One-Minute Wine Expert in Piedmont
By Matt Kramer
My sister-in-law said it best. She visited us during the year that my wife and I lived in Piedmont while I was researching my (now out-of-print) cookbook. Naturally, we trotted out some beloved Piedmontese wines: Barolo, Barbaresco, Barbera. One morning she said, "I really liked that Barberolo you served last night."
That captured perfectly just how utterly confusing Piedmont's wines are. All those vowels! All that Bar—something.
If there's a time for savoring Piedmont's wines, this is it. They're winter wines, no doubt about it. What's more, an unbroken hit parade of impressive vintages—1995, '96, '97, '98 and '99—makes buying them easier than ever.
But can you be a One-Minute Wine Expert on something as befuddling as Piedmont's vast array? I think so.
If you're looking for ...
... a rich, soft red, just remember: Dolcetto di Dogliani. Dolcetto is one of Piedmont's red grapes. It grows almost everywhere, which explains why there are seven named-zones. Dogliani is one of them—and arguably the best. Virtually any Dolcetto di Dogliani is sure to be rich, smooth and lush. Look for producers such as Chionetti, Pecchenino, San Fereolo and Einaudi.
... a good-bet Barbera, just remember: single vineyards. This is a broad generalization, but for Barbera it works surprisingly well. Barbera was, until recently, a disrespected variety in Piedmont. It was grown more widely than any other red grape, and that was the problem. Few growers took it seriously, but now they do. And almost invariably, the best bottlings display a single-vineyard name. This is a given for high-end Barolo, but for "lowly" Barbera, a single-vineyard designation still signals a commitment to quality.
... a drink-now Barolo, just remember: La Morra. All Barolo is 100 percent Nebbiolo, which is a pretty tough red grape. But the Barolo district has subsections where the Nebbiolo grape delivers different qualities. La Morra is one of those zones. It's the name of a town, and the vineyards surrounding it almost always create lush, relatively soft Barolo wines that drink well while still quite young. A good merchant will know which Barolos come from La Morra-zone vineyards. La Morra producers include stars such as Marcarini, Ratti, Altare, Bovio, Montezemolo and Voerzio.
... the ideal dessert wine, just remember: Moscato d'Asti. Everyone's heard of Asti spumante, literally "foaming Asti." It's a big, industrial item of varying quality. But the real lovers of Piedmont's superb Moscato Bianco grape variety look for something called Moscato d'Asti. It's what the growers drink.
Moscato d'Asti isn't "foaming." Instead, it has only a few bubbles, what's called frizzante. Almost invariably, Moscato d'Asti sees the best quality grapes, because it's so delicate. It's also very low in alcohol, typically about 6 percent. You can't drink it too young. Serve with cookies, cake or as an afternoon pick-me-up. Look for producers such as Saracco, Rivetti, Santo Stefano, Gatti, Forteto della Luja and Perrone.
... a cutting-edge Piedmont, just remember: anything labeled Langhe rosso. Piedmont is now a hotbed of experimentalism, with producers clamoring to blend all sorts of grapes (Nebbiolo, Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, Barbera, Dolcetto). The law didn't accommodate this, so they changed the law, hence the catchall "Langhe rosso."
What's Langhe rosso? Pretty much anything the producer wants, as long as it's red. What Prada is to fashion, Langhe rosso is to Piedmont. It's hip, hot and "spendy"—and usually oaky. If you want the latest, look for Langhe rosso bottlings from producers such as Conterno-Fantino, Rocche dei Manzoni, Clerico, Parusso, Batasiolo, Altare, Gaja and Ca'Viola.
... the most reliable Piedmont red, just remember: Barbaresco. Barbaresco is half the size of Barolo, which has a lot of second-rate vineyard sites. The overall standard in Barbaresco is higher. If you're buying one Piedmont red blindly, Barbaresco is the ticket. It simply has the highest quality-standard in Piedmont, thanks to its cadre of good growers. Look for producers such as Marchesi di Gresy, Bruno Giacosa, Produttori del Barbaresco, Gaja, Ceretto, Moccagatta and Cortese.
Matt Kramer has contributed regularly to Wine Spectator for 15 years.
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