Lucrezia Carrega, Malabaila di Canale (Photo ©Tom Hyland)
I’ve just returned from eleven busy days in Piemonte and as usual, enjoyed a great time. The food was especially awesome this time, being able to dine at so many special places (Felicin in Monforte, Tota Virginia in Serralunga and Trattoria La Libera in Alba – this last one twice). Of course, there were a good number of excellent wines as well – is there a better red wine region in Italy than Piemonte?
Barolo and Barbaresco were the primary reasons I was there and I’ll report on the new vintages – 2009 for the former and 2010 for the latter – soon. But for this post, I’d like to note some other Piemontese wines I enjoyed this visit that were excellent.
I’ll bet you don’t think about sparkling wines when you consider Piemonte, but there are some excellent examples and I’m not referring to Asti Spumante. No, I’m talking about a category of sparkling wines known as Alta Langa. As the name suggests, the vineyard used for these wines are located at a higher elevation than most in the region, making them ideal for sparking wines, which require higher acidity for proper structure and balance.
What’s nice about Alta Langa is the purity of flavors in these wines. I’m not about to write that these are better sparkling wines than those coming from Franciacorta – both are metodo classico, by the way – as the Franciacorta wines tend to offer greater complexity as well as richness in the mouth. But what the Alta Langa wines lack in power, they more than make up for in finesse and varietal character. The best examples – I’ve tasted some lovely bottles from both Fontanafredda and Ettore Germano – are clean, ideally balanced and charming. Not a bad combination!
But now on this trip, I enjoyed the crowning achievement in Alta Langa to date – not only for my tastes, but also for many other Italian wine authorities. That wine is the Enrico Serafino Alta Langa “Zero” – in this case, the 2005 vintage. This is a wine that spent six years on the yeasts before disgorgement and that extra aging time has given this wine some added dimensions you don’t find in most examples of Alta Langa. There is a light touch of yeastiness in the aromas, although this is not a toasty, biscuity style in the mode of many similarly aged Champagnes. Rather, there are lovely pear and fig flavors, a rich mid-palate and an ultra-long, round, clean finish with excellent acidity. This wine really cleans your mouth and is especially marvelous paired with seafood.
By the way, I mentioned that other Italian wine authorities have also raved about this wine. Primary evidence of that is Gambero Rosso, the Italian wine bible, having awarded this 2005 its highest rating of tre bicchieri; they did the same for the 2006 bottling, which I have yet to try, but certainly will. Here’s hoping that Palm Bay, the US importer for Serafino, will start to bring in at least a small amount of this wine soon so that American consumers won’t have to travel to Piemonte to taste this enchanting sparkler.
As for white wines, there are a surprising number of excellent types made in Piemonte, such as Gavi, Timorasso and Favorita and of course, Arneis. This last wine, the most famous of which are from the Roero district, situated across from the Langhe on the opposite side of the Tanaro River, has become a great success not only in Italy and throughout much of Europe, but also in the United States, both by the bottle and the glass. Most examples are tank fermented and aged to highlight the lovely fruit aromas and flavors, but there are few examples that are aged for a short time in wood.
I enjoyed two excellent Arneis from the beautiful, but underrated Roero estate, Malabaila di Canale. situated in that charming town. Both were from the 2012 vintage, a warm year that yielded forward, but more complex wines than in 2011. The entry level bottling has those beautiful pear and melon flavors so typical of the variety and is very refreshing, with impressive richness. The “Pradvaj” offering, from a lovely sloping hillside planting at the winery, is an outstanding Arneis, with a touch of honey in the aromas to accompany the classic varietal flavors; the mid-palate is quite generous and the finish is very long. This is a first-rate white wine that I’d prefer to pair with white meats (even veal) as well as most seafood. These wines are imported in the US, as they are Marc de Grazia selections and there are various distributors, such as Skurnik in the New York/New Jersey area as well as Robert Houde in Chicago. (The retail price on the Pradvaj is betwen $20 and $22 in the US; to me, the wine is worth every penny.)
Finally, a few lovely reds. First there was the Cappellano Barbera d’Alba “Gabutti” 2008. My companion and I had been through the ringer tasting so many examples of Barolo and Barbaresco, so for dinner we wanted a red with very modest tannins. Barbera was the perfect choice and with this offering from Cappellano, we found the ideal Barbera. Teobaldo Cappellano, who passed away a few years ago, was a strict traditionalist with all his wines and made some celebrated examples of Barolo over the past few decades. What you had to admire about him – and this is stated in Italian on the back label – is that he did not want his wines to be rated with numerical scores, preferring that any particular journalist or critic merely write about the wine itself, its special flavors and its pleasure. What a great man and what a wonderful philosophy. Wouldn’t it be nice if this attitude were more in the norm of what wine would be about today?
Anyway, this Barbera, proved that Cappellano cared a lot about all his wines, not just the famous ones (Note: Teobaldo’s son Augusto now makes the wines and has continued his father’s memorable work). This wine, from the Gabutti cru in Serralunga, was steel aged with fresh blackberry and myrtle flavors, backed by good richness on the palate and a juicy, flavorful, very elegant finish with a clean, round note. What an ideal wine for just about any food, from simple pasta to sautéed duck breast or lumache (snails). This is imported in the US by Rosenthal Wine Merchants.
Finally, a few words about a marvelous Dolcetto, the Chionetti Dogliani “San Luigi” 2011. I love Dolcetto and as I hadn’t tasted a single example during my trip as of the final evening in Alba, I was eager to taste one. This one was everything I expected. Chionetti, established in 1912, has been one of the standard bearers for Dolcetto in the lovely town of Dogliani, a little bit south of the town of Barolo. The producers here pride themselves on the power and complexity of their offerings of Dolcetto, believing that other versions, such as those labeled as Dolcetto d’Alba or Diano d’Alba, are relatively minor league by comparison (this is their opinion, not necessarily mine).
Given that, some offerings of Dolcetto from Dogliani (the DOCG versions are now identified simply as Dogliani – the grape name is omitted from the label), can be a bit overdone, sometimes in ripeness, other times in terms of cellar work to attempt to produce a more powerful wine. Thankfully, that was not a problem with this single vineyard offering from Chionetti (San Luigi is one of the producer’s best and most consistent offerings). This newly released 2011 – appropriate as this wine has only modest tannins – is a sheer delight with black plum and raspberry flavors, very good acidity and an elegant, supple finish. This is a textbook example of Dogliani and if more examples were made in this fashion, perhaps Dolcetto from Dogliani – as well as other examples of the variety – would enjoy greater sales success.
It was a perfect accompaniment to the dish of seppie nere (“black” octopus, if you will) I enjoyed at Trattoria La Libera. I’d also love to pair it with rabbit, lighter game birds and delicate pastas. The wine in imported in the US by Vinifera Imports.
So there you have it, a selection of wonderful Piemontese wines, all meant for the dinner table and not a single one named Barolo or Barbaresco. Sometimes, the greatest pleasures are indeed the simplest!