Food and Drink: A powerful king with a bad reputation in Britain: In the last part of his series on Italian wines, Anthony Rose describes the delights of the big reds, barolo and barbaresco

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Tuscany is the modern powerhouse of Italian wine, Puglia and Sicily are the reservoir, Friuli is the top region for whites. But the greatest red is to be found in Piedmont: the Langhe hill zone around the medieval market town of Alba is nebbiolo country , and nebbiolo is the grape that gives us barolo and barbaresco.

There is a resonance about these two names that matches their stature. Barolo, the saying goes, is Italy's 'king of wines, wine of kings'. Barbaresco, once second fiddle to barolo, now matches it in prestige. Both enjoyed three great vintages in 1988, 1989 and 1990, but they still enjoy less of a reputation in Britain than in Italy, Germany and the United States. In part this is because, as with burgundy but even more so, the best wines are made in limited quantities and prices tend to be steep.

However, one man determined to see them universally acclaimed, and who has done much to revive nebbiolo's status, is Anjelo Gaja. 'To drink nebbiolo, you need to acquire the habit,' he says. 'It is not an easy wine. It will never be popular like cabernet sauvignon. But we make one bottle for every 100 bottles of bordeaux. We don't need to make it too drinkable. We can find customers.'

Nebbiolo is no pushover. With its knockout punch of tannins, first impressions are as likely to be last ones. But the wine improves on acquaintance, gradually revealing nuances of character and complexity: it is a wine to be enjoyed in convivial company, with robust Piedmontese-style cooking.

The initially off-putting tannins are what gives nebbiolo its texture and character. In the book Barolo, by Paul Merritt and Michael Garner (Century, pounds 20), these two wine merchants, who are not given to hyperbole, describe the wine: 'The fleeting first sensations are of fruit characters, mainly black cherries, raspberries and plums and sometimes, with the higher altitude wines, a pinot noir-type note of strawberries. Flowers follow, often violets and the classic 'faded rose petals' intermingled with herbs like mint and camphor.

'Then the secondary aromas start to take over. It is here that the wine's extraordinary power begins to assert itself with scents of tar, liquorice, bitter chocolate, ground coffee, tobacco . . .'

Piedmont is the hilly region that links the Alps to the Apennine backbone of Italy. Part of Savoy until the formation of the republic in 1861, its wines remained secret because of the remoteness of the Langhe hills. Even today, the region is best known worldwide for its large-scale production of asti spumante.

Unlike the attention-seeking of Tuscany's new wave, a rather quieter transformation has occurred in the vineyards of Piedmont since the early Eighties. The opportunity arose once the stranglehold of the merchants who dominated the market in the Sixties and Seventies was broken. At that time, the wines were mostly blended from different villages and aged for five or six years in cask, losing all their fruit in the process. As Aldo Conterno, one of barolo's greatest producers, wryly comments: 'They used to say this wine is very good, it's like marsala.'

When the merchants stopped buying grapes regularly, growers seized the chance to go it alone. The result was a gradual shift to wines that reflected site over blend and a tentative move towards a vineyard classification a la burgundy. At the same time, the more quality-conscious growers modified the inherent harshness of the nebbiolo through the reduction of yields and the use of modern cellar technology. The result is wines of greater character, which are also more accessible to the 'international' palate.

Monuments to undrinkability still exist, but they are on the wane. Fashionable grape varieties, new oak barrels and modern techniques have been brought in without rocking the boat. 'I could not resist the challenge to prove 'we can do it if we want to',' says Angelo Gaja of his cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.

His father muttered 'darmagi' - 'what a pity' in Piedmontese dialect - every time he passed the vineyard replanted with cabernet sauvignon: so that was what Gaja called it. But the modern movement has helped growers reassert beliefs in the supremacy of their native varieties and vineyards.

ldo Vajra, for instance, a strong believer in vineyard character and one of the finest producers of dolcetto and barbera, has planted French varieties experimentally. But after trying new French barrels, he rejected them as 'not the way forward for my wines'. On the other hand, Elio Altare, a Gaja disciple, uses new French oak with successful results on both nebbiolo and barbera.

Tradition is too deeply entrenched in Piedmont for experiments to shake growers from their faith in the interaction of native varieties with the lie of the land. The innovative Domenico Clerico says: 'Seventy per cent of great wine is made in the vineyard.'

As barolo and barbaresco have entered the modern world, the development of Piedmont's more everyday varieties - barbera and dolcetto - has, if anything, been even more spectacular. Notoriously acidic and high-yielding, the barbera, with reduced yields, changes into a dark, handsome princeling of a wine. Since Bricco Manzoni first introduced the idea of blending barbera with nebbiolo in the Seventies, there are some 35 blends, many using French oak for a final polish. Dolcetto, too, the juicy, bittersweet, most refreshing of Piedmont's red varieties, has taken on a new lease of life.

Meanwhile, traditional varieties such as grignolino, freisa, brachetto and ruche are all enjoying something of a comeback. The same goes for white varieties, notably arneis and favorita, although a grower's favourite after-dinner drink, if not grappa, is likely to be the fragrant, refreshingly semi- sparkling moscato d'asti.

The lion's share of the barolo in the UK comes from two giants, the merchant house Fontanafredda and the co-operative Terre del Barolo, both of which, while capable of making good wines, also produce more than their share of disappointments. But they are certainly not entirely to blame for the diminished reputation of the wine in this country.

'We supply one supermarket with barolo,' says the Terre del Barolo co-op, 'but they won't take the better vintages because they say it's too expensive.' Likewise Produttori del Barbaresco, one of the most admired co-operatives in Italy: 'We sold our 1987 to a supermarket, but they probably won't take the 1988 because the price is too high.' Go on, Tesco, take it. Who dares wins.