14 December, 2008

Review of "sexy" reds from Italy's Piedmont region: the Barolos and Barbarescos of Roagna

We Brixchicks love Solano Cellars in Albany, CA. They have some fabulous events there (check out Liza's posts on the Judgment of Albany and Oregon Pinot Night in November.) I recently attended a Nebbiolo tasting and learned a lot about this unique, and some say sexy, Italian varietal. But what exactly is a sexy wine? Wine appeals to the senses and I suspect that is what makes many of us lovers of wine. The aromas, the flavors, the textures, the mouthfeel make me call it sensual but others just cut to the chase and call it sexy. What is the difference between sensual and sexy? I don't know and am not going to attempt to answer that question in this post. However, I would like to know if these Barolos and Barbarescos are truly sexy. Let us proceed.

We tasted wines from three different wineries in the Piedmont region which is located in the northwest part of Italy, close to Switzerland, in the land-locked foothills of the Alps. Cool microclimates, fog, snowstorms, hills, mountains, limestone, marl, red clay and sandy soils all add flavors and textures to this varietal. Indeed, the name Nebbiolo comes from the Italian word for fog, as the grapes are harvested during the foggy autumn season. You should also know that Barbaresco and Barolo come from the Nebbiolo grape and are thus named by the location of the vineyard.

Two wine distributors were there to educate us and guide our palates through the tasting. We started the evening with Shawn Mead who recently returned from Italy where she stayed at the Roagna vinyard. Roagna is an unusual producer in a world of unusual producers and she had many interesting things to tell us about Roagna. The Roagna family use traditional wine making techniques in accordance with the Earth. All wines are organically produced , meaning no herbicides or pesticides. Also, there are low yields for all producers of Barolo and Barbaresco mainly due to poor soils and weather extremes. That is what gives value to these wines and they are enjoyed mostly for holidays or special occasions. These are not wines that are drunk every day with dinner. For dinner the people of Piedmont will go with Dolcetto d'Alba, which is one of the most common varietals of this region (and also produced by Roagna.)

On a more technical note, the grapes for the wines that we tasted are macerated for at least 80 days before fermentation (other producers do 20-30 day macerations.) Roagna is the only Barolo/Barberesco producer who ages the grapes in large oak bottis for up to 6 years and then 2 more years of bottle aging before releasing the wine for public consumption. This long-aging time happens because the tannins of the fruit need to soften quite a bit before they are ready to be enjoyed. Very little new oak is used for these bottis and it is mostly neutral oak.

So, how does this wine taste? I will start with the Non-vintage Roagna "Opera Prima" Barbaresco. $48
This NV Barbaresco is made by the Roagna family to drink in the short term as their Barolos and vintage Barbarescos are aging for at least 8 years. This ruby-toned elixir shows a profoundly fragrant nose with anise, berry, cherry, and violets. Ruby-toned, lite-bodied yet highly tannic, white pepper on the palate. Very drinkable but could benefit from decanting at least an hour before drinking. Ms Mead reported that there are 3 vintages used in this bottle from 1997-1999.

2000 Roagna Barbaresco "Paje"
Barbaresco actually refers to where this particular Nebbiolo is grown. This soil of this vineyard is of the red clay variety along with limestone and marl. As a result the wine has notes of clay on the nose and mineral on the palate. There is also anise and stewed black fruit on the nose. This Barbaresco is very tannic but the distributors made it clear to me that the tannins come from the grape skin and seeds and not the oak from the bottis. This is surprising considering the length of time the fruit is fermented in the oak bottis. The difference is that no new oak is used.

2000 Roagna Barolo "La Rocca e la Pira"
This Barolo was much smoother and delicate than the Paje Barbaresco. There are notes of sand on the nose along with herbaceous notes and a bit of black plum. The red fruit is very restrained yet there is a bright acidity on the palate, along with a sandy minerality, and there is a hint of whiskey on the finish. Hope to taste this one in 10 years.

1995 Roagna Barbaresco Paje
Tom Switzer, the other distributer, brought this bottle out of his own personal cellar for us to try. This is what the 2000 Paje will one day be. The wine had a brown,"funky" tinge to it with a lot of sediment present but the nose was honeyed, violet perfume. After 13 years of aging this once tannic wine was now fleshed out and well-developed with red fruit on the palate and smoother tannins...nice. This just might be the example of a sexy wine that Mr. Switzer kept referring to...

This was a remarkable tasting for me. We got to try this grape in it's various vintages and how it differs in different stages of development. I learned that these wines are perfect for aging for long periods of time. It is also an opportunity for me to educate my "new world California" palate by tasting and learning about wines from Europe or the "old world." And for this I thank Jason of Solano Cellars.

But are these wines sexy? Well, let's just say I would love to spend an evening with a well-aged, smooth, sweetly aromatic bottle of Italian from Barolo...

Speaking of sexy reds the Brixchicks and Luscious Lush Thea just participated in a wine-blogger's forum sponsored by Penfold's of Australia www.penfolds.com. We tasted plenty of lush, ripe, fleshy reds (and some heavenly whites.) Please check back soon for story, reviews and a link to the video-taped panel.

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