Great, cheap reds from Italy's Piedmont region.

Feb. 24 2006 1:03 PM

Gold, Silver, Bronze—and Red

Great, cheap wines from Italy's Piedmont region.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.
Click image to expand.

To the litany of complaints about the Turin Games, I'll add another gripe: Why isn't anyone talking about the wine? Italy's Piedmont region, of which Turin is the capital, produces some of the greatest wines in the world—and arguably turns out more great wines per capita than any viticultural region. Thanks to Bode Miller, booze has played a prominent role in these Olympics, yet little has been said about Piedmont's enological bounty. It may be too late to make these games a success, but it's not too late to give the local wines their due.

The wines for which Piedmont is most renowned, Barolos and Barbarescos, are produced in the Langhe district, about an hour south of Turin. Both wines are made from the thick-skinned, ornery Nebbiolo grape, which thrives in the steep vineyards that surround the town of Alba (famous also for white truffles) and yields frustration pretty much everyplace else it is grown. Why Nebbiolo's affinity for this pocket of northwest Italy? It's a combination of altitude; calcareous soils; a warm, dry summer; and a mild autumn, the last being of critical importance because Nebbiolo is seldom in a rush to reach full maturity. Indeed, the grapes are traditionally not harvested until October, when the Langhe hills are hidden behind the other Shroud of Turin—a thick fog called the nebbia (from which Nebbiolo is thought to takes its name).

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But Nebbiolo is not the only red wine grape cultivated in these parts. There is also Dolcetto, which generally yields light quaffers best drunk within a year or two of bottling. Then there is Barbera, a grape with a great story. As red wine grapes go, Barbera is a bit of an oddball: It is fairly high in acidity even when fully ripe and strikingly short on tannins. Like Nebbiolo, it is believed to be indigenous to Piedmont, and it is the region's most widely planted grape, usually accounting for more than 50 percent of the annual red wine production. Unlike Nebbiolo, Barbera has shown the ability to prosper outside of Piedmont; indeed, it is ubiquitous in southern Italy and commands significant acreage in California as well, although it is used there mostly for jug wines.

In the past, Barbera was considered a pleasant but thoroughly pedestrian wine—"the people's wine," as it was known. But in the 1980s, some local winemakers decided that this understudy might actually have star potential (till then, its only taste of glory had been uncredited; a little Barbera was often added to Barolos and Barbarescos to darken them). Working in the Alba and Asti appellations, which grow the finest Barberas, they reduced crop yields and started aging the wines in small barrels made of new French oak—barriques, as they are known—which added spiciness to the bouquet and imparted some tannic structure. Suddenly, Barbera was a serious wine—perhaps not as serious as the Nebbiolo-based wines, but certainly a worthy stablemate.

This new kind of Barbera emerged at a time when the Piedmontese were bitterly divided between the so-called modernists, who believed that barriques were also suitable for Barolos and Barbarescos, and the traditionalists, who felt that new oak had a malignant influence on Nebbiolo and preferred to stick with the larger, more neutral wooden casks that had customarily been used to age the wines. (There were other sore points, but barriques were the main bone of contention; the argument has simmered down in recent years thanks to voracious consumer demand for both the modern and traditional styles.) But no one could deny that the plusher Barberas were better Barberas, and even some of the archtraditionalists started using barriques for theirs.

The improved quality has led to higher prices, of course, but many good Barberas still sell for less than $25, and even the more expensive ones are still cheaper than the best Barolos and Barbarescos. What makes Barberas even more appealing is the fact that nearly all the top winemakers—and Piedmont's A-list is impressively long—produce them; thus, if you don't feel like shelling out for one of Bruno Giacosa's fabled Barolos or Barbarescos, you can still get a taste of the man's genius at a relatively affordable price.

I sampled a handful of Barberas, all but two of them from the sunbaked 2003 vintage. The extreme heat of that summer yielded overripe, clumsy wines throughout Europe, and given that Barberas are naturally high in alcohol, it was widely assumed that they would turn out no better. But that robust acidity came to the rescue in this instance, and the good winemakers managed to keep their Barberas from slipping into burlesque territory. Below are notes for four of the Barberas I tasted. Three of the four were very good, with flavors that might even outlast memories of Turin.

Bruno Giacosa Barbera d'Alba Falletto Superiore 2003, $35
Inviting cherry, tobacco, and woodsy aromas, with some licorice tossed in. On the palate, gently spicy fruit that manages to be both silky and lush—a nice yin-and-yang effect. Excellent acidity, great finesse. Giacosa is considered a traditionalist by some, a god by others. I'm firmly in the deity camp.

Giacomo Conterno Barbera d'AlbaCascina Francia 2003, $30
Another revered traditionalist. Fresh red berries, espresso, and a bit of lemon and spice on the nose. The fruit turns sweet, rich, and slightly liqueured in the mouth, but it's perfectly offset by the acidity. Doesn't quite have the grace and lift of the Giacosa, but a paragon of harmony all the same.

Clerico Barbera d'Alba "Trevigne" 2003, $30
Modernist Domenico Clerico makes superb Barolos, but the magic didn't carry over to this Barbera, which seemed a little heavy on the lumber. Fresh raspberries on the nose, along with vanilla and medicinal notes. Raspberry coulis floods the tongue but then immediately hits a wall of wood spice and tannins, ending the pleasure.

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