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Slow Wine

by Christine Austin, 2007

On a sunny morning the snow-capped Alps are clearly visible from the vineyards of Barolo in Italy's North West. They form a dramatic backdrop to the steep, castle-topped hills of this wine region, hidden by distant cloud for much of the time. But then, suddenly, the weather changes, reminding everyone in this stunningly beautiful countryside that it is the mountains that control this climate. This part of Italy is known as Piedmont, which translates as 'the foot of the mountains', and the region's mists, cool temperatures and soil structure are all derived from those mountains which form a protective arc, opening only to the west as the hills subside into the gentle plains of Lombardy.

Piedmont, or Piemonte as it is spelt in Italian, is home to some of Italy's most famous and finest wines. This informal, food-loving region is in sharp contrast to the large aristocratic estates of Tuscany.

 

In general, Piemontese wines come from small properties, often still owned and worked by the same family for generations and it is these people who conquer the difficulties of working on steep hills with a difficult, late-ripening grape to create the sumptuous flavours and aromas of Barolo and Barbaresco.


   The local red grape is Nebbiolo (left), named after the fog or 'nebbia' which hugs the hills in autumn, often when the grapes are still ripening. It is the acidity, tannins and flavours of this grape which gives Barolo and its neighbouring wine Barbaresco their subtleties and complexity as well as their ability to age.

Other grapes in the region include the bright, juicy Dolcetto and the vivacious, food-friendly Barbera, both enjoyable and ready to drink while their grander neighbours are still slumbering in casks.

White wine grapes include the refined, elegant Arneis and the exuberant Moscato.

For years Barolo has had the reputation of being a tough, astringent wine, slow to develop and sometimes a little too old when the tannins eventually backed down, but things have changed.


In the last two decades Barolo producers have learnt to create wines that can be enjoyed after a shorter time in oak. Better vineyard management is producing grapes with more intensity and ripeness, while shorter maceration times are giving wines with all of the flavour but fewer tannins. Small French barriques have been added to the large Slavonian 'botti' which are traditionally used for ageing and wines now reveal their glorious perfume and silky tannins within three to five years, making them perfect for matching with the excellent food of the region.

Piedmont is the home of the Slow Food movement which was founded as a reaction against poor quality fast food. The wines of the region reflect that same attention to detail and integrity as the local food making this region a food and wine lover's paradise.

The secret of Barolo lies in the soil structure of the hills. The whole area can be traversed in less than half an hour but within the region there are distinct soil types.

  

The calcium-rich marl in the west produces aromas, finesse and an ability to age quickly while in the east the iron-rich sandy soil produces structured, weighty wines. Many producers own small plots across the region, so they can blend across the soil types, but the most exciting wines are the ones from individual vineyards where the soil, the aspect and the individual climate of each hillside is captured in the wine.

the producers and their wines

Ascheri
Matteo Ascheri is typical of the new wave of enthusiasm sweeping through Piedmont. With vineyards on the lighter soil of Vigna Dei Pola and on the heavier Sorano soil, both within the Barolo area, he makes two wines which demonstrate the light, smoky, cherry fruit of the western soils compared with the heavier, richer chewy fruit of the eastern slopes. Ascheri has also blown away the cobwebs of tradition and planted Syrah and Viognier, on land outside the DOC. A good place to start exploring the wines from this adventurous producer is with his Dolcetto d'Alba 2005 (Oddbins, 8.99), made from the Dolcetto grape which translates as 'little sweet one' because the grape ripens early. Vibrant black-cherry fruit dominate this wine, backed by a steak of tannin which makes it perfect to go with pasta or lamb. See all stockists of Ascheri on wine-searcher.

Parusso

Marco Parusso is another winemaker who is passionate about his land and his vines. Based just outside the lovely village of Castiglione Falletto (right).

Parusso has some 18 different parcels of vines and he produces 11 different wines which demonstrate the diversity of styles across the region. Apart from making sure that his vines are immaculately tended, Parusso's winemaking is about as natural as you can get.

Hand-harvested grapes are allowed to rest before going into the vat, then natural yeasts work their magic in the fermentation, whilst ageing is done on natural lees for a long time, adding to the complexity of the final wine.

  


    Start with the Dolcetto d'Alba Piani Noci 2005 (10, Hic Wines Ledston, Castleford, 01977 550047) for its fresh, summer-fruit flavours with hints of violets - perfect with roast meat and cheese. Then move on to Barbera d'Alba (25, Hic) for its intensity of aromas, dark and smoky, overlaid with forest fruits and backed by supple tannins.

If money is no object, then climb the ladder of excellence in the Parusso Barolo wines which start at around 25 and head skywards from there. In a recent tasting, my favourite came from the Bussia vineyard which was rich with silky fruit flavours and hints of forest floors (available to order from Hic Wines). See all stockists of Parusso on wine-searcher.

Mascarello is another top-notch Barolo producer whose wines command high prices for exceptional quality wines. Waitrose has the deep tar and chocolate flavours of 1999 Barolo Villero at 30. Vajra also makes superb Barolos, available from Field and Fawcett (01904 489073). Try the dense, lush fruit of Bricco del Viole 2000, 38.50 grown on a south-facing high-altitude vineyard which provides perfect ripeness with terrific backing acidity.

Whilst waiting for the right moment to pull the cork on your expensive Barolo, the wines of Barbaresco provide the same Nebbiolo grapes with softer tannins and more approachable fruit. The co-op, situated right in the heart of the village is unusual in that it produces some of the best local wines. Try the straightforward, mulberry fruit of Barbaresco 2001 18.95 from Field and Fawcett as a starter from this region.



   Christine Austin has been writing about wine for 20 years, as columnist for The Yorkshire Post as well as writing regularly for national titels including Decanter, Wine Magazine, Hilton Magazine and Harpers. She is also the wine organiser of the York Festival of Food and Drink. Recently, Christine has also concentrated on conducting guided wine tours. Working in conjunction with Susan Worner Tours, she will be leading a group around the best wines and foods of western France in the Autumn, from the Languedoc to the Loire.


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