File Under Piedmont (Oct. 2019)

It took me ages to fall in love with Piedmont. Dolcetto and Barbera were a passing fling at best that didn't leave much of a mark. I always appreciated the big Nebbiolo wines, but love? That only came when a few queens from Barbaresco grabbed hold of my heart a few years ago, namely the crus of Guiseppe Cortese and Produttori di Barbaresco. So much so that I once wrote that the Cortese Rabaja is the wine I'd open to show why I love wine (as opposed to casually dating wine). 

Barolos are the wines I still appreciate more than I love. I do tend to love them more the softer they are.

I planned a romantic week in Piedmont and its outskirts. At the outskirts, we mostly drank whichever wines intrigued me that were offered by the glass. In Piedmont proper, we spoiled ourselves. At the core of the trip, and this post,  is a visit to Cortese.

I want to start with a restaurant recommendation. In Stresa. Because it's so hard to avoid tourist traps in Stresa. Il Vicolleto. You'll thank me if you ever make it to Stresa. Fine dining and a great wine list. To wit:

Traversa, Barbaresco, Ca' Nova, Riabot, 2013

A producer I'd never heard of and that I simply can't find in any wine book. This is such a world class wine of complexity and breed that I'm shocked the property is still unknown. Even the location is relatively obscure, somewhere on the outskirts of Neive. The wine itself shows classic aromas of tar, dry roses, red cherries and a gaminess half way between leather and truffles. The palate shows great focus and is shaped by refined and well defined tannins. Wonderful. 

Schiopetto, Capriva dei Friuli, Ribolla Gialla, 2016

Another great surprise. I'm hardly a fan of Italian whites, but my antagonism was being whittled away from day one. Aromas of ripe apricots, lemons and minerals here, lovely acidity driven form and very vivid fruit.

Even before we made it to the Langhe proper, which is what wine lovers think of when they think of Piedmont, the trip gave me a quick lesson about geography and scale. I always knew the Ghemme and Gattalina DOCGs were on the outskirts of the Langhe, but I had no idea that meant an hour and a half drive from Alba - not until we drove through the Colline Novaresi DOC, which geographically encompasses Ghemme and Gattalina, and I realized how far away the Langhe was. It's hardly the dramatic land that the Langhe is, which means the vineyards don't enjoy the same steep vineyards. But you still see vineyards everywhere. Deep in Colline Novaresi, we ran into Fontechiaraa small family winery. I'm not going to tell you that it's a world beater, but it certainly is a good example of a small family operation. They make a Rosato of 100% Nebbiolo, which will probably convince very few that Nebbiolo is a good choice for a rose. Besides that, they make a varietal Vespolino, a local grape used for blending (judging by the results here, it should remain in a blend, as the fruit doesn’t really stand up to the alcohol). The interesting wine is their Nebbiolo 2015, which won a Decanter bronze medal. It shows the grape's signature tar and dried roses and, while nothing like the Nebbiolo of Piedmont, it was interesting enough for me to buy a bottle to check out in depth at home.

Our final stop before the Langhe was Aoste, a detour we made just to see the Alps. I remembered reading about Aoste in Neal Rosenthal's memoirs, "Reflections of a Wine Merchant", so I checked out a few names when planning the trip. When I spotted one at Ristorante Vecchio Ristoro - Michelin level presentation, sophisticated dishes low on pure sensuality, but at least a couple were very memorable - my wine selection presented itself. 

Grosjean, Vallée D’Aoste, Petite Arvine, Vigne Rovettaz, 2018

One of the famous names in an area few get to taste. Petite Arvine is a local grape and the wine comes from the Rovettaz vineyard, which is located at the height of 550 meters and enjoys a windy, southern exposure, which keeps the vines dry. The wine is unoaked, which seems to suit it well, and it is a mini-celebration of apricots, grapefruits and minerals. A precise and piercing wine that I'd buy if anyone was crazy enough to import it.

Guiseppe Cortese - The Visit

Guissepe's son-in-law Gabriele surveys the family's Rabaja holdings from their back porch

This is maybe the most fairly priced winery in the universe. The quality is stellar and the price, at the winery and in every wine store and enoteca I checked, is almost ridiculously low. These are wines that would be a bargain at nearly twice the price. And the local price in Israel is also competitive. The Rabaja costs 40 euros at the winery, everything else exept the Riserva ranges between 8 and 15 euros. Local stores don't seem to have much of a markup.

Their winery makes some wines I'd never considered buying - a Dolcetto and a Chardonnay, two Barberas - a Langhe Nebbiolo that's a very good Barbaresco, in fact if not in name, and two Rabajas - the regular and the Riserva. I did not taste the Riserva. My timing was very bad. The 2011 was sold out, the winery didn't make a Riserva in 2012 and the 2013 will only be released next year.

Langhe Bianco, "Scapulin", 2018

Formerly labelled as Langhe Charodnnay. Chardonnays are not uncommon in Piedmont. The most famous are, of course, Gaja's. This both pleased and surprised me. It's very saline and racy, with a reserved aromatic and flavor profile that leans towards the floral side of the spectrum. I surmise it will provide both intellectual and food pairing pleasure in a couple of years.

Dolcetto, 2018
Barbera d'Alba, 2018

Both are deceptively simple house wines - fresh and spicy.

Barbera d'Alba, Morassina, 2015

Morassina, which is the first red aged in oak, is maybe the best Barbera I’ve ever had. Deep without being heavy, with complex, earthy, exotic aromas I can’t quite articulate. Vosne is a good reference to begin with, but doesn't quite capture the character.

Langhe Nebbiolo, 2017

Technically, the Nebbiolo is a Barbaresco, as it is a sort of declassification of young vines from the Rabaja cru. Tastes and smells like it, too. Elegantly fruity with dried petals, very fresh and balanced, with very elegant tannins. 

Barbaresco, Rabaja, 2016

The Rabaja is everything you’d want from Barbaresco, very refined and balanced. All the elements of Barbaresco are finely delineated. Super lovely.

File Under Piedmont

If you're looking for Barolo tasting notes, you're going to be disappointed. The way our schedule worked out, we hung around Barbaresco for the most part and even at restaurants, I found myself ogling the Barbaresco section with so much lust, it would have been impolite to look elsewhere.

Azienda Agricola Ronchi 

If you only have an hour to visit the Langhe,  just pick any of the major towns and drive up. That's what you need to figure out how Piedmont works: drive up and see how each wine town is surrounded by sloping vineyards. Of course, all vineyards are not created equal and the Ronchi cru was never considered the equal of neighboring Rabaja. Down in a valley in the middle of the Ronchi cru is the namesake property , which is so obscure the only reason I'd ever heard of it is that one of the K&L Wines buyer took a fancy to it and so they carry it. We literally stumbled into the place, heading for another winery and making a whim stop there instead. Their crown jewels are two Barbarescos. The 'regular', which is actually sourced 100% from the three different vineyards in the Ronchi cru and thus entitled to mention of it on the label, is aged in large botti and is a very typical, old school Barbaresco, framing soft, sensual fruit in savory tannins and herbal notes. The Ronchi is from a single plot in the Ronchi Cru and matures in barriques, which are not very obvious as flavor seasoning but rather do impose a drying texture. We both preferred the regular.

Luigi Giordano, Barbaresco, Asili, 2016

Dried roses and herbs, minerals, balanced and drinkable despite its youth. The tannins do dry you out and it's not very complex nor as deep as you’d expect from a great Cru but is a great choice if you want to happily sip your way into the Barbaresco experience for 15 euros. This is a producer so obscure that not only do none of my books profile them, Giordano is not even mentioned in passing, despite producing an Asili, one of the most celebrated Cru in Barbaresco. 

Careglio, Roero Arneis, Savij, 2015

Careglio is a producer I’ve never heard of but this is a great Arneis, with enticing aromas and flavors that highlight a mineral aspect of the grape I never knew it had in it.

G. D. Vajra, Barolo, Luigi Baudana, 2012

Intense tar aromas, with truffles on the side, focused tannins, relatively drinkable and feminine for a 7 year old Barolo, but angular and focused for all that. Really fine.

Produttori di Barbaresco, Barbaresco Reserva, Rabaja, 2013

The best wine of the entire trip, a wine that showcases what a great vineyard Rabaja is. Intensely spicy on the nose, with aromas of dry herbs and packed earth, a hint of truffles, making for a beguiling interplay. Surprisingly ready, with a very fine structure. Drank at a one star Michelin restaurant at Priocca that probably doesn't need my recommendation, but I'm giving it anyway: Il Centro.

Giuseppe Cortese, Barbaresco, Rabaja, 2014

Another meal, another Rabaja. The similarities are striking, although this is slightly fruitier and more minerally - at the same time floral as well - rather than herbal and truffle-y. Definitely rounder and arguably shorter. Time to recommend another restaurant, Campanaro at Asti, the kind of charming, homey, delicious place that you will wind up thinking about for the rest of your life.

Giuseppe Cortese, Nebbiolo, 2015

This really comes off at a mini Rabaja. You’d never peg it as a simple Langhe. The most floral of all the Rabaja wines I tasted. Cool and elegant, mentholated, almost Pinot-like. As it unfolds, it reveals the same truffle notes I found in the Produttori Rabaja.