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Wines of Piedmont Italy
updated: Feb 26, 2011, 9:30 AM

By Marc Liberts

Once or twice a month I attend Spiritland Bistro's BYOB Wine and Dine events in Santa Barbara. For the second dinner in a row, the wines featured were ones that I had virtually no experience with. The theme for Wednesday night's dinner was wines from Piedmont Italy. Some of the most acclaimed, highest rated, and priciest wines in the world come from this region of Italy, and I was anxious to try them. I went on-line to one of my favorite wine retailers to get three bottles of Piedmont wine from Italy that were well rated and under $20.00, which I shared with everyone who attended. I was able to get one Nebbiolo, one Barbera, and one Dolcetto that all seemed to be good, well rated, affordable examples of their types of wine.

A number of Edhat readers introduced themselves to me at the dinner and tasting, and I enjoyed talking to them, sharing stories and experiences, and spending time together. I was glad to see that folks interested in wine were able to attend and enjoy all the cool wines from Piedmont and the great food.

As usual, someone asked me during the tasting which was the ‘best' wine, and I again said, "The best wine is the wine you enjoy drinking most". In my ratings below, bear this advice in mind. My ratings are my own personal evaluation of which wines I liked best, based on my personal tastes and preferences at the time I tasted them. I do try and evaluate all the wines I try against ‘benchmark' examples that I've had, or that professional critics have evaluated that I have been able to try. Ultimately, the best wine is the wine that the drinker likes the most, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. I do believe it is important to know what the varietal of wine you are liking is supposed to taste like, so you can at least know if the one you like is typical or atypical of that varietal. I try and make this distinction when tasting, evaluating, and reporting on the wines I've tried. There are many wines that I like that are atypical for their varietal.

First, a brief primer on the wines of Piedmont: Wines from the Piedmont generally describes wines made in the province of Piedmont in the northwestern corner of Italy. The most well known wines from the region include Barolo and Barbaresco, both of which are made from the Nebbiolo grape. In 1980, the wines of the Barolo region became one of the first Italian wines to receive DOCG status. Produced to the southwest of the town of Alba in the hills of the Langhe, Barolo is a big, tannic expression of the Nebbiolo grape. These wines are made to be aged, and as the wine matures the color becomes more brownish and rust-red. Barbaresco is produced from the same grape as Barolo, and less than 10 miles apart. There are a lot of similarities that Barbaresco has with its neighboring wines, but the slight cooling effect that the nearby Tanaro River provides helps the wine makers create distinctly different wines. Generally less tannic, Barbarescos tend to be more elegant and approachable in their youth. The Barbaresco DOCG regulation requires 2 years minimum aging in the winery for standard labels and 4 years minimum for riservas wines. Other popular grapes used in making red wines from the Piedmont region are Dolcetto and Barbera.

Barbera is one of the most successful grapes in Italy's Piedmont region, where it makes such wines as Barbera d'Asti, Barbera di Monferato and Barbera di Alba. These wines are characterized by a high level of acidity (meaning brightness and crispness), deep ruby color, and full body, with low tannin levels. Typical flavors are berrylike. However, plantings have declined sharply in the United States. A few wineries still produce it as a varietal wine, but those numbers are dwindling. Its main attribute as a blending wine is its ability to maintain a naturally high acidity even in hot climates. Some experts say that the wine has more potential than is currently realized, and may stage a modest comeback as Italian-style wines gain popularity.

Dolcetto on the other hand, gives fresh and dry red wines with some tannin. Dolcetto-based wines should be consumed young. Dolcetto is a grape that is almost exclusive to northwest Piedmont. The Dolcetto grape produces soft, round, fruity wines that are fragrant with licorice and almond notes that should be drunk within about three years. It's used as a safety net for producers of Nebbiolo and Barbera wines, which take much longer to age. There are seven DOCs: Acqui, Alba, Asti, Dinao d'Alba, Dogliani, Langhe Monregalesi and Ovada.

Chef John Fernandez was the guest chef for the evening, and he prepared a delicious three-course meal for pairing with our wines. Chef Fernandez talked to us about his training and experience in the Piedmont, and also provided a very interesting slideshow that I enjoyed watching. Chef Fernandez is a personal chef based out of Santa Barbara, and you can find more information about him here: http://chefjf.com/default.aspx. The first course was Leek, Potato, & Wild Mushroom Soup. The main course was Wine-Braised Lamb Shank over Truffle Mashed Potatoes & Roasted Market Vegetables. And the dessert course was Pear Roasted in Muscat Canelli on Honey Mascarpone Cream & Puff Pastry. All three courses were excellent, and paired very nicely with the wines that were served.

The evening featured wines produced by Megan McGrath Gates of Lucas & Lewellen. Megan was appointed Winemaker for Lucas & Lewellen Vineyards in November 2007. Having graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 2001 with a degree in Soil Sciences, she earned her Certificate in Winemaking at UC Davis. Her first job after graduation was working for the Cachuma Resource Conservation District, where she was involved in promoting soil conservation for agriculture including vineyards. Before arriving at Lucas & Lewellen as Assistant Winemaker under Winemaker Daniel Gehrs, McGrath Gates made wines in Sonoma County for four years, most recently as the winemaker for Cahill Winery in Sebastopol, where she had the opportunity to work with Sonoma, Mendocino and Napa Valley grapes. She managed the winery facility and made wine under the Cahill label as well as for custom crush clients, specializing in small lot Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Bordeaux varietals, and Syrah. At Lucas & Lewellen, Megan makes wine under that label (the flagship brand including Rhone, Bordeaux, & Burgundian varietals), the Mandolina label (all Italian varietals), & the Queen of Hearts label (affordable everyday wines). Between courses, Megan talked about her training, experience, the wines she produces, and the wines of the Piedmont. I found it interesting that she is an 8th generation Californian. Her family has a long history of involvement in agriculture, and that history has passed all the way down to Megan. Megan talked about letting the grapes express their varietal characteristics in her wines without too much or undo manipulation. Finally, Megan talked about her Fresia wine, and how the style can vary greatly depending on the region, weather, soils, and overall terroir.

I was able to try about 30 of the 50 total wines that were brought by the guests to share and enjoy. My tasting partner, Teresa Gomez helped me with my notes about the wines. Teresa has an excellent and highly discriminating palate. We usually like opposite wines, but tonight we were surprised to find that we were enjoying the same wines.

BRICCO BUON NATALE 2001 Santa Barbara County BARBERA (produced and bottled by Jim Clendenen) - this wine was unfortunately stinky and corky on the nose, and worse on the palate. Unfortunately, we discovered the wine was corked once we tasted it. No rating.

PELISSERO MUBIOLA 2006 BARBARESCO - a light Barbaresco that smelled iffy in the glass and also tasted spoiled. Another corked wine. No rating.

BRICCO DEL CUCU - 2007 DOLCETTO DI DOGLIANI - this is one of the wines I purchased from an on-line retailer. It was rated about 90 points by a major wine critic and was priced under $20.00. We found the nose to be quiet and closed. On the palate, I tasted interesting raisins, dried cherries, and black olives. We liked the balance between the fruit and acid on this wine, and agreed that this would pair well with food. There are pleasant, soft tannins present as well. A nicely balanced wine, I rated it 88 points. I think this wine would be much better in a few years. Being rated about 90 points by a major critic, we used this Dolcetto as our benchmark when evaluating the other Dolcettos of the evening.

2008 MICHELE CHIARLO BARBERA D'ASTI SUPERIORE "LE ORME" - another of the wines I brought. It was also rated about 90 points by a major wine critic, and was priced under $15.00. This wine also had a closed nose, but had nice flavors of dried cherries and spice on the palate with a decent finish. This wine was fairly acidic, but the acid was well balanced with the fruit, and this is also a good wine to pair with food. We both liked this wine and rated it 89 points. Again, being rated about 90 points by a major critic, we used this Barbera as our benchmark when evaluating the other Barberas of the evening.

2007 ALMONDO ROERO NEBBIOLO - another of the wines I purchased from an on-line retailer that was rated about 90 points by a major wine critic and was priced under $20.00. This wine had a pleasant fruit nose. On the palate, we got cherries, raisins, coffee and spice. We agreed that this wine was a bit too young right now, and would probably be much better after a few more years. Another wine we both liked and rated 89 points. We used this Nebbiolo as a benchmark when evaluating the other Nebbiolos of the evening.

MAURO VEGLIO LANGHE NEBBIOLO "ANGELO" 2003 - This wine had a quiet but pleasant nose featuring fruit and petroleum distillates. On the palate, we found this wine to be nicely fruity with a very nice balance against its high acidity. The tannins were soft, and the wine had a long, persistent finish. One of our favorites of the night, we rated it 91+ points. I think the additional years of bottle age really helped this wine reach its potential.

SERRA 2008 BARBERA D'ALBA "PAITIN" - On the nose, this wine displays nice fruit and some sage. On the palate, you get a well-balanced mix of red berry fruits and acid with a shot of herbs. A pleasant wine that would pair well with food, we liked it and rated it 90 points.

NINER 2006 BARBERA - BOOTJACK RANCH - PASO ROBLES - This wine shows big fruit on the nose and as you'd expect from a Paso wine, the big fruit extends onto the palate. Big raisins and extracted fruit dominate the acid and tannins on this wine, and we enjoyed tasting it. We agreed that this wine would be better for sipping than pairing with food. We rated it 88 points.

RUFFINO 'IL DUCALE' TOSCANA 2006 - Being from Tuscany, this wine was outside of the parameters of the tasting. However, I was interested to try this Sangiovese - Merlot blend. This wine has a pleasant, fruity nose and is very nice on the palate. It is soft, with nice fruit and spice balanced against the acid. Overall a very enjoyable wine which was a nice comparison against its more acidic Piedmont neighbors. I liked it very much and rated it 89 points. A good wine to pair with food, in my opinion.

2007 BARBERA DEL MONFERRATO 'LA CASACCIA' - on the nose, this wine shows sawdust and dusty earth. On the palate, we tasted hints of eucalyptus, dried red cherries and light tar. A very nice wine that also is food friendly, we rated it 91 points.

SANTA BARBARA WINERY 2005 STOLPMAN NEBBIOLO - fruity on the nose, this wine is fairly acidic and very fruit forward. A bit awkward and out of balance compared to its Piedmont counterparts, we rated it 85 points.

ANNA MARIA ABBONA 2008 ‘SORI DU BUT' DOLCETTO DI DOGLIANA - An interesting Dolcetto that has a very closed nose and nice persimmons and red fruit on the palate. This wine is slightly less acidic than the others we tried. Overall a nice wine which we rated 87 points.

BAROLO 2005 ‘LA LOGGIA' - the first Barolo of the evening showed big raisins and dark fruits on the nose. On the palate, the fruit is big featuring strawberry flavors. The wine has nice tannins and a big finish. A very enjoyable wine that we both liked and rated 91+ points.

BRICCOTONDO BARBERA 2008 ‘FONTANAFREDDA' - on this nose, this wine exhibits interesting sage and fruit aromas. On the palate, ripe blackberries and mild spices balance nicely with the acid. Overall an enjoyable wine which we both enjoyed and rated 90 points.

MANDOLINA TOCCATA 2008 DOLCETTO SANTA BARBARA COUNTY - fruity on the nose, this wine has nice fruity flavors on the palate. I also liked the vanilla and caramel flavors as well. Atypical compared to the Italian Dolcettos, but enjoyable nonetheless. I liked it and rated it 88 points.

PALMINA 2009 DOLCETTO - very fruity on the nose and a fruit bomb on the palate! A fun wine to try but a bit out of balance due to the excessive fruit. Very different compared to the Italian Dolcettos which are much more acidic and have better balance. We rated this wine 85 points.

HUNT CELLARS 2001 PASO ROBLES STARVING ARTIST VINEYARD BARBERA - this wine starts with a nose that exhibits big raisins and earthy herbs. On the palate, the raisins dominate and overwhelm the acid. A fun wine to sip that I don't think would pair with food. We enjoyed it and rated it 86 points.

PALMINA 2008 BARBERA SANTA BARBARA COUNTY - the aroma of menthol is present on the nose along with fruit. The wine has nice strawberries on the palate with very mild tannins and low acidity. Another atypical Barbera compared with its Piedmont counterparts. We rated it 86 points.

CAVATAPPI RED WILLOW VINEYARD 1995 MADDALENA WASHINGTON STATE NEBBIOLO - I gave Bernie a hard time about this wine because it comes from Washington State. I was reminded that the theme of this wine was Piedmont varietals produced anywhere. So I apologize to Bernie for the verbal ribbing I heaped on him. This wine has a nice nose of prunes and perfume. On the palate, the wine is fruity and creamy, and the fruit and acid are in very good balance. The tannins are sweet and velvety, and this wine has a very nice persistent finish. An excellent wine that yet again shows how great wines can be when aged. I really liked it and rated it 93 points. This is a rare wine that probably can't be found easily. I do commend and laud Bernie for finding great wines and having the patience and wisdom to cellar them appropriately for the necessary amount of time.

2006 SERRA BARBARESCO ‘PAITIN' - a very nice Barbaresco, with soft aromas of raspberry on the nose. On the palate, this wine is slightly tannic, with elegant spicy fruit and a hint of caramel. A very nice wine that has great balance, we rated it 92 points.

"LA LOGGIA" RESERVA 1997 BAROLO - Some aged wines smell and taste oxidized. Some people like the effect, and some do not. My partner Teresa was bothered by the oxidized smell and flavor, but I liked it. To me, it tastes rustic and old-world. On the nose, there is an oxidized aroma along with nice fruit and spice. On the palate, I found this wine complex and interesting. Due to its age, the tannins were soft and enjoyable, and the fruit and acid were well integrated. Teresa thought it was too old, but I liked it very much and rated it 92 points. Another example of Bernie finding great wine and having the patience to age it appropriately.

MANDOLINA 2007 FREISA SANTA BARBARA COUNTY - An interesting varietal from the Piedmont that is rarely grown in California. This wine has a nice fruity nose with good fruit continuing on the palate. It is a bit creamy, but enjoyable, interesting, and different. I rated it 87 points.

MANDOLINA 2007 NEBBIOLO SANTA BARBARA COUNTY - This wine was more fruity and over the top than its Italian counterparts. The big persistent fruit seemed to overwhelm the acid and other components of the wine. Fun to drink but atypical of its Italian cousins, I rated it 88 points.

TRE-ANELI 2006 BARBERA SANTA BARBARA COUNTY - Bitter and rough tasting of nail polish. I wasn't sure if it was corked or just bad. In any event, not enjoyable and I rated it only 70 points. A big disappointment considering it was one of the wines that I brought.

TRE-ANELI 2005 NEBBIOLO SANTA BARBARA COUNTY - A much better effort. This wine starts with a nice bouquet of red berries and loam. On the palate, the wine is fruity but well balanced. Overall a nice wine that paired well with our food, I rated it a solid 90 points.

MANZONE 2000 ‘LE GRAMOLERE' BAROLO - Another Bernie wine! An excellent aged Barolo from Italy. The nose is subdued, but on the palate there is a burst of delicious raspberry and a hint of oregano, which is beautifully balanced. This wine is still somewhat tannic, but enjoyable. Yet another very good wine that was patiently aged. I really liked it and rated it 91 points. If you ever attend one of these events, find Bernie and make sure you sit next to him so you can try his excellent old wines.

MANDOLINA TOCCATA 2009 LATE HARVEST MUSCAT CANELLI SANTA BARBARA COUNTY - A sweet wine which was paired with our dessert. I found it to be cloying and too sweet for me. Overall, it seemed a bit out of balance with overwhelming fruit and sweetness. Not my favorite, I rated it 82 points.





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