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Discovering Nebbiolo and Barolo Wines in Italy’s Piedmont

After 40 years of working in the wine field, there are few major regions that I have not visited. Italy’s Piedmont was one exception. That omission was finally rectified last month, with a week’s walking holiday in the hills of Barolo.  We tramped through vineyards during the day and savoured Barolo wine in the evening.

I had always read that Nebbiolo, the principal grape variety of Piedmont, takes its name from the nebbia, the autumnal mists that cover the Langhe hills during the harvest. And that was just how it was. We stayed in hilltop villages such as Castiglione Falletto and Monforte d’Alba, and woke each morning to see a gentle mist covering the valley.  By midday, the sun had burnt its way through the haze. In early October, the harvest was in full swing and the vines were beginning to change color to mellow reds and yellows. This was some of the most beautiful vineyard scenery that I had ever seen. It is not dramatic like the Douro or wild like the Languedoc, but has an appeal all of its own. The rows of vines follow the contours along hillsides that twist and turn, forming a series of amphitheaters.

And we visited just one wine estate, Paolo Scavino in Castiglione Falletto, where Elisa Scavino gave us a brilliant introduction to the wines of the region. Paolo Scavino, her grandfather, founded the family business in 1921. Today, they have a total of 21 hectares in 18 different plots in six villages.

Barbera, a grape which is characterized by less tannins and more acidity, was the perfect introduction to the Nebbiolo.  The tannins were supple and harmonious, again with some fresh fruit, but a more structured palate.

The first Nebbiolo was a simple 2010 Langhe, what you might call a baby Barolo, made from the grapes of younger vines, and aged in old barrels for six months. It was beautifully elegant, with the hallmark notes of fruit cake and perfume that typify Nebbiolo.  And then we moved on to serious things: a range of six different Barolos.

First came the entry-level wine, 2008 Barolo, a blend of seven vineyards in the village of Castiglione Falletto, Serralunga d’Alba and Barolo itself. The wine was elegant and long, with youthful fruit and silky tannins, with  nuances of perfume and flavor.

Barolo Carobric is a blend of three different crus: Rocche di Castiglione, Cannubi and Bric del Fiasc. The blend remains constant, unlike the first wine which changes with the vintage. There were rich cherries on the palate, with depth and length and supple tannins.

The absolute opposite of Burgundy

And then it was time for the crus. Elisa observed that Barolo is the absolute opposite of Burgundy. Both are a myriad of different vineyards, but Barolo started out as a blend, so the crus are a recent phenomenon, and were really only developed later in the 1980s. Her father, Enrico, was one of the pioneers when he bottled Bric del Fiasc in 1978.  And surprisingly, for a country where officialdom is obsessed with regulations, there are no bureaucratic hurdles to leap through before deciding to bottle a single vineyard. It is the wine grower’s own decision to put the vineyard or cru name on the label. If you look at the terrain, you can immediately understand the need to identify the different vineyard sites — they are very different, and the nuances are immediately apparent in the glass.

Bricco d’Ambrogio is in Roddi where the vineyard faces south on limestone slopes, and its wine was first made in 2002. It had an elegant palate with perfumed fruit, acidity, tannin and depth. Elisa noted that Nebbiolo can be very challenging in its youth. I could tell what she meant, but I was finding it more harmonious than Sangiovese, the other great red variety of Italy.

Monvigliero is in Verduno and is limestone and chalk, which give more minerality. Its first vintage, 2007, had youthful cherry fruit, and was tight-knit and elegant.

Cannubi came next. This name was recognized even before the name of Barolo, with documents dating back to 1752. There was some spice on the nose and it was richer, more fleshy and voluptuous than the preceding wines, but with structure.

And finally we enjoyed Bric del Fiasc, which is on sand and marl, which gives more muscle to the wine. It was also tight-knit and structured, with enormous potential. More reserved, Elisa said, more piemontese. It was a great finale to the tasting.

But Piedmont is not just Barolo and Nebbiolo; there is also Barbaresco, just northeast of Turin, and a range of other lesser known grape varieties. We enjoyed peppery Pelaverga from Verduno, some intriguing white Timorasso from the hills around Tortona; Favorita, which is a variation of Vermentino; and Nascetta, which is produced by just a handful of wine growers. There was a blended white wine from the Langhe that combined the pithy minerality of Sauvignon with the body and weight of the Chardonnay. Dolcetto d’Alba, with cherry fruit and a refreshing finish, has its place in the Piedmontese repertoire for immediate easy drinking.

And early October is the season for white truffles, deemed by the cognoscenti to be far superior to black truffles.  Quite by chance we found ourselves in Alba for the first day of the annual truffle fair.  We had a memorable lunch of fried eggs liberally smothered with shavings of white truffle and accompanied by Dolcetto, and then we wandered round the fair, savoring the aromas of truffle and porcini.  I may have written two books on Tuscany and Sangiovese, but I have been quite seduced by the charms of Nebbiolo and Piedmont.

Photo: The hills of Barolo, in Piedmont, Italy. Credit: Rosemary George

Zester Daily contributor Rosemary George was one of the first women to become a Master of Wine in 1979. She has been a freelance wine writer since 1981 and is the author of 11 books. She contributes to various magazines and also writes a blog on the Languedoc region.