbiolo mystery.

Right now, I preferred the high-toned minerality and earthiness of the Produttori del Barbaresco, which made it more complex and enjoyable than the Vajra. The Vietti, a year older than both, was even richer and more tannic. None of these wines were inviting enough to want to drink without food.

CreditSerge Bloch

Yet, with food, they were transformed. The Vietti became more generous, the Vajra more affable, and the Produttori exhibited more fruit. This, of course, would surprise no Italian, for whom wine is practically always part of a meal rather than a stand-alone beverage. The resistant tannins and the lively acidity demand food. When presented with dishes sufficiently rich, they seem to break out into warm, welcoming smiles.

This quality was not lost on readers. Martin Schappeit of Richmond, Va., drank the Vajra with a dish of tagliatelle and wild mushrooms. “My wife was amazed how the dish transformed the wine from simple to complex in such a short time,” he wrote. Ferguson of Princeton, N.J., wrote: “My husband said that the wine improved the food; that it sparked up the tomato sauce. I can’t imagine sipping this alone.”

I have to emphasize that these wines offer just a hint of the pleasures you may find in a 15-year-old Barbaresco from Produttori, or a well-aged Barolo from Vajra, Vietti or many other great producers.

If you were intrigued by these wines, I would urge you to explore further. Visit a restaurant like Maialino in Manhattan or Oliveto in Oakland, Calif., which offer brilliant lists of aged nebbiolo wines. Or invest the time to age these wines yourself, keeping in mind that storing them well is crucial and that the most fun comes with multiple bottles, so you can examine the same wine at different points in its arc of evolution.

Ultimately, the most important thing to know about these wines, and Italian wines especially, is that they, like nature, abhor a vacuum. They are not laboratory specimens to be clinically dissected and preserved but expressions of culture meant to accompany food and people. Our friend Giuseppe, who said his adult children share his taste for nebbiolo, articulated this beautifully.

“Mortadella, prosciutto, aged provolone, roast beef, braised lamb, even a chunk of Pecorino Romano alone are tasty,” he wrote. “But when melded with the denseness of the wine, oh my. A final thought. All the above is elevated and enhanced when sharing with family, especially a grown family of adult peers. Forty-five years ago, it was enjoyable. Today, it is gladdening and fulfilling.”

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One response to “Firmly Rooted in the Piedmont- Eric Asimov

  1. Reblogged this on Sassi Italy Tours and commented:
    Well stated: “It is not anise, not black earth, not Mr. Lincoln rose, not hot road tar, not burnt beef-fat, not pipe tobacco, but a delightful combination favoring none,” Giuseppe of Boston wrote, arguing, perhaps unintentionally, that overspecificity never captures the whole of a wine. To his list I would add: It’s not red or black cherry, even though bitter fruit flavors lie buried under the more savory initial aromas, emerging only after long exposure to air.”

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