Thursday, March 12, 2009

Piedmont vs. The Rhone

For those of you not familiar with Piedmont wines, I thought I'd fill you in on some background. Piedmont is a wine growing area in northwest Italy, north of Milan and Turin, that produces some of the greatest wines of the world, at least comparable in quality to those of Bordeaux and Burgundy. There are also many similarities to the Southern Rhone both in the style and variety of wines.

Barolo and Barbaresco are the king and queen of Piedmont. Barbaresco is generally a bit lighter than Barolo, and its appellation requirements a bit less strict (minimum alcohol content of 12.5% versus 13.0% for Barolo). Nebbiolo produced in the village of Gattinara is a less renowned and less expensive version--holding a rank somewhat comparable to Vacqueyras in the Southern Rhone. Wines from Ghemme and Spanna are even less expensive. In the early 1980s, Barolo and Barbaresco sold for $12 to $18 a bottle, Gattinara for $8 to $12 and Spanna $5 or less. In fact, I loaded up on several cases of 1982 and 1983 Dessilani Spanna for $4.99 a magnum! That was cheaper even than Gallo Hearty Burgundy or Paesano, and it was real wine. Unlike the jug wines, these magnums were still drinking beautifully and improving in the late 1990s. I wish I still had a few.

Nebbiolo is a very tannic grape but one that has an amazing aroma/flavor profile--roses, violets, cherries, tar, anise. Because of the high tannins, traditional winemakers kept their wines in large barrels for extended periods--as in Chateauneuf du Pape. And that practice had risks as well as benefits. Some of those great Spanna magnums, for example, had off odors that sometimes required an hour or two of airing to get rid of. What was underneath, however, was well worth the wait. With modern equipment, winemakers are now able to avoid these problems. Some, but not all, winemakers also use new oak barriques, which traditionalists scorn because they say that vanilla of the new oak tends to cover up the lovely scent of roses that is natural to Nebbiolo. I side with the traditionalists while admitting that control of temperature and bacteria in the cellar is important.

Where have all the Gattinaras gone? I quit buying most of these wines in the mid-1980s when the prices started escalating. Why pay $50 for a Barolo or $35 for a Gattinara when you could get a Chateauneuf du Pape for $10 to $15? Probably for the same reason, importers started bringing in fewer Gattinaras and Spannas, at least into my market. In some parts of the country, you can still buy Dessilani Gattinara for about $35 and Spanna for about $20, and in today's market those are probably pretty decent prices. Although they may be more ageworthy than a Gigondas or Vacqueyras, I would probably still choose the Southern Rhone wines for the same price.

I have been scouring the market over the past few years, however, for a decent $10 to $15 Nebbiolo. You can occasionally find Nebbiolo d'Alba or Langhe Nebbiolo in that price range, but I've found that most of them are pretty uninteresting, without the Nebbiolo fireworks. The one exception that I've found is an even better value--the Nerello di Bastardo sold recently at Trader Joe's for $5.99. I bought a case of the 1999 and still have some in the cellar. Then I added the 2000 and 2002 when they came on the market. I like the way these wines are maturing, and I don't detect any off odors or flavors. If you see any at Trader Joe's (I haven't recently), I highly recommend it. And if you have other inexpensive Nebbiolos to recommend, please let me know.


  1. Fred, your knowledge of Mediterranean wines continues to astonish me. Have you traveled extensively in the area? How did you come to learn so much about Northern Med. Wines? Are you at all interested in the Spanish coastal areas that are seemingly popular today?

    I've often enjoyed Chianti and Montepulciano d'Abruzzo. Do you know of any lower end Nebbiolo comparable in price? I'd just like to get an idea of potential flavor profiles.


  2. Thanks, Eric. I've been to the Rhone twice but didn't make it to Piedmont on my one trip to Italy. I was just saying last night how great it would be to take a trip to the Novara hills (where Gattinara and Spanna are located). It's not a major destination in guidebooks and would probably still have a lot of tradition and old country charm.

    Most of what I've learned about Piedmont wines comes from buying at Village Corner in Ann Arbor, reading Dick Scheer's tasting notes and talking to the staff there. Through the years some of the graduate students who worked there were very knowledgeable about Italian wines. And Ric Cerrini, of course, the oldest regular staff member, really knows Italian (as well as other European) wines.

    As I say, it's a real challenge to find good Nebbiolo wines at a decent price. There are plenty of generic "Nebbiolos" from Langhe or Alba, but they've all disappointed me--even the one from Produttori del Barbaresco (which is incidentally one of the best sources of Barbaresco). I bought a generic Nebbiolo the other day at discount and will post a note when I try it. If you're willing to spend more, Village Corner is offering right now the 2004 Lodali Barolo for $27.99. Dick says: "this is real Barolo. It's not as intense as the big boys, but it's genuine and well priced. Tar, roses, cherry, leather, glycerol. All Barolo markings. Deep-seated./Black cherry, plum, fig, meat, fat, tobacco. Again, not one of the 'bigger' guys, but legit and well presented. Great acidity and fine tannin promise improvement with age. Well liked for the price. 91+/100." And VC is offering a Barbaresco Torre from the Produttori del Barbaresco for $39.99. Not cheap, but I have decided that Barolo is worth every penny--particularly if you have the patience and time to keep some for 30+ years.

    As for the Spanish wines, that is precisely where the values are today. The area is relatively unknown so prices are still low. I've tried only a few low-end examples and never been disappointed. Since traditional practices are being blended with modern ones, I don't think anyone knows how these wines will age, but I suspect some of them are good for the long haul.