Roero, Barbaresco, and Barolo: Impressions
Returning to Cosa Bolle, I was in Alba for Alba Wines last week, to taste through the newly released 2004 Roero and Barbaresco, the 2003 Barolo, and finish up with about 30 2001 Barolo Riservas. In all, 299 wines over 4 days. I'll post the notes when I have finished going over them, but wanted to give my impressions and briefly discuss the vintages.
We began with Roero, which is made downriver from Alba, on the left bank of the Tanaro River, across the river from Barbaresco. The terrains are sandier, and as a result tend to yield wines that have richer, more delicate bouquets, but are not as powerful as those from Barolo or Barbaresco.
Within this framework there is of course considerable variation, and with respect to the other appellations there is perhaps more: Roero's farmers have been making wine for just as long as anyone else in the region, but the appellation is much more recent than either Barolo or Barbaresco, and there is perhaps less consensus among the producers about what Roero should be: A wine that displays grace and finesse in a lighter key, or a more muscular wine? Some are going one way and others the other; I found some of the wines in the grace-and-finesse group to be among the best expressions of Nebbiolo poured in the four days, but have reservations about the more powerful group: Unless they are made with considerable care, they come across as bulked up.
This said, 2004 was a very nice vintage, which yielded a pleasing balance of finesse, grace, and power that the various winemakers worked with as they chose. Though they are almost all drinkable now, they are Nebbiolos, and will benefit from another year or two in bottle; I expect most of them to age well for up to a decade.
We then tasted Barbaresco, which also is made downriver from Alba, but on the right bank of the Tanaro River; the soils differ from those of Roero (there's less sand, and they're more calcareous) and the wines tend to be more powerful. 2004 was just as good a vintage for Barbaresco as it was for Roero, and the wines display considerable elegance and finesse, coupled with supple muscle. It's a powerful vintage, and the wines tend to be very young; while one could press them into service now with rich red meats, almost all will benefit considerably from further bottle age, and many will continue to climb for a decade or more. In short, the 2004 Barbaresco offers much to enjoy.
If one were to pick nits, Carlo Macchi of Wine Surf (link in Italian) found some of the wines to be slightly dilute, and wonders how long they will age; he says the situation arose because the farmers, who are still smarting from the hail, rain, and heat that befell them in 2002 and 2003, were hesitant to carry out a vigorous green harvest in 2004 for fear that the shoe would drop yet again. I did not note this as much, and think the lighter expressions, which are still quite pleasant, will simply drink well with lighter foods.
After Barbaresco we tasted Barolo. Though the Appellation, which extends over all or part of 11 Comuni, is large enough to be quite variable, if one paints with a broad brush one can say that its soils tend to contain more clay and (I think) rock than Barbaresco's, and consequently that Barolo tends to be more powerful. In equivalent vintages, at least.
However (alas) 2003 has very little in common with 2004: It was the hottest, driest summer in recent memory, with temperatures that climbed up into the 90s (30s C) by mid-May and didn't drop again until well into September. If anything, there were hotter spells; I recall visiting Bruna Ferro at Carussin in the Astigiano in mid-June, and it was 43 C, almost 110 F, in their courtyard at 7PM. And coupled with the heat was almost absolute dryness. In short, it was a very difficult summer for the vines; the one positive thing to say about it is that the heat began early, giving the vines time to acclimatize themselves.
And they did, to a degree; I didn't find as many obviously cooked wines as I was expecting to, and this is also thanks to the terrific efforts of the winemakers, who spent the summer managing foliation and doing what they could to keep the sun from striking the bunches directly. And some of the wines are nice. Unfortunately, I found very few that would, when placed in a lineup with wines from more normal years, say 2001 and even 2004, be clearly recognizable as Barolo.
What I instead found was wine after wine that was big, quite alcoholic, with fairly sweet fruit, sometimes berry and sometimes more towards overripe plum (but rarely jammy), ample tannins that are unusually soft for a young Nebbiolo, especially a young Barolo, and low acidities of the sort one associates with an unusually hot vintage. Some, within this framework, were actually rather graceful, but as I said bear little resemblance to Barolo of more normal vintages.
Others, a considerable number, alas, were simply tired, while others still revealed problems related to the vintage, for example the tannic greenness that comes when heat stress interferes with ripening, or the odd aromas and flavors that develop when the must is concentrated enough (sugars continue to accumulate even if ripening of the skins and seeds slows or stops) that the fermentation sticks.
As one might imagine, the state of the wines engendered what is called sconforto -- discomfort tinged with despair -- amongst those of us tasting them, and there was a lot of muttering coupled with worried head shaking. Carlo Macchi sums up one current of thought nicely, saying that he wants to give the wines a few more months because his first instinct was to write them all off, but he fears he's overreacting. There was also some cautious optimism; Franco Ziliani weighed in saying that things weren't as bad as he expected, and has posted a (lengthy) list of the wines that impressed him favorably -- not that they're great, but they did impress him favorably -- on Vino al Vino (link in Italian).
The real problem I see with the vintage, from a consumer's standpoint, is that very few of the wines are typical of Barolo; the classic Barolo is fiercely aggressive in youth, a squalling toddler if you will, which develops beautifully with time, becoming what aficionados admiringly call a fist of steel in a velvet glove in the space of 3-5 (or more) years, and can continue to improve for a decade or more thereafter. The 2003 vintage is much softer, and while some of the wines are pleasant, I think few if any have the potential for this sort of long-term development.
So my advice to consumers is to approach the 2003 Barolo with considerable caution, keeping in mind that what they are buying is an atypical vintage. And in many ways it's a wine lover's vintage, something for those who become a bit fanatical in their passions, and want to know how an appellation will do under every conceivable condition. If you are instead new to Nebbiolo from the Langhe, or less likely to be understanding when faced with a wine that isn't true-to-type, I would recommend that you consider either a Barbaresco or a Roero from the 04 vintage. Both are much more what one would normally expect.
Or, if you are preparing for a special occasion, you might consider one of the 2001 Barolo Riservas we tasted on the last day. They were a refreshing return to normalcy, showing great depth and intensity coupled with supple power, elegance, and finesse -- what one would expect of Barolo from a good vintage. Tasting them, after working though the 2003 wines, was like coming home to a warm hearth on a cold winter's eve: Suddenly, after much trial and tribulation, all was right in the world.
L'Abbazia di Santa Giustina: Unexpected beauty in the Alessandrino
Several years ago I went to a presentation organized by the Viticoltori dell'Acquese, the cooperative winery of Aqui Terme. It was late fall and the event was late in the afternoon, by which time banks of fog were rising and thickening among the trees as the light fell; I wondered what I had gotten myself into as I drove slowly through the flatlands of Alessandria, hoping I wouldn't miss a sign for Sezzadio.
I didn't, and eventually reached a large, rather forbidding farm complex. Imagine my surprise when I got out of the car and beheld a spectacular Romanesque basilica! Santa Giustina was founded, legends say, in the early 700s by Liutprando, a devout Lombard King who stopped at the site to take a nap, setting the reliquary with Santa Giustina's remains that he carried everywhere on the bough of a tree. He awoke to find it dancing in the branches just out of reach, and decided that the Saint was telling him she wanted a church in that spot. So he gave the orders, and a Paleochristian church was built.
Santa Giustina subsequently became an important outpost of the Benedictines; the original church, which has elegant floor mosaics of the kind one also finds in Rome, became the crypt of their church, which is a classic Romanesque basilica with a central nave flanked by two aisles, a transept that's higher than the nave, and apses.
The monastery changed hands several times over the centuries, and following the Napoleonic suppression of 1810 the church was transformed into a grain elevator. In 1863 it was bought by Senator Angelo Frascara, and when he began stripping away the whitewash (applied in the 1600s), in 1912, he found a fragments of an Annunciation in the left apse, and a beautiful XV century fresco cycle with scenes of Christ's passion and the Last Judgment in the central apse. A number of the columns of the nave are also decorated, with a black-and-white checker board pattern; many of the black squares have fascinating graffiti scratched into them, some of which might even be Renaissance in age.
The Senator also transformed part of the monastic complex into an extremely elegant villa with beautiful Romantic gardens, which is now used to host conventions, wedding receptions and so on. Visitors to the church are welcome, and if you call ahead you'll probably also be able to wander the grounds and perhaps visit the public sections of the villa. To reach Santa Giustina, take the A 22 highway to the Alessandria Sud exit, and then follow signs for Acqui until you reach the turnoff for Sezzadio (to the right); you'll also see signs for the Abbazia. It's about 20 km from the A 22.
It's difficult to imagine a more unexpected pretty stopping place, and I was very glad I stopped during daylight on my way home from Alba wines this year. For more information about the Abbey and the Villa, see http://www.villabadia.com, and to let them know you are coming call on 0131 70.36.59.
Chocolate: Time to Raise Our Voices
Moving in a different direction, Italy used to have stringent regulations governing chocolate production: Chocolate could only be made with cocoa and cocoa butter -- no surrogate oils or cheaper ingredients. And this is good, because many of the surrogates aren't particularly good for you. But they are cheaper, and the EEU forced Italy (and Spain) to relax their laws to allow industrial northern European chocolate makers to sell their surrogate-laden cheaper "chocolate" in both countries.
There were howls from the Italian chocolate makers, but most of the Artisans seem to have come through unscathed -- they have devoted followings who aren't interested in the crud sold by cost-cutting industry.
The EEU regulator's willingness to bend before industry must have rankled American chocolate makers, who petitioned the US FDA to allows similar changes to American chocolate production, and thus allow them to sell "chocolate" made with surrogate oils and such. The FDA is seriously considering the petition, which you can read here.
And comment on it here (until June 25 2007).
For more general background, see Don't Mess with Our Chocolate, a site put together by the Guittard Chocolate Company, American artisan chocolatiers.
Even if you don't live in the US, it's worth letting the FDA know what you think, because American policy is influential on the world markets.
Winding down, in the time honored Internet tradition, here is something I got from a newslist, and like enough to forward along. It is, says, the guy who posted it, "A bit dopey, but worth a good chortle, and help avoid grading exams."
Subject: Creation re-explained
- In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth and populated the Earth with broccoli, cauliflower and spinach, green and yellow and red vegetables of all kinds, so Man and Woman would live long and healthy lives.
- Then using God's great gifts, Satan created Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream and Krispy Creme Donuts. And Satan said, "You want chocolate with that?"
- And Man said, "Yes!" and Woman said, "and as long as you're at it, add some sprinkles." And they gained 10 pounds. And Satan smiled.
- And God created the healthful yogurt that Woman might keep the figure that Man found so fair. And Satan brought forth white flour from the wheat, and sugar from the cane and combined them. And Woman went from size 6 to size 14.
- So God said, "Try my fresh green salad." And Satan presented Thousand-Island Dressing, buttery croutons and garlic toast on the side. And Man and Woman unfastened their belts following the repast.
- God then said, "I have sent you heart healthy vegetables and olive oil in which to cook them." And Satan brought forth deep fried fish and chicken-fried steak so big it needed its own platter. And Man gained more weight and his cholesterol went through the roof.
- God then created a light, fluffy white cake, named it "Angel Food Cake," and said, "It is good." Satan then created chocolate cake and named it "Devil's Food."
- God then brought forth running shoes so that His children might lose those extra pounds. And Satan gave cable TV with a remote control so Man would not have to toil changing the channels. And Man and Woman laughed and cried before the flickering blue light and gained pounds.
- Then God brought forth the potato, naturally low in fat and brimming with nutrition. And Satan peeled off the healthful skin and sliced the starchy center into chips and deep-fried them. And Man gained pounds.
- God then gave lean beef so that Man might consume fewer calories and still satisfy his appetite. And Satan created McDonald's and its 99 cent double cheeseburger. Then said, "You want fries with that?" And Man replied, "Yes! And super size them!" And Satan said, "It is good." And Man went into cardiac arrest.
- God sighed and created quadruple bypass surgery.
- Then Satan created HMOs.
This time's Proverb is Genovese: Vin bon e ommo cattivo duan poco -- Neither good wine nor bad men last long.
Editor, The Italian Wine Review