Piemonte Wine Tastings

Our long-anticipated trip to the home of Nebbiolo, Barbera, Dolcetto and Aneis grapes and famed Barola and Barbaresco wines in Italy’s Piemonte region, began with a large winery that grows and buys grapes from many surrounding areas, and therefore, produces a wide range of wines.

We began our Piemonte exploration of wineries at Fontanafredda with a tasting of six of its Miraflore reds, beginning with three 2014s: Barbera Superiore (dark fruit, tannin and a lot of acid), Nebiolo Langhe (bold, tannin, tar and acid), and Barbaresco (big body, black fruit, tannin, but some elegance that will come out with age). Then to three of the winery’s aged barolos, beginning with a 2011 La Rosa (a classically fermented wine with a year in big oak casks before being transferred to smaller barrels, which had somewhat lighter fruit, but still too much acid and tannin for our tastes). The 2011 Paiagallo single vineyard, meanwhile, spent a year in concrete before being transferred to barrels (very nice with more expressive fruit and more subtle tannins). Then to our favorite wine of the tasting, and the most expensive at E85 (vs E65 for the La Rosa and E45 for the Paiagallo), a 2007 Riserva that was a blend of three vineyard-designate grapes) that was aged for a year in concrete and two in barrels before two more in the bottle. This wine is eminently drinkable today, with expressive black cherry fruit, tobacco and subtle tannins. A perfect example of why aged Barola Riservas are so prized.

This being said, we had two big problems with the tasting. We typically rely on guides to provide some guidance, especially when we are new to a region. We expect them to at least begin with wines that are reprehensive of the region and that show off what the winery does best, and then, based on our feedback, take us appropriate directions. That is not how Fontanafredda works, at least with its top-of-the line Miraflore wines. The host asked us which wines we wanted to taste. When we requested her help, she told us to think about it and she would return. As we began to walk out, she came up and promised to help. She did provide some help, but not the type of guidance we expected. And, since we had to pay for each wine that we tasted, with prices for the riservas not even shown, the price mounted quickly—to E40 for six wines a single person (although they do take half off if you buy a sufficiently priced wine). We prefer our tastings to be more personal and flexible, rather than structured, formulaic and with little guidance as to what to taste and in what order to do so.

Our other six winery visits were very different. Our first full day (three tastings) was in the Borolo DOCG region, where we sampled wines from three of the 11 Barolo-producing villages.

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Barolo Wineries

Borgogno, a winery that has been producing wines since 1761, continues to produce all its wines in the traditional style. They rely exclusively on native yeast, use extended maceration (from 45 days), ferment the grapes in concrete tanks and age the wine longer than the prescribed minimum (which varies by varietal and classification, but typically about four years plus 6 months in the bottle) solely in large (2,000 to up to 19,000 liter) Slovenian and French oak barrels (i.e., no standard barriques which hold less than 300 liters).

We tasted seven wines, beginning with Riesling (the only white the winery produces, and this only since 2015), through a Barbera d’Alba Superiore (2015) and a surprisingly approachable 2015 Langhe Nebbiolo which had less acid and lower tannins than we expected and vibrant red (especially cherry) fruit. While these wines (like Barberas) are usually drunk young, they are supposed to age nicely, with the fruit, acid and the tannins mellowing and the wine taking on a somewhat leathery taste. We were even more impressed by the three Barolos that we tasted.

We began with 2013 Barolo Classico, a blend of Nebbiolo grapes from five vineyards that had relatively low, but still noticeable acid, a combination of red and black fruit and a bit of an herbal character. Although we enjoyed the Classico, the 2013 Barolo Cannubi (the winery’s most prized single vineyard) was softer, rounder, more complex and more elegant than the Classic.

It was then time to move up to the Barolo Risservas, where we began with a lovely, newly released 2011 and finished with an amazing 2005. These wines, which are a blend of all five of Borgogno’s five designated vineyards, spend six years in barrels (separate barrels for each vineyard for the first two, and then combined for the remainder) and another year in the bottle before they are released. The fruit is more subtle and tastes even more integrated, with nice leather tones. There is, however, still enough acid and tannin to allow it to age for another decade. The different grapes in the 2005, meanwhile, were fermented and aged together and the orangish-red brick color of the wine was more pronounced. A wine that is now ready to drink and will continue to be so for at least a couple more years.

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Cordero di Montezemolo, is a family winery that has been growing grapes and producing wine for 40 generations, since 1340! Our line-up consisted of five wines. While the winery produces wines from several white grapes, we tasted only one (the fresh, fruity, slightly spicy 2017 Arneis). We then moved directly into the bigger reds, skipping the Dolcetto and beginning with the Barbera d’Alba from 2017 (a hotter and drier year that produced a less acidic, more approachable wine) and the Nebiollo Langhe from the same year (with red fruit, tannin and spice).

The winery produces three types of Barolos:

  • Monfaletto, which combines grapes from three designated vineyards), three single vineyards
  • Three single vineyard wines (from which the Monfaletto is produced), Elioro, Gatera and Enrico VI, the later of which is grown in the prized Castiglione vineyard; and
  • Chinato, a specialty wine to which spices and sugar is added.

We sampled two, beginning with the 2014 Monfaletto and then on to the 2014 Enrico VI. Both were lovely, although they could both benefit from more aging. The Enrico VI, in particular, was showing the complexity and finesse that one would expect.

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G.D. Vajra is another family winery which is still in the process of transitioning from the founding parents to their children. This tasting also began with a white, a rather pleasant, but young Riesling (acid with a floral note and peachy taste) that was the first of this varietal to be planted and successfully grown in Barolo. (We did not taste the winery’s Langhe Bianco blend of chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.) We then progressed to two very different Langhe nebbiolos:

The 2017 Claire J.C. Langhe Nebbiolo, which uses grapes from young vines, was produced in the classic fashion of the 17th century, by using whole cluster fermentation for about a quarter of the grapes and by using carbonic maceration (where the whole grapes are fermented in a CO-2-rich environment prior to crushing, creating a lighter, fruitier wine that is more suitable for drinking while still young). The 2016 G.D. Vajra Langhe Nebbiolo, meanwhile, was made from grapes with somewhat older wine and in the currently conventual manner of destemming and crushing the grapes before fermentation. This, wine, due to a combination of the vintage and the technique, has a bright red color, somewhat deeper, more subdued, slightly flowery nose and a taste of red berries. Both quite nice, in different ways. We then tasted the big, acidic and tannic 2015 Viola delle Viole Barbera d’Alba Superiore (tasting, for good reason, after the Nebbiolos).

We then tasted two Barolos:

  • 2014 Albe (with grapes from three different vineyards), a powerful wine which still had plenty of tannin and acid, but also tasted of red cherry and raspberry, herbs and leather; and a
  • 2014 Ravera Single Vineyard with many of the same characteristics, but more complexity and subtlety.

Although both are relatively light for Barolos, they are still likely to require at least another five years before drinking.

We then got a surprise, by going back to a very different Barbera d’Alba. To get a sense of how a Barbara d’Alba (which is typically drunk young) will age, we were given a taste of a rare, almost 30 year-old 1990 Bricco delle Viole Reserve that has been open for a couple of weeks. In contrast with the ruby red color of the 2015, this was a reddish-orange brick color, like an aged Barolo. It had also developed a much more subdued, somewhat sweetish, nutty taste, almost like an aged Marsala, or even a Madeira. Fascinating.

And speaking of fascinating, we had, at the suggestion of our host, saved the reisling we had sampled more than an hour before. The acid had largely dissipated and the floral nose and peachy taste had blended into a softer, more integrated, more easily drinkable wine.

We ended our visit with very brief stops in the winery, where when Franciscan friar-designed stained glass windows gave the stainless steel tanks a pleasant bluish tinge (although the effect changes depending on how and where the sun hits the windows) and into the aging room, with its barrels and barriques (which are used almost exclusively to replace wine that evaporates from the large barrels.

Barbaresco Wineries

The Barbaresco region, which used to be a seabed, generally has limestone substructure. But given the folding of the earth’s crust and river erosion, the altitudes and soil types, not to speak of the micro-climates, can vary greatly. And since the Nebbiolo grapes is extremely sensitive to soils, and especially to weather conditions, the wines can vary greatly from vineyards that are very close to each other. And that does not even consider the often dramatic differences in annual weather, from very hot and dry years, like 2015 and cooler, wetter years, like 2014.

There is, therefore, big differences, not just among the wines of the 150+ producers, but also among their own wines and vintages. This is despite their adherence to the same regulations and their generally similar approaches to maceration (often between 15 and 21 days) and aging (typically neutral, no-toast, large Slovenian (and occasionally Austrian) barrels.

Barbaresco growers, like those in Barolo, grow a range of grapes, especially barbera, nebbiolo, and dolcetto (along the white Arneis grape and a number of international varietals), most growers have a strong preference for Nebbiolo, both because of market preference and the fact that Nebbiolo-based wines command higher prices. They are, therefore, increasingly substituting nebbiolo for other grapes, whenever conditions permit—especially in the south, southeast and southwest exposures that provide the heat maximum sunlight and the somewhat longer growing seasons the grapes need to fully ripen. This is despite the fact that most nebbiilo-based wines require longer aging, and thereby take limit near-tern cash flow relative to other grapes (a factor, by the way, that is even more important in Barolo, since those wines require an additional year of aging).

Ca’dei Baio

A small family winery with 60 acres and 160,000 bottle per year production, that is in the early stages of transitioning from the founding parents to the still young daughters. We began with two whites (a pleasant, minerally, slightly floral 2011 Langhe Riesling and a 2017 Langhe Chardonnay that had just enough neutral oak and malolactic to round its edges, without making it buttery.

We then sampled a number of lighter, fresh, early-drinking, stainless-aged 2017 Alba reds, which benefited (at least for our tastes) from a warm summer that helped keep the acid relatively low. The Lodoli Dolcetto was fresh with just enough acid), the Paolina Barbera did have higher acids (as Barberas do), but with ripe fruit and a round finish, while the Nebbiolo (light with fresh fruit.

We finished with four Barbarescos. Three were from the current 2015 vintage. Autinbej, which blends nebbiolos from different vineyards, had nice dark fruit and was developing a bit of complexity, but the tannins still need a number of years to moderate. We then had two single-vineyards: the smooth and elegant, but still very ageable Vallegrande and the bigger, richer, much more ageable Asili. And just to get an idea of how the winery’s Barbarescos age, we finished with a 2004 Pora Vineyard, which was one of the region’s most difficult years, but, as we discovered both with the Pora and later the same day with a Paitin Sori Vineyard, it was still possible to produce some exemplary wines.

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Marchesi di Gresy, a 200,000 bottle per year producer from its 125 acres, it produces a range of whites and reds. We began with two pleasant whites; a 2017 Langhe Sauvignon Blanc (crisp, stone fruit with a rounded finish) and an 18-month-oaked 2016 Chardonnay (not overly oaked and with moderate ML). We also found the just-bottled 2017 Langhe Nebbiolo to be a pleasant, easy drinking wine with manageable acidity, although we were less enthused with their red blends.

We, however, were really there for the Barbarescos. Although all of them (especially the 2013 Gaium Martinenga and the 2012 Camp Gros Martinenga single vineyards) require more aging, we found three to be be very elegant and expressive now. These are the 2013 and 2014 Martinenga, and especially the smooth, elegant 2009 Martinenga, all of which are blends from different vineyards.

Marchesi di Gresy

Paitin. Family making with since 1786, when Napoleon took land from the church and offered it for sale to the public. Part of the winery, which was actually part of a church, dates from the 16th century, with bottles and barrels (not currently used) that appear to be almost as old. We again found many wines that were well suited to our palates. These included the 2017 Arnaise (crisp and minerally with lot of body), 2017 Docetto (light, fruity and with moderate acid) and 2015 Barbera D’Alba Campolive (big fruit balanced by acid and soft tannins). We were very impressed by the attractively priced (E24) 2015 Serraboella Barbaresco (subtle with nice balance) and were treated to very interesting mini-vertical of the extremely well priced (E29) single vineyard Sori Paitin Barbarescos—where we tasted the 2014, 2008, 2006 and the 2004. While the 2014 and even the 2006 show nice potential, but were both pretty tight. We weren’t particularly enthused with the 2008 (which had strong hints of barnyard in the nose and the palate). This said, we loved the 2004 and would have loved a chance for a side-by-side with Ca’dei Baio’s 2004 Pora single vineyard.

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