Italian wine is a vast subject that many of us don’t know a great deal about. But there is much to explore beyond the familiar straw-wrapped Chianti bottles. The country offers many styles of wine from everyday sippers to glorious age-worthy bottles.
One of the most challenging things about Italian wine is all the different varieties. Take Piedmont, for example. This storied wine region is in northwest Italy. On a clear day, you can see the Alps from its sloping vineyards. In Piedmont alone, three significant wines all start with the letter B.
Barolo – The grape of Barolo wine is Nebbiolo. Barolo itself is a charming hilltop town. As you drive up the winding road, you immediately see Barolo Castle, which now houses a stylish enoteca where you can sample fleets of local wine and get an overview of the area’s wines from a multi-lingual guide. During my time in the region, I learned that Barolo is the wine of kings & the king of wines. This red is a big, tannic beast that often requires at least a decade to settle down and become a dry, complex red whose tannins have been tamed. The problem with loving Barolo is its price: I haven’t seen one below $50 this side of the Atlantic. However, in Italy, I found some relative bargains, so I snatched up some 2004s & 2005s, which I plan on aging at least a few years. It’s nice to have some wines to look forward to in the future.
Barbaresco—Here is another wine based on Nebbiolo grapes, but it’s grown in different regions than Barolo. I visited a fine Barbaresco winemaker at Paitin, a family winery that boasts an amazing 15th century wine cellar. Silvano Pasquero-Elia took me out on a balcony and showed me the sweep of tongue-shaped hills that comprise the Langhe mountain range. The white-tinged soil in his town of Bricco de Neive is perfect for cultivating grapes for Barbaresco, which is still a big, age-worthy wine, but with a fresher nose and slightly less firm tannins. Silvano was gracious enough to take me through a tasting of his wonderful Barbarescos, and made a present of an old vines 2004, which I look forward to opening in the future.
Barbera – One resident told me is that Barbera is the heart of Piedmont. Although some may argue that Dolcetto, a jammy, simple red wine, is the daily wine of the area, my guide at Rocche Costamagna, confirmed that Barbera is their everyday wine, while Barolo is the weekend wine. During the months before my trip, I sampled Italian wines of the regions I would visit and developed a real fondness for this wine. Barbera has that dusty, potpourri-scented, dry Italian wine thing going on, and it has high acidity, making it an easy match for lots of foods, including red-sauce meals. Unlike Barbarescos and Barolos, Barbera is delightful when young. In the US, it often is sold in the low 20 dollar range—not the cheapest, but certainly not the most expensive foreign wine and well within my own threshold of wine spending.
Now if you’re thinking “Haven’t I heard of another famous B wine from Italy?” you’re right. That would be Brunello de Montalcino, but this isn’t produced anywhere near Piedmont. Those vineyards are hundreds of kilometers south in Tuscany and made from Sangiovese grapes, which is also the dominant grape of the blend of our old friend, Chianti.
Check out some Italian wine soon. Confusion never tasted so good.