Thursday, March 27, 2008

Fly Piedmont -- The Up-and-Coming Region

Pop Quiz, hotshots.

Question: "Piedmont" refers to…

a) A regional airline, formerly hubbed at Washington's National Airport.

b) An geographical region of North Carolina which includes Greensboro, Winston-Salem, High Point, and Burlington.

c) An Italian region where some of the most expensive wine in the world is made.

d) All of the above.

The answer is, of course, "d" -- although "a" brings back memories. My family used to fly Piedmont all the time while I was growing up. Piedmont was absorbed by USAirways in the early 90's, so it's but a memory now. Answer "c" is very much a reality, and is our next stop.

The Piedmont is considered most of northwestern Italy. Nestled against the Alps, the Piedmont is just a hop (a pretty high hop!) away from southeastern France. Piedmont translates very accurately as "the foot of the mountain." While Tuscany is the "scenic beauty" section of Italy, Piedmont is one of the world's geographic centers for gustatory decadence. Piedmont is the crossroads of French provincial cooking and southern Italian pastas and sauces. The result? Hearty meat and poultry dishes, pastas, fresh herbs, eggs, butter, cream, and food coma.

From a viticultural (WineSpeak for "wine producing") perspective, the Piedmont's wines are quite a change from what you'll experience in Italian regions like Tuscany in the south or Veneto in the northeast. As I've said before, the best way to understand the style of European wines is to look at the food from that area. Decadent food requires decadent wine, and you'll find them in spades in this region.

The Piedmont's best known wines are made from the nebbiolo grape. Nebbiolo is the backbone of both Barolo and Barbaresco. These are the Piedmont towns which lend their names to the growing regions of each wine. Barolo and Barbaresco are some of the most expensive wines in the world -- matched in price only by some of the higher-end red Bordeaux. If you'd like to try one of these, be ready to shell out 60-80 bucks, minimum. The first time I tried a Barolo, I didn't appreciate it. They're very big, complex wines which are built to age for decades. They're also nearly impossible for a relatively novice wine drinker to get a sense of. Luckily, there are alternatives.

There are two other major grape varietals grown in the Piedmont: Barbera and Dolcetto. For centuries, these were used to make relatively inexpensive table wine. They were fermented quickly and bottled to drink young. Why? Because Nebbiolo is a finicky grape. It only grows in a few choice locations, largely on the ridges of hills and it ripens late. The rest of the hilly vineyards are planted with Barbera and Dolcetto, usually. The growers get the Barbera and Dolcetto off the vines early, get it into the barrels to ferment, and as soon as the Nebbiolo is ready, they empty the vats, bottle the cheap stuff, and barrel up the moneymaker.

As with most places around the world -- as winemaking techniques improved, Italian vintners have started producing higher end Barbera and Dolcetto instead of just using them for table wine. Piedmont Airlines' old slogan was "The Up-and-Coming Airline." The Piedmont region could also use that slogan with the increased quality. These wines are wonderful food wines and cost a fraction of Barolo & Barbaresco. Here are a couple of examples:

Michele Chiarlo 2004 Barbera d'Asti -- People see "Asti" and usually follow it in their minds with "Spumante." Asti, however, refers to the Italian town where both the sweet sparkling dessert wine and Barbera are made. The Barbera grape, as a rule, produces a medium-bodied, fruity wine. Barbera is an all around flexible, tasty wine. This one has currants and cherries on the nose. It actually is a little thin tasting at first as it's initially quite dry, but fattens up a bit rather quickly with some nice cherry flavors. The finish is acidic and not at all sweet. Instead, you'll get balanced tannins and some oak. Barbera is a wonderful wine for anything tomato-based, especially if you're going to have meat in there as well. Italian sausage on pasta with red sauce and a Barbera is excellent. The best pairing I've ever had with Barbera, though? Pepperoni pizza. Mindblowing. $12-14.

Mauro Molino 2005 Dolcetto d'Alba -- People see "Alba" and usually precede it in their minds (or at least many of my male and some of my female readers do) with "Jessica." Ms. Alba, however, is a Danish/Mexican blend, not Italian like the Dolcetto here. Dolcetto is a the lightest major red of the Piedmont. Translated from Italian, "Dolcetto" means "little sweet one," although the wine is basically dry. Light, fruity, and slightly oaky, this Dolcetto smells and drinks like an Italian version of Beaujolais cru. You'll find it a little oakier than a Beaujolais and a little more firm on the palate. It's got a nice acidity that makes it also very food friendly, especially with foods a bit lighter than the Barbera. We had this wine with an Italian tuna and butterbean salad. Scrumptious. $10-13.

Fontanafredde Langhe Eremo 2004 Barbera e Nebbiolo -- An interesting blend. Most wines from the Piedmont that I've seen are largely single-grape wines. I got the sense that nebbiolo, being the pricy grape, isn't blended very often. When I saw this one, I wanted to give it a go. You get a quick smack of fruit-forward from the Barbera, and then the wine settles into the tannins and length that Nebbiolo is known for. However, Nebbiolo is one of those grapes that really does need time in the bottle to come to full flavor. Blended with Barbera, you get a little bit of the complexity, but at a mere four years old, the "Nebbiolo-ness" doesn't really jump at you. It's a much better wine for simply drinking or having with a red sauced pasta. If you wanted to cellar this one for a few more years, it might get really interesting. For now -- you're better off with the Dolcetto or Barbera. Or you could save up and splurge on a real Nebbiolo-based wine bottles from the turn of the century. $13-15.

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