Dwayne Perreault - Ah, Barolo. As they like to say here, "the King of wines, and the wine of Kings." If you want to appreciate it, you need to have patience, and let's face it, few people possess this trait nowadays. Really, a good Barolo should not be drunk until it's 10 years old, but if you want to purchase one of these finer old specimens in a shop here, count on spending between 50 to 100 Euros for a bottle. You can buy them for about a third or a quarter of the price when they're young, but you need to have a cellar and you need to have patience.
The rolling hillside vineyards of Barolo
Barolo the place is eye-candy: rolling land stretches out from the foothills (Piedmont literally translated) of the Alps where medieval castle towns sit perched on the tops of escarpments, looking over geometrically aligned terraces where virtually every square meter is planted with a Nebbiolo vine. I came here in a used VW Polo and on a budget, but what I found was winemakers consumed with a passion for their craft, good honest people ready to share their enthusiasm with a devotee, and willing indeed to share the wine itself. This place represents southern European hospitality at its best.
But I want to talk not only about Barolo but all of Piedmont and Nebbiolo's neighbours, the Barberas and Dolcettos, the Freisas and Bonarda Croatinas and the white cousins, the Arneis, the Favoritas and Corteses. Piedmont is a cornucopia of grape varieties, and they are all delicious. Unfortunately, it takes less time to drink wine than write about it.
Camping in a hazelnut grove in Vergne, a steep two kilometers west of Barolo, I awoke the first morning and realized I was a mere hundred meters away from G.D. Vajra, a quality vintner of the Nebbiolo juice. That's the way it is here: you can't throw a cork without hitting a winery.
Another view, showing densely planted Nebbiolo vines
Owning 38 ha of vineyards (and renting another 12), Aldo Vajra started winemaking in 1972 and now produces about 250,000 bottles of different Piedmont wines per year. The winery is truly modern in nature, both functional and beautiful. I tasted 11 different wines, too many to explore in detail here, but these were some of my favourites: the Langhe Bianco Pétracine 2008 is a Riesling, which performs surprisingly well in this rather hot climate. Expressing white fruit with a citrus tint and mineral tone and 14% alcohol, this is a powerful wine which should be aged 3-7 years.
Few Piedmont wines are made to be enjoyed young, but the Dolcetta d'Alba is an exception. Coste & Fossati 2007, from clay soils, has concentrated dark fruit with something dusty and dry in the aftertaste. 2007 was a very hot year and this is a powerful Dolcetto with 14,5% alcohol, very expressive.
The Barbera d'Alba Superiore 2006, made from 50 year old vines and aged in new oak barriques, is quite tannic. It needs to be aged up to 10 years, but shows promise, with plummy ink and wood tones in the nose.
Barolo, yet another view
The 2005 Langhe Freisa 'Kyè' (which is the Piemontese dialect for 'who?') has a very fragrant bouquet of red fruit but is extremely tannic and needs another 7+ years of bottle ageing, after having experienced one and a half years in oak. DNA research has proven that the Freisa is the ancestor of the Nebbiolo. This is a wine for game dishes.
And now, the Barolos. The Bricco delle Viole 2005, a cask sample having undergone 40 months used oak ageing, has so much going on: ink, leather, tobacco, dark fruit and violets (as its name suggests). It shows incredible potential.
The Vajras have purchased for their sons 5 ha of vineyards from the respected producer Luigi Baudana, who had no children himself. The Baudana name will be kept on the label out of respect for family tradition, and the Barolo Cerreta 2005 (barrel sample) is all dark fruit with good structure, already showing great tannic balance.
By the way, Vajra also makes a Moscato d'Asti, and its just grapey and great.
Small but good: Stra's cellar.
A much smaller producer is Roberto Stra in nearby Novello, just 3 kms away, working just 7 ha, but 3 of them in Barolo. This is an old-fashioned producer making traditional wines in an almost Burgundian way: the cellar is small but functional. In fact, only half of the harvest is vinified at home and the rest is sold to larger producers, as there is simply no room to keep the wine. Plans are being made to expand the cantina and hopefully in the future some wines will be available for export. Currently, all 15,000 bottles produced yearly are enjoyed locally. The Barbera d'Alba 2007 is pure delight: honest dark fruit expression, extremely straightforward, it simply drinks itself away.
The Barolo 2005 is already stunning: forest smells and truffles intermingle with a still rather raw but developing alcohol in a taste sensation that is both noble and enticing. The 05 vintage is generally known to be very fruit-driven; it will be interesting to see how this wine develops.
I don't pretend to speak Italian, but I can still understand a fair bit. Talking with the 80+ year old grandfather Giovanni in the courtyard under a blistering early evening sun (the azienda is in the valley, and so much hotter) I understood that the famous 04 vintage won first prize in a local tasting event, and that says a lot, considering nobody understands the wine better than the local Piemontese. I couldn't resist picking up a magnum; I only hope I can keep my hands off it for another 5 years!