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Piedmont Night for the Merry Band of BYOBers

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jan 30, 2009 9:57am ET

When it comes to wine, I think there are two regions that generate more passion (and frustration) than any other: Burgundy and Piedmont.

Both regions rely heavily on microclimates and the concept of terroir—the minute differences in wines based on where the grapes are grown. Both regions rely on finicky grapes, Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo, respectively. Both regions produce myriad wines in small-production lots that can be difficult to track down. Both regions have modern vs. traditional camps that stimulate vigorous debate among consumers as to what is "typical."

In addition, both regions produce wines that often need time in the bottle to reveal all of their nuances. Most Burgundy and Piedmont aficionados will only drink the wines with considerable age on them.

If you ever want to liven up one of your wine nights, pick either a Burgundy or Piedmont BYO theme. You’ll invariably wind up with a room split in terms of the likes and dislikes.

Last night my Merry Band of BYOBers got together for a Piedmont night, and while I typically try to avoid the "what I had for dinner last night" blogs, I know that a few Piedmont notes can stir the pot, so you can see my unofficial and informal tasting notes below. The wines are listed in the order they were poured.

Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco 1993: Floral, with tangy mineral and red cherry notes. Long and tightly focused. Shows a nearly salty minerality. Far more aromatic than what it delivers on the palate. 90 points, non-blind.

Michele Chiarlo Barbaresco Asili 1995: Soft and easy with plum, mineral and incense notes. Shows a fruit cake note on the nearly spirity finish, though it softens nicely in the glass. 89 points, non-blind.

Campè della Spinetta Barolo Vigneto Campè 2001: Overtly smoky with dark cocoa, plum and mocha notes. Plush and toasty finish. Diametrically opposed stylistically. The most un-Nebbiolo of the bunch. More like an amped-up Barbera. Sculpted. 88 points, non-blind.

Scarzello Barolo Vigna Merenda 2001: High-toned with lots of incense and cherry. Underlying mushroom and mulled spice notes. Deceptive length. 89 points, non-blind.

Aldo Conterno Barolo Cicala 2000: This pulls together ripe fruit, racy acidity and mouthwatering minerality. Toasted coconut note up front but very black on the back end. Long, deep and classy despite its obvious ripeness. 96 points, non-blind.

Domenico Clerico Barolo Ciabot Mentin Ginestra 1998: Lots of dark plum, spice and toast. Figgy undertow. Toasty edge still holds sway on finish. Still tight. Frankly modern style. Rock solid but not compelling. 92 points, non-blind.

Alfredo & Giovanni Roagna Barolo La Rocca e La Pira Riserva 1996: Rock hard at first, with puckering iron and sanguine notes. Big streak of black cherry runs underneath. Very, very racy. Opens nicely in the glass, showing more breadth of fruit. 92 points, non-blind.

Marcarini Barolo Brunate 1996: Tangy, iron driven wine with mulled spice and black cherry. Long and tightly coiled at first but opens up steadily. A very pure, unadorned expression of Nebbiolo. Deceptively persistent finish. 92 points, non-blind.

Elio Altare Barolo Vigneto Arborina 1986: Raisin, tar, spice and braised fig. Very inviting. Fleshy but stays pretty at the same time. This is totally open and at peak, with its toast perfectly melded into the fruit. Still has some reserve too. 95 points, non-blind.

Aldo Conterno Barolo 1967: Stunning, with rose petal, incense, tobacco, mineral, leather and Jasmine tea notes. Extremely elegant, with a hint of carmelized walnut on the finish. Super long. 97 points, non-blind.

Riccardo Ceretto Barolo Riserva 1964: Corked.

Jason Thompson
Foster City, CA —  January 30, 2009 3:04pm ET
Watch out JM, you are going to give Suckling a run for his money in terms of killer tastings and vintage classics.
James Molesworth
January 30, 2009 3:09pm ET
Jason: Nope, never gonna happen - that guy drinks with real rock stars, every day...;-)!
Vince Liotta
Elmhurst Illinois —  January 30, 2009 5:01pm ET
James, The 1967 Conterno sounds fascinating. Curious, however, that you picked such an old wine as your favorite given that you usually advocate drinking wines young, and also given that this wine has no relation to the recent string of outstanding Piedmont vintages and improved viticultural techniques. Was this aged in the traditional Slavonian oak foudres? Kind of makes you wonder if modern techniques are truly better, or just making wine more accessible when young. Tom
Jordan Harris
Niagara, Ontario —  January 30, 2009 8:24pm ET
64 Riccardo Ceretto corked!!! Need to start putting stelvin on Barolos. What are the chances? Well...I guess I guess the technology was not quite as string anyway 45 years ago. Sounds like a great tasting. Jealous.
James Molesworth
January 31, 2009 9:08am ET
Vince/Tom: Two things - I don't necessarily advocate drinking wines young. I try to get people to see that there is a difference between wines that require aging in order to show their best versus those that simply endure in the bottle - wines that last, but don't necessarily get better. In this case, it's a matter of personal preference as to how long you want to hold such wines.

And second, while I rated the '67 Clerico the highest in this tasting, that doesn't necessarily mean it was my personal favorite. I found it to be the best wine of the evening in terms of depth, complexity, character, length, etc. However, I personally preferred the '00 Conterno Cicala and '86 Elio Altare ¿ those would be the two wines I would want to go out and buy for my own cellar. As critics, it's important for us to put aside personal likes and dislikes and focus primarily on the quality of the wine first. Persoanlly I like a little modernity in my Barolos, but not too much, while I still appreciate the traditional style.

As for the whole modern vs. traditional argument - it really does seem to play out more in Piedmont that perhaps anywhere else. I think vinifications are cleaner than in the past (resulting in more consistent wines from bottle to bottle), though modern techniques don't necessarily correlate to better. A winemaker can easily over oak a wine using new oak barrels just as one could dry out a wine by leaving it in a larger neutral oak cask for too long before bottling.

Balance is the ultimate quality factor. There are good and bad versions of both modern and traditional techniques. In the end, it all comes down to personal preference. Do you like young wines or old wines? Do you like new oak influence or not? Do you like Nebbiolo or Pinot Noir, and so on and so on...
Mark Reinman
NJ —  January 31, 2009 2:53pm ET
Hey James--Way off topic here, but I just had to tell you that I had a chance to try the 2007 mon Aieul at a tasting last week and, suffice to say, it was one of those amazing, transcendant speech-depriving experiences. Wow. Even as a barrel sample, it was so amazingly accessible! What a nose -- just a fantastic, complete wine. I was trying to find any notes you might have written about it in your blog back in June, but I came up empty. Did you have a chance to try it on your travels?
James Molesworth
January 31, 2009 4:09pm ET
Mark: No worries about off topic. No, I have not tasted the '07s from Thierry Usseglio yet. I'm not surprised it showed well though - barrel samples are usually flattering and that wine is typically explosive when young. Add in the flamboyant style of the vintage and you've got a likely show stopper. Time will tell how it knits together of course. I'll be in the region later next month to taste the '07s...
Vince Liotta
Elmhurst Illinois —  February 1, 2009 9:58am ET
James, It seems one can count on you for a thorough response--truly appreciated. For me, there is nothing like the brick red color and incomparably warm, spicy finesse of a well aged wine, not only for its food pairing ability, but also because of an added dimension which mature wines seem to have that cannot be matched by a young wine. Tom
James Molesworth
February 1, 2009 11:15am ET
Tom: Certainly older wines can offer great pleasure when matching with foods...but I think there are plenty of young wines too, assuming that wine in is balance. An Achaval-Ferrer Malbec with a grilled piece of grass fed beef can be just as good as a 15 or 20 year old Chateauneuf IMO...
Karl Mark
Geneva, IL. —  February 1, 2009 3:37pm ET
James how long did everyone decant these wines, especially the younger ones??
James Molesworth
February 1, 2009 4:40pm ET
Karl: At least two hours in advance - some decanted their wines in the morning...

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